Author Interview: Ben Monopoli

Words and Wisdom from Ben Monopoli

We haven’t made any secret of our respect and regard for Ben Monopoli. Plainly put, we have a serious crush on the way he thinks. After reading everything he’s written (that we know about, anyway), we really hoped for a chance to pick his brain. Smart, funny, and generous, Ben granted our wish in the form of a short interview. We share those words with you here. Enjoy.

*Spoilers right ahead. If you don’t want to be spoiled, read the books. In fact, read them anyway. Carry on.*

The Cranberry Hush

The Painting of Porcupine City

Homo Action Love Story! A tall tale

Ben Monopoli author interviewWe think we can safely say that your stories don’t follow “the formula” or genre expectation, rules and guidelines. Do you think this affords you as a writer greater character and story development? Allow you to explore the not-so-pretty part of people that most fiction and romance/love stories gloss over or ignore. We can be good people but still have those occasional selfish or uncharitable thoughts, and you do such a good job of showing this. How do you tap into that, and how do you think that differs from mainstream or traditional fiction and romance/love stories?

My books, at least the first two, probably do follow a genre expectation, but the genre is literary fiction (“lit fic” sounds less pretentious), which is what I read most often. I like the navel-gazey books that get into the nitty-gritty of people’s lives. I want a lot of detail, a lot of insight. John Steinbeck is my favorite writer—the amount this man understood about human nature, it’s crazy. You read something like East of Eden and it’s easy to see that it’s everything he knew about everything. He put it all in that book. I think that’s what literary fiction tries to do and that’s what I’m most interested in. My first two books represent everything I knew about life, love, loss up to that point. Part of that is that people don’t always do the right things, they make mistakes that are really obvious and stupid; they do the wrong thing even when they know what the right thing is. But they’re also susceptible to moments of real beauty and, for lack of a better word, magic.

While all three of your novels are unique, the tone, subject, and story from Porcupine and Cranberry to Homo Action is quite different. The first two have a similar feel, but Homo Action is pretty unique. Can you give us any insight from where you wrote the first two stories and where Homo Action came from? Dying to know how you plotted (or pantsed) Homo Action.

The Cranberry Hush and The Painting of Porcupine City were finished before I knew m/m romance was even a thing. Maybe that makes them seem fresh to the m/m crowd, because they weren’t influenced by it. They both ended up in the m/m category for marketing reasons, because, I don’t know, writing gay characters narrows your audience so you want to go right to the readers who are looking for that. Originally I was targeting my books at 20something gay male readers; I had no idea straight women would be so receptive to stories about gay dudes, but it’s been a nice surprise. And since that audience embraced my first two books so much, I kind of wanted to play in their sandbox. That’s where Homo Action Love Story came from. It was sort of on a dare. My friend Maggie supplied the name “Boots McHenry” and told me to write a bodice-ripper about him. I think of it as something very “other” from Cranberry Hush and Porcupine City. I couldn’t bring myself to call it a novel, so I call it a tall tale. But I think it’s fun and a nice change of pace.

Ben Monopoli author interviewLoved the detail in Cranberry about bisexual people not being limited to who they can fall in love with – such an intriguing idea, especially for a writer. You’ve mentioned you weren’t sure about that aspect of Cranberry, but it was such a great arc and detail. Thoughts, insights, comments?

In my head Vince was bi from the get-go, and in all my early drafts he was longing for something he knew wasn’t possible: for Griff to fall for him. It was a type of denial. But that just never rang true to me. It took me like five years of working on the book before I realized what Vince’s bi-ness would actually mean for him and the way he relates to other people. What he feels isn’t willful denial of Griff’s straightness, he just doesn’t understand straightness at all—or gayness, for that matter. A person who’s attracted to both genders would find it hard to understand how someone could be attracted to only one. So that’s where Vince is coming from: He loves Griff and he can tell Griff loves him too, so what’s the problem? What’s Griff’s hurdle? Can the hurdle be jumped? Vince doesn’t know. I think that’s a sweeter, sadder thing to deal with.

Cranberry Hush (and Homo Action, to an extent) is about something a bit different, not the “usual” story – the girl wishing her gbf could be straight, or even the gbf wishing he could be straight for his best girl friend, or gbf wishing sbf could be gay, like Cranberry appears to start, but this dealt with the straight male friend wanting to be gay for his best friend. And why does just knowing the fact Griff wished he could be gay for Vince give the happy sighs and make it easier to accept for Vince and (most of) the readers?

I think part of the pain of unrequited love is that it makes us feel a little silly, maybe a little invisible. We go around feeling like, “I love him and he has no idea and wouldn’t care even if he knew.” Unrequited love makes us feel small. So when Griff takes Vince to the lighthouse, it puts them on equal footing for the first time in their friendship. Griff recognizes everything Vince feels and welcomes it, and values it, and is envious of it. That helps Vince realize that what he feels isn’t even quite unrequited, it’s requited in its own way, it’s just something that’s not going to work out. And that’s sad, yeah, but it’s a lot easier to deal with. It’s a lot more affirming. One of the most important realizations of Vince’s life is that he hasn’t been being silly.

And, if you will, settle a personal debate between J and M. How much of Griff wishing he could fall in love with Vince was altruistic – he just truly wanted to be able to love Vince – versus being somewhat selfish and wanting to belong to someone, to go back to the salad days of college. He just broke up with what he thought was his One (and tried to get back with her – tried to sleep with her when they stayed), which he considers to be the end all, be all of life. Who is really the one fooling himself, so to speak – Griff or Vince? How much was all that Griff honestly trying to figure out if he was straight or gay, or how much was trying to get back to what he considers his comfort/goals? Maybe M read way too much into it (and maybe J let her own personal history blind her).

Griff is a guy who’s maybe too eager to be in love. This is part of what draws him to Vince, because he’s entranced by the idea that Vince as a bi guy can love anyone. Griff sees that as having endless possibilities.

Griff is very earnest, and as a result he gets his heart broken a lot. Every person he invests all his emotion into ends up breaking his heart. His breakup with Beth comes at a pretty fragile time in his young adulthood and he feels totally adrift afterward. So he reaches for the person he knows would never break his heart. And maybe that would be a little selfish if Vince didn’t need so badly to be reached-for by Griff, but he does. And it’s not altruism on Griff’s part—he’s not trying to do Vince a favor. He needs Vince and Vince needs him. That’s just love.

I never meant to suggest that Griff is questioning his straightness, though. What he’s trying to find out is whether his love for his male friend can override his straightness, if it can become everything he needs in his life if he’ll let it. He wants to test it.

Ben Monopoli author interviewThe details of Mateo’s graffiti painting in Porcupine City were so vivid and detailed. What did your research for that aspect of the story and his character entail? You did such a great job of making the reader feel his compulsion, his need, how itchy and unsettled he was when we wasn’t painting, when he tried to stifle his need and attempt to prioritize his “hobby” versus his real life, his day job, his relationship with Fletcher. Another example here how you take something most people would disdain—graffiti and defacing public property—and make it sympathetic. Make readers root for Mateo (and Fletcher) to get away with an illegal activity, cheer for him, while still maintaining the balance of “he really is breaking the law,” not going too far in either direction. That’s an amazingly difficult balance to achieve. Did you set out to show that or did it just grow from the story?

Mateo and Fletcher basically have the same compulsion, which is to put words on things. For Fletcher it’s paper, and for Mateo it’s… anything. I did some research into graffiti but it was for the technical stuff. I felt pretty confident that I understood what would make someone do it. Who hasn’t wanted to do it?

As for making Mateo’s graffiti sympathetic, I think street art lends itself to that because it’s romantic. It’s one of those things that, OK, it’s technically a crime, but it’s morally ambiguous. Like, it’s more OK in certain places than in others. It’s more OK if it’s pretty and not just scribbles. It’s like jewel theft or some other glamorous crime. I tried to make a distinction between types of graffiti—sometimes angry people just want to make a mess, but other people are artists. One person’s “defacing public property” is another person’s “enhancing public property.” I don’t know. I can argue both ways, which I think comes across in the book. I’m not saying I’d want it on my car or my house, but I also can’t say I’d rather look at a blank concrete wall in a subway station.

I think we all know by now Jen is a huge Holden Caulfield fan, so we have to ask. Vince in Cranberry seems very Holden-esque. On purpose?

No, not on purpose. But I think Holden is like a god, the god of angst. He’s everywhere you look.

Ben Monopoli author interviewA reviewer of Homo Action mentioned what she referred to as the “non-monogamous” aspect, or more the issue of being faithful, that Boots didn’t wait very long to have sex with someone else after Ryan left. Do you think the different views on casual versus committed sex (for lack of a better term) is a difference between the sexes? Same sex versus opposite sex relationships? No relation at all, just personal reactions?

Boots definitely doesn’t wait very long to hook up with other guys after Ryan’s exile. Part of that was just practical from a storytelling standpoint. I wanted to write a sexy bodice-ripper, so the characters needed to be having sex. Monogamy would’ve been a narrative straitjacket, so for a book called Homo Action Love Story, I had no trouble throwing it overboard. This is not a serious book.

I’ve seen reviews like the one you mentioned. For some people non-monogamy will always be cheating. That’s fair, but I think life is more complicated than that. Boots sleeps with guys he thinks Ryan would approve of. So it’s safe to infer that they’re more monogamish than monogamous. On the other hand, he makes an effort to avoid guys Ryan wouldn’t approve of. There is a moral code he operates by. For some people it might be too loose, but I don’t feel there’s any cheating here.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to generalize about people’s sex lives, either, like by saying opposite-sex couples do this or same-sex couples do that. Sex is the most complicated subject in the world, and also the most secret. I don’t think most people, me included, have any idea what other people’s sex lives are really like. Some couples are monogamous, some are in open relationships, and there’s probably a lot of gray area in between. I think the gray area is where the best stories are.

Any unique, fun, exciting, or frustrating challenges as a gay fiction, self-pubbed, etc. writer you’d like to share?

Being a self-pubbed writer is awesome. People are reading my stuff, they send me nice letters, I get to do interviews like this. Being a self-pubbed bookseller, which is the flip-side of the coin—well, I don’t like that part. Back when I released The Cranberry Hush there wasn’t a whole lot of ebook competition. Word of mouth was enough to take it to #1. These days the ebook presses are rolling 24/7, which makes marketing way more important if you want to get attention. It’s not where my interests or strengths lie, though. I’d rather be writing than selling—which probably means I’m selling myself short. But hopefully if my books are good enough they’ll find an audience.

Ben Monopoli author interviewFUTURE BOOKS! Give us some scoop on what you might be thinking about next.

I’m working on a sequel to The Painting of Porcupine City, but it’s going to take a few years so it may not be the next thing I publish. Totally random—the other day I learned that the soldiers in the Spanish Legion have the sexiest uniforms in the world. Google them. I could imagine a sequel to Homo Action Love Story revolving around those uniforms. But who knows.

Feel free to add anything you’d like to mention, talk about, discuss, etc., and thanks so much for sharing with us!

Thank you! It’s been fun.

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Book Review and Author Interview: The End of All Things by Lissa Bryan

Guest Review and Interview by Jennifer Hensley

Book Review Lissa BryanThe End of All Things is a book that stays with you long after you finish reading it. When I picked up this book, I didn’t expect the beautiful love story that emerged. After finishing, I had to know more about the author and how this story came to be. She was gracious enough to answer my questions. I am excited to read the sequel to find out what is next for these beautiful characters.

What was your inspiration for writing this book?

I’ve always loved EOTWAWKI (End of the World as We Know It) books and movies, and just like I do with most subjects that interest me, I had to “write” my own post-apocalyptic story. The quotation marks are because, at the time, it was “written” in my mind. I never actually intended to write down any of my stories or try to publish them; it was only for my own amusement.

The inspiration often came from aspects that irked me in those stories, like people driving cars years after the disaster (no, the gas would go bad), or not thinking of simple things like water purification. It made me start thinking about how people would have to adapt to those situations. My imagination took flight from there.

I wanted my book to be about an ordinary girl in a horribly un-ordinary situation. The current trend has been for kick-ass heroines who can take on the whole world by themselves, thank you very much, and might shoot you just for the hell of it. And while I enjoy those stories, I’m more fascinated with the tales of people who aren’t prepared for anything, who have to find a core of strength inside themselves they never knew they had.

When Justin first finds Carly, she’s deeply in shock, not thinking clearly about her situation or what she needs to do to survive. He can tell she has fire and steel inside her, underneath that soft, naïve exterior, but she spends a good portion of the first novel discovering it. You’re going to see her come into her own in the sequel and learn to trust her own strength.

Did you personally identify with any of the characters?

I think I identify more with Justin because I have a similarly practical nature, and I over-prepare for everything.

I’d like to have some of Carly’s traits, such as her unyielding optimism. I share her love for animals and reading, but that’s about it

What kind of disease do you think was the cause of the apocalypse?

I envision it as a kind of weaponized super-flu.

Did you have any other agenda in mind when writing this book, such as advocating for vaccinations or dealing with governmental cover ups?

My sole agenda when I write a novel is to entertain. I’m always amazed at the messages readers tell me they took away from my stories. It makes me think of that old saying, An author only begins a book; the reader finishes it. We all see through different lenses and our areas of focus vary as well.

The only conspiracy theory I espouse is the one that says Truman Capote was the real author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I really like that one, and I refuse to let facts get in the way of it.

Did you do any traveling to Alaska to research the area for the book?

No, but I wish I could have! Visiting Alaska is on my bucket list. I relied on a friend who used to live there and Google Maps. The Street View function allowed me to “walk” alongside Carly and Justin for portions of their journey. I was even able to find topographical maps that told me whether they were going uphill or downhill. On a couple of occasions, I used tourists’ vacation photos to describe the interior of buildings. I went over that route so many times in the 3D simulation mode, I think I could probably walk from Skagway to Toad River blindfolded.

I tend to get a little pedantic about details like that. I had two sentences in the early portion of the novel where I mentioned Carly’s job and the fact she was calculating sales taxes on her purchases. I actually looked up the salary offerings on Juneau job postings and the cost of the average apartment rent to make sure she could afford it, and then checked to make sure there was sales tax in Juneau.

Will we get to read anymore about Carly and Justin or their daughter and how things changed for them once they made it to the South?

Yes. The End of All Things is actually the first half of a longer novel. I never know how long these things are going to be while they’re still inside my head, so I had confidently asserted to the acquisitions editor I could tell the whole story in under 120,000 words. Turns out I was wrong about that, so I ended it where it seems logical: as they completed one journey and were about to begin another.

I’m going to start writing the sequel this summer, as soon as I finish up the edits on my historical novel. I’m going to try to get it out as quickly as possible so readers don’t have to wait long. There will also be a collection of short stories coming out which has backstories on some of the characters, a couple of whom you’ll meet in the sequel.

My True Love is urging me to consider making it a series. He says, and I quote, “You know with parents like that, Dagny would grow up to be a real badass.

Who influenced you to become a writer?

Sylvain Reynard, actually. I read Gabriel’s Inferno in the fall of 2011 and when I went to Amazon to leave a review, I saw one reviewer state —rather scathingly— it had once been Twilight fan fiction. I had to go find out what that was.

It was like one of those moments of epiphany you see in movies where the sky opens up and golden sunlight pours down, and a host of heavenly angels sings the Hallelujah Chorus. I had discovered that other people re-wrote books and movies, too, and there were massive online communities devoted to it.

I’d never written anything before, unless you count the novels I’d “written” in my head over the years. It took me a while to talk myself into it, because I was afraid reviewers would be cruel. But the fan fiction community was incredibly supportive and kind. I started my first story in September and in February, I was contacted by a publisher. 2012 was a crazy year.

I sent Sylvain Reynard a thank you note a little while ago, and he was very kind and gracious in his response.

If you had 24 hours with nothing to do but read, what books would you read?

How many do I have to narrow it down to? My appetite for books is legendary, and I read everything from graphic novels to ancient Japanese literature. I have a library of non-fiction books on bizarrely esoteric subjects like ketchup, and the history of lawn care, and two sagging book cases filled with nothing but vampire romance novels.  I never know what I’m going to be in the mood to read.

Book Review The End of All Things by Lissa Bryan

About the Book

After a terrible virus ravages the planet, Carly Daniels, one of the few survivors, hides in her apartment in Juneau trying to survive the best she can with only occasional forays to gather food. With her is Sam, a wolf puppy she found starving on the streets. He becomes her companion and a reason to continue when giving up sometimes seems like the more attractive option. Still dazed with shock and grief, she hopes for the world to go back to normal soon.

She is discovered by Justin, an ex-soldier who is intent on making his way to Florida before the winter sets in. Justin coaxes her out of her hiding place and convinces her to join him on his journey, because a warmer climate will be their best chance against the extremes of Mother Nature.

Together, they begin a perilous journey through a nation laid to waste by the disaster. Challenges abound along the way. The weather, injury, and shortage of supplies all help to slow them down. In time, they discover that they aren’t the only survivors. Some are friendly but some have had their minds destroyed by the high fever. Then there are those who simply take what they want, leaving Carly and Justin with no choice but to defend what is theirs.

But their journey is not without joy and love. Together, they face every struggle, including an unplanned pregnancy. Despite the perils of bringing a child into a world of chaos, their baby is a new beginning for themselves and a symbol of hope for the other survivors they find along the way.

This is the story of their journey to find a place to begin a new life, and a home in each other.

About the Author

Lissa Bryan is an astronaut, renowned Kabuki actress, Olympic pole vault gold medalist, Iron Chef champion, and scientist who recently discovered the cure for athlete’s foot … though only in her head. Real life isn’t so interesting, which is why she spends most of her time writing.

Find Lissa on her blog, her Facebook pageGoodreads profile, and follow her on Twitter. To buy the books, check Amazon.