Last month, one of our members, Toby Bennett, was awarded the Silver Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature 2019 (in the English category). We thought you might like to get to know him a little better. So here’s an interview about his life, inspiration and his furbabies.
Tell us a bit about your inspiration for The Music Box?
Ironically it all began as a writing exercise – I was on a short course where we were asked to write up a dialogue. I decided to write the phone call that you read at the start of the book. It started as a scene snatched from limbo, but the more I thought about it the more I found there was a story behind the interchange. Who was this angry woman and why was her son special? What was it she feared?
The dialogue had a lot of tension in it and I soon realised that something bad had happened in that house. I can’t say much more without spoilers, but basically I started with the premise of a boy who could fix everything yet whose own life was subtly broken.
What are the main themes in this book?
The main theme running through the book is the different layers of reality on which we all exist. The outward show of things and the inner life of the mind. The whole community of Dowdale is staid and set in its ways. It is a community that lives on the very edge of what we would call normality, yet this makes it prize the appearance of that normality all the more. No one ever notices anything strange or says anything out of place, because they can’t afford to disrupt the consensus of their reality.
The theme is echoed in the relationship between John and his mother. In every respect Maribell tries to act the part of a good member of the community, but is in fact hiding her dysfunctional nature. The love-hate relationship between mother and son allows me to touch on issues like domestic abuse and mental health. A close reading of the book would allow you to see the events described in different ways, depending on the lens you look at the story through; the question of perspective is key to the whole narrative, but again I can’t give too much away.
One aspect I’m particularly enamoured with is how the book starts with uproar and ends in silence.
Have you addressed these same themes in any of your other books?
I’m afraid I do keep noticing an obsession with larger philosophical themes in my work, so while I hope I don’t repeat myself, there are some questions that do keep coming up for me. One of the effects of writing in magical worlds is that I am prompted to start asking where we stand when what we deem possible and impossible have shifted.
Shared dreams and telepathy are often fascinating to me, since they represent the possibility of bridging the gap between people and that is a wonderful, if sometimes daunting, proposition that I can’t help but want to explore.
Of course, the most important thing for me is to craft an exciting story on which to hang any of the more esoteric concepts I like to play with – before I go sounding too highbrow!
What was the first story you remember writing?
Egad! I don’t even know where to start with this one. I think one of the fist stories I wrote was when I was about nine or ten loosely based on the Tunguska event which I decided was actually a crashed alien spaceship.
It’s been a long time since them days… but I’ve never lost my taste for the fantastic and improbable.
What is a typical day like for you?
Afraid I’m really not very interesting, mostly I just sit in front of a screen and imagine things. Not much to tell really.
When and where do you write?
I’m pretty sure every writer will say: when and where I can. There have been times in my life when inspiration struck and I’ve found myself desperately typing out a scene between tasks at work.
As a rule I like to write in the mornings.
What would you do if you won the lotto?
I’ve thought about this one on and off and the truth is I’d probably just keep doing what I’m doing now, but it would be nice to have financial stability…
Do you have any pets?
I have a very fluffy dog and a very fluffy cat. I could also have several woolly jumpers if I bothered to keep all the hair they shed.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a collaborative fantasy novel, while slowly going through the process of editing and reviewing older work. Plenty on the to do list – what concerns me is a lack of time. Has anyone come up with a way of getting more of that? Asking for a friend!
What do you think the future holds for storytelling?
It’s a tricky question. In one sense it has never been so easy for people to get their stories out there, but that’s also the problem: the market is saturated and there are any number of entertainments that clamour for the public’s attention.
There are many media streams offering us a dazzling variety of content.
People have become used to getting high quality work for almost nothing, and it’s difficult for individual writers and artists to keep going in that kind of environment.
Human beings will always tell stories and it looks like the future will see us spoiled for choice, unfortunately I think there may be some question as to whether any but a very few will be able to survive purely as content creators.
If you were asking what kind of stories I think they will tell in the future, my prediction is that the same themes will underlie it all. There are many aspects to modern life to make us question older ways of seeing things, but whether we are able to cast off the underpinnings of our nature so easily is an open question. People will fall in love, fight, lose and triumph.
The basic structures of stories are relatively fixed, all that might change is who we root for and what we consider triumphs or losses.
One trend that does disturb me in storytelling, though hardly a modern one, is when it is used to propagandise or set up unrealistic narratives.
Stories that tell us the bad guys always lose; that the moral choice will always be easy or work out, and that we can always have it all.
Somewhere at the root of all stories there must be the capacity to offer us real rather than false hope. The chances are you can’t kick box your way to justice, and that if you take time off work to see your kids recital, you won’t get the big raise.
Stories can be an escape – I’ve certainly used them that way, but the best stories make us aware of calamity and consequence. Personally I find a story more inspiring for the weight that honestly grappling with difficult issues lends.
If I have a dream for story telling in the future it’s that it will keep helping us engage with our own lives and that storytellers will never be afraid to go to dark or unsettling places.
Are there any particular scenes from The Music Box that were influenced by events in your real life?
On some level I’m sure my life must have some bearing, but the story came piping hot from the depths of my subconscious so I couldn’t really put my finger on any one scene.
Who are your literary heroes?
Again sorry to disappoint, I don’t have heroes.
If I had to talk about influences, I would have to mention Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Tolkien, Andre Norton and any number of books that have shaped my work. Even writing those four names makes me think I should add, Michael Moorcock, J.V. Jones, Joe Abercrombie, Robbin Hobb, Alan Dean Foster and even then I’m leaving out King , Zelazny, Stoker, Shakespeare – there’s just too many.
I’m a bit of a magpie and I collect stories and scenes I like. They’ve all filtered in there and no doubt left their mark, but I don’t hold up any one as most important – I’ve probably even forgotten the names of some of the books I loved most as a kid.
The only thing I can say in my defence for this lack of reverence for authors and titles is that I am equally prepared to take a back seat, people are more than welcome to forget about me, but I will count it a singular victory if they remember my stories.
If you could never write another word, what creative pursuit would you turn to instead?
What’s your motto/favourite quote?
Again I find myself overwhelmed by the choice.
For practical purposes I’d choose Hanlon’s razor, I’d certainly give a nod to Roy Batty’s reminiscences of C-beams in the dark near the Tannhauser gate and Martin Luther King had some great things to say, but one that gets me every time comes from Henry V (slightly mangled):
“We are but warriors for the working-day; Our gayness and our guilt are all besmirch’d with rainy marching in the painful field…But, by the Mass, our hearts are in the trim.”
*Featured image credit: Brenda Veldtman