Ben, how long have you been writing and how did you get started?
I began writing around twenty-five years ago when I was composing far more songs than our band needed (I was in a band called Gethsemane Rose, at the time). To see song after song shelved became a frustration. I was also inspired around that time by several books I had read. These were Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and its sequel, Piercing the Darkness, and the Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters. I wanted to use my time constructively in something alongside the song writing and began to draft a story in a big, old, black and red accounts book. Over the years I became more serious about writing and, in 2012, self-published the first of the six-book YA Tyler May Series. The following project became A Sock Full of Bones, A Banyard & Mingle Mystery.
A Sock Full of Bones is a detective story set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian and Victorian-inspired world – what drew you to this blend of genres and settings?
When working on the Tyler May series, I realised that I really enjoyed writing about situations of injustice, dilemma, and the fight of good over evil. I was looking for a setting in which I could expand upon these elements and a Victorian-esque world where things have become even more extreme than that age in our history seemed appealing.
I must admit some influences were probably born of other works – books, films and TV series such as the works of Dickens, predictably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Ripper Street, The Frankenstein Chronicles, The Alienist, The Sally Lockhart Mysteries (to name but a few), and from historical crime cases such as Jack the Ripper. It seemed to me that the era went hand in hand with crime or detective stories.
I also knew I needed to bring something original and to continue writing fantasy. These factors combined led me to create Earthoria – the world of Banyard & Mingle – where the class system is polarised to the extreme and where I was able to introduce a sinister presence lurking in the background: the gawpers.
The society depicted in the novel is based upon a form of slavery and is one where the law is often corrupt – are there things you see in our own society that prompted this?
I think on a subconscious level, I was prompted to include these aspects because of issues within our current society. Although I try to steer clear of writing with a message in mind – my primary goal is to write an engaging and entertaining story – when you are mentally and emotionally weighed down by situations you see around you every day, it’s hard not to allow some of this in.
At the risk of seeming self-righteous, I’ll say this: I try not to hate people, but there are situations I allow myself to despise. I believe God despises these situations, too: poverty, slavery, injustice, abuse, intolerance, prejudice and racism. And unfortunately, in our day and age, they’re still not so hard to find in one form or another. I have major hang-ups about billionaires avoiding tax through offshore accounts while hard working people pay their taxes and struggle along, wondering how they will pay their bills. I have issues with racism in our country and beyond. The list goes on… There seems to be one law for the rich and another for the poor, so writing the Banyard & Mingle Mysteries is, for me, cathartic to a degree.
What do you hope readers will take away from the novel? – and indeed series!
Firstly, I hope they, too, enjoy a cathartic experience through the books. But perhaps also that they find an encouragement to fight the good fight, to help those less fortunate than themselves and to realise that although this can often only be done on an individual level, it is no less valuable. There is an incredible moment at the end of Schindler’s List where Itzhak Stern quotes from the Talmud to Schindler: ‘He who saves one life saves the world entire.’ It’s not in the Bible but that’s always left me thinking.
Without giving too much away, what was your favourite scene to write and why?
I’ve noticed that in each of my books there are moments when everything comes together, where myriad carefully laid plans converge. These scenes are always my favourites and while writing everything before it, I’m working with that point in mind. In A Sock Full of Bones, one such moment comes quite near the end when circumstances conspire to favour Banyard in a most frustrating way.
Did you have to do any research for the novel?
Although I’ve plumped for a fantasy setting, the general feel is Victorian, so to a degree, yes. There have been times when I’ve fallen back onto our Victorian or Dickensian age to glean detail that is necessary for a convincing story. On other occasions I have purposefully strayed from the historical era to paint a setting that is like the Victorian age but distinctly different. I regularly research true crime cases and take inspiration from these for plot lines and forensic detail.
When not writing yourself, you run creative writing workshops in schools – what tips would you have for a budding young author?
One of my prominent points in these workshops is to encourage students to find something that interests them and to write about that. The writing part is hard work, let’s face it! It takes dedication, commitment and an amount of time so vast that you begin to doubt your sanity. The enjoyment of it comes through the story and the characters you create.
I get a real thrill from writing, but it is not because I love to write. It’s because I love to write spooky happenings, mysteries and murder and characters who I want to spend time with. I have a lot more to impart during the workshops but this point is a big one and many students have launched their own writing projects before the bell rings.
How does your faith inform your writing?
Faith is an important part of not only my writing but my life. I view myself as created in the image of God and God is a creative being. It makes perfect sense to me, therefore, that I should feel the most fulfilled when I’m being creative. I pray for inspiration for story lines and I converse with Father God along the way. If I get stuck on a plot line, I might pray for help, for some inspiration that will help to work things out and God has been generous. In fact, I consider Him my writing partner.
There was a point during the editing of The Green Ink Ghost (the second Banyard & Mingle Mystery) where I needed a fix for an issue in the plot and for a while I was totally at a loss. I prayed and a moment later the answer hit me. It was an answer that looked like a carefully laid detail, a factor that you might think was added in hindsight to the early pages just to fix the problem later on. Only it wasn’t. It was already there. I felt as though God had gone ahead of me to figure it out. Unfortunately, to share the details of this would be a huge plot spoiler.
How did you find the publication process?
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process and feel very blessed and honoured to be working with such brilliant professionals. It made me very happy! It also gave me a validation of my work that has meant a great deal to me.
Did you get input from friends and family for A Sock Full of Bones or was the book something you felt best to work on alone?
I tend to work alone (or rather, it’s just God and me), while I write. Certainly, that’s true until I know the basic plot for the book and have written a good portion of it, as I’m keen to be able to claim it as mine. That said, I’m blessed to have some wonderful friends who have encouraged me and who are keen readers (and at least one of them is a writer also). They have become my beta readers and they feed back their thoughts and comments on my manuscripts before the real editing begins. One beta reader, a good friend I trust implicitly, is always very keen to read the next thing I’m working on, so he read The Green Ink Ghost in sections as I was writing it and we discussed a few elements along the way, which was helpful to me.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on the third Banyard & Mingle Mystery and I’m very excited about the storyline so far. To develop the plot of any book, I often list out all my ideas for it on a page or two of my notebook over a few weeks, or even months. When I have enough to work with, I ditch anything that doesn’t grab me. The lines that excite me the most survive the process and are further developed in my notebooks and the first draft.
Finally, what is your favourite book and why?
My favourite book is probably I am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak (see also The Book Thief). It is incredibly human and the voice is wonderful. It is unpredictable, original, believable, and thoroughly entertaining.