Interview with PJ Benney

Twitter: @pjbenney - Website: Here!

Writers rarely get the opportunity to ‘toot their own horn’ so to speak. I always like to start off these interviews with a little intro and feel free to really go for it! Tell our readers a little bit about yourself, what you do and what you are working on currently. Be loud and be proud!

I am a Creative Writing graduate and full-time proofreader, living in London. I don’t write every day, but I’m always thinking about my projects, and problem-solving in my head. I am permanently caffeinated. I hate when people ask me how X book is coming along, but simultaneously it’s sometimes the only thing that keeps me going. So please do ask me. And forgive the pained expression on my face when I respond. I have a huge respect for self-starters - people that just decide that a project or venture should exist, and then get cracking and do it for themselves. I always try and support indie musicians, writers and even game developers where possible. I believe in voting with my wallet, so I’m more likely to spend my money on lesser known creators than big brands/names. At the moment there’s nothing I like more than finishing something, and being able to put it out there straight away for people to discover.

When did you first start writing and why did you decide to pursue it? You also self-publish, which there are always mixed views about. What would you say to those in two minds about self-publishing?

I started writing for laughs when I was about sixteen. I drafted a few chapters of a terrible fantasy novel about an eccentric with a superpower, and sent it via MSN Messenger (if you remember that) to anyone that would listen. That novel went the way of MSN Messenger –neglected, forgotten and eventually lost forever. The first thing I actually saw through to the end was for NaNoWriMo about ten years ago; I drafted a 50k novel about the fall of Atlantis. It was abysmal. BUT – I finished it. And then I promptly deleted it.

Regarding self-publishing, I think readers put their trust in a book that has been vetted by a team of professionals, as opposed to one or more private individuals. Readers like to know that they’re buying a functional product that has jumped through all the publishing “hoops” – namely quality control. People are discerning about how they’re spending their money, and they’re more likely to invest in a book that has merited a huge ad campaign, celebrity endorsements and a team of agents and editors to triple-check it all, than they are to buy a book someone’s put together at their desk in their bedroom. And that’s perfectly reasonable.

But self-publishing is a remarkable space to experiment. I shopped Déjà Moo around to about thirty agents and the ones that got back to me mostly explained that they liked the writing, but couldn’t get to grips with the concept. (It’s about farmyard animals, celebrities and timetravel. So, yeah.) There are always going to be weird, unconventional projects that might not go mainstream, but still deserve a chance to shine. And self-publishing offers that. For readers, it means a wider selection, but also, a broader variety within that selection. Plus, as I said before, on a selfish level, there’s nothing better than finishing a book and putting it out into the world.

Of course, there’s an element of trust involved. Indie authors want people to trust their work, want it to be talked about, shared and promoted via word of mouth. For that to happen, they have to do their readers the courtesy of working with editors, proofreaders and beta-readers to ensure the quality of the product they are trying to sell.

Why make History and a cow such big characters in the novel? When did you first start inventing these characters?

The cows came first. At university we were tasked with writing something set in London, and I, outraged by such a (so I thought) pointless constraint, came up with a very rural farmyard concept about cattle-traders, in protest. My tutor actually quite liked it, though, so I’m not sure who won that one.

In the final novel I did personify History into an omniscient observer, and a character in its own right. I think this probably stemmed from me being rather tired and got mixed up between narration and dialogue and then realised it kind of worked. Happy accident,’ said Peter, rubbing his eyes, yawning and wondering if he can go to bed yet.

Your novel, Deja Moo, blends urban fantasy and what I call ‘Englishness’ together very well, in very much the same vein I’ve seen in Terry Pratchett or Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). What difficulties or challenges did you find in taking this route? Is there something very English about urban fantasy?

No. I think the genre and the style are disparate elements that I happened to smash together because I am just wired that way. Concept-wise it’s probably more comparable to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: monsters, magic, romantic drama, a band of misfits teaming up and working together. But the tone is very much Pratchett and Adams. I also love Jasper Fforde, I think he’s hilarious. The story would have worked just fine in any other country, or even in another time period. But I do love the idea of weird happenings occurring in everyday life, which is why I always favour urban-fantasy over high-fantasy. As for challenges, my sense of direction, and indeed location, is horrendous. If there are any geographical errors in Déjà Moo, well, bravo. You found them. Tweet me!

As I mentioned in my review, head-hopping often leads to whiplash for readers and a feeling of insincerity. The idea that the writer is happy to hop in-and-out of character's hearts and minds so freely gives the impression that he/she doesn't want to give these characters the depth and permanence they truly deserve. I was astounded that you took this dodgy area and really made it work, without losing the reader. What was the thought process behind this? Did you feel it was the best way to illustrate your lively cast of characters?

Only insofar as all of my human (and animal) characters are very much physically present, whereas History is not. History is essentially overseeing the action from a superior dimension, always there, recording and calculating and making notes, and only pipes up with a comment when strictly necessary. So History is layered into the narrative the same way History is literally on a metaphysical layer above the other characters. Yes. Let’s go with that.

While it is based on a partially real world, you take a lot of time and care to build up your fantasy elements and drip-feed the reader lore. How much research and planning did you have to do, or did you experiment as you went along?

Mostly improvisation. I took out the bits that felt flimsy and what was left was what I decided was relevant. I compared magic to cooking, the three schools of magic being different ingredients. Then I figured that the magic system would probably be powered BY food, because my characters love a good meal. That much was just instinct. I had to look up all the names of herbs and plants and such. But let’s face it, if you’re reading (or writing) a fantasy novel and you don’t know that werewolves hate silver, you’ve got a bit of catching up to do. I focused more on the human aspects of the novel, if I’m honest. The real-world, family and romantic entanglements. It’s a human story garlanded with fantasy bits and pieces because garlands just make things look a bit nicer, don’t they?

How did you come up with timestream radiation and why?

Fallout 3. You know when you stand to close to the atom bomb, and your pip-boy starts clicking and your character breaks out in burns and collapses to the floor? Yeah. I had probably been playing it that week. But more than that, I mean, you can’t do a bad thing (like crossing the timestream and altering History) and expect no consequences. You mess with the fabric of the universe and you’re probably going to get very sick. That’s just common sense. There’s a lot of radiation in space, or so I hear!

Now when I finished the book, I felt Daniel Wesley’s arc was not yet complete and that you were planning a sequel. Tell us what we can expect from Mr Wesley in your next instalment?

So Daniel is one of two protagonists in the book. At the start of the book he’s a very cocky, self-absorbed celebrity cattle-trader wrapped up in his life of luxury and fame. And he doesn’t really get all that close to many people. As the book progresses, Daniel gets knocked down a peg or two, and realises that he’s not going to get his happy ending unless he learns to rely on his friends a little bit, trust them and, god forbid, even be nice to them.

In the upcoming sequel, Bovine Intervention, I can tell you that Daniel’s spent a lot of time contemplating his life thus far, and he definitely resolves to be a better, more sensitive person. He might have solved his own problems, but he feels a sense of camaraderie toward the people that helped him, and once he learns that his friends are in need, he comes right back to support them.

And as for my other protagonist, Cynthia, she’s a lot more settled, more practical, more confident and independent. She very much wants to be left alone to get on with her life in private.

(She’s not going to get what she wants. (Cue sinister cackling.))

You have written a novella side-story for your Deja Moo universe, does it have a lot of baring on your next book or is it a standalone? I have read a good chunk of it and saw you were dealing with parallel universes. Are you ever nervous as a writer when you take on these tricky elements or are they not tricky at all?

I cheated a bit on that one. Encore Moo is essentially a sequence detailing the exact same day, but each time it pans out a little differently. (Hence, Encore!) So I wrote one short scene, then I rewrote it and changed it a bit, and then I wrote it again but faster and better. And then I kept rewriting it, throwing in different characters, different twists, and the final “version” of the day bears no resemblance to the first, because each “version” of the protagonist makes discoveries at a very different rate, and reacts differently. Nerves didn’t really factor into it, because it was a big experiment, which I did for fun, alone, on my own. And when I realised the experiment was a success, then I released it for fun. It’s all for fun. But hopefully the readers are having fun alongside me.

There were some very feminine topics in your work, specifically motherhood and its meaning, which you write about with understanding, care and tact. What made you want to approach these topics? Was it because your character Cynthia led you that way or did you have the idea before Cynthia was fully developed?

I can’t fully answer that without disclosing a MASSIVE SPOILER. But what I will say is this. I structured the story first, and the themes fell into place automatically, almost without me realising, after four or five drafts. I differentiate between what a book is about (i.e. a monster on the loose!) and what a book is really about (anger issues, mental health, addiction etc.) I knew I wanted X character here, Y character then, and Z plot twist in the last act. And the most succinct, entertaining, fantasy-y way I could think of accomplishing this arc, was to write about parents and children and reverse-engineer the outcome I wanted. I am not a parent, (although I do of course credit my love of books and reading to my own parents) and I certainly haven’t been through the things my characters go through. And as such I had to think very hard about what I was saying, and how, and to make it as respectful and balanced as I possibly could whilst remaining true to the story I was trying to tell. It’s 100% fiction. I do story first, themes second. But I appreciate that when one stumbles upon particularly heavy themes, even by accident, one has to handle them with sensitivity and respect. So yes, I picked certain twists because they fit and were convenient. But that then entailed far more work and care from me. I learnt a bit about myself. And it was totally worth it.

I loved how you illustrated all the different kinds of wizards and witches, from the mean to the slightly manic. You have monks playing tiddlywinks and a lovely married couple who stop for tea even in a crisis. Did you look at many examples of wizards/witches to help generate this eclectic cast?

Most of the characters are based on my friends. I take the dynamics I have with my friends, and swap out names, ages, professions etc. Again, it’s not so much about the magic as it is about the personalities. That Coriander is a witch is barely relevant. That Coriander has enough matching cups and saucers when a dozen guests come to afternoon tea – that’s a crucial detail!

Where/when do you usually write and do you have any particulars e.g. pen/paper first, cup of tea etc?

When I’m being really good I stick to the routine of Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Usually for 2-3 hours at a time. I make coffee (unless it’s the evening in which case, something else like decaf tea) and put music on and get going. (Music being St. Vincent, Kate Bush, Amanda Palmer, Florence + the Machine, Regina Spektor, Nick Cave et al…) There’s no magic recipe though. At the moment I’m sitting here in shorts drinking cola from a teacup and staring at the washing up from across the room – and I’ve knocked out over two thousand words just talking to you!

For those who love your books and want more, what books would you recommend them? Do you have any favourites? What resources would you recommend, if any, to writers wanting to pursue similar genres to yours?

Books – Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next Series (Start with The Eyre Affair), Hitchhikers, Discworld, Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman, Paper Magician series by Charlie Holmberg. It’s quite dark but I’m really into the Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone. I also love diverse YA like J. C. Lillis and Rainbow Rowell. I think that the YA genre is making such a huge effort to promote diversity, which is something everyone can get behind. Plus, so many instances of the friends become enemies trope.

But also TV Shows – Pushing Daisies was probably as big an influence as any book. It’s got such specifically weird characters, a brilliantly vibrant visual style, superpowers, and my favourite trope, Fire Forged Friends! The band of mismatched strangers that end up working together and become grudging friends by the end. See also Buffy the Vampire Slayer (if you’re reading this in the future, I haven’t seen the remake yet), Firefly, Doctor Who, all that good stuff. Amelie and Big Fish are two “larger than life” films that definitely shape the way I frame my story concepts in my head. I like colourful.

Resources? The only resource a budding writer needs is a pen and paper. Or a laptop, if you’re fancy. Just sit down and knock something out. Often. Well, you know. Sometimes. If you write 211 words every day for a year, you’ve written a book the length of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. That’s so little effort. You could probably do it on the toilet. And it doesn’t have to be scary because you don’t have to show anyone until you’ve made it good. Do it for yourself first. Worry about the other bits later. I always do the research last. Then when you’re being interviewed in five years’ time by Selcouth Station, you can answer the first question with “Actually, I wrote my first novel on the toilet.”

"P. J. Benney is a fantasy and science-fiction writer living in London. After the opening chapter of his novel Déjà Moo won the University of Roehampton's Novel Writing Prize in 2013, he supposed he should probably finish the rest of it. A few people have described him as funny, but he's not sure if this was a compliment or not. His current hairstyle is 'surprised'." - from 'About the Author' on www.pjbenney.com.