Interview: Ben Atkins, author of Drowning City

Hi Ben, thanks for catching up with NZ Booklovers. Congratulations on next month’s release of Drowning City, has life changed much since becoming a published author?

Thanks, it’s still difficult to fully get a grasp on! Subjectively, life hasn’t changed that much. I didn’t expect it to – the book’s yet to be released, after all. I suppose the realisation that people can enjoy my writing, to the point where its publication is plausible, has changed how I think about what I can do.

Your press profile says that you ‘write with the maturity of a forty year old’ how do you think your age affects the perception of your work?

That’s a flattering statement. Or is it? Your reception of that kind of comment would depend on how you view the merits of maturity… and the demerits of youth. That was a flattering statement, it was intended that way (which is nice), yet I think perceptions of youth are a ‘double-edged sword,’ like anything. We find youth interesting in our society, yet often disadvantageous too. As such, people might be less critical of my work if they factor in my age. On the other hand, they might be looking out for potentially juvenile or naïve aspects of my prose, as that’s also something that would be commonly expected of a ‘young author’. Honestly, though, those perceptions differ between people, and I haven’t really thought about them. I don’t think it’s something worth worrying over.

I enjoyed the choice of era for the setting of your book, particularly the American politics and mood of the Depression that informs it, how did you go about researching the era?

I’ve been immersed in a lot of 1930s-‘50s fiction since I was a kid. Through films and books I’ve gradually amassed a sense of certain ‘30s aesthetics, I suppose, or at least elements of them. Plus I’ve always been a history geek. So to use a boring delineation: a mix of primary and secondary sources that I’ve been exploring for a while all amassed into this fictional 1930s experience. It’s possible for anyone to do that, with some time, Wi-Fi and a library card. You just have to enjoy it.

Are there any 1930s novels or films that you would recommend to your readers?

The original King Kong is an interesting, if ethically problematic film; M by Fritz Lang and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps are classics. I would recommend those to anyone, especially the Hitchcock. Angels with Dirty Faces has some great set design and location shoots that are dripping with ‘30s vibes.

A lot of comparisons are made between the 2010 credit crunch and the Wall Street Crash, do you see a resemblance in attitudes between the ‘30s and current events?

I won’t go too far into it, but yes. Of course. You could argue that similar mentalities and behaviours contributed to the Crash and to 2008 or ‘10. Putting it simplistically: it’s disheartening to say the least that the reforms put in place by FDR’s government to deal with the Depression, the Glass-Steagall Act, mainly, worked so well economically for 60 years; then Glass-Steagall gets repealed, leading a decade later to the biggest economic crisis since – oh – the Depression.

For a debut novel a historical setting must have been challenging, what do you think makes great historical fiction?

Total belief in the setting. You have to accept it as fact, and your characters’ experiences in it should be as grounded in their world as you are in your own.

Which authors would you say you are particularly inspired by?

A relatively small but diverse bunch. I’ve never idolised an author or tried to emulate a style or ethic; don’t see the point in it. Haruki Murakami has been an inspirational figure for me, which is something that would be echoed by a lot of people. He writes of very different things from me, informed by different experiences, but that just makes his work more compelling.

Your protagonist is rather a cool character that often penetrates the motives and social posturing of the people around him, do you share that trait with the protagonist?

That made me laugh. It’s a good question. There are plenty of things that Fontana and I don’t have in common, and I try to be clear about that when talking about him. With that being said, there are obviously aspects of me which are reflected in him, seeing as he came from my mind. The trait you mentioned is something I’d say I do share with him. Not that it’s inherently desirable, though, or that it’s always the best mode to be in. And it works a little differently in his head.

Screenwriting is another interest that you have mentioned, are you working on any screenplays?

I have some ideas, though right now I’m just immersing myself in reading screenplays. Recently I spent a day soaking in Casablanca’s script. You can learn a lot from that film.

How are you studies in politics and media at Auckland going?

Pretty well, thanks. I’ve just finished off a Summer Research Scholarship with the Media, Film and TV school at the University of Auckland, which has been great. Academia’s a fascinating occupation. This will be my final year of undergrad, and we’ll see what happens from there…

What would you like to achieve by the time you turn thirty?

I’ve never articulated any time-bound goals like that. Right now I’d say I would like to have released another book or 20, and made a film. And be fluent in a few languages, I suppose, and be able to cook something other than pasta.

Here at NZ Booklovers we love to promote New Zealand authors. Are there any fellow New Zealand writers that you would recommend?

Paul Cleave is a kiwi author who’s much more successful overseas, apparently, than domestically. I’m not sure why that is, because he’s a great writer. I’d recommend him to any lover of crime fiction.

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General fiction reviewer and generally bumbling Literature graduate. Having recently moved from London to Wellington, she’s still getting to grips with the Kiwi accent, not having to queue for everything or saying ‘sorry’ constantly. Her literary tastes sway towards modernists, novels featuring moany women (Madam Bovary) and authors with a filthy sense of humour (Henry Miller). Read more at jazzcroftjc.wordpress.com

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