American Elsewhere is Robert Jackson Bennett’s fourth novel. Every book by Bennett is a little bit different; American Elsewhere (which I’ve reviewed) is a meditation on the American self-image, the myth of the frontier; a suspenseful family drama and a crackling good SF/horror story. Currently Bennett is on a book tour for American Elsewhere, and at work on his fifth project, but he set aside some time to discuss books and writing with me. And he graciously signed a copy of American Elsewhere which I’ll be giving to one of you.
Marion Deeds: In American Elsewhere, the main character, Mona, inherits one of America’s iconic muscle cars, a cherry-red 1969 Dodge Charger. Tell us about this choice. (I’m thinking, “It’s either a symbol of the myth of the frontier and the American West, or it’s the car you really wanted when you were a kid.”)
Robert Jackson Bennett: The former probably has a lot of truth to it. There is something extremely robust and Western about the Charger. But Wink (American’s Elsewhere’s fictional town) has very rigid, codified gender roles: it’s explicitly laid out that men do this, and women do this. So to have Mona arrive not only in a car that’s typically perceived as very masculine, but also to be very, very good at driving this car… It creates some fun friction.
Along that line, I was surprised that Mona is an ex-cop. She’s certainly a smart, capable woman, even with the baggage she’s carrying, without also having had that occupation. What was the reason for choosing a cop background for her?
I read a few nonfiction stories about or by cops, and what struck me is that they’re still very normal people. If you meet a cop off duty, there’s a good chance you’ll see nothing suggesting they’re police. It is, at the end of the day for so many police, a job, though it’s a job that often teaches you things you wouldn’t learn in other jobs.
I think we’ve been taught by popular culture that cops have a gun in their hands at all times, and are always scoping out locations for entries and exits. However, for many cops, I think being a cop brings with it all the bullshit you’d get from any other high-pressure occupation. They’re not always dodging bullets: many are housecats or basic grunts, like the rest of us.
Last year in an interview we discussed the challenges in writing a woman main character. You must be pleased at the responses you are getting to American Elsewhere and Mona. Have reviewers said anything that surprised you? Are there lessons learned that you’d like to share?
I came into this book very concerned about how to write a woman, mostly because there seemed to be a huge controversy about it. I learned a lot — mostly, I learned that there wasn’t a lot to learn. Writing a woman is like writing any other person, and there’s nothing mysterious or strange about it.
In other words, I learned, or think I learned, that there really is a structure in place in a lot of our society that separates men and women. I experienced this as a kid, and I arrived at the age of 18 — able to vote, and able to serve in the military — without any understanding of what a female was, what they wanted, what they did. I didn’t know how to talk to girls any more than I knew how to talk to a Martian. We are taught, I think, that there is no nuance, that one is very much one thing and the other is something completely different: I would expect that the reason we see some failure in writing believable women is that the men writing them have been brought up in a condition that allows them to be successful without ever really engaging or understanding that half the population.
I still didn’t really “get” Mona until after I finished the book. I had to rewrite nearly all of her scenes, and the ending. This is actually normal for me, though — I never know who the main character is until very late in the book. The other characters I know almost immediately.
You have another strong woman character in Mrs. Benjamin — or perhaps I should say “strong” character. I was captivated by Mrs. Benjamin. What made you decide to write that entity in that particular way?
I think everyone wishes they knew a wise older woman when they were a kid. And Wink is very much built off of these immature visions of Americana: the neighbor next door, the friendly shopkeep, etc. I think the People from Elsewhere in Wink are genuinely trying to relive the story of America, and part of that story is someone like Mrs. Benjamin.
The husband who “tinkers” with the car in the garage also comes to mind…
What made Mrs. Benjamin interesting is that she finds out that she genuinely likes being this person — and, after a while, she wishes she was definitely that person, and not the other thing. That was when she really came alive.
What elements originally inspired American Elsewhere, and what made you think to pull such disparate conventions into one book? Did you ever despair of pulling it off?
I think I’ve told about 50 different versions of the story for “how I came up with American Elsewhere.” I was sort of tempted to write a blog post about all the stuff that went into it: there’s a lot of architectural styles I looked at, a lot of paintings, a lot of music, TV shows, etc, etc. I did despair of it, from time to time, probably when I was at the 3/4 point in writing it. I had no idea if anything I was writing was hanging together.
I think the reason I pulled so many disparate things into the story is that I have such mixed, ambiguous feelings about the self-perception of America. The American Dream has been reimagined and rewritten so many times — probably most notably in the 80’s, then in the mid-90’s tech boom — that it’s a story with a lot of alterations to it. In our nebulous national subconscious, we tend to stick it right in the 50’s, but that image has all these changes and adjustments that came from other periods — both earlier, and later — and even other places.
I loved that you didn’t do the 1950s. In the book you mention Googie architecture. I had to look that up online, but I recognized it immediately, of course. (Readers, see the above photo of the Encounter Restaurant at LAX) How does architecture inform the book?
I would probably say architecture fits into the story in that most architectural photography — and, indeed, some architecture — is so immaculate and so aesthetic that it seems impossible for humans to live in, probably more so in terms of appearance rather than functionality. Much like Wink, then.
Since we’re talking about imagery, on your blog you have a photo of a Costa Rican rabbit mask. In American Elsewhere you managed to turn that image into just about the creepiest thing ever. From the rabbit skulls, to the mask, to the cheery Dick-and-Jane style billboard that Mona sees on her way into Wink, you have a keen eye for the compelling, or disturbing, visual detail. Do you have a visual arts background? If not, did you hone this skill in some way?
No, I don’t have a visual background. I think up my stories very visually, though — I think of pictures and scenes first, then imagine a plot to stitch them all together.
The visual focus even extends to typography and how you place your text on the pages, and this is part of the story in American Elsewhere. This leads me, strangely enough, to a question about electronic media versus hardcopy. There is still a lot of discussion about paper books versus e-books. What do you see as the future of the book? As a writer who likes to play with type on the page (or screen), do you have an opinion about electronic media versus paper?
I would love to live in a world where the author can sit with the publisher and look at how to set things on the page, or how the page itself should appear. (I can already hear publishers groaning all over the world.) However, I have worked with some publications before, and I know that 1. art and layout aren’t as easy as you think, and 2. just because it looks one way on one device is no guarantee it’ll look that way on another.
A lot of people tend to think that a book is just a feed of information flowing into your head, a single, direct line of narrative telling you a linear story; I tend to think that a book is like a marinade, affecting different places of your brain in different ways, all simultaneously. Books should capitalize on this quality as much as possible, I believe. A book is a window to another world, not a stock ticker dictating a single feed.
I thought the present tense, which often reads like a gimmick to me, worked perfectly in American Elsewhere. What made you choose it?
It just worked. I tried it out in the first chapter and absolutely hated it. Then I wrote the next chapter, with Mona, and thought, “Well, this might just fly.”
It’s immediate, immersive, and hyper-real. Past tense has a very structured manner to how one expects to read the actions of a scene, since it’s told (more or less) from the perspective of a witness who saw it happen. Present tense allows you to see everything at once.
I had this great question about how you have this authentically American voice and write uniquely American stories… and then I found out that your forthcoming fifth novel is a “second world” story. Was the process for creating an alternate world, as opposed to an alternate timeline, like in Company Man, different? Did you find it difficult? What about it, if anything, surprised you?
Not really, to my own surprise. But then, while I have tended to write very American stories, none of my books take place in America, but rather visions or fictional versions of America. It’s fantasy-America, built of myth and story more so than reality. So making up a wholly new world wasn’t actually all that big of a change of pace.
My next novel is City of Stairs, and it’ll be a second world story about diplomacy, statesmanship, and espionage between two nations, one being a former colony of the other’s now-demolished empire. While this relationship has a lot of parallels in our own history, City of Stairs differs in that this empire was founded with the allowance and efforts of the ruling nation’s Divinities, who were very alive, very present, and very dangerous.
It sounds intriguing and, of course, I can’t wait to read it! How about you? What do you read for enjoyment? What writers inspire you?
I have a two-year old. I read for six minutes at night before I fall asleep. I’m looking forward to being able to sit on the porch and read again… one day.
I can’t help noticing all the awards you’ve won; the Shirley Jackson Prize and the Sydney J. Bounds newcomer award in 2010; the Philip K. Dick special citation in 2011. Fame must be just awful! Where can we find a list of your book tour stops and other publicity things? Because we really want to share in your suffering.
Thanks for taking this time with us, and for writing such wonderful books.
RJB: Thanks for having me.
Readers, leave a comment for a chance to win the autographed copy of American Elsewhere. We’ll announce the winner in the comments, so please check the little box!