Wednesday, March 7, 2012

15 Questions with Benjamin Whitmer

Today's guest is Benjamin Whitmer, author of Pike.

What was the inspiration behind Pike?
It was an image. I don’t know how or why, but I got this picture stuck in my head of a little girl walking in the snow with this big, hulking figure beside her. I’ve no idea where it came from or why, but it started the whole ball rolling on the book. Trying to figure out who the people in the image were, and where they were going. It was a lot of fun getting there.

Any rejection horror stories with Pike?
Man, more than I can count. It got rejected by everybody. Every major publisher I can think of turned it down, and most of the small ones – even those who pride themselves on publishing hardboiled books that others won’t touch. Always almost the exact same feedback: too dark, too racist. I was incredibly lucky to have an agent like Gary Heidt who stuck with me even when it looked completely hopeless, and to finally find PM Press. The folks there have been just incredible.

If there was a Pike movie, who would you cast as Pike, Rory, and Derrick?
I was actually asked to write this up once for a movie director who was interested. (Nothing ever came of it, of course.) My answer was easy for Pike and Derrick. For Derrick, Waylon Jennings, circa the great Honky Tonk Heroes album. For Pike, a bearded Mel Gibson, stuffed full of cocaine and bourbon with strict instructions to tap into his inner self-hatred. Rory’s tougher. In fact, for me, impossible, in that I don’t think I watch any movies featuring his age group.

Will we be seeing more of Pike and Wendy in the future?
No, probably not. I think I’d just screw things up if I meddled with them too much at this point. I love them dearly, and I’d hate to mess around and make myself like them less by pushing them into books in which they don’t organically belong, if you know what I mean.

I first heard about Pike at BoucherCon.  Have you done a lot of conventions since Pike was published?
No, not at all. I mean, I’ve done BoucherCon twice, but that’s pretty much it. Conventions are a lot of fun, of course, but it’s tough to find the time and money.

Was Cincinnati Lou (from Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail!) written before or after Pike?
It was written long after. And, man, it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. My brain’s not geared towards short stories as it is, and it turns out that revisiting a character I already had fixed in my mind made things that much more difficult. If it hadn’t been for the editorial advice of Andrea Gibbons and Gary Phillips that thing would be a disaster. Or more so of one, I mean, in that I’m not real comfortable with the way it turned out.

How did you get involved with Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers?
It was Neil Strauss who came up with the idea. He’d interviewed Charlie for the New York Times, and really wanted to get his story for his Igniter Books. So he was looking for a writer, and somehow that ended up in the lap of my agent, Gary Heidt. I didn’t really think I had a shot, but we sent them an excerpt of Pike, and they liked it well enough that by the end of a week’s time we were at work.

Do you have any other biographies in the works?
Emphatically, no. This was a one shot deal, unless something else was to come along just as amazing. I’m a lifelong fan of country music, especially of that time period, and there was no way I could pass up hearing those stories. Particularly, given the thematic fit with my on interests I saw – whether or not it was really there – in Ira’s heavily flawed and complicated character. But it was a lot of work, and it meant taking a year and a half of working on my own novels. It’d have to be with someone equally as interesting for me to do it again. Billy Joe Shaver. Or Mel Gibson, maybe.  

Was there a book that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
For better or worse, that book is most definitely Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. Other stuff of his, too. But that’s the one I remember reading and going, shit, this is what I want to do. As a teenager it seemed like the only the worth doing. It still does, of course.

Who would you say your biggest influences are?
That’s a tough one, in that it changes book to book. I get obsessed with shit, and my reading runs in that direction for awhile. If I’m obsessed enough, it tends to start being a book. For Pike it was definitely Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, combined with William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down. For Satan Is Real it was a lot of country music books and Harry Crews’ A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, because it was the finest memoir I could think of. For the book I’m working on now, it’s hobo books from the turn of the last century written by folks like Jack Black and Jim Tully.

Who's your favorite author?
Melville. He’s been my favorite forever. It’s the flaws and complications of his characters, I think. And his sense of wonder at the world, sometimes playful sometimes incredibly heavy.  And the adventure, both in his books and his writing style, the linguistic explosions and constant referencing of other works, until you get the sense that pretty much every book in the world is contained in his. And his absolute inability not to present life as he saw it, even when he knew it’d destroy his career. Which it did.

Lawrence Block or Donald Westlake?
Westlake, I guess. This is sacrilege, I know, but I’ve read a couple by each of ‘em, but not much, and what I read didn’t move me a whole lot.

What's the best book you've read in the last six months?
I can’t even begin to answer that. I read all the time, and pretty much every book I finish I’m ready to call the best book of the last six months – else I probably just don’t finish it. Fictionwise, lately it’s been Stephen Graham Jones’ The Ones that got Away, Scott Phillips’ The Adjustment, and Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. I’m also working my way through James Lee Burke’s early stuff, and, yeah, love it.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Probably that they’d be better off seeking advice from Jonathan Franzen or Stephen King than me.

What's next for Benjamin Whitmer?
Well, I’ve got a novel that my agent’s shopping around, and another I’m about half done with. Then there’s two more I’ve got ideas for. Not sure which I’ll move on first, as I’m pretty excited about ‘em both. I’m always trudging along, y'know?


  1. Good interview,Dan. Whitmer sounds like a very interesting guy and after reading Pike, I'mm looking forward to reading the books that follow.

  2. He seemed pretty cool to me. I'm thinking about picking up the biography he wrote.