Drawing First Blood
Interviews with Dark Genre Literature's Newest Talents
By, Vince A. Liaguno
If variety is the spice of life, then Paul G. Bens Jr. is living la vida loca. Far from your typical literary success story, Bens has taken a twisting, turning path to his critically-acclaimed debut novel, Kelland (Casperian Books). With more incarnations than the book’s titular character, this former Hollywood casting agent turned film studio paralegal spent his formative years as a boy scout and an altar boy, wholesome enterprises that somehow led to career stops at as a bartender, a film producer, a file clerk, and (“for a second-and-a-half”) an actor. Even the literary leanings of the native Kentuckian – who dreams of one day living in Hawai’i – have run the gamut, with published credits that range from darker short fiction in Cemetery Dance, Velvet Mafia, and upcoming in Dark Discoveries listed alongside a 2008 gay romance/erotica novelette, Mahape a ale Wala‘au.
It’s clear while reading Kelland that this broad spectrum of life experiences has informed Bens’ writing — literary repercussions, if you will, of his wide-ranging experiential learning. Dark Scribe Magazine was curious to learn more about this emerging talent and sat down with him to discuss everything from his literary influences to the Hollywood casting couch, from the origins of Kelland to killer martinis.
Dark Scribe Magazine: Tell us a little something about your debut novel, Kelland.
Paul Bens: Kelland is the story of five different people who, for one reason or another, find themselves at a crossroads. Something in their lives is broken; something just isn't working. They know it deep down inside, they can feel it, but they simply can't face it or don't know that they even need to. Into each of their lives comes an enigmatic stranger named Kelland. But Kelland comes in different guises. He's an eight year old boy, a sexy woman, a priest, a brutal lover, and as the story progresses, it isn't clear whether Kelland is a friend, or a foe. She might be the devil or he might be a guardian angel, even some gray area in between. Kelland becomes their friend, their confidant, their lover and, most importantly their guide, forcing each one to face some very dark facts about themselves. It's a story about truth and lies and the inevitable clashing of the two. At its core, Kelland is psychological suspense, with the supernatural and a smidgen of mystery rounding it out.
Dark Scribe: Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?
Paul Bens: Kelland actually started out as a short story a number of years ago, one that I've ultimately never published. I was going through a particularly dark patch in my life and one evening I sat down and started pounding out the story of a little boy named George who was visited by another little boy, one who frightened him and yet seemed almost protective. I think the first draft of that story was done in one night, and writing it helped me to exorcise some of my own demons about what I was going through. Some friends read it and encouraged me to go further with it, to explore the themes of good versus evil and lies colliding with truth and the repercussions of all of them. Slowly, the other stories began to form, and I found Kelland as a way to force these characters to face the truth about themselves and the evil that was visited upon them.
Dark Scribe: What was your writing process routine like?
Paul Bens: I'm a bit of a loafer when it comes to writing. I wish I were more prolific than I am, but I really have to wait until a theme or idea grabs me by the throat and just won't let go. Once I find that I can't think about anything else other than this story, I simply…well, I'm not terribly successful at outlining, so I sit down and just start banging out words in long stretches. Once I'm on my way, I'm rather obsessive about it, using every spare moment to write something, my mind wandering off during the day when I'm unable to get to my computer and get something written down. I'm a night writer, generally, and not someone who can have background noises or excessive light because I am very easily distracted by outside sources. If I could write in a cave that would probably be the best thing for me. I also tend to be neurotic about the tone and rhythm of the words, so it's not unusual for me to spend 8 hours on just a paragraph or two because I need to get them exactly right. Of course, that could also be due to the fact that I despise doing numerous drafts (or I'm just plain lazy); so I try to get it as close to right the first go round as I possibly can.
Dark Scribe: Where there any unique difficulties writing a narrative told from the perspectives of five very different characters?
Paul Bens: There were some challenges, especially since each of the five characters have their own voice, story and timeline structure. Keeping the years straight required an Excel chart and the liberal use of Wikipedia to make sure that events (as miniscule as when a certain album was released or as important as the fall of Saigon) actually happened when I said they did. But as far as keeping the characters straight, their voices were so clear to me early on that I didn't have much of a problem. In fact, I actually found it quite liberating in that if I got blocked on one chapter, I could easily jump to another part of the novel and a different character. Given that I have so many "lead" characters, I think my biggest challenge was in coming up with a way to not completely overwhelm the reader from the get go with an unending roll call of characters. I wanted to make sure that when I first introduced each character, they were memorable and distinct so that no one would go, "Wait, who is this again?" Part of that was accomplished by keeping the initial chapters very, very short. Hopefully by doing that, I was able to etch the characters into the readers' minds and make them appealing enough that the reader would stay with me as I ventured into a very non-traditional structure.
Dark Scribe: Who was your favorite character to write?
Paul Bens: That's a tough one, because they were all fun to write in one way or another, but I think that Minh and Toan, who escape from Viet Nam as kids and end up in Louisville, Kentucky, were the most appealing for me. Growing up, it was me, my parents and three sisters, so I've never had that whole brother experience. Digging into that relationship was fascinating, seeing the various permutations of love and hate that pass between brothers, seeing how their relationship evolved and de-evolved as the years passed. Toan was especially fun because he's a rock-and-roller, and I'm a wannabe rock star. He really is everything I wish I was: smart, hot, rock star, hot, funny, hot…an all around good-egg. So I got to live vicariously through Toan. But if truth is told, I'm probably a lot more like Minh: very regimented, a little emotionally protective, a bit of a control freak. Not that Minh's a bad guy, necessarily; he's just got a couple of very dark ghosts to deal with. Tracey, Toan's best friend, was a hoot to write, because she is so much like so many women I know.
Calvin, Toan's boyfriend, was also a character that I loved, especially because he was never meant to be in the book at all. He was only going to be mentioned, never seen. But one day, he showed up. And then he did the next day as well. What was fun about him is that for a character that was never going to be there in the first place, he ended up playing an integral part in the plot. That was my very first (and, to date, only) encounter with that old chestnut of "characters do what they want."
Dark Scribe: There seems to be a great deal of emphasis placed on the idea of discovering one’s own truth and the truth about those around us in Kelland. What compelled you to explore this particular theme?
Paul Bens: What frightens me the most in life is what man can, and does, do to man, very often without ever thinking of the very real repercussions – ripples in the water, if you like – of their actions on others. The malleability of truth in those types of scenarios has always been something that has fascinated and disturbed me. Not just how others can twist the truth to suit their needs, but even more importantly how each of us does it to ourselves, willingly, sometimes with horrible results for ourselves as well as those we love. We all in some way or another adjust our truth, either by actively negating it through our actions, through subconscious denial or repression, or even by a willingness to accept on blind faith what others say. I have the same fascination with good and evil, especially real world good and evil. Both are so fluid, and very often what seems to be good ends up being the worst possible thing for us. Conversely, that which we find evil or horrible very often can lead to great things
I tried to play with both of these themes in Kelland. I wanted a duality of character for each of the leads, our opinions and feelings for them shifting and changing as we learn more about them. I hope that with each character – and especially with Kelland – the reader falls in love with them one moment and then despises them the next, because that is usually how life is, isn't it? We love someone desperately one minute and want to throttle them the next. With Kelland, the character, I had a tool with which to explore that because Kelland knows the truth. One moment he/she/it will try and coax it out of the characters and other times Kelland will simply rip it out of them with brutal force. Kelland will do whatever it takes – and does – because Kelland knows that the truth is all that matters.
Dark Scribe: Who are your literary influences? Which of their works most inform your own writing?
Paul Bens: Well, I think I learn a little something from just about everyone I read and probably absorb a lot from seeing their stories unfold, but the writers that I think have influenced me the most are the ones whose books I keep going back to over and over again. Armistead Maupin is a huge influence. His ease of style is just infectious and his dialog always rings pitch perfect. And when he goes dark – as he did in The Night Listener and Maybe the Moon – I think reveals himself as one of the most brilliant writers of character and human truth out there. I love Stephen King; The Dead Zone is still a book I think of often and one of my comfort-reads. His ability to give quirks to his characters but keep them very real is envious, and of course his expertise at building suspense is remarkable. How Roald Dahl would find creepiness in the most ordinary moments also stays with me.
Poppy Z. Brite is another huge influence, especially her book Drawing Blood, which I've probably read 30 times. I think I learned one of the most important things by reading her work: setting is more than just sights…it's sights and sounds and feelings and memories and, this is key for me, smells. When I read her work, I am utterly absorbed into the place and time and a simple reference to a scent will transport me there as easily as a two page description of the locale. Plus, Brite was probably the first person in the horror genre who I saw really representing gay people in a completely honest way and not just as the sidekick or the best friend or even an annoyingly introspective supernatural being.
The biggest influence, however, was probably my college professor, Dr. Ron Mielech, a brilliant playwright. He taught me the secret of knowing when to cut something out of a story and when to keep it. And I'm eternally grateful for that education.
Dark Scribe: As a new novelist, what was your biggest eye-opener about the business after the writing was done?
Paul Bens: Well, there are two things, one of which was just reaffirmed by my experience with Kelland. The first is the importance of a good editor, someone who gets what it is that you're trying to do, but who is smart enough to find and point out the flaws. I've been very, very blessed in the past with editors, brilliant people like Sean Meriwether, Stacy Taylor, and Robert Morrish, among others. They "get me" but also can easily call me on it when I'm letting the story down. I found the same with Lily Richards, my editor at Casperian Books. Boy, she knows what's needed, story-wise and structure-wise. In fact, Lily asked for a new chapter to be written for Kelland in order to accomplish a certain thing. I personally didn't really think the chapter was necessary, but I always listen to my editor because 9.9 times out of ten, they are wiser than I. So I wrote it and she was exactly right. Since Kelland was published, many readers have commented on that chapter as one that really hit them hard when further story details were revealed later in the novel.
The other thing is just how vital public relations and word-of-mouth are to small presses. I don't particularly relish talking about myself as I tend to be fairly introverted. I'm one of those people who would prefer just to let the work speak for itself. But with small press (and, I'm assuming larger houses to a certain degree), you do not have that luxury. You have to be willing to get out there and do the legwork and push yourself to find opportunities to talk about your work. It is important that long before the book comes out that you have a plan and try and stick to it. And when you run out of ideas, look a little deeper, because you never know what might work. That was the other thing I loved about Casperian…not only do they have a game plan for each release, but the require their authors to come up with their own "business plan" that goes into effect months before the actual release. I so appreciated that and every writer should remember that if the publisher has faith in you and wants your story to be read, you have to pull your own weight and do the work to make sure that it does get read.
Dark Scribe: You also have a rather interesting Hollywood background in casting. Did having to match actors with roles for a living give you any insights into creating believable three-dimensional characters?
Paul Bens: As the characters developed, I certainly began seeing certain actors fitting the roles. Mostly working actors I'd met and admired throughout the years rather than huge stars. The character of Bibi, for example, was a character I rescued from a previous work-in-progress, and I really wrote that character with my old friend and teacher Bibi Besch (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan) in mind. I thought "this would be such a great role for her." Bibi has since passed away, and that is one of the reasons I wanted to include this character in Kelland, a sort of tribute to her. (Interestingly, Bibi's daughter is also mentioned in the book).
But I think where my casting background really came into play was as I built the characters and in keeping the underlying emotion honest and real. Though my writing almost always utilizes elements of horror and the supernatural, the emotional realism of the characters is key for me. When I was in casting and actors came in to audition, telling the good from the bad was very easy. Good actors always have a core emotional truth driving what the character is doing, a realism that may not be what my life has been, but with which I can empathize. The bad ones don't and they try to fake it. And as a casting director, I could spot that a mile away. I think it's the same for readers. They know when a writer isn't being honest. So the question I kept asking myself as I wrote the characters was "Am I faking it?" If it didn't feel honest, I threw it out. In this novel that was especially important to me given the very real horror that underlies it. And when I'd thrown out the dishonest stuff, hopefully I ended up with characters that speak to people in some way, characters that have all the depth and nuances of people in real life. That's the goal, anyway.
Dark Scribe: Any wild casting anecdotes you’d care to go off on a short tangent on? Something just a tiny bit salacious…?
Paul Bens: Hmmm…OK, I've told you this privately, so I will say that although I don't know Adrienne Barbeau other than having met her once or twice in social settings, she is one of the classiest acts in Hollywood. An amazing lady. But that's not exactly salacious is it? (laughs)
You probably wouldn't wanna hear about the actor (who later went onto fame as a chat show host) who actively hid script pages from co-stars they didn't like so that the actor would look incompetent and get fired? Or the sitcom star who had a temper tantrum one day and was found in their trailer stark naked, pounding their fists on the floor? And let's not even go into who was sleeping with whom.
Dark Scribe: What’s next for Paul Bens, writer?
Paul Bens: I have two novel length works I'm focusing on, though each is being elusive in its own way. Both are very dark, a mix of domestic horror and supernatural elements as most of my work is. Both are very much more traditional in structure than Kelland. I also continue to churn out the occasional short story and, in fact, Dark Discoveries Magazine is publishing what I consider a particularly brutal and horrific piece called "The Beheld" in their January issue.
Dark Scribe: Last question. Since your bio notes that you were once a bartender and still make a killer martini, what kind of martini best personifies you as a writer?
Paul Bens: Hmmm. I'm not a huge martini drinker myself, but if I had to pick one, it would probably be a dirty martini…smooth but with a little bite at the end. A drink that is closer to describing me is a Sloe Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall. It's a little tart, at times almost candy sweet, warms you from the inside — and then sneaks up and knocks you on your ass.
For more about Paul G. Bens Jr., visit his official author website.
Read DSM’s review of Kelland here.