Interview with James Bennett

So I wanted to say congratulations on the completion of an absolutely brilliant trilogy with Ben Garston. How does it feel to have all three books released?

Thank you. It still feels unreal. I dreamt all my life of having a fantasy novel published, so to get three of them out there feels quite the accomplishment. Seeing them in a bookshop never gets old. Yeah, ‘completion’ is the word. I’m glad that people are still reading them. People rock.

What did you learn from writing the series? What were some of the highs and lows while working on it and putting the books out?

You learn so much. On a basic level, you’re always learning as a writer. Getting published internationally opens you to a whole lot of feedback so you get to see what resonates. You also get to grips with the industry. I guess the real low was the circumstances the series happened in as I was grieving for my Dad at the time, which occasionally made the process hard to deal with. And you have to get used to some pretty harsh criticism too. But gradually you realise that it’s all part of it. You can’t please everyone. Some of it you accept and you want to do better. The real highs were reaching so many people and seeing them feel about books the way I feel about books.

I think that’s probably the best thing. You mostly hope to inspire.

Your writing is very stylistic and often more in tune with classic literature than many authors writing contemporary Fantasy. Who would you say your biggest influences are as a writer and also as a Fantasy enthusiast?

I was reading a lot of classic stuff while writing the books. A lot of mythology and history went into them. Style became this key thing for me as I nailed stuff down and found my voice. I never set out to write something to fit in with a trend. Certainly I poured my influences into the stew, going right back to the Arthurian myths I read as a kid to stuff like Susan Cooper, Mary Stewart and Alan Garner. Then there’s a whole slew of modern authors like Clive Barker, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore etc. who coloured my writing. I’d seen all of these authors modernising legends and I wanted to give my books a similar twist, which is where I hit on the idea of writing them as if Ian Fleming had approached the theme. ‘James Bond with dragons’ was my elevator pitch!

I always find it fascinating when authors use elements of themselves in their characters. How much of you is present in Ben Garston, and if not Ben in particular the other characters in the series?

That’s an interesting question. I honestly don’t think I’m anything like Ben. He’s macho and often inept, bless him. I’ve said it before but Ben is a kind of ‘wish-fulfilment’ for me. I see some of my flamboyance in Von Hart. Du Sang was a funnel for my sarcasm, as was Caliburn. I had so much fun with those characters. Overall, the loneliness and exclusion the Remnants feel was imagined easily enough. They’re different and they live on the fringes, generally distrusted and feared. I think that’s something any minority of a certain age could identify with. It was a conscious subtext throughout the series. As was Ben’s apparent conventionality.

Much of the series involves multiple locations. Did you travel for research or did your travels simply influence the work?

A bit of both. I travelled a lot growing up and I like to get around. I seem to feel most alive when experiencing new things, it’s just how I am. As a child, I learnt to see home as wherever I happened to be and that’s never gone away. But the most intentional jaunt that went into the books was when I travelled across China for a couple of months. I found the country impossible to write about without visiting and I’m glad I went. Things like that you want to get right. Other places you see or know about and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to drop a couple of dragons in there? See what happens.’

Some of the most fascinating and unique elements of your series are the stories within a story. Where did you come up with the idea to incorporate these segments?

There were a lot more that came out, believe me. I still have about 50,000 words of Chinese myths and history featuring Jia Jing that never made the cut in Raising Fire. Myths themselves are tangential in nature and it’s easy to get lost in ever spiralling stories, which is why I was so grateful to work with world-class editors. They kept me on track. But I really liked that aspect of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series and in my research I came across in myths and legends so many times, so it seemed the right approach to take. Stories within stories.

Describe Ben Garston for potential readers of the series? Who is he? Why should readers want to follow his adventure?

Red Ben Garston – Benjurigan in wyrm tongue – is an eight hundred year old dragon living in human form. He’s lonely and he drinks too much, belonging to a breed of creatures known as the Remnants, the surviving creatures of myth and legend who endure in secret in the modern world. When an age-old rivalry surfaces, the peace between the Remnant and the human world is shattered, threatening a magical war. The Ben Garston Novels draw on the rich tapestry of Fantasy and places it firmly in the modern world, reflecting on where we are as humans while providing a series of thrilling adventures.

How’s life treating you outside of writing? What have you been up to since the release of Burning Ashes?

I’m good. Three years ago I took the opportunity to retrain as an English teacher and I’ve spent much of my time working in Spain, first in Barcelona and now in the Canary Islands. I’m planning to see more of the world. I love teaching and it’s a career that works well with writing, which after a long break I’ve come back to. For a while, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next artistically and I guess I was waiting for that next big idea to hit me. Thankfully, it did so now I have my head stuck in that.

Can you recommend a few great books you’ve read over the last year to our members?

Sure. There are a lot of great books out there. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction and in other genres these days, and I don’t get the time I’d like, but in Fantasy my stand out books have to be Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng, The Ninth Flame by Jen Williams, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik and I’m currently reading The Bone Ships by RJ Barker. All of these are excellent reads. Fantasy is looking healthy right now.

You’ve been a major champion for inclusion in literature over the last few years and rightfully so. Weigh in on the status of Fantasy Literature now by means of inclusion. What are you happy with? What could still be improved?

Ah, that question. Well, I’m fairly positive about it. Inclusion can still be a battle, but we’ve come a long way. I’m happy that diversity in books seems more and more the norm. Audiences are opening up. People are happy to find stories that reflect their experience. Others are accepting us. Still, it’s a hard cycle to break. When you have a mainstream traditionally accustomed to a certain flavour, then it obviously effects sales and sales dictate what publishers are willing to buy. That takes time to change, I think, for own voices to find ground, so we have to encourage as much support as possible. There’s still resistance out there with cries of forced diversity and what not. But I like to think we’re getting somewhere. I guess I’d like to see folks continue to push the envelope. I’m dead set on doing that, come what may.

What one piece of advice could you offer to new and aspiring writers?

That would be the same advice I always give and which remains the best I’ve received. Enjoy what you write. It shows on the page.

The big question, (you knew this was coming) is what’s next? Can you let us in on what you’re currently working on?

Ha ha I was ready for you! Well, you know how cagey I am about discussing work in progress. But I guess I can say that one of the things that was coming to me as I was writing Burning Ashes was a sense that I was ready to write something set in a secondary world. When you’re writing in the contemporary field, you have all these resources to draw from, like modern settings and mythology. When you write secondary world fantasy you have to come up with all that yourself, right down to the nitty gritty. First thing you learn is a newfound respect for authors who do so!

So I found myself building up to putting my own spin on the giants that got me started, Tolkien, Moorcock, Le Guin etc. I’m deconstructing the epic in a way. Ultimately, I see the new book as a love story. Then again it’s pretty dark. I intend to write one fat book and split it in two. A duology. And of course there’s all the fun stuff in there like magic and gods and monsters and a big ole quest. It’s evolving all the time. I think – if I can pull it off – that it’ll be interesting, at least.

And now I’ve said too much. 

Do you feel pressure to appeal to fans of Ben Garston, or do you find the concept of going in an entirely new direction freeing?

Only pressure in the sense that I hope readers of the Ben Garston Novels will join me on this new ride when the time comes. It’s still me telling the story. I like to explore new things and push myself. I’m a great believer in endings. Endings lend resonance. New beginnings are exciting too. So I’d say that I veer towards taking a new direction every time. It keeps things interesting.

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