Robert Jackson Bennett lives in Austin, Texas with his family. He is the author of Mr Shivers, The Company Man and, most recently, The Troupe. Bennett is currently working on this fourth novel, but he generously gave some time to Fantasy Literature and answered some questions for us. We hope you’ll read our reviews of all of Robert Jackson’s books.
Marion Deeds: You’ve published 3 books; Mr. Shivers, The Company Man, and now The Troupe. The one thing they have in common is that they are set in early decades of the 20th century. What is your fascination with that era?
Robert Jackson Bennett: I guess a lot of it is what I think is a very common desire to examine your origins. The more you understand your origins, the more you understand how you got where you are today. Every mythology has, to an extent, an origin story — how was the earth made, the sky, where did this mountain come from, and so on. So since I feel like the modern era was born roughly about the time people started migrating to cities at an increased rate — and industrialization flourished, transportation became easier, etcetera — it’s only natural for me to look at the start of the 20th Century, before wars shaped the world into what we know today.
That said, I’m a bit done with looking at this era, I think. My next book is actually contemporary — but, naturally, I don’t know if I’ll stick to that in others.
MD: Along those same lines, how did you research vaudeville?
RJB: It was quite easy — vaudeville is extremely well-written about, since so many early movie stars came from vaudeville, and if there’s one group of people who like to write about themselves, it’s movie stars. Harpo Speaks!, by Harpo of the Marx Brothers, was incredibly helpful. They actually toured a tiny circuit in Texas, which had the absolute worst possible conditions — and they did it as children, too.
MD: Harpo Speaks! was a great book. About your characters: George, the main character of The Troupe, is unusual from other fantasy heroes in the sense that he is a genuine adolescent boy. He can be arrogant; he’s self-centered, he can’t really defer gratification in pursuit of a goal. He’s also gallant and vulnerable. Clearly, you’re very familiar with the teen-aged mind. Where did you get your expertise?
RJB: I actually had to be goaded into it. At first, George was a pretty bland fairytale protagonist — a bit like Alice from Through the Looking Glass, except more so. My agent pointed out that this wasn’t quite working, and I thought, “Well, if he’s really this talented and coddled, I bet he’s an absolute little bastard.”
And, having once been a somewhat talented teenage musician, I knew my fair share of egocentric little megalomaniacs with big heads. I was one of them, after all — but I wasn’t nearly as talented and praised as some of the kids in my circles. Once I decided that was what I wanted to do with George, it became the easiest thing in the world to write him. I just added a twist of a P.G. Wodehouseian fop to him.
MD: Your take on the fairies is original — and unflattering — and I loved the Cardinals. The Cardinals seemed like they might have come out of an old-fashioned children’s book. What were your inspirations for each of those fantastical/mythological beings?
RJB: I really like hearing that the Cardinals felt like something out of a very old children’s book. That’s exactly how I fashioned them — they were inspired in part by the original Mary Poppins books, which had a whole lot more fantastical mythology and a lot less singing and sugar. I thought it’d be fun to have a scene like that in the story — a snowy, gaslit city is practically begging for it — and I couldn’t help myself.
As for the fairies, I’ve always been fascinated by masques, and just the idea of something concealed behind a very pretty façade. And fairies have never been all that light and fun to me — the old ones were pretty nasty. Usually they just chose to appear beautiful, casting a glamour, but were something else underneath. So I decided to forefront that, making everyone horrifically aware that the thing they were talking to was just an image, a mask, but they could not look at what it really was. The unglimpsed horror is much more frightening than the one you can see.
MD: This is a question about writing process. The plot of The Troupe is pretty linear, but there is a lot of strangeness in the world, and those strangenesses intersect and interface. How do you keep it straight?
RJB: I’ve no idea. A lot of writing is subconscious, and stories have a beat and a rhythm to them. So at certain points, I’d think to myself, “There’s a callback coming soon, but I don’t know what it’s calling back to,” and then it’s like you remember something you’ve forgotten, and think, “Oh, of course,” but you never really knew it in the first place.
There’s a line from a book about how we’ve already lived the future, we’re just remembering it as we go along. That’s what writing is like.
MD: This is also a process question. What do you start from? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.
RJB: An image. My novels frequently start with images in my head, usually clustered around the end. The images are loaded with story and meaning and atmosphere, but it’s all unclear, like tarot cards. Then it grows backwards — the characters are usually the hardest to nail down, but once you’ve got their voice down it just doesn’t stop coming.
MD: It’s hard not to talk about the aspects of racial inequality that are part of The Troupe, even though the book isn’t about race. George has a very convincing moment when he is embarrassed, thinking back on a blackface show he watched with Colette, but it doesn’t turn him into a reformer. Are you conflicted about the issues of race in your work? Are you torn between wanting to “make things better” in your fiction, and creating an authentic fictional world? I would think, for instance, that you would be tempted to make George a paragon of open-mindedness and humanitarianism. Was it hard to “keep him real?”
RJB: It’s hard to say. I knew right away that the easiest thing to do would be to edit vaudeville, and not even bring the subject of blackface and coon acts up. But I decided that would be wrong, and cowardly — to forget parts of history because they’re unpleasant means you can’t learn from them.
George’s story is really a story about realizing how little you understand: we all start out contained in our heads, thinking our story is everyone’s. But Colette’s story is extremely jarring for George, in that he realizes that things that have absolutely no meaning to him have terrible and awful meanings to Colette. George is growing up, and understanding that other people’s lives are very different from his, and that being a “different person” doesn’t mean just being a second and separate person — but still more or less similar to you — but having a whole different world of connotations and experiences bubbling up in their heads. In essence, he’s starting to understand people in ways beyond how they directly relate to him.
MD: On your blog you call yourself an “accidental horror writer.” I personally categorize your work as dark fantasy (except for The Company Man,) but there certainly is plenty of gore! The fairy feast alone might be labeled “Not Safe While Eating.” Can you talk a little bit about your accidental horror writer designation?
RJB: It’s actually funny — my first novel, Mr. Shivers, was characterized as horror, and several horror fans complained that there wasn’t enough gore.
Genre, when you get right down to it, is a pretty silly system. You don’t pick one road and travel down it, and limit yourself to one direction. You go all over the place. I’m not going to write straight fantasy, or straight horror, or straight anything. I think it’d be dull.
My books do have darkness in them, and nastiness, but so does a lot of life. I don’t think there’s any more nastiness in my books than you’d have in opening up a newspaper, or strolling through the loading area at your local grocery store. Life is a messy, sometimes ugly process, and — as you said it above — if I “made it better” I’d be doing my readers an injustice.
MD: I’m looking forward to your upcoming book which has a woman protagonist. What was that writing experience like?
RJB: Terrifying, initially. I kept reading about how few good women characters in fiction there were, and how male genre writers can’t do it at all, and so on. So I went into it thinking, “How do I make a good, strong woman character?” Which is a recipe for disaster. “Who is this?” is not the same question as “Who is this woman?” You’ve already started wrong.
It wasn’t until I’d finished the first draft that I had a friend point out a lot of problems with her, and her problems all boiled down to, “You pulled your punches every time.” And when you pull your punches with a character, you make them passive, which is the exact opposite of a good, strong character. In essence, I knew everyone was getting offended about women characters, so I wanted to make sure she was inoffensive, which isn’t a satisfying read at all.
So I went back, and just sort of stuffed all the demagoguery over the subject into a drawer, and started writing her again. I’d written her very well at the start, but the book got more complicated as it went along, and I’d pulled more and more punches. I totally rewrote about the last third of the book, some fifty or sixty thousand words or so. I was much happier with where she ended up.
MD. I can’t wait to read it. As a writer, what writers influenced you?
RJB: Oh, gosh. John le Carre, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Madeleine L’Engle, Stephen King. All sorts, really.
MD: Thank you for your time!
Great little interview. Now I definitely have to go back and check out “Mr. Shivers” and “The Troupe”.
I need to read these books. They sound great!
And I hope there’s a picture of RJB on the dust jacket. :)
I’ll be reading The Troupe soon, probably early June.
Great interview! I still need to get around to The Troupe, but loved his first two books.