Monday, January 30, 2012

A Conversation with Benjamin X. Wretlind

Today I would like to introduce you to one of my favorite independent authors, Benjamin X. Wretlind. He writes in a style that could best be described as literary magic realism. One of the most impressive aspects of his writing is his ability to so casually--yet so completely--bring his characters to life. They live and breathe, the reader feels their joys and sorrows fully and profoundly. I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with him. I hope you enjoy reading his answers as much as I did.

Why do you write?

I believe I write to get the seeds of ideas which populate my head out in the sun, to let them germinate, water them and see what grows. Sometimes what grows is a big bushy novel, full of berries and leaves and prickly sticks where insects can thrive. Other times, I find only a tiny blade of grass or a dandelion that needs just a little nudging to bloom. Basically, I write because I have seeds to sow.

How long have you been sowing your seeds?

The first story I remember writing--about a Banyan tree that didn't want to be axed to death--was in 2nd grade. (At least it's the first story my mother saved for me.) I've always considered myself a writer, learning as I go and determined to be the best. I didn't get really serious about it all until the mid-1990s, after I'd read a thousand books and decided I could be just like everyone else who wrote. At that time, I plotted my first novel and gave it a go. That novel is currently under the microscope, with rewrites and modifications galore to be done, but I hope to have it out later this year.

I'd like to read that banyan tree story! Let's talk a bit about your current project, Sketches from the Spanish Mustang. My impression of the work so far is that there is an almost Proustian focus on memory throughout the novellas. In The Rebirth of Veronica Draper there's that wonderful image of the train set capturing a specific moment in time that lived in Veronica's father's memory; in Cpl. Thomas Tweed's War, it is his inability to remember that is the focus of the story; in Mighty Chief Chappose Picks Berries there is this idea of ancestral memory that Dan must confront; in the latest novella in the series, The Five Fortunes of Fulano, his entire journey to Cripple Creek is dominated by his memories of his family and the encounter he had in the desert. In contrast to the focus on memory that your protagonists seem to possess, the other characters in the stories, those who can be seen as adversarial to the main characters, have present, immediate foci. Betty wants to only think about hitting it big on the slots or having another smoke; Tweed's family is concerned with where he is right now, not, like Thomas, how he got there; the young boy in Mighty Chief Chappose..., despite being a relic of the past, is very much concerned with what are, to him, immediate concerns; and the coyote definitely has a very immediate desire concerning Fulano. Was this an intentional theme for the series?

Actually, yes, which makes me think either you have scary mind-reading capabilities or I managed to instill the theme in such a way that it's obvious. My version of the theme--which I've always held in my personal life--is that there is a story to every person, but if we simply view them with our selfish eyes, we will only see what is present: the bum on the street corner, the addict in the alley, the alcoholic who just lost a job, etc. If we look at a person with the understanding that they are products of their history, then we will, in essence, see the soul. It's what the central artist will accomplish through her sketches once the whole novel is pieced together.

I feel that this laying bare of the soul that you talk about is one of the most important and profound aspects of literature. How much of you--how much of your soul--is present in your writing?

(Chuckles) Probably more than I anticipate when I sit down to write a story. In most literature, there's an infusion of the self, something subconscious that leaks out onto the page. Think of Stephen King's Misery or Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Are they soulless creations, or is there so much more the story tells about the writer? The first novel I completed, A Difficult Mirror (which will be entirely rewritten this year), is one that uses the idea of memory as both antagonist and protagonist. Are those memories the characters face in their journey directly linked with my own or did I just make it up as I went along? I feel there is both; after all, the writer writes what he or she knows. The writer's soul is inevitably linked to the page.

You mention that the writer writes what he or she knows. This is, of course, one of the oft-repeated mantras in writing. As writers we do, of course, draw on our experiences to bring our characters and scenes to life. But there are some things one does not want to have to experience to be able to communicate them effectively: being an alcoholic, for example, or spending three days alone in the Sonoran Desert. The question is, how successful are you at using your imagination to describe these experiences? And, is there anything you've done just so you could use that experience in your writing?

Actually, I do a lot of research into characters, both written and personal. For Fulano, as an example, I drew a lot of the experiences from interviews conducted with migrants who have crossed the Mexican-American border. The "new shoes" section as well as the bandito attack are actually recreations of an actual migrant's experience. Thomas Tweed's traumatic brain injury is similar to several documented reports of patients at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. These things we never see unless we go beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone and actually look at what happens with naked eyes.

Besides written research, however, I do quite a bit of--for lack of a better term--personalization. For each story, I visit a section of Cripple Creek, take pictures, and pretend I am the character in that setting. It's been a different experience for me, and I think the time I've spent doing this is preparing me for more such "personal" research down the line. I will also be the first to admit that I've had experiences in my life that help define a character's motivation. Like Dan Chappose, I struggled with alcohol for a long time, and it's not something I find difficult to talk about. I was able to break free, however, and use my battle as a template for his own. I don't think we, as writers, should hold back on some of the things we've been through. It can be liberating, and if it helps someone else going through a similar situation, then our writing becomes more than simply words on a page.

You've mentioned elsewhere that you read quite a bit. How quickly do you go through an average-length book? Do you ever re-read books you enjoy?

I read approximately 50 to 60 books a year, but I wouldn't call myself a "fast" reader. On average, I will finish a 350-400 page book in about two weeks. If you do the math, though, that doesn't seem to add up. Actually, I took a hint from Stephen King who said he loves audio books (unabridged, of course). I have an hour and a half commute to that day job thing every day, so that's three hours on the road. Depending on the length of the book and the speed of the voice over artist, I can usually get through one book in about a week and a half or so. So I'm actually going through two books at a time normally. I have reread books, but they are usually those that have inspired me in the past. For example, I've read Michael Ende's The Neverending Story more times than I can count. Bradbury's Martian Chronicles is another along with Clive Barker's Imagica. These novels and more have been inspirational in my writing, and--especially with Bradbury--a reminder of how powerful words can be.

In closing, I'd like to revisit Sketches from the Spanish Mustang for a moment, because I have been quite moved and impressed by the project so far. I even wrote in a review that "Benjamin X. Wretlind is a unique American voice and--I do not exaggerate here--a Pulitzer-caliber writer who deserves more recognition." So, I am obviously biased when I say that everyone should go out and read these novellas but my question is this: you have chosen to release each chapter of Sketches... as an individual story before tying them all together with a story line about an artist sketching each of these characters. Why have you chosen to do that? Also, without revealing anything, are there elements in each story that inform each of the others that will only become apparent when they are all tied together? I thought I caught a glimpse of Betty sitting next to Fulano at a slot machine, but I could be wrong.

I chose to release each novella as it was written for two reasons. The first is apparent only to me: I'm not a fast writer, and with all the research and personalization I put into a novel, things tend to go slower than, say, Nora Roberts, Douglas Preston or even Stephen King. That's not saying they don't put their own research into a novel, just that I think I get wrapped up in my research quite a bit. I wanted to make sure something new came out periodically, while working on other projects. I guess it was my way of ensuring my work doesn't become "stale."

Second, the release of each novella as they are finished has proved very good at garnering feedback. That feedback I intend to use when I stitch it together into one novel. While I could wait for feedback (reviews) at the very end, it's nice to see the reaction for each element and not just as a whole.

You are correct in seeing Betty next to Fulano in one scene and there are other characters that make appearances in the background in other novellas. For example, Nathan James actually sees the Artist as she's drawing his picture. However, I have yet to reveal the single thread that binds each story, and to tell you the truth, it may not be very obvious until the entire novel is digested.

We've focused on your current project but you also have a novel out called Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors. Is there anything you'd like to say about it?

Castles is a view into the mind of a woman who, throughout her life, is abused in more ways than one. It's an emotional rollercoaster, told through the main character's voice, about what she sees, what she knows, and what she's been told. There is violence and there is love, and there is violent love. I like to think of Castles as a question: is madness really mad and is reality really real?

Castles is told in the voice of the main character, Maggie, and it's that voice that really allows the reader to question madness. I've told a few people that Castles wasn't written by me; it was dictated to me by a voice in my head. That voice, Maggie, wouldn't shut up for seven years--the length of time it took to write the novel.

The original short story was written in 2003 when I was part of a writing group. The subject was "weather" and, as a meteorologist at the time, I thought I had an edge. I picked dust storms and desert weather as the backdrop of the story because I grew up in Phoenix and love the weather during the monsoon season. However, when I got my comments back from the group, there was one which stuck in my head: "what you've written is the outline of a great novel." It took a few months for me to really start working on Castles, and then there was a long break (several years, actually), when Maggie wouldn't talk to me. It was almost as if she felt I wasn't ready to hear her story. When she did speak to me, I frantically wrote it all down and felt just as sick as most of my readers. I also felt I had to let the story loose, to let others hear what Maggie had to say.

Thank you so much for this interview! It's been a real pleasure. Are there any links you'd like to provide to your website or Amazon author page, or anything else you'd like to mention before we wrap things up?

I definitely encourage everyone to give any of the Sketches from the Spanish Mustang a chance. I think people will find the project very worth their time. All of them are available from my author page at Also, I'd like to say that Castles has been called many things, but not once has someone hated reading it. It disturbs people and it makes them think. It makes them question. It makes them wonder. Maggie's story wants to get out, and the more people read it, the closer I will get to owning a llama farm.

As a final plug, I do post a few thoughts every now and again on my blog: Not all of the thoughts have to do with llamas.

And as a final, FINAL note: I can always be visited on Facebook at There are no pictures of llamas on that site. There may be in the future, though. You can still "like" the page.

Even without pictures of llamas, I hope many of my blog readers do decide to check out your Facebook page and pick up a few of your eBooks. Thank you again, Benjamin!

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