Every once in a while I interview a writer that just makes me giggle. I love that! That is the kind of experience I had with Ben H. Winters. He’s got a great sense of humor, an incredibly diverse writing background, and some great advice for writers. I know you are going to enjoy this interview!
Writing the follow-up to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has to be thrill of a lifetime! Who’d have thought Jane Austen would make such a great “co-author.” Tell us how your book, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, came to be?
I’ve been working with Quirk Books for a few years, thanks to one of those marvelous bits of serendipity life sometimes grants us. My wife is an attorney, and she got a gig clerking for a judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. So, for just one year, we moved from Brooklyn down to Philadelphia, to an apartment on a charming little lane called Church Street, across the street from Quirk’s three-story headquarters. My landlord, a kibitzer from the old school, made sure his new writer tenant was introduced to the publisher across the street, and soon I was pitching them like crazy. Once I was back in New York, I wrote The Worst Case Scenario Pocket Guide: New York for them, and then contracted to do a bunch more of the Worst Case titles.
Point is, I was very much a known quantity to the folks at Quirk—especially editorial director (now associate publisher) Jason Rekulak—when they realized Zombies was going to be a big fat hit. Jason called me, we bounced the idea for Sea Monsters back and forth, I did a spec chapter, and suddenly I was off to the races.
And you’re right—it was and is such a thrilling opportunity, and I feel extremely fortunate that I’m the guy who got to do it. I could be self-deprecating and say getting this gig was a lucky break, and it sort of was, but only sort of. It was also a matter of working hard to be in place to get the lucky break, and then being ready and able to do a bang up job, when I got it.
I know of so many people that have read at least one of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Guide books. What gave you the idea for those books? What kind of research did you have to do?
I wish I could lay claim for the idea, but Quirk was doing Worst Case long before I came along. My understanding is that the original book and its first batch of sequels were the brainchild of Quirk boss-man David Borgenicht. I was put on contract in spring of 2008 to write a bunch of new titles in the series, over a two-year period.
Writing these books is equal parts humor writing and nuts-and-bolts journalism. I call a lot of experts and ask them to tell me how to handle the various preposterous situations. My favorite that I’ve done so far is Worst Case: Cars where I got to learn about how to drive up and down a flight of stairs (short answer: carefully) and how to escape if you’re locked in a trunk.
Your writing background is so diverse. It’s great. Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?
I made my start in Chicago, doing journalism, and then spent four or five years writing plays and libretti. These days I’m doing less and less theater, in part because the lifestyle of the theater artist is harder to maintain once you’ve got a young family. I do have one new musical upcoming, a kids show called Uncle Pirate, based on the book by Douglas Rees, that’ll be debuted at Vital Children’s Theater in the spring. (http://www.vitaltheatre.org/childrenstheatre.php)
I also have another novel in the works, a young adult book called The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, which I’ve sold to HarperCollins, for September 2010. It’s one of those weird publishing business things; I started that book long, long before Sea Monsters was even conceived¸ but it won’t come out till long after. It’s set at Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School, and stars a couple of kids who discover a shocking secret about their nerdy band-and-chorus teacher.
And there is definitely more to come from the “Quirk Classics” imprint; but if I tell you anything about it, I fear they’ll kill me.
What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?
What a great question. I’ll say The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I love the story of teenage Franklin walking down Market Street like a ragamuffin, holding his three puffy rolls.
No particular order: Charles Dickens; Edith Wharton; Mark Twain; John Irving; PD James; David McCullough; David Foster Wallace; Ira Levin; Patricia Highsmith.
Book you’re currently reading?
Too many. A Jules Verne anthology; PD James’s Children of Men; and I’m a hundred or so pages into volume one of the three-volume LBJ biography by Robert Caro.
Any type of writing ritual you have?
I try to not go online until after 12:30 . The internet is such a time-and-energy suck, and I hate to feel the day’s first good energy spiraling down the nethole.
Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?
I’m fortunate never to have suffered from that. Self-destructive procrastination, yes. Writing too fast and not carefully enough, yes. Writer’s block, no. Not yet.
In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?
OK, so, I’m currently on the New York Times best seller list for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and obviously that kind of success in the marketplace is tremendously validating.
But having said that, the most successful I have ever felt as a writer is sitting with a large audience watching my children’s musical, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, for which I did book and lyrics. To see kids laughing, cheering, going “oo” when Paul and his wife smooch—that level of visceral enjoyment they’re getting out of the work, I find deeply soul-satisfying. I have to count that as the supreme marker of success.
Being able to pay my mortgage is gravy. Very, very welcome gravy.
Advice for other writers?
If you suddenly feel like a scene isn’t working, try adding a giant mutant lobster—it really worked for me.
But seriously folks…take note of those things that distract you from your work (and there are so many such things available to us these days) and strive mightily to minimize their power in your life.
Where can we learn more about you?
Anything else you’d like to add?
Only thank you for this opportunity to share with your community. Of all the titles I now bear, “working writer” is the one I am almost the most proud of—a close second to “dad.”