My guest today is Ben Warden, a writer I met on Goodreads and whose debut novel, LIFE WITHOUT, I’ve recently read and reviewed.
Alana: Ben, welcome. Let’s start with a bit of background information about you. You live in York and work at a university. Which one and doing what?
Ben: Hi Alana, I work at York St John University as the Quality Officer for the Faculty of Arts. I've also just completed my MA in Creative Writing there.
Alana: You also took a degree in film, television and radio at Canterbury Christ Church University. Are both universities in York? And are you doing anything related to those fields now?
Ben: No Canterbury Christ Church is in Kent, which is about a five hour drive from York. I'm originally from York and have recently moved back, hence taking the MA in York. While I was on my film degree in Canterbury I did a specialist module in scriptwriting, which is what started my love for writing. I do still write some script stuff and a micro film of mine has just been taken up by a Kent-based production company, Backlight Productions.
Alana: Wow, congratulations. When you say a ‘micro film’, do you mean a short one? What’s it about? And what do you anticipate or hope will eventuate from it?
Ben: It's a very short, short film. It probably won't be any more than two or three minutes long. The idea is that the production company will film it and take it to some festivals to get themselves recognised more in the field and obviously it'll be good for me because I'll get a produced writer’s credit. It's a really fun and challenging art writing a story that's this short. It's got to grab the audience’s attention and evoke a response from them. I love writing in this format. Hopefully they will be filming it in the new year. I also do some filming and editing, but very occasionally these days.
Alana: I see from your website that you have an interest in music and the website carries a video of you playing guitar and singing—nice voice, by the way, and I really liked the second song. How important or big is music in your life?
Ben: Thanks very much. Music has been a massive part of my life. I've grown up in a very musical family and it's always been a part of my home environment. I'm dyslexic and I used to do loads of creative writing as a very small kid, but I used to get embarrassed when I spelt things wrong and so I gave up writing. At that stage I got big into piano and guitar playing and writing songs that were often very narrative based. When I look back on it now, music probably helped me continue storytelling and develop my sense of a story at a time when I might have lost it.
Alana: As you’ve mentioned writing, let’s talk about LIFE WITHOUT, which is your first novel. I have to say you run counter to what I perceive is the genre trends for young male writers who seem to go for action, sci-fi, fantasy. Why is that?
Ben: To be honest I've always just written what has come to mind, not even always in the same format. I've written a horror film, sci-fi short stories, and I'm working on a dark comedy musical in collaboration with my sister, who has just finished a degree in musical theatre.
Alana: You really are a musical family then. Who else do you include in it? And is it by way of an interest or are any professionals?
Ben: I do lots of collaborative work. I'm script supervising for an independent film, which is being put together by one of my university friends. He and few others are professionals now and have their own art collective called Ameba. I'm also working with a friend on a potential idea for a TV series and potentially going to work with another on a writing project that we're yet to pin down. Working at the university and having done the MA in Creative Writing I've also had the opportunity to have my latest novel read by two published poets/authors, who have given some great advice and support.
Alana: You’re a busy boy! When writing, are you plot or character driven?
Ben: I suppose the one thing that strings all my stories together is that I love writing about people and their connections. I suppose that is what pulled me off in the chick-lit direction, which is a genre I didn't think I'd write. The book I'm currently writing is a thriller, but again it has a very strong focus on the people and their connection with each other. So, yes, I'm definitely character driven, though I love structure and plot too.
Alana: As I say in my review of LIFE WITHOUT, the storyline is refreshingly different. How did the idea for it come about?
Ben: I was literally in bed on Christmas Eve and the concept came to me. It sounds really cheesy but it's true. I got this idea for turning the conventional rags to riches concept on its head, to make a character go from riches to rags. I wanted to write about young people trying to find their way in life, but not just the typical bad situation to good. Life is more complex than that; sometimes the people you think have perfect lives are in a really bad place personally and emotionally, or have got there by luck and don't know how to sustain it (that's Steve). At the time the recession was really kicking in and so many people's situations were changing rapidly. It seemed like a story for the time.
Alana: Is Steve Goodman your alter ego, the person you fantasise about being? I can imagine many of your male readers wishing they were.
Ben: To be honest I think Steve is exactly who I don't want to be. He's a man with a really well-practiced front, but he's a wreck.
Alana: Such a good description for him!
Ben: Yeah, emotionally he has no idea where he is, he has no self-confidence if things aren't exactly on his terms or how he expects them to be, and he has no idea where his priorities should be. Of course I wouldn't mind having his money!!
Alana: Wouldn’t we all! I love the title, it’s so ‘just right’. I wondered all the way through the book what it meant and then right at the end you tell us. Did you have it chosen from the beginning or did you have a lightbulb moment when you wrote the sentence?
Ben: Actually I got the title straight away. It was all about this riches to rags concept. Steve was going to be 'without' in so many different ways and the whole story was going to be about him searching for what mattered in life. The title just jumped at me. It came even before I'd really sorted out the story. I think 'life without' is really the theme of the whole book.
Alana: Do you usually think of a title first?
Ben: No, I still have no idea what the title will be for the book I'm currently writing and it's almost done. I think I was lucky with Life without. Titles can be really tricky.
Alana: That’s the thriller you mentioned earlier?
Ben: Yes, that's right. I have a couple of things on at the moment. I'm about to be published in a Christmas Anthology called CHRISTMAS LITES 3. All the money from the sales will be going to NCADV, which is a charity against domestic violence. It's a really great cause and one I'm really proud to be a part of.
Last week a short story of mine went live in Joseph Rowntree Park, York. Joseph Rowntree Park has started a new project where they use QR codes attached to benches to let people access writing by local authors. And the next novel, the thriller.
Alana: Am I allowed to ask what it’s about?
Ben: Of course. Again one of the key characters is an artist. It's about an artist who walks into his studio one morning to find a girl sat in his space. This girl appears to have come from nowhere, refuses to answer any questions and won't leave. It's about their journey to get to know each other; about love, art, passion and unhappy endings.
Alana: Oh dear, unhappy endings—I won’t ask you to elaborate, I’ll leave it as a surprise for when the book is published! Ben, my best wishes for everything you’re undertaking and thank you so much for talking with me.