Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Pen Interview: Benjamin Reynolds

Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!


Well, I grew up here in Sacramento. It’s a small island people like to say is situated between the snow in the east and the beach in the west. Like all islanders, I felt the itch for the mainland, so I joined the Navy when I turned 19. I found what I was looking for in Japan, where I was stationed for the next four years. I taught English there for a year and a half as a civilian when I was discharged, but I knew I couldn’t stay for long. Tokyo seemed to have a glass ceiling for people who had no college education; and since I couldn’t make drinks and wasn’t persuasive enough to be a bouncer, I had no choice. Flew back to Sacramento to go to college in 2002. I did temp work when I could find it, and lived off GI Bill benefits and the patience of my wife when I couldn’t. It took longer than I thought, but I finally finished my degree in 2008. But I always planned to go back to Japan. Just one more year and I’ll be there again, although I think I say that every year. I can almost taste the comforting haze of Tokyo smog.


What inspires you to write?


I think experiences that beg to be shared are what ultimately inspire me to write. While I am often the one doing the begging on behalf of my own limited experiences, I think that the hum of life that buzzes around me tells stories that are far more interesting.


Do you find that your muse takes over when writing?


Oh yeah, I think that is definitely true. Characters quickly become alive to me. I like to let them live for a bit in my mind, often without any specific story to go with them. But I eventually build a framework of unpleasant events for them to careen through. I try to keep that framework somewhat malleable, and I give the character some freedom to move within it. Nothing ever breaks that framework, however.


Tell us a bit about your book, For Blood or Money. What inspired it?


The book is about these two ex-soldiers; opportunists really, who have run out of dishonest ways to make a living. So they decide to bet it all on a dubious jailhouse rumor, hoping to steal a stash of valuables from another group of lowlifes before they can retrieve it. Things do not go as expected, obviously. The two main characters, hardened by war and poverty, are mostly indifferent to the destruction left in their wake. Bound to no one, they fight only for each other, one desperate to save his friend’s life, the other to save his friend’s soul.

There were two main sources that inspired me to write this particular story. I became fascinated with 19th century Imperialism, especially as personified by characters like Colonel Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness, and Peachy and Danny in Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. They exemplified a certain freedom of morality that was not bound by the restrictions of laws or society, and characters like them were truly free to choose good or evil. This freedom of morality was something I really wanted to explore. I was particularly inspired by Kipling’s Peachy and Danny, though. I loved the fact that they were utterly devoid of good qualities except for the loyalty and friendship they felt for each other. This idea of friendship as redemption is one that I personally believe in, and I tried to make that a central theme in my story.

I was also inspired by a memory from my days in the Navy. I think I was around 22 at the time, and we had just pulled into Pattaya Beach, Thailand for a week or so. As I staggered past the pulsating strip clubs and bars, I heard my senior NCO call out my name. He must’ve been in his late forties, but he seemed much older. Shorts as tall as the white socks that reached for his knees. Sagging fanny pack hanging on for dear life. But there he was, clinging to a young girl and smiling, making sure I saw the both of them. Now, I don’t know if she was underage or anything, but all I could think of at that moment was the photo on his desk of his teenage daughter. That was probably the first time I actually saw the idea of “relative” morality in real life. I mean, he didn’t exactly have a row of skulls in his flowerbed, but the rationalizations that were made to come to that point were certainly the same. At any rate, it made it real for me, and that slow, unassuming slide into depravity was definitely something that I wanted to permeate the story.


Do you have any have any other works in progress that you want to share?


I’ve been working on a novel about Tokyo expat life for the past ten years. I put it on hold for long stretches of time, where I basically write other stuff. I’m also working on a children’s story.


What would be your advice to aspiring writers out there?


My advice to aspiring writers is to concentrate on producing a polished final draft. If you get a section of the story down perfect, then you are lucky. That actually happens sometimes. But most of the time it doesn’t, and revisions are where the real sweat of writing happens. The most important thing to remember is that you should always be working on something else while you have something submitted for publication. That way, when you receive your initial fusillade of rejections, you can always massage your ego with the assurance that the story you are currently working on is going to be the masterpiece everyone will want.


What are your favorite books at the moment?


At the moment, my favorite books are The Tesseract by Alex Garland, and Go by Simon Lewis. The intersecting points of view are phenomenal.


What is your favorite word?


My favorite word is subconscious. My least favorite word is vagina.

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