Marsha Moyer Interviews Ben Rehder
(The following interview is borrowed and “shared” from Ben Rehder’s FB page via Marsha Moyer’s FB page of Dec. 6, 2014. BR is for Ben Rehder and MM for Marsha Moyer. Enjoy.)
My friend and fellow author Marsha Moyer generously takes the time to read my early manuscripts and provide some editorial advice, and I am much indebted (as I am to several other early readers).
After Marsha read STAG PARTY, she began asking me some questions about how I write, and that Q&A is below, if you’re interested.
Before you read that, though, you should check out Marsha’s outstanding novels, starting with THE SECOND COMING OF LUCY HATCH. Promise you will really enjoy it. Publishers Weekly called it “an immensely appealing novel,” and they’re right.
Here’s a link:
And the questions Marsha asked:
MM: Stag Party is your 12th novel as well as the 8th in the Blanco County series. One thing I really admire and enjoy about this series is the way you always manage to come up with a central topic or event that’s not just newsworthy and possibly controversial but also open for satirical skewering. This time—I don’t think I’m giving anything away here—you have a family called Endicott who are basically a bunch of rich Southerners who figured out that they can cash in by exaggerating the redneck angle on their own reality TV show. It’s obviously based on Duck Dynasty, and I liked that you don’t have to be a viewer of that show to know the back story, that the show is scripted and the stars are exaggerating or even inventing their personas for the camera. At what point did you come up with the idea for this as a focal point for the novel? Were you a viewer of the show who thought “I can use this?,” or just an astute social and cultural observer?
BR: Believe it or not, the Endicotts aren’t necessarily based on Duck Dynasty. I tried to watch that show once, but I got distracted after about ten minutes. Just not my thing. So, honestly, I can’t tell you if the Endicotts have much in common with that family. I consider the Endicotts more of a parody of reality TV in general, where “reality” really isn’t. Some of the Endicotts are polarizing figures—people whom I consider intolerant and self-righteous—and those types are always fun to spoof. (Is it okay to be intolerant of intolerance? Discuss amongst yourselves.)
MM: Another thing I admire about your novels is that you always have multiple storylines going from a variety of characters’ viewpoints, which often start out from very divergent points then come together, often with a twist, at the end. You seem to have a perfectly realized idea of where everybody is going to end up, but I’m curious about whether you actually know this before you begin to write, or if you just kind of let the characters walk and talk until you figure out what they’re doing.
BR: I more or less wing it. Sometimes I have in mind a big, climactic scene at the end that I will drive toward, but other than that, nothing is perfectly realized before I start. Often I have to scramble to figure out how everything is going to mesh coherently at the end. Sometimes characters end up with traits or personalities quite different than what I originally envisioned for them, or they might do something I hadn’t planned on having them do.
MM: Each of your books has, as I mentioned before, a central storyline, which is usually something timely about which you manage to cleverly poke fun at all sides equally, and a handful of additional subplots involving other characters. There’s always at least one subplot in which something serious is going on; this time, one of John Marlin’s wife Nicole’s social service clients has a life-threatening medical issue in which Nicole becomes personally involved in the treatment, and there’s another, mostly comic subplot concerning a serious issue, animal rights activism. Do you deliberately decide ahead of time what your “causes” will be in each book, or does that evolve organically out of the central storyline? Do you get the central idea first, then the subplots, or does it all arrive more or less simultaneously? Do you look for current events you can use when you get ready to write, or are you always scouting? Do you set out to balance the humor and seriousness deliberately (i.e., “I need two funny storylines and two serious ones,”) or is that, too, something that evolves as you write?
BR: I start with the central idea or plot, and then I begin to wonder what sort of other goings-on might tie into that nicely. The subplots generally spring to mind as I’m writing, because I’m too impatient to figure it all out beforehand. Current events definitely impact my thought process. I keep various bookmarks and files of items that interest me. Most of them never go anywhere, but some do. For instance, before I wrote Gun Shy, I came across an article that described in great detail the events at a gun-rights rally. It was great material, and my idea evolved from there.
MM: I always find myself about halfway through your novels trying to figure out who the killer is, and I’m always wrong. You’ve said before that you sometimes don’t know “who done it” until you get close to the end of the book. At what point do you start letting the various storylines merge, and is it through that process that the murderer is revealed to you? It’s obviously more complicated than simply picking the least likely candidate, though that’s often how it seems.
BR: I guess any good mystery will offer the reader a bunch of different potential culprits, and that’s how I construct my novels from the start—to make it clear that several different characters had a motive to commit a particular crime. Sometimes I know early on which one of them did it, but sometimes a twist presents itself to me and I have to take it. I might be halfway or two-thirds of the way through the book when I decide that someone else did it. This might require me to revise some of the earlier chapters, but often it doesn’t, because there shouldn’t be one obvious culprit in those early pages.
MM: Talk about Red and Billy Don. At the end of your last Blanco County novel, Hog Heaven, we saw these two hapless gentlemen in a scene with their long-time nemesis John Marlin, albeit at a distance, for the first time in the series. This time, we actually have them in the same room (not surprisingly, an interrogation room), as well as featuring prominently in an action scene with other characters that’s sort of a departure for them (and you). Does this interaction with other regulars in the series mean that we can look forward in future books to Red and Billy Don becoming, say, deputies in Blanco County, working alongside John Marlin and Bobby Garza to solve crimes?
BR: Oh, those crazy rednecks. Everybody knows one, right? That seems to be the case. Readers from all over the country have told me they know people just like Red and Billy Don. Scary. They started out as key characters in my first novel, Buck Fever, but I didn’t plan for them to feature in every book. I enjoyed writing them so much, and readers seemed to enjoyed following their escapades so much, that they have become a mainstay in the Blanco novels. I couldn’t imagine writing a Blanco novel without them in it. Maybe there should be a spin-off series about them. Hmm….
MM: I’ve told you before that I don’t think you’re neurotic enough to be a writer; you seem to have very few illusions about the so-called glamour of writing and approach it methodically, like any day job, which is a big part of what makes you successful. Do you ever actually have periods of doubt or angst that make you want to quit: not writing generally, but just to abandon a particular project? Have you ever given up on something partway through because it didn’t seem to be working or you just can’t muster the requisite enthusiasm? Do you usually just solider through those times, or do you work on something else until you can return to the original project with fresh eyes? Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and hear the voices of the editors or agents who turned you down, or relive your bad reviews on Amazon? How do you keep negativity and self-doubt from poisoning the well? And if you can answer that in a way that doesn’t involve illegal substances, why don’t you market it? I, for one, would gladly pay for a lifetime subscription.
BR: Angst and doubt? You kidding me? Sure, I have those moments. Most of the books follow a pattern. First, I think the idea is great. Then I like the first one-third or one-half of the book, as I’m writing it. Then I slowly begin to convince myself it’s a train wreck and I should scrap it all. But I don’t. I keep writing, and eventually I start to like it again. Pretty soon I decide I’m a genius. Then, when I’m done, I’m just an author doing my best, and I need to start looking for my next idea. I definitely won’t be quitting, especially now. (See answer to final question below.) Regarding editors and agents who turned me down, bad reviews, or naysayers of any kind—remember that I come from a background in advertising, where a writer hears near-constant criticism, much of it from unqualified sources. Long ago I came to the conclusion that creative types should be mostly left alone to do their work unhindered. When the time comes for me to seek input on my work, I get it from other creative types whose opinions I respect (like you, for instance). Then I hope my most important audience—my loyal readers—enjoys the final product. If it weren’t for those readers, I wouldn’t be here now.
MM: Social media has become a huge component in the marketing of books, and the days when authors could get away with not using it has all but disappeared. You yourself use Facebook regularly to connect with readers by engaging them in interactive exchanges, even when you don’t have a new book to promote. Do you use other forms of social media (Twitter, etc.)? What about blogging? How do you direct traffic to your website (www.benrehder.com)? Do contests and giveaways help with sales, or are they primarily a way to get people to follow you on social media? How do you (personally) track these things and decide where to put your online marketing efforts?
BR: I’m the cynic and contrarian on this topic. Most of the promotional tactics an author might use—on social media or anywhere else—are almost worthless, in my experience. There are some highly notable exceptions, of course, but I don’t think my presence on Facebook sells many books, and that’s not why I’m there. Same with Twitter, blogs, my website, giveaways, etc. But I do enjoy engaging with readers, and social media is a great way to do it. It’s so great to hear directly from someone who has just finished reading one of my novels.
MM: There’s a lot of controversy right now about the future of publishing, with many writers calling for a boycott of big players in the industry, like Amazon. Yet Amazon has allowed you to establish yourself and become successful as an independent author, and to control your own writing destiny. Do you have a philosophy about that that you’d care to share?
BR: If I were to answer that in full, making all the points I’d like to make, we’d end up with several thousand words here. So I’ll try to keep it brief. Publishing is transforming, and many people don’t like where it is going. I’ve seen a lot of complaints about Amazon—and even some disparaging remarks about authors who publish via Amazon—and ALL of those complaints (many of which seem to have no basis in reality whatsoever) have been rebutted to my complete satisfaction by various vocal indie authors, such as Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey, and Barry Eisler. I’m proud to work with Amazon. The advent of e-books and e-reading devices such as the Kindle has been the best thing that ever happened to me, professionally speaking. In my opinion, there’s never been a better time to be an author—or a reader. Traditional publishing obviously still has its role, but not for me. I’m independent, and I can’t tell you how exciting and liberating it is.
MM: Thank you for your time, Mr. Rehder, and best of luck to you with Stag Party!
BR: Thank you for listening to me drone on.