Charles Tan Interviews Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What made you decide to set your story during the Great Depression?

I knew I wanted to write something that was a myth, of a sort, yet one that would blend entirely American myths with older, more savage ones. (I will not detail which myths those are, since that would take a lot of fun out of it.) I also knew I wanted to set my story in an environment that would test humanity in nearly every manner: physically, mentally, and morally. So in a way I did not choose to set my book in Great Depression; rather, it was the only choice.

However, I do not think MR. SHIVERS is historical fiction. The Great Depression it takes place in is more akin to our cultural idea of the event rather than the event itself. It is set in a story of a place and time, and not the place and time itself.

What are the challenges in writing a dark book, especially over the course of an entire novel? What is it about the novel format that calls out to you?

I do not think there are any intrinsic challenges to writing a certain style of book. Each story presents its own unique obstacles and problems for the writer. For example, two stories that have the same tone and voice could very well have wildly different challenges. Personally, I think that if you are experiencing the same challenges every time you write a story then you are probably doing something wrong, because you are either not learning or not trying something new, or both.

In the case of MR. SHIVERS, I did worry that it was too somber. Though it does have flashes of humor, these are few and far between. But eventually I realized that the characters, having done what they’d done and seen what they’d seen, would not even be able to recognize a joke, let alone make one. Humor does not belong in the places they visit.

In regards to the novel format, I like it because you are allowed to be messy, meandering, and bombastic. A novel is a symphony, a short story a quartet; the structures are bigger, so you can allow a bit of fluff here and there, which really brings the world to life.

Since your second book, The Company Man, is out, how do you currently feel about your first novel, Mr. Shivers? Is Connelly still your favorite character?

I think most artists who are just starting out tend to mimic their betters until they begin to understand what they’re doing. This is fairly evident in MR. SHIVERS, and even a little bit of THE COMPANY MAN. It was while I was writing that second one that I started to see flashes of my own voice as a writer, which I’ve begun developing with more focus. I will be very curious to see what people think of THE TROUPE, my third, because I feel that was when I had my “eureka” moment.

I don’t think Connelly is my favorite character. He was very distant from me, as were most of the characters, and I expect I did this intentionally: in that world, introspection is not valued. I do have a fierce fond spot for him – he surprised me more than nearly everyone else I’ve ever written – but at the end he was like so many other people in the book: a scarecrow-man, stripped down to nothing more than the will to survive.

I will keep mum on who my current favorite character is, since they do not yet exist in the published world, so discussing them would be a bit cruel.

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