Benjamin Wood’s debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals, which has garnered considerable praise in the U.K., goes on-sale in the U.S. this week. Benjamin, who is one of the most considerate writers I know, has a special gift for creating memorable characters. My only regret is that I can’t share a beer with him from the other side of the Atlantic.
When We Fell In Love – Benjamin Wood
I would guess that most writers of my generation grew up with the stories of Roald Dahl—his books The Magic Finger, George’s Marvellous Medicine, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox were childhood favourites, and my love of reading is rooted in these early experiences. The stories of Dahl’s I best remember were in his collection Dirty Beasts, which my mother often read to me at bedtime. The effortless rhythms of Dahl’s couplets captivated me, and I would take joy in anticipating each of his rhymes as if awaiting the finale of a magic trick (I knew every word by heart). The macabre quality of the stories was so enthralling: Dahl was a writer who could make my spine tingle and my lungs ache with laughter at the same moment. The story about the young girl who sits on a porcupine and has the prickles extracted by a gleeful dentist, Mr Myers, will stay with me forever—“Quite honestly, I cant pretend, I’ve ever pulled things from this end…” As a child, I didn’t read as much as I should have, but I spent long periods of time writing my own rhyming stories; later, I would apply myself to writing song lyrics in the same way, and I’m certain that my familiarity with the effortless music of Dahl’s work gave me an early understanding of how rhyme should sound and function.
When I was twenty, I saw Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy in my local branch of WHSmith. It was a rain-soaked afternoon and I was sheltering in the store, passing through the fiction section on my way to the music department upstairs (this had been a recurrent theme of my teenage years: listening was always given priority over reading, as I was pursuing a career as a songwriter with a kind of tunnel vision). Auster’s novel sang to me from the shelf—that moody neon-blue cover with the pinhole-camera image of the Empire State Building and the author’s name in orange lettering. It was inadvertently facing outwards, as if someone browsing before me had picked it up and put it down again, left it waiting there for me. I read the first line of the opening page—“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not…” I didn’t make it to the music department that day. I bought the book and rode the bus home in the rain. Over the course of three of four days (I wasn’t a fast reader then—actually, I’m still fairly slow) I finished the first novel in the trilogy, City of Glass, savouring every word. It is a brilliant, sinister, ingenious noir story. The novel sets out as a classic mystery—an author, Quinn, is grudgingly hired as a private detective to follow a woman’s husband, whom she suspects to be in danger—but it subverts all the reader’s expectations as the plot unravels, becoming a haunting psychological portrait of a man’s obsession—Quinn becomes so consumed by his surveillance that he loses all perspective on his own life. Reading City of Glass made me realise what could be achieved in fiction, what could be said and felt in the confines of a novel. Its metaphysical themes felt very close to the kind of messages I wanted to convey in my songwriting at the time, but Auster was saying it so much better. City of Glass will always be an important book in my life, as it made me understand something vital: that fiction was the form I needed to concentrate on if I wanted to explore my ideas in greater depth. It was not the book that inspired me to write—creating stories was an instinct I’d had from an early age—but it was certainly the book that made me focus on becoming a novelist.