Monday, March 28, 2016

The Writer's Voice: Where Is Ben Spendlove Now?

The bad news is that my last week was a bit of a whirlwind, so I completely neglected the blog. The good news is that you'll be able to get a double dose of "Where Are They Now?" beginning with Ben Spendlove. Ben and I have been critique partners for going on six years, so DRIVERS was one of the few entries I got to read in its entirety. Ben's writing never ceases to blow me away, and the insights he shares below are just as keen.

KV: One of the things I loved most about DRIVERS was how it felt like a book that only you could write. What inspired you to write it?

BS: My first conception of DRIVERS was quite different from what I ended up writing; the protagonist was an investigative reporter who suspected an unmanned-ground-drone maker of actually putting people inside the drones. I work at a company that automates vehicles, so I knew a lot about the subject. In that form, however, it would have been more of a detective story.

As I worked it over in my mind, I was drawn more to the characters inside the drones. What would make someone voluntarily hide inside a robot that was likely to be destroyed? The answer, at least for me, was that they wanted to die. And I understood them, having gone through periods of depression and suicide attempts.

It became deeply personal, with the technology, setting, and action as a metaphor for exploring depression and suicide. These subjects are often misunderstood and stigmatized, so I wanted to show, metaphorically, what it was like. I tried to use my inside knowledge of how autonomous vehicles work to make it plausible and realistic.

KV: As one of your critique partners, I know that your writing has sometimes had to take a backseat to the rest of your life. What makes you keep coming back to it?

BS: I believe that everyone has a creative impulse. For me, it's strong. And though I like other creative endeavors, like rebuilding bicycles, I always come back to writing--and I always have. Writing gives me a positive place for my thoughts to dwell instead of worrying about what terrible things might happen in real life. It helps me sort through my experiences and emotions. On days that I write, I'm more focused at work and happier at home.

Last summer, I had a run-in with depression for the first time in over ten years. I'd thought I was done with depression, immune for life. But there it was. I turned to my writing, both what I'd written in DRIVERS and a new novel, to explore the aspects of my life that didn't feel right. Writing isn't a cure for depression; it can sometimes make it worse! But it can also help, and it has. (In fact, this last year has made me grateful that I don't have a publisher or even an agent. I don't have deadlines or commitments to deal with.)

Another draw is the love I develop for my characters and stories. I want them to reach their potential, and as long as I still have ideas for making them better, I'll keep revising. I tend not to have a lot of stories in my head waiting to be written, but I certainly have lots of ideas about the ones I'm working on.

KV: A few years ago, your wife wood-burned an Isaac Asimov quote on a pencil: "I write for the same reason I breathe--because if I didn't, I would die." What do those words mean to you?

BS: I won't literally die without writing, but if I go too long without working on a novel, it feels like I'm dying. I feel directionless. Life seems futile. I think I was born to write stories. (It's probably pathological.)

Writing is also my preferred method of communication with myself. I write notes--a lot--to help me figure things out. My day job is technical writing, so I do a lot of less-creative writing, too. (Engineers occasionally comment about how awful my job seems to them. And I'm always like "Right back at ya!")

You know, I guess I don't know that I wouldn't literally die, because I've never actually stopped writing. Hmm.

KV: What are you working on now?

BS: I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I'm still working on DRIVERS. After The Writer's Voice and querying about fifty agents, I set it aside and wrote another novel, THE FREEZER, which was difficult to write and took much longer. (No luck getting an agent there, either.) Then I started a middle grade novel, but couldn't get momentum. Then I started another sci-fi novel, which I love and intend to finish.

But last year when I opened DRIVERS and read the entire thing--I still loved it. That's got to count for something. I knew if I were to give it another go, I'd need some fresh eyes and ideas. So I swallowed my pride and gave everyone at work and all my Facebook friends the chance to read it. And I got some good feedback. Then one of my coworkers approached me about starting a writing group, and we've been workshopping DRIVERS a chapter at a time.

Now I'm working on some exciting changes to the setting, the ending, and the secondary characters, including (wait for it) making one of the drivers an investigative reporter. I'm also bringing in other motivations for the drivers, because there are many reasons to put oneself in mortal danger. I'm not sticking slavishly to my depression metaphor anymore, and I think the story is better for it.

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you'd like to share with us?

BS: My daughter is my role model when it comes to writing. She reads voraciously and writes prodigiously. As much as I profess to love reading and writing, I don't do either very much. She spends a good chunk of her free time (and more of her non-free time than I'd like) reading and writing. And you know what? She's really good at both of them. Once she learns to revise, she'll write better than I do.

I guess I'm saying that the standard advice about writing is good advice. I'm trying to take it and fit writing into my day wherever I can--even if I have to give up some precious sleep.

Thank you for your honesty and authenticity, Ben. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has grown and will grow from the words you add to the world.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Ben! While I've worked on other novels, I, too, keep going back to my Writer's Voice project. It just won't let me go. Best of luck with your writing!

RC Hancock said...

Drivers sounds awesome!