Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Suspect #1 in The Interrogation Room: Edgar-Nominated Author Ben H. Winters

This week we've hauled author Ben H. Winters to face the glare of The Interrogation Room spotlight and questioning from Diana Renn and Kristen Kittscher. 

Ben is the author of several plays and novels, including the Edgar-nominated middle-grade mystery The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman and its follow-up, out today, The Mystery of the Missing Everything. He also wrote two parody novels, the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters  (with Jane Austen) and Android Karenina (with Leo Tolstoy). Over the years, Ben has also worked as a bass player, ice-cream scooper, creative writing teacher, and (disastrously) as a cat-sitter. These days Ben lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his family. 

Here's the full transcript of our interview with the suspect:  

Ben, our panel of detectives has brought you into the Interrogation Room on suspicion of imprisoning teams of writing elves in your basement. After all, you have written everything from plays to survival handbooks and have THREE books coming out in September: your new middle grade mystery The Mystery of Missing Everything, a paperback release of The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, and Bedbugs, a novel for adults. How can this all be the work of one writer? We’re hoping your answers to these questions can chase away our suspicions…

Kristen:   Let’s say you’re not guilty. What’s your secret to finding time to write?

Ben:       First of all, let me say that I appreciate the presumption of innocence. And while I am indeed innocent of having a basement full of writing elves, I am guilty of having two small children, with a third small child arriving any day now. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I’ve found that since becoming a parent, though I have much less time to write, I have become better and better at managing and maximizing the time I do have. Having very clear and intractable boundaries at the beginning and end of my writing day focuses my energies. There’s none of this “I’ll just finish this part later tonight,” or because when “later tonight” rolls around, I won’t be writing anything. I’ll be doing dishes or cleaning bottles or making a row of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So it’s not about finding time to write, it’s about making the best use of the time you get.

Secret #2 is a cheap and marvelous computer program called Freedom, which allows one to disable the internet on one’s computer for a set amount of time. I use it both as an anti-procrastination machine and a high-tech kitchen timer.

Diana:   What have you found to be the particular challenges and rewards of writing mysteries for kids?

Ben:      Funny you ask, because right now I’m working on a mystery for adults, and I’m surprised at how many of the lessons I learned writing The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman and The Mystery of the Missing Everything are so directly applicable in this very dark, very adult new novel. It’s all about the careful corralling of information; I, as the writer, have to know everything (meaning everything -- you can’t B.S. it), and figure out the best ways to reveal just enough to keep the reader from becoming irritated, while withholding enough to keep them intrigued. That basic truth holds true, I don’t care if you’re writing for grown-ups or children or chickens. I guess if you forced me, I’d say that kids need clearer signposts, more jokes, and brighter characters, to keep them interested. But don’t hold me to that, either; there are some very smart young mystery readers out there, and some dense adult ones.

Kristen:   Your portrayal of school life is hilariously dead-on. Do you rely more on memories or recent experience working with students?

Ben:    Thank you! It’s a combination. I’m always surprised and delighted to meet kids now who remind me of kids I knew way back when...I think there’s a wonderful continuity across generations in the mindset of the middle-grader: that mix of anxiety, enthusiasm, self-discovery, fear, and joy. That said, there are definitely certain individuals from my long-ago youth that pop up, variously altered, in my middle-grade fiction. And anyone who has ever been to Montgomery Mall (now Westfield Mall, or some nonsense), in Potomac, Maryland, will recognize the mall where Bethesda Fielding and her friends hang out -- complete with the animatronic chef that pops up and says ‘witty’ things in a thick French accent.

Diana:     Who are your favorite mystery authors and why?
Ben:       PD James. Richard Price.
Very different writers, but both are incredible prose stylists, and both masters are masters of the very tricky art I mentioned above, of the withholding and slow unveiling of information -- when to whisper secrets in our ear, when not to, and when to tell us just enough to figure it out for ourselves.

Kristen:   We hear you teach humor writing workshops. What advice do you have for writers who want to pepper their work with more humor? Can being funny be taught? (Or should we haul you in on charges of impersonating a teacher, as well?)
Ben:       Humor, like plot, should come from the core of the characters: from anxiety, ambitions, and desire. People comically embarrass themselves, for example, trying to get something they desperately want, and it’s what we want that makes us who we are. (Sorry -- do I sound like I’m trying to be fancy and philosophical? I’m not. A scene where a seventh grader gets ink all over his face is funny, but it becomes really deeply funny if the pen breaks because he’s been chewing on it all morning because he’s nervous about the math quiz because he forgot to study because that, that right there, you see, is the kind of kid that this kid is.)

Diana:     The Secret Life of Ms. Finkelman is told from multiple points of view, which only intensifies our suspicions about those poor imprisoned teams of writing elves. Why did you decide to tell the story that way? Were some characters easier than others to write?

Ben:      Here comes Mr. Fancy-Pants again, but I think the story will tell you how to write it. In this case I realized early on that it was Bethesda Fielding’s story, but that to move forward properly, and to keep the reader guessing, we’d need to shift around and get to know the other folks first-hand.

          I’m quite proud of the fact that the sequel, The Mystery of the Missing Everything also shifts points of view -- and there’s one POV where the reader does not know whose head they’re in until the very end of the book.

Kristen:  To what extent was writing the sequel different?

Ben:      The nice thing was that, where I wrote Finkleman on spec (as they say), with Mystery I had a deal with HarperCollins. So I benefited from feedback all the way along from my editor there.

Diana:     One last thing — what writing secret will you reveal only under the harsh lights of this interrogation room?

Ben:       Get off the stupid internet. Get a program like Freedom, and/or Antisocial. Don’t start your writing day by checking email. Write down research questions to check later, instead of going online to do it right away, and spiraling into two hours of aimless web surfing. Writing is hard, and we will always find ways to talk ourselves out of getting down to it. So block your internet connection and get down to it.

It looks like we can safely clear Ben of the charges. He’s the real deal! Many thanks to Ben for putting up with the interrogation. We're going to make it up to him by buying copies of his three books out this month. We hope you will, too:
Bedbugs (for adults)

Tomorrow we'll announce the lucky Interrogation Room Book Giveaway winner, who'll receive a free copy of The Mystery of the Missing Everything. UPDATE: We have a winner: congratulations to Sarvenaz Tash! Many thanks for all the entries. There were lots of correct guesses to put into the hat.

We plan to call at least three suspects for questioning in October, so do check back for more author interviews and chances to win!


  1. I am feeling self-conscious about commenting on this fantastic interview and thus admitting that I am on the internet. Sigh. Great job, Kristen, Diana and Ben!

  2. Yes, what better interview ending than: "Get off the stupid internet!" Back to the word mines I go:-)

    Ben, thanks for being our first suspect.

  3. LOL, Elisa! Same here! BUT I finished my word goals for the day, so I'm not feeling quite so guilty. :P Anyway, great interview! And what an awesome concept with the "suspects."

  4. Maybe I should get Freedom. I waste way too much time on the internet...

  5. You should definitely get Freedom, Susanne. It's changed my life.

    Also changing my life: my new daughter, Milly, who was born on Sept 19, and whose joyful presence has precluded me from seeing this piece until now. So a belated thank you, Diana and Kristen, for featuring me. I love your new site -- long may it prosper.


  6. Congratulations, Ben and welcome Milly! That's wonderful news.

    We really appreciated your taking the time to share some of your thoughts with us here, especially considering all you've got going on.

    Stop in again any time!


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