Ben Peek is an author to watch out for. I mean it. Writer of Twenty-Six Lies / One Truth (very cool stuff), another of his books, Black Sheep, has now become available to the public. The following is an interview I did with him, about this novel and other things:
Brendan Connell: Ok, a dystopian novel about race. First question: Why?
Ben Peek: Basically, race is one of those interests I have. One of those big, life defining interests. When I was a kid, I grew up in this neighborhood filled with Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, British, Turkish. . . . Well, a fairly diverse racial group. I never thought much of it until, when I was about ten or eleven, I noticed my mum saying things with a vague bit of racism in them. Nothing huge, mostly about how those kinds of people came to the country for free benefits, and jobs, which impacted on people like her getting what she deserved. That she herself was an immigrant never seemed to enter her mind. Since then, it’s just been this thing for me. Racial politics, thoughts, the like, plays such a big part for me in my life that there was never not going to be a novel about race.
Brendan Connell: So race and racism are the same thing?
Ben Peek: No, not really. It’s just that my first interactions with race are filtered through the memory of racism. I guess it’s fair to say that I noticed different races, and became aware of my own race, through racism, if that makes sense?
Brendan Connell: Sure. . . . So, is Australian society especially racist in your opinion?
Ben Peek: I hesitate to say it is. I haven’t seen much of the rest of the world, but my opinion, from what I understand, is that the world is a fairly racist place, and Australia is no better and worse than a lot of other places out there. But, it has done a lot of fucked up things to people who aren’t white, and continues to do so. And yet, at the same time, y’know, there’s a really beautiful multiculturalism here. So . . .
Brendan Connell: Maybe it is a bit like the US in that way.
Ben Peek: Maybe. I’ll see in November when I’m there. It’s going to be interesting to see the States first hand, I reckon.
Brendan Connell: Yes, it’s an interesting place.
Ben Peek: It’s got such a dominating culture throughout the world. In many ways I feel like I’ve been living in a society that is full of simulations of American culture.
Brendan Connell: Yes, but of course US culture is a simulation of everything else. At least these days. . . . Anyhow, race is a pretty heavy-weight topic—compared to a lot of the escapist literature currently in the fantasy circuit, anyhow. Which sort of brings me to the next question: Do you think writers have a moral obligation to their readers?
Ben Peek: Nah. What I think they’ve got is a moral obligation to themselves. If they’ve got a thing—and every writer has a thing that guides them, motivations them, centers them. . . . If they’ve got that, then they should put it into their work.
Brendan Connell: So what is your thing?
Ben Peek: Mine is race, at the moment. Culture to a degree. I think it might be changing though. Lately I’ve become interested in the freedoms people have. Personal freedom. It’s hard to explain—but there are lots of ways in which an individual’s personal right to live life the way they want is sort of cut down. Limited, I guess.
Brendan Connell: So, you like the idea of the political novel I take it?
Ben Peek: I think it’s more of the social novel, I like. But yeah, I like a novel with some kind of conversation with the world in it.
Brendan Connell: Black Sheep is your second novel to be published, after Twenty-Six Lies. But which book did you write first?
Ben Peek: Black Sheep. Twenty-Six Lies was never planned. If Deb Layne hadn’t asked me about it, I would never have written it.
Brendan Connell: So Black Sheep was actually a complete thing before you even began Twenty-Six Lies?
Ben Peek: Yeah, totally. I finished that, what, 2002, I think. I had actually just finished writing A Year in the City when I wrote Twenty-Six Lies. So there’s a whole second novel before it, really.
Brendan Connell: Which has been published or not?
Ben Peek: No. The agents are shopping that around.
Brendan Connell: Ok, so your stuff is getting published backward—or maybe not quite backward.
Ben Peek: Heh. Yeah, kinda. Though A Year in the City and Twenty-Six Lies compliment each other very nicely, I think.
Brendan Connell: What is A Year in the City about?
Ben Peek: It’s a mosaic novel about, well, Sydney. About Sydney as a multicultural city. Though the term I came up with while writing it was mongrel city. And it’s a kind of mongrel genre novel, too, in that there are magic realist chapters, crime narratives, realist things, and all sorts of different, wildly varied voices. It’s fucking cool.
Brendan Connell: Sounds cool. More experimental than Black Sheep I take it?
Ben Peek: Yeah, absolutely. It’s easily the most ambitious thing I’ve written. It almost broke me doing it.
Brendan Connell: I look forward to reading it.
Ben Peek: Neat.
Brendan Connell: How long does it take you to write a novel? Black Sheep is over three-hundred pages. How long did that take?
Ben Peek: It varies. Black Sheep was about three years from concept to end. A Year in the City was four, maybe five. It grew out of an earlier project I was doing. But four years writing it. But Twenty-Six Lies was written in a rush of four months.
Brendan Connell: And out of the three, which do you think is the strongest?
Ben Peek: A Year in the City, I’d say. But I dunno. it’s hard for me to truly say. I’m the worse person to judge my work. But A Year in the City is bigger, nastier, and more ambitious than the others. And really, Twenty-Six Lies is a bit like the off-cuts of my thoughts at the time for A Year in the City. I had a whole autobiographical strand through the novel, which just didn’t gel, so I had to cut it. I was riffing on that urge when I did Twenty-Six Lies.
Brendan Connell: So, nasty is a good thing?
Ben Peek: I think I just mean nastier for me. Nastier to write. Pushing all my limits. Making me work. It’s not a real nasty novel, though in places it can be. In other places, it’s quite sweet.
Brendan Connell: Cool. . . . But back to Black Sheep.
Ben Peek: Sure.
Brendan Connell: How should people react to the novel?
Ben Peek: I dunno. However they want to react. Hate it or love it. So long as they feel something, I’m good.
Brendan Connell: The paraphernalia of the book-descriptions of places, people—how they dress etc.—are pretty much the same as those around us. So it doesn’t seem necessarily futuristic, but more like a slightly alternate reality. Maybe a political commentary. Was that your intention?
Ben Peek: I meant it to be an alternate reality kind of thing, really, with a sort of social commentary running through it. I wanted to play off books like 1984, Brave New World, and Darkness at Noon, so I guess my intentions was to write a book that would fit in with those neatly.
Ben Peek: Actually, it sort of reminded me of The Sound of His Horn by Sarban.
Ben Peek: Yeah? I’ve never read it, but shall go have a look.
Brendan Connell: Your book is totally different. But it sort of reminded me of that. . . . Anyhow, about half way through the novel, it starts to change stylistically. Do you have any comments about that?
Ben Peek: Basically, the situations begin to change (as they tend to do, really). The first quarter of the book deals with how Isao was caught, and since the novel opens with his trial, it’s told in back-flash—the outcome is never in doubt, and it’s a pretty straight forward device that introduces the reader to his world, and the tragedy of what has happened to him. After that, Isao is dumped into the Assimilation program, and that, of course, is all about messing with your perceptions-but for it to work, I tried to keep it flowing organically from the first quarter. However, by the time the second half of the novel rolled around, thirteen years has passed, Isao is waking up in a new life, and we’re very much in the now. I originally thought about switching to present tense at this stage, but in the end, I decided against that, and instead opted to feed a little more ‘now’ into the style. In addition to that, Isao is, at this stage, quite fractured as a personality, and I wanted to be able to show that. . . . So yeah, it changes. I’m hoping people don’t find it too jarring, but I guess time will tell.
Brendan Connell: Some parts of the story read like stream of consciousness. Was that a
conscious choice, or something organic that just came about?
Ben Peek: Nah, that was deliberate. I like good bit of stream of consciousness
and, in the places when I used it, I felt it allowed me to shift tones and speed and get a response I wanted out of the book.
Brendan Connell: What are your ambitions for this novel? How would you measure its success?
Ben Peek: Ambitions, huh? Well, mostly, I’m just cool if people read my work, and have an opinion about it, one way or the other. Other than that, I don’t try and get any delusions over it, since I figure half the problems with authors is that they’re caught up in their own genius. That kind of thought doesn’t mean much of anything at the end of the day, and usually, it just ends with you having to eat reality as you fall into it. . . . I suppose if anything, I’d like for people to read the book and think I was worth spending cash on a second book, or a look in at my other work. So, if the book makes people check out Twenty-Six Lies, and then that book puts them on a path where’d they’d keep an eye out for me, and buy the next book, whatever that is, then I’ll consider it a success.