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Heather Vermeer caught up with overall AIMES Supreme Award Champion, writer Ben Sanders.
Following on from international megastar and North Shore darling, Lorde - aka Ella Yelich-O’Connor - to take out the top honours in the latest AIMES Awards is Ben Sanders. Nice footsteps to walk in, and it seems this self-effacing young Shore talent is also set to be a hit in the US, albeit less centre stage.
The former Long Bay Primary and College pupil is making his dreams real, and the AIMES Awards have played a big part. After scooping the Emerging Talent Award in 2012, Ben decided to use the prize fund to pay for a trip to New York to get himself in front of the power players in the publishing world. Within eight months of a ‘15-minute breathless pitch’ to an editor in Manhattan, this Torbay boy had not only secured a book deal, but a book series with one of the world’s most illustrious publishing houses, and a Warner Brothers movie deal with Hollywood A-Lister Bradley Cooper.
It’s the stuff of dreams.
It was in June 2013 that Ben took that leap to see if he could make it in the international publishing sphere. Having already published three books with Harper Collins here in New Zealand, he bunked down with a friend in The Big Apple, using his AIMES earnings to get there and give him a shot at trying his luck with the big players in publishing. He said: “I managed to get myself an appointment with an editor at Macmillan in Manhattan. He literally had 15 minutes to see me, so I delivered this breathless pitch. I left my latest book with him (Only The Dead) and that was that.”
Ben was working in Takapuna as a structural engineer at the time, following the completion of an engineering degree, when he got a call on the way in to the office one day that would alter the course of his life. He explained: “In October or November, I was driving to work one morning and got a phone call at 7.30am from my agent. He said that Brendan at MacMillan wanted to do a series of novels set in the USA!”
From there, email and phone conversations began, with the result being a two book deal which Ben signed in December last year with Fifth Avenue New York-based MacMillan, one of the world’s leading publishing houses.
“The very lucky, and very exciting, part of it was that he (Brendan) runs the film division at MacMillan and his special interest is selling books to Hollywood!” Ben explained, without trying to hide his excitement in relaying this fortunate offshoot to what was already a huge success story. Then he got mail; huge, significant, life-changing mail. “I got this amazing email one Saturday morning in February saying that we’d had an offer from Warner Brothers, with Bradley Cooper attached to it, but that they were still negotiating. I didn’t get a lot of sleep that weekend - I was literally pacing the house!
“By Tuesday, I’d sent an email to find out how things were going, and got a reply saying that he’d forgotten to tell me but, yes, it had all been agreed!
“It’s very much a dream come true.”
The first of the books, American Blood is in the very final editing stages as we enter 2015, and is due for release in the US in September. The movie deal that’s secured for the book will be able to be used to promote the novel, a huge bonus when it comes to publishing and growing sales of the title. A scriptwriter has been working on adapting the novel for screen, with a script likely to be completed by this month. Ben said: “Things are ticking along quite nicely. We’re definitely moving ahead well. It’s all new and exciting for me!”
As for the movie, when can we expect to see his American Blood novel transformed onto the big screen? “I guess it will be at least another 18 months or so down the track,” says Ben. “I’m not overly concerned, as the main thing is that Hollywood is producing this and are working on the script.”
Are they consulting with him during this script-writing process? “They are courteous in the sense that they give me updates. But when they buy the film rights, it’s their prerogative to do with it what they will! They are entitled to do it their way. They paid for that right!
“Fingers crossed they will keep me informed and ask my opinion from time to time, but at the end of the day, I am just so grateful that they bought up the rights to my books! It’s such a huge privilege and a huge opportunity.”
Ben was back in the USA in December to research the second book in the series, before returning home on Christmas Eve to enjoy the seasonal festivities with family and friends.
He said: “The new book I’m working on is set in winter in New York, so I wanted to go and experience what it’s like over there at that time of year.”
Ben is the eldest of three brothers all brought up in Torbay. The family are very much ‘Shore people’ - his mother works in Takapuna as a consultant for Colmar Brunton and his father works for Auckland Council. “Yes we’re very loyal to the Shore!” Ben proudly admits.
His Mum and Dad are avid readers, which has been an influence on Ben’s career direction. “My parents have always been big readers and have always been very interested in English and language. I guess my interest is an extension of their constant encouragement and their interest in reading.”
He was ‘about 13 or 14’ when his interest in writing began to gain momentum. “After a couple of years of reading obsessively, mainly crime thrillers, I tried to emulate what I was reading,” he says. Two teachers from Long Bay College also played an important part in Ben’s progression as a writer. “My 5th Form English teacher, Miss McCormick really helped spark my interest in writing,” he recalls. “And Mr Jones, who taught Media Studies. Between them, they covered the writing and film side of things. They made a really strong impression on me. Whatever passion I have for these subjects its really due in part to their enthusiasm for teaching these subjects.”
Ben admits to being ‘someone of simple pleasures’ who enjoys playing tennis, catching up with his mates and enjoying the natural beauty and laid back vibe of the Shore. His dog Wanda is an important part of his life and it’s during his morning walks with his beloved pet that he reflects upon and plans his writing.
“I’m a real creature of habit,” he explains. “I get up and take my dog for a walk for an hour every day. That’s my scheming phase for the day! I think about what I’ve written and what I’m going to write next. Wanda is my partner in crime!”
As a writer, he has to be very disciplined, I assume?
“I write 1500 words a day,” he says. “I will stay at my desk until that’s done. Sometimes it’s a 2am finish!” He tells me he writes chronologically but admits: “I don’t take a very logical approach. I plan the first part and I get a really solid foundation and once I have written everything for that opening segment, I find I have enough ideas that I can keep things rolling along and each subsequent chapter just follows on.”
It was a huge honour for Ben to be presented with the Sir Peter Blake Trophy and $15,000 as winner of the AIMES Supreme Award late last year, as well as the $10,000 he won for the Excellence in Arts category. He said: “I was so excited and flattered to get that sort of recognition. It was such a nice event to be a part of and to be presented with the overall award too came as such a surprise and was truly the icing on the cake, especially given that the competition was so stiff.”
After a much-needed break in January, Ben is back into the writing this month. It will be a big year for him. He’s keen to grab all the opportunities that come his way with both hands, and is keen to encourage other Shore youngsters to do the same.
He added: “AIMES is such a wonderful, worthwhile award to apply for. For me, it’s been so nice being involved in a charity organisation that’s so supportive. If young people out there are passionate about a pursuit they’re involved in, they should seriously think about applying. It comes down to the golden rule, that actually applies to most things in life, ‘there’s never any harm in trying’!”
Channel Magazine: Issuu 51 February 2015