Q&A with Ben Walter

Ben Walter’s debut collection of short fiction, What Fear Was, is a brilliant, poignant, funny and utterly original collection that belongs on every Tasmanian’s bookshelf. Arianne was lucky enough to spend some time talking to Ben about his ideas for this book, his writing process and more.

Do you have any particular rituals you like to do before settling in to write?

“I don’t really. I think it’s one of those things where, as I’ve gone on as a writer, I’m more in tune with where my head is at. This morning I was really tired, so I thought, ‘I’m going to go and paint the house’ because it’s better than sitting at my desk and bumbling along for an hour or two. So it’s a matter of being in tune; and sometimes I recognise that I need to put some music on, or I need to go outside and just do one thing for ten minutes to change the way I’m feeling and where my head’s at, rather than trying to grind it out or abandon the day as being too hard. To just working on getting my head into the right place.”

I’d like to ask about endings, because I think that’s one of the hardest things to do in any story, but particularly a short story. The endings of your stories in this collection are very satisfying. I get the sense that you know when to recognise that sometimes elusive feeling that this is the right place to end it?

“Yeah, I think that endings are really, really hard. When I’m reading as an editor, it’s one of the things where a lot of stories really fall down – you’ll have a perfectly solid, competent, interesting story, and then they just peter out, they don’t really know how to end, or they’re kind of contrived, where there’s a feeling that they have to provide a solution or ‘complete’ it in some sort of way. What I really try to do with my endings is find something that naturally flows out of whatever it is that I’ve constructed, and the beauty of it is that meanings are so manifold in language that no matter what sort of mess you’ve gotten yourself into, there’s a way of finding your way through that, and providing something that’s interesting and novel – rather than thinking of it as a plot that needs to be resolved in some way, which I don’t think is how short stories work at all. It’s rather an impression that you want to leave the reader with, that somehow tallies or contrasts or engages with what’s come before it. It’s more about feeling than plot resolution.”

Do you ever think of a twist for an ending first and then write the story around it?

“I can’t remember doing that very much, though I probably have occasionally. I tend to find that if you do that, everything can end up being a bit neat. Some writers can do a fabulous job of plotting out their stories and sometimes these days I do that to a very small degree, but I tend to find that the story can develop in a more interesting and original way if you let it speak as you go along. Because sometimes if you plot it out beforehand, it can feel like a trope, a set of simplistic meanings, whereas if you let it work itself out, it can go in directions that you were never expecting it to. Sometimes the ending will twist around and become completely different and mess with your head in that way, but sometimes it won’t and will flow out of what’s coming in a fairly natural way. I think the better endings tend to be the ones that flow out of what you’ve done beforehand; otherwise it can be a bit boring.”

I understand that having a young family probably dictates when and where you’re able to write, but if you could choose, would you work in the morning or evening?

“I can choose to some degree, because I only work a normal job for one day a week. I prefer to work all day, from nine till five. I think of writing as a job, which I think is the healthiest way to treat it if you’re taking writing seriously. It’s work as opposed to a hobby. Often people will try and fit it in at the edges, which is fine and understandable as well, but if you have the time, treating it as a work day helps, because you go, ‘here is what I’ve got to do, this is my work, this is my habit to work through the day.’ It’s not quite so cut and dried these days because the kids are little and there are interruptions and things I just have to do, so it doesn’t quite work to that same degree; in saying that though, it’s what I always aim for. I really like to try and be able to fit as much into my work day as I can. The work doesn’t necessarily mean you’re writing all day; there’s other stuff you have to do as a writer. You’ve got to edit, correspond, pitch, submit, you’ve got to do all sorts of things. The work I do depends on the day. I prefer to do the writing itself in the morning, because it sets you up for a good day, as you have that sense of achievement. I feel a lot more satisfied. I don’t think I’d work well in the evenings. I’d be too tired. I think overall the earlier you can get to the work, the better, because it means you’re not just putting it off through the day.”

I loved ‘We Are All Superman.’ It made me think of social media and how in this day and age people’s two cents can be plastered onto opinion polls for everyone to view and comment on. There are multiple platforms now where people can voice their opinion, where people develop certain personas and pretend to be someone else. Maybe I read it wrong but that’s what popped into my head. Were you thinking of this at all while writing it?

“Feel free to take whatever reading you like. Honestly for me writing it, I just thought it would be funny. I think I was sitting in the university library working, and this notion of everybody or a substantial body of people being Superman just struck me as being funny, and often you go through patches where writing is really hard, particularly having young children, you’re exhausted, you’re working, you’re doing all sorts of things and you might be having a bad patch, and sometimes the best thing to keep yourself writing is going, ‘oh that’s funny, I might muck around with this and see what happens,’ because at least you’re having a good time. So for that story it was literally just, ‘this could be funny, I’ll add to it and try and make it as fun as possible.’ I wrote the first half in about an hour in the library, and then I just had no idea what to do with it, so I think it sat on my computer for a few months. I can’t remember the process I went through but I would have come back to it and then the next half would have flowed in terms of how it had to resolve and end.”

I also loved ‘Landscapes within landscapes.’ With this story it was actually the writing itself that drew me in, the beauty of the language before the story itself, and I wondered, what do you think is more important, the story or the writing, or do you think they’re equally important?

“That’s a really interesting question. Sometimes as a reader when you’re really tired you’re not following everything that’s going on, and the language can flow over you, and sometimes it’s the opposite, it really depends on the mood you’re in as to how you receive a story, I think, so I’m not sure that I could say it’s all about the story; in some ways it’s about whatever interaction you’re having with the story and that’s governed by your mood at the time. I think they’re equally important. That’s a nutcase story that one, because it started out as a pure experiment. I recognised this really weird thing in the epigraph of The Plains, this incredible book that creates an alternate Australian landscape, written by Gerald Murnane. He was originally published by this tiny sci-fi publisher in Australia in 1982 called Norstrilia Press; no one else wanted to touch it because it was a really interesting book. And Norstrilia Press called themselves that because Norstrilia had been a book written about a guy called Cordwainer Smith, which again was a pulpy sci fi book that attempted to create this alternative Australian landscape, and I just thought, this is kind of like one book is encased in the other, and I thought: how can I nest the landscapes of these two different stories into each other as well as adding a third layer of complexity in terms of my own understanding of the Australian landscape? And so I sort of describe it as an intertextual nightmare because I’ve got all of these things going on in my head, and the problem with a story like that is that it comes out of a contextual foundation, where you say, I wonder if I can do that, and so maybe the story suffers for that because you’re focusing on this experiment, you’re focussing on the language, you’re trying to make it all work, and I think that as a story it’s weaker. What I’d often say now is that I try and pay more attention to both halves, because they’re both incredibly important. People want to feel both of these things working hand in hand when they read. Holding that balance is what I try to do a bit better these days.”

Do you have any favourites among your short stories, and if so, why?

“I think my favourite story of mine is one called, ‘It’s All Happening Here,’ which is another totally nutcase story. It was published in Overland, so its online if you want to read it It’s a story that deals with two completely competing senses of nostalgia, which sounds really abstract, but it’s basically somebody calling up, effectively stalking someone online, an old girlfriend or individual who they have an interest in – I don’t really specify – and they try to call this person eventually, to reach out with this nostalgic impulse. But somebody completely different answers the phone, and it turns into a completely different sense of nostalgia that engages and subsumes that person. I just think there’s something about that story when I look back on it, I feel like it should be impossible to do that, and I look back on it and feel so content and satisfied with the way it structurally functions in doing what it does, and it makes me want to not get lazy. You can really get lazy with short stories, writing the same sort of thing over and over again, but that one I look at and say, ‘I’m not really sure how I did that.’ It makes me happy that I did it, but it also makes me want to say ‘let’s keep making completely fresh, different and interesting ways of writing short stories.’”

What do you think is the most important thing aspiring writers should remember when creating characters?

“I wouldn’t call myself a great theorist on character. I mean I can read people whose absolute strength is in these finely poised studies in character and relationship, and it’s not something that I’m a real star at by any stretch. I get by on character but it’s not my strength. But I think that if you’re able to be specific and work to understand the specificity of who somebody is and how they might work in the world and think really hard about how people operate in the world, then you’re on a good road. But honestly, I find that for me a lot of the time character emerges from what I’m trying to do rather than being a core function of the story itself.”

What has changed the most in Tasmania for you over the years, and how do you think this might have affected you’re writing?

“Certainly you see a change in the way Tasmania is perceived, by people who are external to Tasmania, and that means you get a lot more interest here, a lot more people moving down for all sorts of reasons, and that has had straightforward economic impacts which I think are really problematic, especially in terms of the battle for housing, where people who grew up here and don’t necessarily have the incomes and assets that people who are moving from elsewhere have, and being able to find their niche here is really hard.

I think that beyond that, understanding exactly how Tasmania is changing is really hard because it’s too easy to cherry pick examples. How it affects my writing? I don’t think it has yet, but I can imagine responding to that change in situation that Tasmanians have found themselves in by the economic transformation that we’ve seen, particularly in terms of the gap between the haves and the have nots. I can imagine that coming into things that I do as I reflect on Tasmania and the experience of being here.”

What are you reading at the moment?

“I’m nearly halfway through Ellen van Neervan’s book Heat and Light, because they are doing a seminar with us as part of Island’s nature writing project. The book is great, I’m really enjoying it. This first section I’ve just finished includes a lot of linked short stories, and that’s done well, it’s not ostentatious, each of the stories is successful on its own terms. It’s a really good book so far.”

 What do you think people need to be a good writer?

“Bloody mindedness. You’ve just got to keep going and going and going if you want to make it work, because it takes a really long time to get any good, if you’re fortunate enough to get any good, and it takes a really, really long to time to get anywhere in terms of success – if you’re fortunate enough for that writing to ever get anywhere and find a home. So you’ve really got to be tenacious as a writer, to keep on going to keep on learning, to keep on getting better, to take rejection in your stride as much as you can, and hopefully enjoy what you’re doing because there’s not a lot of reward in writing, you’re not going to be famous… so if you’re tenacious and enjoy what you’re doing, they’re probably the best qualities you can have.”

TasWriters thanks Ben for taking the time to be interviewed.