Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Getting To Know... Ben Parker


Today on Getting To Know... I am welcoming author of the wonderful Beetlebrow (which I reviewed HERE), Ben Parker. 

Have you always known that you wanted to be an author, or did you want to be something else growing up?

Ever since I was fifteen-years-old, reading the Beat Generation books of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, I saw the excitement of literature, and have felt the desire to be a writer.

I’m the child of two librarians, and grew up with a great love of reading, and from the Beats I truly felt the sense of the power of how stories can enthral. I wouldn’t want to revisit “On the Road” and its ilk as an adult – these books were important to me when I was a teenager, and I wouldn’t want to find their power diminished to me now – but it is in the promise that they held, in their glimpse of what storytelling can achieve, into which I head onwards.

Beetlebrow is the first book in a fantasy series, is there anything in particular that draws you to this genre?

To tell you the truth, I haven't read many fantasy novels. I've read Frank Herbert’s “Dune” novels, and all of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories, but... that’s about it.

I’m not really a fan of the concept of “genre”: I felt sceptical about anything which might put a limit on stories. But then again, I think an audience wants to know what sort of book they’re about to read when they pick it up from a shelf. I know I personally like to have a vague idea of what I’m getting into before I open a new novel, so “fantasy” is all right with me.

I also feel that some people look down on fantasy books, so makes me want to pursue the genre further. One of my favourite writers in Alan Moore, and he’s always said he doesn’t mind if people refer to his work by the seemingly more prestigious term of “graphic novels”, but he prefers “comic books”. This is an example I try to follow: a book is a book, and doesn’t need to be diminished, but then again, it’s always a con to be pretentious about it – I’m in the entertainment business.

When I started writing “Beetlebrow”, I just thought of the protagonist’s story as an adventure book. For me, the narrative is everything, so when I think up a plot – and the characters in and around its flow – I tend to just follow wherever the people populating its narrative pull me, without really considering whether it fits into any genre or style. I like to keep things organic; I created the book based on how Beetlebrow evolved, and the world emerged around her personality. Character is plot, in a way, and I just let Beetlebrow’s initial goal – getting into the palace – guide me. I do try to be original (with the emphasis on try), so I decided to create my own cities and towns and empires (instead of setting the book in Ancient Rome, or India, or Egypt, or Victorian London, my main inspirations for the city of Stellingkorr), and along the way, the book just sort of slid into being “fantasy”.

I’m only just starting to see the benefits of writing a genre book though, realising within its structure one can do and express things that you can’t in “literary” fiction.

The names used in Beetlebrow (Beetlebrow, Pook) are very unique, where did you get the inspiration for them from?

Quite a few people have complimented the names I’ve created in my book, and that’s been really heartening, because – to tell you the truth – I’m actually not very proficient at thinking up names. And because I know this about myself, I work twice as hard to try to make good ones. Some come from playing around with moving letters in words: “Gozher”, for example, is an anagram of Herzog, as in Werner Herzog, a film director whom I admire immensely. Others came about from their characteristics. “Sellessen” is a combination of “selling” and “obsolescence”: aspects of her being a prostitute. Not that I want to deride sex workers – who are often maligned and dehumanised in our society – but I believe these views on prostitution to be part of the anti-female nature of much of the societies I’m depicting.

With some of the other names there have been some specific instances where they just came to me. I remember exactly where I came up with the name “Beetlebrow”: I was writing a previous, unpublished novel, and I was struggling with the plot, and the idea of a character with that moniker just popped into my head. I think, because of her entrance into my life with this sudden thought, I imagined her breaking into somewhere with such palpable verve, just like her name had broken into my attention.

“Pook” came from the composer Jocelyn Pook, whose song “Masked Ball” soundtracked a scene in Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. It’s a piece of music that I listened to as a tried to find the correct strangeness for the character of King Ancissus and his court, and I just thought the name sounded optimistic and hopeful – like someone who would be a counter-balance to Beetlebrow’s somewhat suspicious and cynical character.

Do you have a favourite character that you have written so far?

I think Ray Rez is probably the character I look back upon with the most fondness. He’s partially based on a friend of mine, so that’s probably when I see him with such affection; perhaps I don’t see him in a way a reader might because of this, but Ray Rez is still someone I really enjoy. His monologue about his time in Essum is perhaps self-indulgent – when I try to keep most of my writing pretty lean – but I just wanted to write more about him. I think I’ve depicted characters that are more clearly-defined and more compelling than Ray Rez, but I can imagine writing a whole book about him, just so I could spend more time writing his dialogue.

When you're not writing what would we find you doing?

If I’m not at the keyboard, I’m generally thinking through plot-points, trying to deepen characters and ways to express the experience of new scenes. I try to fit in some sleep and meals in-between....

I suffer from clinical depression, and have a lot of anxiety issues. As with any long-term illness, this takes up a portion of my time. But I try to see the good side of it, that when I return from any bouts of illness, I come back, hopefully, with a renewed vigour to write.

Whenever people ask about my hobbies, I often find it hard to answer. I think because writing – very happily – takes up so much of my life, I haven’t really spare time for other things. Perhaps it would be healthier if I did...

What is your favourite thing about being an author?

I think it’s getting to dream up situations, and then attempting to do them justice in words. One of the best experiences I find when writing is knowing how I want to show a situation in a scene, but not knowing how to convey it to the reader. During this process, I’m writing and re-writing and editing to try to do the scenario justice, and it’s such a thrill when I finally get it right, even if it takes weeks, or months, to get it up to a standard I’m happy with.

I also really enjoy coming up with dialogue. Sometimes I feel a bit like an improvising actor, playing out how it would feel for various people to be a certain situation through what they’ve experienced and where they now find themselves. It is truly exciting to inhabit characters, and finding the ways their particular motivations would lead them towards certain actions or speech.

I’ve also been really gratified to hear back from readers and reviewers. It’s been a great pleasure to hear people have enjoyed my writing in “Beetlebrow”, and I hope they will in my future works.

In Beetlebrow there is representation of some really important topics, POC, LGBTQ+ and hate crimes, what was the inspiration behind all this?

I’m always pleased to see diversity in public life and in media, but with novels I believe there is a certain lack of representation. Most of us grew up on the bedrock of Victorian literature, and so I think people get used to the world of books being expressed by and about straight, white men. The vast majority of writers who have been published are white, middle-class, university-educated men – as I am – and, under the fallacy of “write what you know”, I believe the wider community has been overlooked.

I wouldn’t want to write stories where representation of POC characters are just placed into the narrative to make a point, but growing up in London in the 80’s and 90’s, I was surrounded by people from all different nationalities and religions and sexualities and genders, and this is how I think things should be. One of the things I’m most proud about Britain is our diversity, and it’s something I’d like to celebrate in “The Beetlebrow Trilogy”, especially with current political situation both here and abroad.

However, while I do want to show POC characters in my narratives, I’m aware that I can’t have the mix of cultures that we have in this country. Diversity is always limited by travel, and today we’re used to being able to fly all over the world, and for families to move from the area where their ancestors were born to a place of very different peoples. But in the technological status of the world I’m depicting of “Beetlebrow”, people who live in a neighbourhood would very probably be of the same complexion. Therefore, with my desire to portray people of colour, I can’t realistically show them living side by side with a diverse population, as this would be anachronistic. So, the story does limit the representation I can show in “The Beetlebrow Trilogy”, but hopefully I’m making the best of it.

LGBTQ+ representation is something else which is very dear to me. Again, I wouldn’t like to have LGBTQ+ characters for their own sake, but only where the characters fit my narrative. Thereafter I try to faithfully depict how people of diverse sexualities and genders would fit into the societies I’ve created. Obviously, the main characters in “Beetlebrow” are in a lesbian relationship, but there are a few other LGBTQ+ characters in the narrative, a little more hidden perhaps. One of the aspects of the sequel I’m looking forward to writing most is a greater portrayal of the wonderfully wide spectrum of gender and sexuality.

Do you have a favourite author?

It’s Patrick White, an Australian author who won the Nobel Prize back in the 70’s. He’s sort of faded from prominence in recent years, but I see his books – particularly “Voss”, “The Vivisector” and “The Riders in the Chariot” – as being at the highest level of what a novelist can achieve. It’s to White I turned when I need inspiration; I keep my heavily-weathered copy of “The Vivisector” beside my desk as I write, so I can turn to his prose whenever I feel the need to re-set anytime I feel I’m heading down the wrong path.

If you could give your younger self any advice about your writing journey, what would it be?

I would’ve tried to stress the importance of reading what I’d written as if I were seeing it for the first time. A book is for the audience, and that’s something that took me a very long time to learn – to communicate what’s going on for the reader should be the primary object of any author. This lesson has been taught me this was my agent, editor and publisher James Essinger, who’s been invaluable as a writing coach. He’s taught me so much!

I know that you are currently writing the second book that follows Beetlebrow, can you tell us anything about it or maybe when it may be due out?

I’m a bit superstitious about sharing my work-in- progress! But I will say that there will be more about Pook’s character, showing her motivations and opinions more clearly than I did in “Beetlebrow”. It is part of Pook’s nature to be in the background, being somewhat shy in her actions where Beetlebrow desires only to push onwards, but I’m definitely going to try to place a sharper focus on her during the second book.
Overall, with this middle story in “The Beetlebrow Trilogy”, I’m hoping it’s going to be more in-depth and a little slower in showing the complications in Beetlebrow and Pook’s relationship as they remain in Dalcratty; I say hoping, because I’m never sure how anything’s going to turn out until it’s written.
I’ve also got another novel in the works, part of another cycle of books, which I’m hoping this will come out with the second Beetlebrow story sometime in 2017. This time-line might change however; when the releases come out depends on how fast my work goes. I try not to set deadlines for myself, as the creative process isn’t really in my control – like Beetlebrow and Pook, I’m just toiling away while events thunder on around me, and trying to grab hold of the reins.

If any of your readers are interested in “Beetlebrow”, I’m currently looking for reviewers for Amazon.co.uk, so if anyone would like a free paperback to review, feel free to contact me on twitter – @bjcparker – or email at benparkerauthor@gmail.com.

Thank you so much to Ben for joining me today and giving me such wonderful answers. I thoroughly enjoyed Beetlebrow and am eagerly awaiting the second book in the trilogy!


Beetlebrow

Beetlebrow, the first book in the ‘Beetlebrow Trilogy’, is an intricately plotted, emotional and intensely engaging story about two teenage girls, Beetlebrow and Pook, thrown together in a life or death adventure taking place in a sinister, hostile and threatening world. The two will need all their resourcefulness to succeed in a daunting quest: to deliver a cryptic, vital message to the distant eastern city of Dalcratty. 

The growing love Beetlebrow and Pook feel for each other brings them closer together as they confront challenge after challenge, not the least of which is an encounter with the citizens of Essum, whose morality and culture is founded upon interpreting a half-finished painting. 

After you read Beetlebrow, your life will never be quite the same.


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