By Daniel Ford
Noir lovers will be familiar with the opening scene of author Ben H. Winters’ award-winning novel The Last Policeman. A body is found hanging in a McDonald’s bathroom and a hardboiled detective smells foul play. His colleagues tell him not to bother tracking down leads because the case looks like a suicide. Detective Hank Palace does it anyway. Seems like typical crime fiction, right?
Well, what I didn’t tell you is that Palace is living in a world that is about to be annihilated by a meteor hurtling toward Earth. He’s one of the last people on the planet still willing to do his job in the face of certain and inevitable doom.
Winters’ novel spawned well-reviewed two sequels that earned praise from the likes of author John Green and Publisher’s Weekly. He talked to me recently about his early influences, writing for different genres, and the inspiration behind The Last Policeman.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Ben H. Winters: I've known it, in one way or another, since I was a kid. It took me a long time to know what kind of writer I wanted to be, or was meant to be, I guess. I was a newspaper columnist, in college; I was standup and an improv comedian; I was a playwright and a lyricist. So a lot of writing, but fiction came late.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
BW: When I was a kid I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I read Robert Asprin, I read Heinlein and Asimov. I remember the Wild Card books edited by George RR Martin. (Huh, whatever became of that guy?) I remember being transfixed by Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go, at age 14 or 15. The first "literary" author I really got into was Kurt Vonnegut, and then in college I fell in love with Charles Dickens.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
BW: I always try to outline, and always end up abandoning the outline and then coming back to it and then starting a new one and then abandoning that one too, and it goes on like that until the novel is done. I've stopped being annoyed at myself for not being able to keep to an outline. It will always be impossible to keep to the outline; it will always be valuable to try. I listen to music constantly. I vary it depending on my mood, or the mood of the story. A lot of Dylan, a lot of Tom Waits, a lot of opera. Two days ago I discovered a songwriter named Langhorne Slim and his work is heavily influencing my writing at the moment.
DF: Your bio also says you’ve written extensively for the theater. Does your writing process change at all when you’re writing for other genres?
BW: The main difference in writing for the theater is that it is much more collaborative, earlier on, especially because I mostly wrote writing musicals, which involve not just your imagination, but that of the composer, the director, the choreographer, the actors, and so on. If you can't accommodate your ideas and let them be enlivened and improved by the other artists, you're screwed. Novel writing is by its nature a much more isolated process, which usually I love and sometimes casts me into pits of despair.
DF: Since you’ve also worked as a journalist, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism. Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?
BW: Smarter people than me will have to opine on the state of journalism. I wrote a piece once where I went with a group called Anti-Racist Action to protest outside the suburban home of a local Neonate asshole. Who emerged from his house to protest the protest, and managed to single me out, correctly identify me, and tell me he "doesn't talk to Jews." That was a pretty exciting story.
DF: What inspired your Last Policeman trilogy?
BW: I have always wanted to write a detective story. Because I was pitching this book to Quirk Books, a publisher that skews toward books with big hooks and big concepts (i.e. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), I knew I wasn't going to just do your basic police procedural or detective book. I thought a cop solving cases even though the world was going to end was a pretty sharp angle, and that's where I came up with the asteroid.
DF: How much of yourself ended up in Detective Hank Palace? Would you handle a looming apocalypse as well as he does?
BW: I wish I was more like him. I doubt very much that I would have the integrity to keep working, and hang on to my moral sense, as long as he does. The thing is, my job (writer, writing teacher) isn't like being a police officer: nobody relies on it for their immediate safety or well being. I hope I would handle the looming apocalypse by protecting my children as much as I could for as long as I could.
DF: How did you develop the rest of the characters and themes in The Last Policeman? What are some of the things you wanted to explore in this world on the brink of extinction?
BW: Once I had this basic plot idea (cop solving crimes though the world is ending), once I got going on it, the themes presented themselves, really. Oh, I said, this is a book about death. Oh, this is a book about how we order our lives, given the fact that life, for all of us, is bounded. I didn't set out to do a book about those things—I set out to do a cool mystery. I was lucky enough to conceive a plot that suggested those themes, and then I just rode where they took me.
DF: How long did it take you to write The Last Policeman, land an agent, and publish it? Did you know it was going to be a trilogy when you started?
BW: I was in the very fortunate position of having an existing relationship with Quirk Books—I had done a bunch of humorous nonfiction titles for them, and then three somewhat less serious novels: Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, and Bedbugs. So my editor there, Jason Rekulak, and I had this back and forth, looking for the next thing to do together. I pitched him this idea about the cop and the asteroid, and he said what remains one of my favorite things anyone has ever said to me: "it sounds like it should be a trilogy." So before I really got going on the first one, I knew there would be three, and that helped me get that first book right, knowing I had time in the next two to edge closer to the end of the world.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
BW: The best writing instruction you will get is from reading great writing. Not necessarily in your genre—don't just read mysteries because that's what you write, and not even necessarily fiction. Read poetry; read lyrics; read nonfiction; read the newspaper; read everything. That's how you learn what makes a good sentence, and what makes a good story.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
BW: I was not born with the "H." in my name (Ben H. Winters). My middle name is actually Allen. When I got married, my wife took my last name and I took the initial of her maiden name into mine.