The Storymaker: A Conversation With Novelist John Benditt

John Benditt

John Benditt

By Daniel Ford

Here’s the first two lines of the description for author John Benditt’s debut novel The Boatmaker:

A fierce, complicated, silent man wakes from a fever dream compelled to build a boat and sail away from the small island where he was born. The boat carries him to the next, bigger, island, where he becomes locked in a drunken and violent affair whose explosion propels him all the way to the mainland.

That’s what we like here at Writer’s Bone.

Benditt writes in such an earthy and rhythmic tone and so deftly tackles issues that plague humanity that one forgets his previous profession was as a science journalist for the likes of Scientific American and Technology Review. He answered some of my questions recently about how he developed his voice, his inspiration for The Boatmaker, and how his journalism background helped his fiction writing.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and how did you develop your voice?

John Benditt: I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen. It wasn’t really something I chose; it chose me. I had other ideas, generally more practical ideas, about what I wanted to be. But that was what I was. I think my voice emerged first by imitating writers I liked and later by just writing and writing, even though what I was writing wasn’t very good.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

JB: My first influences were poets, since that’s what I wanted to be. The biggest early influence was Robert Creeley. I loved how spare his poems were, how chiseled they were, how much was left out. Creeley led me to William Carlos Williams, whom I loved as a poet, a prose-poet, and also as a writer of fiction. He wrote three great novels about his wife and his wife’s family. More people should read them.

DF: You’re a science journalist by trade, so I’m curious if any of those skills transferred over to writing fiction. What is your writing process like in general?

JB: I think journalism, if it’s done well, enforces clarity and the need to get the reader through the story to the end; those are skills every writer should have. My writing process begins with little bits and pieces scribbled on scraps of paper that later coalesce into something larger.

DF: Where did the idea for The Boatmaker originate?

JB: The Boatmaker began as a short story, written for a fiction workshop I was taking at the New School with Catherine Texier, who is a wonderful teacher. I wrote the story for a collection of short stories I thought I was writing at the time. The story was about a man who builds a boat and sails away from the little island where he was born. Later I wrote a second story about the same character when he reaches his first destination, Big Island. I thought I was done with him. But apparently he wasn’t done with me. That’s when a lot of other bits and pieces of his story began to appear.

DF: How did you go about developing your main character? In the novel, he’s reacting to a lot of things he’s never experienced, so how did you put yourself in his mindset in order to tell your story?

JB: Mostly it was a question of being receptive. The boatmaker arrived with a pretty fully developed personality and way of seeing things. I just tried to stay out of the way of that. I was tempted to prettify him a little, but I tried to avoid that. He is what he is.

DF: Your book touches on subjects that tend to spark intense debate—religion, race, etc. What were some of the ways you made your themes original while also tackling these issues?

JB: The story kept coming in, as I mentioned, in bits and pieces. And it held my interest. So I kept following along. I wasn’t thinking at all about “themes,” such as religion or race, while I was writing. I was just interested in the story of the boatmaker. When I was finished, I realized that these themes were there. But I didn’t pay much attention to them while I was writing, at least as themes. I just wanted to do justice to the story—to make it as vivid and compelling as it had seemed to me.

DF: Your use of language is so earthy and primal. Did that come out during the writing or was it fine-tuned during the editing process?

JB: Something of the tone was there in the original short story, which was called “Big Island.” But it evolved during the writing and editing. It got simpler, and it found a groove. The published book is definitely the outcome of a lot of polishing and weighing individual words and sentences. And a lot of deft suggestions from my editor, Meg Storey at Tin House.

DF: Now that you have a novel under your belt, what’s next?

JB: I have a bunch of short stories I’ve been working on. I also have the first part of a memoir about my father, who was a famous scientist. I suspect that the idea for another novel will also emerge, more or less the way The Boatmaker did. I’ve been blown off course enough times now to suspend judgment when it comes to plans for my writing.

DF: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

JB: Keep writing. I read somewhere an English writer said: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t give up.” I like that.

DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?

JB: If I named it, would it still be random?

To learn more about John Benditt, visit his official website.