Ben Brooks Interview

First published on 3:AM Magazine (10th November 2011) //

3:AM: When did you start writing?

Ben Brooks: I think I was 16 when I wrote the first book [Fences] and most of Grow Up. And then there was a big period of time between, and then I finished it off. Like a year or two afterwards.

3:AM: Would you describe the other books as ‘experimental’?

BB: Probably but it’s a horrible word. And sounds really embarrassing [laughs].

3:AM: You wouldn’t describe them that way?

BB: I would, I’d just be embarrassed about it [laughs]. You can’t call it just ‘writing’ because it’s obviously a bit weirder.

3:AM: Do you think you’ll return to writing experimental stuff?

BB: Well yeah. I think it’s more relaxing because there’s no constraints at all. You don’t have to think about plot or any of that stuff. So it’s a lot of fun. I think a lot of people won’t notice [laughs]. Because a lot of people have read Grow Up and a lot of people haven’t read the experimental novels so they’re kind of two separate spheres, because Grow Up is in all the bookshops and then the other ones you can just buy online from the publishers.

3:AM: How did you get into writing?

BB: I just found a book called The Human War by Noah Cicero.

3:AM: Is there a functioning group of you guys now? Cicero, Tao Lin, Megan Boyle, Brandon Scott Gorrell

BB: Yeah, I’m not really part of it very much. I talk to Noah sometimes. I talked to him last night when I was really drunk. Hopefully we’re going to drive across America next year. I think they had quite a close-knit group early on when Muumuu House started, with Tao Lin. But as a group they seem to have drifted apart a little.

3:AM: Why do you think they came together? Was it about a similar ethos, or about promoting each other or something else?

BB: I think it was because a lot of people liked Tao Lin, and were inspired by him, so he wanted to support them.

3:AM: Are you a fan of Tao Lin?

BB: I am a big fan.

3:AM: When you first started, you were sending things to James Chapman (owner of Fugue State Press) and he was rejecting them but being encouraging at the same time?

3:AM: Yeah, they were really awful things. It was me trying to write like Noah. Really awful rip-offs of Noah, trying to write exactly like he did. And I had to get out of that, and Fences was it, I guess.

3:AM: There was only Noah, no one else you felt you were inspired by?

BB: I guess Tao Lin as well, but it took me a while to get into the bloggers.

3:AM: What is it about their writing that you appreciate?

BB: I think it seems a lot more honest than most novels because they’re always so blunt. And it always feels a lot more personal. You can tell that they’re not writing for readers, they’re writing for themselves.

3:AM: Is that the same for you? Do you think about an ‘audience’?

BB: I do now, I think, because it’s… for a living. I still like writing experimental things but…

3:AM: Do you see it as a career?

BB: I would like to just keep going. I don’t think I could do a ‘normal’ job now. I’m too lazy.

3:AM: Have you ever had a ‘normal’ job?

BB: Only little ones, when I was at school. So I finished school, I had no money and I didn’t go to university, and I was living with my Nan. Then I got the advance for Grow Up and I moved here [London].

3:AM: Do you have an agent?

BB: Yeah. He called me when I sent him the thing, the book, and we had a meeting and he said that his boss had told him not to take it on. That it wouldn’t make any money. But he was secretly going to send it to Canongate [publisher of Grow Up] anyway, which he did, and then they accepted it so his boss let him take me on.

3:AM: Why would he not think he could make any money?

BB: No idea. I guess it’s quite weird.

3:AM: But it does fit in somewhere.

BB: It’s quite an old-fashioned literary thing, so maybe it was just the agency.

3:AM: Canongate also published Julian Assange’s autobiography.

BB: That was really weird. I felt weird that everyone was being so aggressive towards Canongate about it when, in reality, he took loads of their money, and they’re an independent house and then he couldn’t give it back, and told them not to publish it.

3:AM: What sort of thing were you writing when you first started, emulating Noah?

BB: It was just about people being bored.

3:AM: That’s a through-line to a lot of the Muumuu House stuff.

BB: I think Fences was less about boredom, and more about being really sad, rather than being bored and apathetic.

3:AM: I read a line of praise for Fences and it was something like, ‘Don’t kill yourself yet, Ben.’

BB: [Laughs] It was a really adolescent work, and a bit over-the-top.

3:AM: Is the age thing an issue, do people judge your writing on that, do you think?

BB: I think some of the reviews of Grow Up have been quite snide about the age thing.

3:AM: Do you read the reviews?

BB: I read every single review [laughs]. Especially when they’re immediately there on a website. I got really upset, I think, by the first two, because the first two were just the Guardian and the Observer and those were really gammy. But I got over it. The Times was really positive.

3:AM: I spoke to the books editor at The Evening Standard about Grow Up and he called it ‘irresistible’.

BB: [Laughs] That’s very kind.

3:AM: That must be strange for you to hear that.

BB: It is. It is. I had the weirdest thing ever happen to me the other day. Like everything’s weird and getting the book’s weird but the other day I was just at Deptford market and this girl came up to me and said, ‘Sorry, can I have your autograph?’ And I was like, ‘Are you joking?’ And she said, ‘No,’ and I asked her, ‘Who told you to do this? This is ridiculous.’ And it was real, apparently.

3:AM: Does that happen a lot now?

BB: That’s never happened before.

3:AM: Before you got onto Fugue State Press [publisher of two of Brooks’ novels], were you writing things just to get accepted?

BB: I guess. I mean I was trying to write something that was ‘me’ and not a copy of Noah and then that happened, and he accepted it. I really didn’t think it would be accepted. It was totally stupid thing to do to make all the words different sizes and put them everywhere. So if I wanted them to get accepted, it wasn’t a good way to try and do it. But it seemed to work.

3:AM: You’ve got blurb quotes from Noel Fielding and Tim Key. What sort of comedy do you like?

BB: I just like Peep Show, Flight of the Conchords, that sort of straight-faced, domestic kind of comedy. Have you seen any of Miranda?

3:AM: No, I haven’t. Is it animated?

BB: No, it’s Miranda Hart. She’s quite tall and… a little chubby. It’s a BBC comedy series that’s very clean and very traditional comedy. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, I think. I can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head.

3:AM: But it’s that kind of style, like with Flight of the Conchords, because that’s how Grow Up reads.

BB: Yeah, I wouldn’t know how to describe it. Kind of… laconic humour. It’s quite… lazy.

3:AM: And Noel Fielding’s praise, on the cover?

BB: We went to a Canongate party and me and him got really… ’something’. And then I stayed at his house. That was a bit weird. And after, I think he felt somehow obligated. I don’t think he even read it.

3:AM: How about Tim Key? I found it strange he said it was your ‘debut’.

BB: Yeah a lot of people were confused by that, a lot of people called it a debut novel. In a way, it maybe is a debut novel because the other ones, you could quite easily not call them novels.

3:AM: Novellas?

BB: These are all horrible words.

3:AM: How about ‘flash fiction’?

BB: [Laughs]

3:AM: There’s a literary journal and their submission guidelines state how they refuse to recognise the term ‘flash fiction’… > kill author, I think it is.

BB: Oh, > kill author is funny. You know the premise of kill author?

3:AM: For the editors to stay anonymous?

BB: But I know who the editor is.

3:AM: [Laughs] I won’t ask you to tell me the name.

BB: It’s not someone that you would recognise.

3:AM: Was Grow Up heavily influenced by all of this other comedy?

BB: I think it probably was, but it wasn’t consciously written to be ‘comedy’ I think. I didn’t really realise it was funny until someone said it was. It would be weird to write something and say: ‘This is definitely hilarious’.

3:AM: [Laughs] But that’s how it came across. It was funny from unexpected places, and not really forced.

BB: It was more that the guy [Jasper] was just weird. Jasper’s just a weird protagonist, so sometimes he has these… thoughts.

3:AM: People must ask if it’s ‘true’?

BB: Yeah, people ask that all the time and it’s pretty much all true [laughs].

3:AM: Even the internal thoughts of Jasper.

BB: Yeah… [laughs] a lot of the internal thoughts of Jasper.

3:AM: Are you embarrassed by that?

BB: A little, maybe. He has some pretty creepy thoughts [laughs].

3:AM: Let’s go back to James Chapman again.

BB: The bedrock of the interview.

3:AM: [Laughs] You said you got confidence out of his acceptance.

BB: Yeah, I got rejected by a lot of places, like everyone else, I guess. I looked through my old e-mail inbox a couple of days ago and there were so many rejections from people.

3:AM: Where were you submitting to?

BB: Just any small publisher I could find, regardless of whether they published fiction or regardless of whether they published fiction that short. Almost all of the rejections I got were, ‘We won’t publish anything this short’.

3:AM: Were you submitting Fences?

BB: No, it was things before Fences, things that James Chapman was rejecting.

3:AM: So after he accepted it, you’d kind of found a place where you could get published.

BB: Yeah, after that people started reviewing Fences and saying nice things about it. And so the second book was on a different publisher, just because the other publisher offered to publish it.

3:AM: Mud Luscious Press?

BB: Yeah.

3:AM: J. A. Tyler?

BB: Yeah, he writes a lot of books. He’s very prolific. I don’t know how he does it. He’s a teacher and he has children and stuff.

3:AM: Are you into the writing of the people who’ve been publishing you?

BB: I respect them a lot. I really like James Chapman’s writing.

3:AM: How about Upward Coast and Sadie [Brooks’ next book, scheduled to be released by Mud Luscious Press]?

BB: We had, not a falling out, but that was scheduled to be published by them this year and then I went back to look at it, and I really didn’t like it at all. I completely changed it, and then he [J.A. Tyler] said that he didn’t want to publish it like that. He wanted it in the original form. Then I said, ‘No’.

3:AM: What was it about it you didn’t like?

BB: It just seemed really boring and didn’t really make much sense to me when I read it back. It was about… kind of a similar thing to Fences, just a boy and a girl who are far away.

3:AM: Is that still coming out?

BB: No, it’s not any more. I think I don’t want to publish it. It’s something I’d rather forget about. I think it’s a book not worth publishing. I could send it to a couple of other places and probably get it published but…

3:AM: So are you more conscious now of forming a career, trying to release only things you’re proud of?

BB: Yeah, whereas before it was more like I would publish whatever I could.

3:AM: Do you think about that when you’re writing?

BB: Not when I’m writing but just kind of consciously try to make it better than the other things.

3:AM: Does it ever feel futile to be writing?

BB: Yeah, I think it can get really frustrating writing books. And a lot of the time things are going awfully and nothing’s really working and things are feeling futile. But as soon as the book is finished it no longer feels futile, it’s only while you’re writing it.

3:AM: What are you writing at the moment?

BB: I keep starting… I’ve started so many books since Grow Up came out and scrapped them all.

3:AM: What were they about?

BB: They’re generally about someone that’s younger than Jasper. Pretty much always a similar character but doing wildly different things. I do’’t really feel qualified from an adult’s perspective [laughs].

3:AM: So you intend to keep going, then.

BB: I think I’d just like to keep writing at the moment. I can’t really imagine what else I’d like to do. Writing seems like the only thing that I really like doing.

3:AM: Do you feel like you have something you’re trying to get across, a message or something?

BB: I don’t think I actively have. Not really a message, no. That seems weird for me to write with a message in mind. I did that once and it was horrible, which was Island of Fifty. I hate it. It’s absolutely… I hate it. Never, ever read it. It’s awful.

3:AM: What was the message there?

BB: It was like a thing about how industrial civilisation is destroying the world [laughs]. It was told allegorically through people living on an island. It was absolutely awful.

3:AM: When you read something that does have a message, do you think that detracts from the writing?

BB: No, not at all. I think some people want to, some people know where they stand. Like Noah. He knows what he thinks about so many things and then he wants to write about and explain them. And I don’t have those sorts of strong political opinions… I don’t really have any messages to give.

3:AM: You’re not trying to ‘change the world’.

BB: I know I like just reading books, and I would like to write books that people like reading.

3:AM: There’s that line about Murakami in Grow Up, saying that reading him makes you feel safe.

BB: Yeah. I don’t think I’m quite there yet. But I’m trying.

3:AM: Apart from Murakami, who else do you like to read?

BB: There’s a book at the moment that I’m very excited about, called The Instructions by a guy called Adam Levin. It’s like a thousand-and-something pages. It’s a huge thing. I’ve got it in my bag. It’s about a ten-year-old Jewish boy written from his point-of-view, and he’s the potential messiah. It’s just four days of him at school. And it’s absolutely one of the weirdest things, it’s kind of invented its own language. It’s just really exciting. I can’t think of people that I read consistently, apart from online writers and Murakami. Maybe Vonnegut.

3:AM: Who are the online writers you read?

BB: Cicero and Tao Lin obviously. Zachary German. He had a novel published on Melville House as well, but it was a more extreme version of Tao Lin, and that’s called Eat When You Feel Sad. But I think they had a falling out and now they don’t talk. But he was part of the Muumuu House thing, and he was profiled in Nylon with them.

3:AM: What’s all this falling out?

BB: [Laughs] It’s something stupid. Like: they were at a party together and it was one of theirs party, and one of them said ‘This is shit’ and took some of his friends away to a different party. Something really stupid. But there was a weird thing because in Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel and Zachary German’s book Eat When You Feel Sad, there was five or six paragraphs that were exactly the same in each book, that matched up almost exactly. Which was really weird. Maybe it was a joke.

3:AM: How about music? At the beginning of Grow Up is a Los Campesinos song.

BB: Yeah, one of my favourites. Their lyrics are very good, I think. They come across as a bit whiney sometimes but… they’re really good. I like kind of ‘folksy’ people. I like a lot of American folk-punk bands that do sort of have ‘a message’, smashing capitalism and eating vegetables [laughs].

3:AM: I take it you’re not a vegan.

BB: No. Not at all. Jonathan Safran Foer is another writer that I really like, and when I read Eating Animals by him I didn’t eat meat for, like, a day or something. I went to McDonald’s and ordered a pancake for breakfast.

3:AM: Maybe the whole ‘message’ thing is futile?

BB: Yes. Though I do like ‘messages’ sometimes, I just think they don’t have much impact on me. And I’m not sure how much impact they have on everyone else.

3:AM: You said somewhere that you’re an anarcho-primitivist. Was that serious?

BB: [Laughs] I think I was being serious when I wrote that. It was when I was writing that book I mentioned, I was reading a lot of a guy called Derek Jensen who writes these big books about how industrial civilisation is destroying life and raping the planet and that the only way to end it is through violence. And that you have to violently take down industrial civilisation. I agreed with it at the time, and then I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ [laughs]. This is completely stupid.

3:AM: Have there been books that changed the way you see things?

BB: I think there probably has, but it’s not something I’m aware of. I think if you’re reading a lot of one kind of book and one style of writing, essentially one similar view on life, then it’s inevitably going to change something, just that you might not be aware of it.

3:AM: Most of the names you mention are American writers.

BB: I think that’s just a fluke. Because there’s not much of an indie writing scene here. Well there is. There’s some. But it’s just that it’s really bad. Like do you know Lee Rourke?

3:AM: No.

BB: He wrote a book called The Canal. And it’s published by Tao Lin’s publisher actually, and it’s about sitting by Regent’s Canal and it’s been really lauded, it won the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. But that’s really awful and everyone says it’s really good. It’s a book about boredom.

3:AM: Everyone seems to be writing about how bored everyone is. And has been doing so for a long time now.

BB: When Tao Lin says it, I quite like it. But this one was just a bit pretentious.

3:AM: What comes after it?

BB: I don’t know. I like the new thing at the moment, the Steve Roggenbuck thing, ‘post-ironic positivity’, and it’s all about ‘boosting’ people. It’s a very funny, non-serious kind of thing but at the same time it’s good, the opposite of the Tao Lin thing, and the way things are written are really excited and short. The ‘boosting’ thing is a kind of a semi-serious ‘being positive on the Internet’ type thing. Which is good I think because, like you say, it’s getting over that boredom and embracing the stupid things.

3:AM: A lot of what’s coming out seems to be a ‘temporary’ bit of play, nothing sustainable.

BB: That’s the difference with Mud Luscious Press. The books that they publish, and J.A. Tyler, it’s the opposite of what we’re saying about the ironic stuff. They’re all very sincere and it’s all very poetic writing. And they describe it as ‘brutal’ and writing that ‘tears down things and builds them up again’ [laughs]. They’re quite serious guys.

3:AM: What sort of questions do you like to answer in an interview?

BB: I don’t really mind. As long as they’re not about politics. And stuff like that. Or questions about Skins. Because I’m not trying to ’say’ things as much as write books that people like.

3:AM: What’s going wrong with the writing the next book?

BB: I think it’s that I don’t have any confidence in it. And there’s expectation now that Grow Up is out on a big publisher and it’s done quite well. Whereas with the experimental books it was more like no one bought them, no one read them, not really reviewed. So there was no pressure on what to write next.

3:AM: So you’re trying to build up to something that can follow Grow Up.

BB: Yeah. Not that it’s hard to follow, it’s not a great novel that can’t be surpassed.

3:AM: So you’re kind of feeling pressure now?

BB: Yes. Definitely. There’s a lot of people that have read Grow Up now and now there’s money as well. Now that I’ writing for money as well.

3:AM: Do you feel like you have to prove something, to show that you’re ‘worthy’?

BB: Yes, because Grow Up was a coming-of-age novel that was quite straightforward to write and drawn straight out of what I was doing at the time. And now it’ that you kind of have to prove that you can write an actual novel that’s not just…

3:AM: Will the next thing be more traditional then?

BB: I think it will be. Even though the person will be quite young, it’ll be completely different, I hope. But I don’t think it will [laughs]. I think the style will be quite similar and the tone, and the character’s age [laughs] will probably be quite similar.

3:AM: You didn’t really set it anywhere.

BB: As in actual place names? Because to me it seemed like it was ‘every-town’, every suburban area, every boring town. And also I felt embarrassed saying ‘Gloucester’. Just because it seems stupid. If it’s Japanese places, like in Murakami books, it sounds amazing. But ‘Gloucester.’

3:AM: How about other influences?

BB: There’s a writer called Chris Killen, who wrote a book called The Bird Room, and that was… the tone of that was something I would have liked to come close to, but I don’t think I really did.

3:AM: It’s all mostly recent writers.

BB: Yeah. Though I have read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and stuff. Kerouac, Beats

3:AM: That video interview of you.

BB: Oh, it was horrible. I hate that so much. Everyone that I meet from the publisher and stuff, say ‘That video was great, that video was great.’ But everyone I know were like, ‘How did they make you look so awkward and horrible in that video?’ It was in Edinburgh. The publisher paid for me to go up there, I think it was in the afternoon, and I was quite drunk. And the woman interviewing me kept telling me what to say, and I was like ‘I’m not saying that’. Just weird things, like ‘Could you please say: Grow Up is about life as I know it’ [laughs].

3:AM: But in that you say you spent a lot of your time at the library, while skipping school, and that’s why this book was here.

BB: Yeah. Not Fences, that was written when my mum kicked me out and I was living in a horrible little flat somewhere. But the others were in the library when I should have been at school.

3:AM: Would you say the book is plotless?

BB: It really surprised me when everyone said it was plotless. A lot of people didn’t even say it as a criticism, like it didn’t have a plot but that’s fine. I tried really hard to make it have a plot [laughs]. Really hard. So I guess I can’t do plots.

3:AM: The plot was kind of an in-joke, it seemed.

BB: I didn’t want to give it a really lame ending, where they ‘just fall in love’. So it had to be a little ambiguous. In the initial draft they didn’t get together at the end. And I was talking to people who had read that draft and they were like, ‘I don’t understand why they don’t get together at the end. They care about each other blah blah blah’. So that sort of happened. The other ending was just that he came out of the police station and there was nothing else there. Either way it was a cliché. Because one way they kiss and then they’re like ‘Uhhh that doesn’t work, let’s just be friends’ which is a cliché as well. But it felt right that they would get together.

3:AM: I liked the dream sequence.

BB: A lot of people say like, ‘This is such an unbelievable dream sequence.’ But the point of the dream sequence, which probably isn’t that clear in retrospect, is that Jasper went back and supposedly made it up and wrote it in to show how he was feeling at the time, rather than an actual dream. That was a lot more fun to write. A lot easier to write than the rest of the book. And more similar to the way I write in the experimental books.

3:AM: Do people think of you as a ‘young writer’?

BB: It depends if the person’s a dick or not, really [laughs]. A lot of the time the age is mentioned just because it makes the story more credible, like it makes the story more legitimate. And the fact that I was writing it when I was that age.

3:AM: It seems to be a selling point at the same time as some people seeing it as a detraction. It’s kind of a weird place.

BB: Yeah, I think that with the experimental novels it wasn’t but with this it could easily be a selling point.

3:AM: Have you thought about doing something ‘creative’ apart from writing?

BB: Grow Up has been optioned, and I think they’re trying to get me to write a treatment and a script for it. I haven’t tried it yet.

3:AM: Is that a British production?

BB: Yes. We haven’t signed it yet. They made an offer and they’re still kind of arguing over it. But hopefully that will happen. It’s an independent production company but they made Spooks and Hustle and Life on Mars.

3:AM: So will it be a TV thing?

BB: Yes. But there are so many hoops I have to jump through first. A script needs to get commissioned and then once a script is commissioned, the actual making of it needs to get commissioned.

3:AM: Have you started writing the treatment?

BB: No, not at all. When they sign the contract. And when they bloody pay me for it [laughs].

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