Interrogation—Benjamin Whitmer

Who: Benjamin Whitmer

What: Author of PIKE, which was nominated for the 2013 Grand Prix de Littérature Policier; CRY FATHER, recently released from Gallery Books; and co-author (with Charlie Louvin) of SATAN IS REAL, a New York Times’ Critics’ Choice book.

Where: Colorado

Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.

Yesterday was the Fourth of July. Can you tell me how Patterson Wells, the protagonist of CRY FATHER, would have spent the holiday weekend?

It’d depend. To my mind, holidays only exist if you get the day off work. Right? If you’re making money for somebody else instead of spending it with your friends and family, it’s not a holiday. President’s Day is a bullshit holiday, because nobody gets off work; Christmas is usually a real holiday–though there’s been years I worked it. Fourth of July is a weird one, in that you get it off on some jobs, not on others. It all depends.

That said, I can’t imagine Patterson ever heading to some hot, crowded field to endure Lee Greenwood and Toby Keith for four hours so he can spend 15 minutes pretending to be impressed by fireworks. I question the sanity of anybody doing that who doesn’t have children to make them. I’ll bet he’d just drink some Evan Williams and read Jim Harrison – which I’d consider a better and more patriotic celebration, anyways.

Cry-FatherWells’ life is described as “a fog of work camps, truck stop diners, and cinder block bars.” How much of that was built from personal experience and how much was built from research?

I’ve never done Patterson’s kind of work. I’ve worked most of my life in manufacturing, in one capacity or another. But one of my oldest friends, Lucas Bogan, does exactly what Patterson does in the book. It was actually a visit from him that started this book. We spent a couple of days driving and hiking around the mountains and the stories he told me took root.

As to the diners and bars, I suppose you could call that research. Those’re the kind of places I grew up in, and I did a decade or two of independent research as an adult, you could say. I stay out of bars as much as I can now. All the noise and packed bodies just makes me depressed. Plus, maybe I’m getting old, but the kind of bar I loved seems to have mostly disappeared. Around Denver, most of them now are adult amusement parks. As Harry Crews put it, you might as well do your drinking in a drugstore. There are still a couple of good diners in Denver, though, and I’m very much prone to a patty melt.

The interplay between fathers and sons in CRY FATHER is heartbreaking, but feels very real. Did you set out to write a book about fathers and sons?

CRY FATHER actually started as a framing device for another novel, which was specifically about male lineages of violence and self-destruction. My son was just born before I started thinking about it, so the kind of father I was gonna be to a boy was probably the biggest thing in my mind. I wrote PIKE about all the ways I was scared of fucking up with my daughter, and CRY FATHER about all the ways I was scared I was gonna fuck up my son. Luckily for y’all, I’ve only got the two kids, so the next one’s gonna have to be about something else.

My kids are the most important thing in my life. Being a father is the heaviest, most profound, and most meaningful part of me. Nothing else comes even close. It’s something I think about all the time, and the books I write are conversations with myself about the things that mean the most to me, so it’s no surprise that CRY FATHER came out as it did. I mean, there were other more playful parts of it, too – I wanted to write a modern day play on the kind of 60s and 70s Westerns I love, like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – but fatherhood was always the bloody heart of it.

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One of my favorite parts of CRY FATHER were the letters that Wells writes to his dead son. How did you develop this device? Were those chapters harder to write than the others?

Those came about because I’m a moron. Originally, the book was all in first person, but it didn’t sit right. The letters came out when I rewrote it into third person and I wanted to give Patterson a way to speak directly for extended passages. To do that, I felt like I had to know who he was speaking to, and his son was the only person I could imagine him caring enough to.

But there were parts of those letters that were tough to write, for sure. I spent a couple of months with a little notebook writing down every one of my most selfish, ugly, contemptible impulses and thoughts as a father, trying to tap into my own immense capacity for guilt and failure. I was not the easiest person to be around during that time, probably. Unless you were one of my kids, that is – I don’t think there’s ever been a time that I’ve been a sweeter parent. They got away with murder.

PikeYour debut novel, PIKE, also dealt with fatherhood. How did your writing evolve between the publication of PIKE and the publication of CRY FATHER?

I wrote PIKE as a new father, one just imagining all that it entails. To me, it seems like a much younger book. I know some people like it better, and for all I know it is a better book. I can’t tell, but CRY FATHER to me seems closer to what I wanted to say. Likewise, the writing in CRY FATHER is much closer to what I wanted to do in PIKE, but didn’t have the capability.

The thing is, writing a novel is such a steep learning curve, and the only way to learn anything at all is to sit your ass in a chair and write. I learned a lot from writing PIKE and I like to think I took those lessons forward in CRY FATHER. The only thing I can say with any certainty is that PIKE was the very best first novel I could write, and CRY FATHER was the very best second I had in me. That’s pretty much the only criteria worth judging a book on to my mind: Did I give it everything I had, and do the very best I could do? Anything else is just noise. And I think I can say that I left everything on the page in both cases.

Your fiction writing has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews. Are those your literary heroes? Who also do you count among your influences?

Absolutely they are. I just finished reading the new Harry Crews biography, BLOOD, BONE, AND MARROW.  I was floored by Crews’s complete dedication to craft. He lived a wild life, and was pretty much incapable of holding together a normal existence, but when it came to his writing, all of that fell away. He worked with the kind of uncompromising intensity that seems to me like the only way to do it. The same with McCarthy. When I read a book like BLOOD MERIDIAN and see the layers of meaning and the monstrous amount of effort and concentration that must have gone into that, I’m blown away.

Most of their influence is in that.  I hold them as models for the dedication to write a good book. Crews never sold well, and McCarthy was well into his sixties before his books started to move.  But that wasn’t why they were doing it; it’s just the only thing worth doing. I’m fairly pragmatic in almost all aspects of my life, but on novels I’m purely soft-headed.  I save all my horse shit mysticism and romanticism for it.  Exhaust yourself, break yourself, hone it to the barest truth you can tell, and be uncompromising about what you’re trying to do. I want to read books with huge stakes, where I can tell the author put their whole ass into it, left nothing back. Those are the only books I have any interest in. Cormac McCarthy once said, “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” That sums it all up for me.

Satan Is RealHow did you come to co-write SATAN IS REAL: THE BALLAD OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS?

I’m not entirely sure. My agent somehow came across the call from Neil Strauss looking for a writer for a project with a bluegrass legend. He asked me if I was interested and I said, sure, let’s feel it out, and sent some pages from PIKE. I then heard back that I’d perfectly captured the south in the 1950s. Which I thought was funny because PIKE’s set mostly in Cincinnati in the 1980s, but still, once I heard the subject was Charlie Louvin, there was no chance I wasn’t gonna take it.

It was an amazing experience. Charlie talked on the phone every day for months, and I even got to go down to Nashville and spend a week with him. Listening to Charlie tell not only his own story, but that of folks like Johnny Cash and all my country music heroes. I don’t know how you beat that. I’d have done it for free, to be honest. The only thing I regret is that Charlie didn’t live to see the reaction to the book.

What other publishing plans do you have for 2016 and beyond?

To be honest, I have no idea about publishing plans, but I’m almost done with a new novel – was supposed to be done this weekend, in fact, but I’m realizing I’m not quite there – and it’s the most complicated, difficult thing I’ve ever done. It’s a prison-break/chase novel set in 1968. I don’t know if anybody’ll like it, but I’m already real proud of it, and am certain it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s driven me half insane, and I’ve been getting progressively meaner and dumber’n and weirder by the day, but I really think it’ll be worth it.

After that, I’ll be returning to work on a novel I’ve been poking at off and on for nearly 10 years. It’s set in Denver during the wild days of 1894, full of outlaws, orphans, train-hopping bank robbers, and Pinkertons. It’s actually the book CRY FATHER was supposed to be a framing device for. I overreached on that one when I began it – didn’t nearly have the ability to tackle it – and sent it off to my agent, Gary Heidt, knowing it was garbage, and almost burnt it when he pointed out the very obvious flaws. But Gary being as brilliant as he is, gave me some amazing ideas, and now that I’m a couple years on, I think I can see it clearly. I’ve got some pretty good ideas where to go, and I think it’s got a chance at being a real book too.

But we’ll see.

Find Benjamin Whitmer: WebsiteFacebookTwitter

Previous Interrogations:

BCC Cover FinalS.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in Sept. 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available from Down & Out Books.

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