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Bouncing Ideas Off the Wall of Reality: A Conversation with Ben Winters

by Brendan Dowling on March 4, 2014

Ben WintersThe Last Policeman poses the daunting question, how do you maintain law and order in a world poised on the edge of disaster? Set in the near future, an asteroid is set to strike earth in six months, leveling most of the planet’s population. In Concord, New Hampshire, Detective Henry Palace finds himself thrust into his dream job with only a few remaining months to enjoy it. With the world around him falling apart, Palace lands a seemingly open-and-shut case: the suicide of a local actuary. As Palace digs deeper, he uncovers the dark secrets of citizens pushed to the edge and the unsettling truth of the true killer. Winters continues the exploits of Palace with Countdown City, where a quest for a missing husband leads Palace to the University of New Hampshire (now turned into a quasi-commune), among other places. In both books, Winters spins a deftly plotted mystery while vividly depicting a world on the brink of extinction. World of Trouble, the final book in the Last Policeman Trilogy, will be published this July. Winters spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone January 31, 2014.

Public Libraries: The events of The Last Policeman are pretty much contained in Concord, N.H, but in Countdown City, we get a glimpse of the outside world and hear about what’s going on in the rest of the country. What went into building out the pre-apocalyptic world of the books?

Ben Winters: It’s a combination of pure imagination and as much research as I could. I started out trying to be a journalist. What I took from that was that I had no business being a journalist. (laughs) But also that if you just get people talking, you can get so much information out of them. What I wanted to think about was what the world was going to look and feel like in this situation. I talked to an agricultural economist who talked about how the food supply works. One of the things people take for granted is that you go to the grocery store and there’s just all this food there. It’s very easy not to think about where it came from and how it got there. But there has to be a farmer who is planting crops and planning out a year where those crops will be harvested at a certain time. There have to be trucks to move those crops from one place to another; there has to be refrigeration, etcetera etcetera. It was important to me to—you can’t really say to get the details right of course because it’s an imagined situation—but to at least ground my version of this in conversations with people who know what they’re talking about.

PL: Do imagination and the research go hand in hand, or does one beget the other?

BW: Both. I think for the most part you start writing. In Countdown City, I knew I wanted the idea of a college campus that had been taken over in a sort of communitarian slash anarchist encampment. That came directly from the Occupy Wall Street movement. I was reading a lot about it and I was really fascinated by the whole thing. It just occurred to me that this is exactly the sort of thing that would happen [in my story]. It seemed very clear to me that there would be a certain group of young people who would basically be like, “We’re going to handle this. We’re going to form a society.”

But from there, I started doing research. I read in detail about how Occupy Wall Street works and the systems of decision-making that evolved and the amount of really impressive social organization that happened very quickly with committee decision-making, but then also a certain amount of violence around the fringes. And all of that informed what became my vision of the University of New Hampshire.

It goes back and forth. It’s cool because you’ll do research to figure out one thing and then just doing the research inspires new made-up things. Like the character of Dr. Fenton, the coroner. I needed information about how autopsies are conducted so I reached out to someone who is a forensic pathologist and I asked her a bunch of questions. In talking to her and getting the information, I got a vibe from her of who she is, how she goes about doing her work, and her attitude toward death and dying and all that informed the character. It’s a cool feedback loop of ideas, and then you bounce those ideas off the wall of reality and they become better.

PL: So everything kind of informs each other in unexpected ways?

BW: Exactly. You don’t know when you’re doing research how that is going to change the imagined idea that you had. And sometimes you get frustrated. “Oh I really wanted such-and-such thing to happen.” This always happens with medical stuff. When somebody gets shot I’m like, Okay, well I want this to happen” but then you talk to a doctor and you’re like, “Oh, well that wouldn’t happen. Well, crap.” (laughs) That’s the stuff you can get away with sometimes, but for the most part your readers are going to be like, “That smells like BS.”

PL: Part of the appeal of Henry Palace is that he’s kind of the last person you’d expect to be the protagonist of such a hard-boiled story. He’s a deeply principled and hard-working man who’s thrust into this chaotic world where the rules are slowly eroding. Can you talk about how you settled on him as the hero?

BW: I never really considered any other heroes. He just was the guy from the beginning. I liked the idea of having someone who was very, very committed to his work and then testing that commitment. Because we’re entering into a [fictional] world where a lot of people, for good reason, are walking away from their posts, whatever it is. So it wasn’t like he’s just a regular cop. He’s not. He’s obsessive. All he thinks about is police work. All he’s ever wanted to do is be a detective. And I wanted him to be really young, so he still hasn’t gotten jaded or frustrated with the bureaucracy. This is his shot. There’s this bitter irony that he’s been elevated, but only because all these other guys are quitting because the world is ending. He just felt like the right guy for this, for a book that was more realistic, that wasn’t going to try to be a macho apocalyptic “We’re-going-to-stop-this-thing-we’re-going-to keep-civilization together-by-force-if-we-have-to!” I wanted to ask, “How would this really feel?” Not just what’s going on in the world, but what does it feel like inside a person’s heart and mind when things are degrading like this? He’s a little too involved in his work. He can’t stop thinking about it. As it turns out, in this situation, that’s kind of protecting him from just falling apart like so many other people are.

PL: His self-preservation is his work?

BW: Yeah, and his almost obsessive-compulsive need to keep working. Once he’s got his hooks into this case he can’t stop thinking about it.
PL: It seems that with both books, you’re subverting the conventions of a noir story where it takes place in such an idyllic setting and you play with the audience’s expectations of certain characters. It seems like you’re having a lot of fun with the tropes of noir. Was that a happy accident or intentional?

BW: I think it was a happy accident. Once I realized it was happening I was pleased with it, I didn’t shy away from it. I always wanted to write a detective story.

It’s funny, I’m teaching a class right now about mystery fiction. It’s one of the big tropes, one of those parodied things: the dark rain-slicked streets and the detective in his trenchcoat. I like the idea of playing with those things but in a world that is much more like our own.

PL: There were some characters I had totally dismissed as harmless, and it was a huge surprise to realize how cold-blooded they were.

BW: That’s very much part of the world of mystery fiction—you never know what’s going on in the hearts of men. To me, the whole idea of noir fiction is that the world is a darker place than we like to think. And there’s evil and the chance of death hiding out everywhere. So here we have a world in which death is literally on the horizon, there’s no escaping from it. That is, in a certain way, going to make the world feel like this dark, bitter place, whether we like it or not. So I guess it’s actually inverting the noir idea because our hero, rather than being this avatar of darkness, doing what has to be done, is the opposite of that. He’s this light of normalcy, calm, and focus in this world where everything seems to be going dark.

PL: You’ve talked about this in other interviews, about how having Henry as this force of light in this horrible world allows you to to examine bigger issues like religion and what a social contract means.

BW: And that’s really the great big fun thing about writing these books –it’s taking our world and going through it and shining a light on all these different pieces and asking, “How does this thing really work? How durable is this institution?” Whether it’s marriage or college or the police force. What does it mean when we say we have a society? How quickly does that erode, given these set of circumstances?

PL: You teach a mystery-writing class for GrubStreet. What do you enjoy about interacting with students online that doesn’t take place in a real world environment?

BW: It’s funny because what you lose with online teaching is the rapid pace and excitement of the classroom dynamic. But what you gain is that people are more considered in their comments. People get a chance to think and gather their thoughts before they respond to something. People don’t get swept up in the group dynamic, where someone says something and everyone seems to agree, so if you disagree you don’t say anything. So I actually think the online experience—for certain kinds of students—can be really useful. Because you can work at your own pace and you can get a chance to express your thoughts without the rush of classroom conversation. So I dig that.

PL: You have a little more time to be intentional with what you want to say?

BW: There are just some people, especially some writers—because there’s a certain personality trait where sometimes writers are a little more introverted, a little more shy, and not really as interested in bantering and clashing with other people, even in a constructive way—that I think do well to focus and do things at their own speed.

PL: You’re taking part in the Twitter Fiction Festival in March. Can you tell us a little about your involvement with the Festival?

BW: I don’t really know exactly yet what I’ll be doing. Basically I’m a featured author, which means I’m expected to create some kind of story via twitter and via some sort of interaction with the other participants in the festival. I’ve been trying to think of a cool way to do it. I know I want to do some kind of mystery thing. I’m still brooding on it. It’s a young festival, so I think it’s a little bit of a Wild West still in terms of what everyone’s going to do. It’s going to be cool.

My wife says I’m a Luddite—which I’m totally not—but social media makes me really nervous. I never know whether I’m doing everything right. For writers especially, you have to be really careful with the distraction level of it. And the feeling that you’re doing something, that you’re creating something when you’re not creating anything permanent—you’re just mushing around on the Internet. I try to keep the Internet off during my workday, so I’m always missing everything on Twitter. So the festival willbe a new experience for me. I’ve never done anything like this before where you dive in and live on Twitter for however long. Some people are just always on there, whereas I’ll dip my toe in every day at 9 after I’m done writing and say, “Oh, somebody Tweeted at me. Do I have to respond to them?” I never know. “Is it too late? Did I miss this? Do I retweet this? Do I favorite it? What’s the difference? Where am I?” (laughs)

I have a very mixed relationship with it. One of my favorite things I did in Countdown City was destroy the entire internet. There’s a bit in there where Henry’s at UNH and the guy next to him is just nervously running his thumb over his phone. Can you imagine if the Internet went out right now? Everyone would be walking around with these dead pieces of plastic. “Oh, God! I just gotta check my email one final time!”

PL: And the loss of the Internet makes the library play such a crucial role in your book—

BW: He has to go open a book!

PL: He has to go there to look through the yellow pages. I love the title of the program the library’s running in the novel, “How to Eat Less and Live.”

BW: Doesn’t that just seem like the sort of thing the library would do? The thing is a library, they’re one of the institutions I guarantee would endure in this kind of situation. Because the people who tend to work at libraries and tend to volunteer at libraries and even tend to hang out at libraries, I think are more civic minded than the average person in terms of feeling themselves invested in some kind of community. The library is one of the last community spaces. With the decline in print readership and the rise in electronic readership, I’ve been interested in the ways that libraries are figuring out how to remain that community space, how to still maintain relevance. And I think part of it is they’re opening their doors and having people come and do workshops on finding jobs and book clubs. I like that. I dig that. Now it’s like Starbucks where people go to be around other people, and that’s a for-profit enterprise. I like the idea of this community-sponsored environment that is rich in culture, theoretically, where people get to go and just be together and learn stuff.

Ultimately, I think the word library might no longer refer to a roomful of books. It will refer to a different kind of thing, in the way that the word phone doesn’t really refer to a telephone anymore, it’s the thing you have with you that has all your stuff on it. The library is evolving into something different. And it feels to me like it’s working. So there are a couple of times in the novel where I point to libraries as one of the pillars of society that won’t crumble as fast as the others.

PL: You’ve also written for middle-grade readers with Literally Disturbed and the Bethesda Fielding books. Do you change writer’s hats when you write for younger audiences?

BW: I mean a little bit, you have to. The basics of good writing remain—you want to tell a story in a clever way, you have to have an interesting protagonist and big obstacles. Definitely the vocabulary is different, the themes are different. With the poetry obviously it’s a little different because they’re poems, there’s a whole different skill set that comes with it.

I’m not a big young adult or middle grade fiction reader. I will go on the record and say that the trend of adults reading young adult fiction a lot or even primarily troubles me. Speaking as someone who’s friends with a lot of people who are writing adult fiction and are struggling making a living at it, I find it distressing that there are many people choosing to read books that are written for twelve year-olds. I don’t know if it says anything about our culture, other than that there are really big marketing departments for those books.

One of the joys of reading adult fiction is that it was written specifically for an adult audience, so the themes, the ideas, the level of difficulty is intended for grown-ups, whereas a kid’s book is meant for kids. There are plenty of teenagers to read The Hunger Games. When I hear someone say, “What should I read next?” And someone says, “The Hunger Games.” There’s something that strikes me a little off about it. There’s already a diminishing store of readers for the books that are out there.

Someone in a Salon article said the average book is invisible to the average reader. There are so few places that review books in an organized way. In the mainstream newspapers, you’ll maybe get two book reviews a week. The Washington Post doesn’t have an insert anymore; the Tribune doesn’t have an insert anymore. And adding to the fact that the bookstores are going under—the big bookstores where you’d just go in and wander around and find things. It’s like where do people even find out about books anymore? It’s a world where you can easily get recommendations from friends, but not discover things on your own anymore.

Unfortunately, it’s harder for people to discover things that look interesting to them and want to read them. Because everything’s “if you like this, then you’ll like this.” But what if I want to read something totally different than that?