Monday, July 23, 2012

Interview with Ben H. Winters - July 23, 2012

Please welcome Ben H. Winters to The Qwillery. Ben's most recent novel is The Last Policeman, a police procedural set 6 months prior to the end of the world. The Last Policeman is the first in a trilogy.

TQ:  Welcome to The Qwillery!

Ben:  Hey, well, thanks for having me.

TQ:  Writing quirks! What are some of yours?

Ben:  For many years I made my living as a transcriptionist, so I type very quickly. This doesn’t mean I write very quickly, necessarily, but I do tend to bang out the words onto the page at a very rapid rate. I have at various times shared a writing space, and I always wondered if other people thought I was showing off, because it sounds like tappa-tappa-tappa-tappa, ninety miles an hour. Trust me, a huge amount of those words are nonsense, but they do come out fast.

TQ:  Who are some of your favorite writers?

Ben:  The all-time favorite is Charles Dickens, the current favorite is Patricia Highsmith. But I could answer this question forever; PD James, Ruth Rendell, George Elliot, JD Salinger, David Foster Wallace, Ira Levin. What writer doesn’t have a thousand favorite writers? Gerard Manley Hopkins, Philip Larkin, Tom Waits. The list goes on.

TQ:  Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Ben:  I don’t care what writer you’re talking to, the answer to this question has to be “some mixture of the two”; the only real question is as to proportion. As I’ve grown as a writer, my level of advance plotting has risen, as I’ve learned that A) knowing your own intentions in advance is more useful than waiting for some abstract force of divination to discover them for you, and B) having an outline does not force you to abide by it.

So what I do is, I have a very strong outline as I begin, and then, where the process of writing reveals interesting information—as it does in that magical way from time to time—I revise the outline.

TQ:  What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Ben:  Finishing. Ideas, frankly, are the easy part. You find ideas in the newspaper, walking down the street, eavesdropping on conversations at the food court. The hard part is once you’ve got that idea, taking it and living with it until you see whether there’s a real story there—and then building it out, adding characters, figuring out the structure, and sticking with it till it’s done.

TQ:  What inspired you to write The Last Policeman?

Ben:  I’ve always loved mysteries set in surprising times and places, or speculative universes, like Isaac Asimov’s robot mysteries, or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. All great mystery stories set up a devilish puzzle and then present a series of challenges to keep the hero from solving the puzzle. If nothing else, the impending end of the world creates some serious challenges for Detective Palace.

TQ:  Tell us something about The Last Policeman that is not in the book description.

Ben:  In the book, because of infrastructure failure and mass retirements, cellular and digital technology are starting to become unreliable, and will soon disappear entirely. If this scenario were really taking place, this would be, for me, a silver living. I am, personally, deeply ambivalent about our total reliance and obsession with our machines, and it’s fun for me to imagine a world without them.

TQ:  What is the oddest bit of information that you came across in your research for The Last Policeman?

Ben:  I learned a lot of fascinating tidbits about forensic pathology, some of which turns up in the book and some of which does not. Forensic pathologists are incredible. They can tell if someone was murdered or committed suicide based on the angle of the neck bruise; they can tell what drugs someone took, and when, by analyzing a single strand of hair.

TQ:  In The Last Policeman who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Ben:  The easiest was the hero, Detective Henry Palace, once I figured out—after many months of not figuring it out—that I wanted this to be in the first person. Then I really got a handle on his voice and style, and could see and write the world from his POV. The hardest character might have been JT Toussaint, the burly quarryman who was the victim’s childhood friend; I wanted him to be roughhewn and working class, without being a stereotype of those things.

TQThe Last Policeman is set 6 months prior to asteroid 2011GV1 (Maia) smashing into earth in an extinction level event. While you give glimpses into what is going on worldwide, you chose to set the novel in small-ish town New Hampshire. Why did you choose to set the novel primarily in New Hampshire rather than a large metropolitan area?

Ben:  The fancy-author reason is that my narrative conceit required a small-but-not-too-small setting, so I could show how the impending doom affects an “average American city”, its economy and sociology. Plus I wanted this to be neither a big-city crime novel nor a small-town sheriff kind of crime novel.

The real reason is that my brother lives in Concord and this gave me an excuse to see him a bunch of times.

TQ:  Which character in The Last Policeman has surprised you the most?

Ben:  Probably Nico Palace, Hank’s sister. She kept evolving as I was writing, becoming less and less of a zany-screwup type and more and more of a complex human being.

TQ:  Without giving anything away what is/are your favorite scene(s) in the novel?

Ben:  I love the two scenes featuring the Coffee Doctor, a completely ancillary character. Just as Detective Palace is determined to stay on the job until the end, solving crimes, the Coffee Doctor is determined to run his espresso kiosk in Harvard Square until doomsday. If there was any way to write a spinoff of this novel, where people just come in and the Coffee Doctor offers them sage-but-eccentric advice, I would totally do it.

TQ:  What's next?

Ben:  Right now I’m working on two things—the first sequel to The Last Policeman, as-yet-unnamed, and a book of scary poems for kids, called Literally Disturbed. Both of these things are due out in summer 2013, so I better get back to work on them.

TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Ben:  My pleasure. Thanks so much for your questions!

The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman
Quirk Books, July 10, 2012
Trade Paperback and eBook, 288 pages

What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die? Detective Hank Palace has asked this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. Several kilometers wide, it’s on a collision course with planet Earth, with just six precious months until impact.

The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. Industry is grinding to a halt. Most people have abandoned their jobs. But not Hank Palace. As our story opens, he’s investigating the latest suicide in a city that’s full of suicides—only this one feels wrong. This one feels like homicide. And Palace is the only one who cares. What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die?

The Last Policeman offers a story we’ve never read before: A police procedural set on the brink of an apocalypse. What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

About Ben

Ben H. Winters is the author of five novels, including the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and the middle-grade novel The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, an Edgar Award nominee and a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2011. Winters’ other books include the science-fiction Tolstoy parody Android Karenina, the Finkleman sequel The Mystery of the Missing Everything, and the supernatural thriller Bedbugs.

Winters also wrote the book and lyrics for three musicals for young audiences: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, A (Tooth) Fairy Tale, and Uncle Pirate, based on the award-winning children’s book by Douglas Rees.

Ben’s new novel, The Last Policeman, is forthcoming from Quirk Books in July of 2012; he is at work on a book of scary poems for kids, to be published by Price Stern Sloan in spring, 2013.


  1. Hi Ben! *waves* Great interview, of course!!

  2. What an interesting premise. Definitely looks like a good read to me. Thank you for sharing with us.

  3. This had been on the periphery of my awareness, probably just from having seen the cover. But it's nearly impossible not to become more interested in a work of fiction after hearing the author talk about it. And it sounds interesting to boot!