The 2014 AIMES Supreme and Arts Award winner Ben Sanders has been reviewed as delivering “switchblade-sharp writing”, among many other accolades, and at one stage Warner Brothers had confirmed an option to adapt his last novel American Blood for the big screen with Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper in the lead role.
His first three books were set in Auckland, but the setting for American Blood and his about-to-be published novel, The Stakes, is in the United States. He’s now published internationally and is widely identified as one of the next big names in international crime writing.
Our research found that Ben doesn’t fit the stereotype of the social-media active millennial, and he admits to Northside that (like many writers) he’s far from comfortable with the need to self-publicise. “Writing involves self-publicising to the extent that the author wants to self-publicise,” he says. “I don’t enjoy it, so I don’t tend to do it. My website was a disgrace, so it’s undergoing upgrades.”
However, he very obligingly responded to our questions about his writing and what he’s achieved since 2014.
Northside: Please give us a short summary of where life and writing have taken you since you won the AIMES supreme award in 2014.
Ben Sanders: Since I won the AIMES award, I’ve continued to work on mystery novels. I write three days per week, and work two days per week as a structural engineer for Airey Consultants in Takapuna. My last book came out in March 2017, and the next one (The Stakes) is due out in February this year. The highlights of the last couple of years were being able to take part in literary festivals in Toronto (October 2016) and Adelaide (March 2017).
You continue to juggle writing with working as a civil engineer – how do you manage that, and do you find that the “creative’ aspects of writing require a mind-shift after the thought processes required for engineering?
The balance is perfect. I was writing full-time for two years, but found 40-odd hours per week was too long to be purely in my own head. I find after three days of writing fiction, I’m ready for some maths, and vice versa. My brain doesn’t have to be hauled from one mode to the other: it is equally content with thug-talk or stress equations.
Is it possible for you to survive as a writer only – and would you want to?
I’m published in 11 countries, so I can write full time if I want to. But I like the variety of having two jobs. The novelist Martin Amis once wrote that fiction writers ‘need something to get them out of the house’. He does award-winning journalism. I design beams.
You’ve been quoted as saying you opted to study engineering as it was sufficiently different from writing, which you would be doing “in your leisure time”. Do you still see writing as “leisure time” or is the engineering work your leisure time away from writing?
They’re each the other’s antidote. Writing still feels like leisure, but probably because my working week is so varied. I really enjoy structural engineering, but I don’t think it will ever feel like a leisure activity: it obviously demands a great deal of care, so it’s not something I’d do in order to relax for 30 minutes.
How long does each book take you to write? And what are the hardest and easiest parts of the process for you?
Normally about 12 months. The beginning is easiest – the first five or ten chapters – when I’m setting the scene, and the writing is powered along by a desire to create something compelling. The middle is tough: I have to decide where to point my characters in order to wrap up the story. And when you’re fifty thousand words into a book with another fifty [thousand] to go, it can feel like a slog. The last quarter is always nice: at around the seventy-five thousand word mark, I can see the finish, and I tend to sprint the home straight in chunks of three or four thousand words per day.
How do you approach each book? Do you have the story outlined (imaginatively or on paper) before you start? How do you develop the characters, plot and setting(s)?
I have no outline. I make the story up as I go along, but I can normally see about two chapters ahead at any given point. My process is visual, in the sense that I’m just describing what I can see vividly in my mind – both in terms of character and setting. Plot development is the main engine for keeping the reader engaged. In very simple terms, I try to do it by having interesting characters (both good and bad), and then hinting that massive conflict and catastrophe awaits.
Do you have a writing “schedule” and how do you sustain the discipline required to create each complete novel?
I don’t have a strict schedule. I write from about nine to five Wednesday to Friday, and aim to do 1000-1500 words per day. They have to be good words, and so the daily test is: could I send this off to my editor and not be embarrassed? If the answer is no, I edit in the evening.
Following your first three novels, you’ve targeted the American market for your books. What was the attraction for you in that market, rather than, say, UK or Europe? And how difficult was the transition from Auckland-based books to creating settings and situations in a society and landscape that you knew less well?
I set my books in the States because my US publisher [Macmillan] asked me to. I’d read lots of American novels, so I was confident I could evoke settings, and the attitudes and speech of American characters. I visit the US every year and research the places I write about, but I’m sure I’ve benefited from the fact that New Zealand culture is very US-centric. We get US TV shows and films, US books, and our news media often has a strong US focus. So to some extent I didn’t feel like I was writing about a foreign country.
You’re acknowledged as good dialogue writer – do you have any ambitions to write for screen or stage plays?
No. I love books because the text is the complete thing.
What has happened to the movie rights on American Blood? Was it disappointing that Warner Brothers allowed its option to expire?
Yes. Disappointing, too, for the accountants at Warner Bros., who ended up with fees for four producers, a screenwriter, and me in their minus column, and nothing in the plus column. So spare a thought for poor Sloane Kenwright III (I reckon they’d have someone by that name), number-cruncher for Warners, pencil gnashed between veneered chompers and his spray tan dripping orange on his blotter as he sweats over the numbers.
Your books are ideal for translation to the screen. Do you specifically write with this in mind? When it happens, would you want to be involved in the scriptwriting process?
Yes. I try to move a story along through action and dialogue, rather than introspection. I wouldn’t want to write the screenplay (assuming I sell anything else to Hollywood), because I don’t want to tell the same story twice.