Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author Ben Adams , about his writing and his latest, Relativity, a gripping exploration of friendship, dreams, aspirations, and finding oneself (Read the review here.). Adams has authored two critically acclaimed novels: The Enigmatologist and The Resurrectionist. His work has been called “Vividly imaginative and unassumingly assured …” and “… deliriously enjoyable.”
Ben Adams grew up in a small Kansas town that he lovingly remembers for its Main Street parades, campsite bonfires, and a local PBS station that broadcasted reruns of 60s and 70s science fiction shows, including Doctor Who and The Twilight Zone. In this small-town environment, Adams was encouraged to be as creative and crazy as possible. He quickly discovered two outlets for his overactive imagination: writing and music.
After high school, Adams decided to pursue a career in music. He attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music, to which he credits for his tireless work ethic. After recording four albums and starting his own record label, Adams found himself experiencing a unique blend of burnout and feeling unfulfilled. He decided to take a break from music and return to his original love: writing.
Since then, Adams has authored two critically acclaimed novels: The Enigmatologist and The Resurrectionist. His work has been called “Vividly imaginative and unassumingly assured …” and “… deliriously enjoyable.” He currently resides in Oakland, California and is currently working on his next novel.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
What I’ve seen the most, is a writer thinking their book is finished and rushing to query or publish. Aspiring writers put too much emphasis on publishing, and not enough focus on refining their craft. I’ve been guilty of this too. And I get it; authors work for years on a book. After spending all that time on it, they want to get it published, see the results of their work. My first novel took six years to write: two years writing a terrible book, then dealing with rejections; another two years of rewrites and more rejections; then two years making some serious changes—bringing it into the present, making the character younger, making it funnier—before finding a home for it. Even now, I wish I could rewrite the entire book. If I’d taken my time, focused on the writing instead of rushing to get it published, I could have shaved a couple of years off of the process and written a better book. Now, I have to remind myself to be patient, that if I concern myself with the quality of my writing first, everything else will come.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
When we write, our emotions are irrelevant; it’s all about the reader; we’re manipulating their emotions. There are numerous techniques we can use to make the reader feel what we want them to feel: we can show the character experiencing multiple injustices; we can use the environment as subtext for how the character is feeling; we can choose words that are associated with certain emotions; we can show how other characters view our protagonist; the list goes on and on. What’s important is that the writer understand how these emotions will manifest in their characters, and then show them on the page.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I love craft books. I’m always reading a novel and a craft book at the same time. Each time I read one, I learn something new. Two books in particular, HOOKED by Les Edgerton and THE SECRETS OF THE SECRETS OF STORY by Matt Bird, have had a huge impact on my writing. HOOKED is all about beginnings, the where and how of starting a book. THE SECRETS OF STORY mostly applies to screenwriting—a skill I don’t possess; I like tangents. Screenwriters have mastered aspects of storytelling that fiction authors don’t learn about in workshops or classes. They have proven techniques for writing likable characters (how many times have authors received that infamous note in rejection letters: that their characters aren’t likable) and getting an audience emotionally involved. THE SECRETS OF STORY covers these topics, along with everything from character creation to dialogue. Even though the book is for screenwriters, almost all of what Bird covers can be applied to novel writing. I found the section on when to end a scene illuminating. I’m going to paraphrase (this is my interpretation of what the book says, and how I’ve applied it to my writing): basically, Bird says a scene should end right as a character is committing to an action, but not show the consequences of that action (in other words, it’s a type of cliff hanger). You see this in television writing all the time: a character lunges for the bad guy, cuts the red wire, or asks out their love interest, etc., and then the show cuts to a commercial or another scene, and the audience has to wait to learn the outcome. If it’s done right, the audience will imagine what happened, and be validated or surprised when the show returns to those characters. To me, this perfectly explains how literary fiction pulls off its endings. A hallmark of literary fiction is that the climax of the book isn’t the character taking an action, but a character deciding to take an action. This decision is the peak of their character arc, and represents how they’ve changed since the beginning of the story. By ending the book before the action takes place, the writer now places the focus on the internal. When’d I’d read THE SECRETS OF STORY, I’d been thinking about this style of ending for a while, and had been struggling with pulling it off. Reading Bird’s concise explanation was revelatory (again, this is my interpretation, my takeaway). I now had a concrete explanation and strategy for a technique I’d been blindly attempting.
What inspired the premise of your book?
Many years ago, probably in 2008, I heard a story on NPR about an electrician, someone with no training in physics, who believed he’d disproven Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The host was interviewing a physics professor who said he received around one-hundred emails a year from regular people who believed they’d accomplished this. I thought this was an interesting concept: someone without any scientific education, someone who didn’t know anything about physics, believing they’d discovered the theory of everything. (I think a lot of these people identified with Einstein, an outsider in the scientific community who made his greatest discovery in a patent office: a regular guy changing the world.) The more I thought about it, the more I realized, this is actually part of human nature: to believe that we know more than experts. Or perhaps another way to say it is, we believe that experts are so indoctrinated by the systems of their professions that it takes an untrained perspective (the layperson) to see the profound. We see this belief reinforced in popular entertainment where the “everyman” comes up with a solution to save the world from some cataclysmic event. So I jotted this premise down, knowing I’d come back to it eventually.
How many rewrites did you do for this book?
I usually don’t keep track of how many drafts I write. This has to do with how I think about drafting. I’ll write a first draft, and then each subsequent draft will focus on a craft topic: one draft for characterization, another for dialogue, etc. But with RELATIVITY, I wrote three different versions. After I finished my first novel, I started working on RELATIVITY. I wrote a first draft. It was terrible. Then I sold my first book and started working on its sequel. RELATIVITY became the book I worked on in-between drafts, a palette-cleanser. Its first two incarnations had ghosts, a secret society, and the main character died two-thirds of the way through. It was not good. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, how to salvage it. Then I started thinking about my theme, about how obsession can become all-consuming. I cut nearly everything (I think I only saved one chapter), and applied this theme to two other characters. Once I did that, I was able to see the story more clearly, how the characters related to each other, where their conflicts were. After that, writing the book became effortless.
Are any of your characters based on real people you know?
Almost all my characters start as versions of myself and then evolve in to who they need to be. But with RELATIVITY, I based one character, Timothy, on three of my friends: one who was trying to be a professional gamer, another who was having an online emotional affair with a woman he met playing World of Warcraft, and a third friend who was really into erotic anime. I thought all those quirks could be interrelated, belonging to one person, and used them to create Timothy. But ultimately, he’s nothing like any of the people I based him on. For example: my friend who wanted to be a professional gamer would play Mario Cart DUI on his Twitch stream; and my friend who’s into erotic anime has a collection of, you guessed it, swords. Timothy doesn’t drink and is too timid to swing a katana around in his garage. As I was writing, Timothy became his own person, with his own unique point of view, which is what you want to happen when you create a character; you want them to come to life.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Each book takes a different amount of time. My first book to six years, mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing. My second book took three. RELATIVITY only took a year and a half, which is pretty fast considering I only had two hours a day to write. For RELATIVITY, I tried something new. I knew I wanted to tell the story from three different points of view, each with their own distinct narrative voices: quick and witty, pensive, and first person. I started by outlining the overall story (I used to never outline; even now, I don’t use a strict outline, just broad plot points, leaving it open in case the characters want to take the story in a different direction), then outlined the three character arcs. When it came time to write, I drafted each character separately. I found writing this way really sped up the process, focusing on each character individually instead of going back and forth between them. Since each character was only going to occupy one-hundred pages, it allowed me to view the book as three novellas instead of one novel. As did writing in different narrative voices. For the quick-witted voice, I kept the language simple, focusing on pace. The voice in first person I drafted the quickest; he has that mid-west cynicism I’ve heard my entire life. I only did two drafts for that character’s section, with some touch-ups here and there. Once I was finished, I pieced everything together into the final version of the book. I really like drafting this way. I’m using the same technique on my current novel, this time with seven POV characters, but only one narrative voice. I’ve been working on it for two and a half years, so far.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I don’t really think about either. With RELATIVITY, I wanted to tell a multiple point of view story that focuses on theme. This wasn’t done out of a desire to be different (multi-POV stories have been around forever), but because it was the best way to tell the story. Each character is obsessed with something, and delusional regarding their ability to fulfill these obsessions. By writing three different points of view, I could show how they were lying to each other and themselves, show how they viewed each other, and how those views changed over the course of the book. As for giving readers what they want? The greatest realization I’ve ever had is that I’m not alone. I am a product of my environment: American pop culture, and its multitude of subcultures. My experiences are not unique; my likes and dislikes are common; my joys and sorrows have been felt by others; I’m not alone. It’s both liberating and comforting. Applying this to writing, I can be as weird as I want and someone will appreciate it, because we share the same brand of weirdness. If I write a joke that I think is particularly funny, someone else will laugh too because we have similar senses of humor. If I create a scene that I think is sad and moving, so will a reader somewhere; chances are, they went through something similar and can relate. If I want to give the readers what they want, I have to give myself what I want, whether it’s bizarre jokes or an ambiguous ending. As long as it fits the story, it will work.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
My cat crawling behind my computer and knocking things off my desk.
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