Ben Hobson is our special guest for the ScratchThat Issue 13 Launch. Ben Hobson is a teacher and author based in Brisbane. To Become a Whale, his debut novel, was released in 2017. It was longlisted for the ABIA Debut Fiction award and shortlisted for the Courier-Mail’s People’s Choice Award. His second novel, Snake Island, was released in 2019. He also runs Ben’s Book Club, a monthly online book club for libraries, and the Burgers, Beers, and Books podcast. The Death of John Lacey is his third novel and was released in February 2023.
Helen: As a teacher with a young family, when do you find the time to write?
Ben: To be completely honest, at this time in my life, it is very difficult. It is harder now than it ever has been. If I have something I’m really passionate about though, I’ll find the time. Normally for me it is eking out 30 minutes a day. In the past, when I’ve been writing books and studiously doing 1,000 words a day, I write very quickly. I can normally do 1,000 words in 30 minutes. I don’t look back. I go with the flow. I don’t agonise over making decisions about what characters do. I don’t sit there and think. I just write because I don’t have the luxury of time to think. They often say that you do a lot of your writing outside of when you are typing, and I will just find those 30 minutes and it’s where it suits.
The reason it has been harder now is that I used to get up at 5am and write from 5-5:30am, but I’m now getting up at 4:30am and going to the gym because that’s the only time I have to fit it in. I’m trying to focus on my physical health, which is improving my mental and spiritual health, but my focus on that has meant the writing has been put on the backburner. Having said that, if I really wanted to, I could fit those 30 minutes in. I used to write after dinner. I used to write while I watched a season of The Block. My first book, To Become a Whale, I had my laptop on my lap. I don’t really like The Block, but I wanted to spend time with my wife because I hadn’t seen her all day. I would write and during the ads I would stop, and we would have a conversation. It is just where you can find the time. The editing is a big thing for me but once the words are created, it is a different part of you that thinks about that process.
Helen: Your latest book, The Death of John Lacey, required a lot of research. What was appealing about that story and why did you set it in rural Victoria?
Ben: I’m from Victoria originally. The main draw for that story is three-fold. Firstly, I have always loved the Western as a genre. My dad isn’t a big reader but one of the few books he passed onto me was Louis L’Amour’s Sackett. From a film perspective I also find Westerns captivating, like Unforgiven or I’d even categorise There Will be Blood as a Western. I find the landscape and the fight for survival to be really compelling. That was the main draw, but as I began to write, it was the creation of John Lacey himself and what a villain he is. In my mind I had this question of, “what if you decided to look at people as objects and then what would it be like to be moving objects around in your mind without any worry about their wellbeing at all?” I am a person who worries a lot about other people’s wellbeing, so it was compelling to think, “what would he do in any situation?” Looking at people through his eyes was troublingly fun. He is so rotten and evil, and he doesn’t look at people as having any value. He is so narcissistic to the point of psychopathy but in a way his life was easier. Wouldn’t it be easier to not care about people?
Thirdly, as I started to research and write and think about the time period and the plight of the Wadawurrung people, I made contact with them and one of their elders Marlene Gilson, who was a big supporter of the book and loved seeing Wadawurrung stories embedded in my writing. Working with her made it more morally responsible and significant than just a fun, lark Western. It became something about reckoning with that part of our history. The start of the book has a court transcript about a man who was sent over; he was one of my ancestors. I put that in because I don’t know the type of men my ancestors were or what they were like. I hope they weren’t like John Lacey but I’m sure there was some stuff sprinkled throughout there. Even if they weren’t, they were part of this system that rewarded him. It was a long process, this one.
Helen: How long did it take?
Ben: I wrote the first section in 2019 and then I stopped writing it because it was too hard. Then I wrote an entire other novel, which was like a schleppy thriller type of thing, but it was rejected. The publisher did not care for it, which was a big blow, but when you go through those sorts of rejections it made me go back and think, “what’s the thing you always wanted to write?” Let’s say Eminem style—if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, what would you write? So I went back to Lacey and then it took another three more years back and forth. Allen and Unwin bought it in the middle of 2021, but then it’s working with editors. So it was a long process.
Helen: Is the finished book what you had imagined when you started writing?
Ben: No, I don’t really have a plan. I start with characters, but they are a very vague notion. My process is much more about the journey of the writing. I do have lots of ideas, but if I write a big document or plan and labour over it too long, I find I get very bored and I find it feels dead. I like to figure things out as I write them. I teach a writing course sometimes through Faber Academy through Allen and Unwin, but I say there are two types of people—firstly (this is my mum and my wife), they’ll plan and pack for their trip days before the journey and have a checklist. Then there are the likes of me, who packs on the day I am going and if I get there and don’t have something, I’ll figure it out then.
I used to feel a sense of shame with this process as I watched other writers with their plans. I do find that compelling and wish I could work that way but it’s just not me. I have to feel what the characters are doing to know who they are. I was asked to write a short story recently for a book that’s coming out. My first pass at it, I had a plan and a character arc and I played with the genre, and I was proud of the process. I wrote it and sent it to some people who said it was OK, but it felt dead to me. Then I had this other idea for a chef who purposely cuts himself and puts his blood in the meals that he serves. He wants to have a legacy and a sense of power over people. I thought it was artistic, but that’s all I had, and so I wrote and that came out much more interesting than the other story that I had planned. I can’t overthink things.
Helen: Tell me about the Indigenous character Russell from The Death of John Lacey and how he came about.
Ben: Russell is an interesting character. My research found that after the genocide in Tasmania, the government in Victoria were looking for a different approach in the rural areas. They would have envoys who would need translators, and they would go out and make trade and barter with the First Nations population, and it would be a peaceable transaction rather than what happened in Tasmania. That didn’t always work but in my mind, Russell was the employee of one of those to translate because he worked on a sheep station; he had a bit of English which was why he was particularly articulate, probably even more so than most of the white characters. He is more thoughtful. I worked very closely with Marlene Gilson with this because I wanted to create a three-dimensional character and wanted to avoid stereotypes. I wanted to write a real human, First Nations person.
Russell has a scene where he talks about stories. He says just because you’ve read a book, you don’t know me. If I read a book about some weak, hunting, white kid would I know you? I showed this to Marlene Gilson and she thought it was great. We place narratives on First Nations people—in fact, on everybody—in all different situations and a lot of it is unpicking of that. It’s often how we talk online as well in social media situations. There are people we lump in a group, and they are just over there, but they are actual human beings with different ideas, who love their kids, who have different ideas to us.
Helen: How important do you think it is for up-and-coming writers to have a social media presence?
Ben: I’ve taken a step back from social media. I’ve found it was too mean sometimes, and I found I was addicted to looking for people who were tagging me and liking me, which was counterproductive to being me. I worry a lot about what people think of me and social media is a way of doing that. It is negative for your mental space. That is just me. I have, though, made a lot of great friends and great relationships through social media. In fact, I wouldn’t have had as many of the podcasts or interviews I’ve been able to do without it. I’ve connected with people, and we’ve set up writers festivals over the years. There is no cut and dried answer. I know authors who have a huge presence on social media and use it well, and I know authors with no presence and their books still do well. It can give you a great sense of community, but it is a personal preference. Publishers look at it and it can help, but it is not necessary to have your work published.
Helen: How did you get your first book, To Become a Whale, published?
Ben: I sent it through to the Vogel’s when I was 34, as that was my last chance with that award, and it was rejected. But I got feedback which said, “a great tale of masculinity however it does not quite reach the dramatic heights it was aiming for”. Spending money on a hobby or a passion of mine feels selfish to me, which I know isn’t right but if my family needs something I will do that first. As a result, I’ve never invested in manuscript appraisals or been to any real writer’s workshops. I didn’t have a writing community. I was completely isolated. That was the first feedback I’d had. So, when I realised that it was drama they were after, I went back and edited it and it signified a big change in the book, but it also felt like the last hurrah for me. I’d been writing for nine years without any success; isolated and alone. I didn’t know whether I was on track or if there was any hope at all of anybody liking anything I had done.
So I edited it and sent it out to some agencies, and I received an email from my now agent Gabby who wrote, “I love this. Is this represented?” I wrote back straight away and said it wasn’t and she asked if she could call me in 30 minutes. I tried to stay calm and cool, but I was pacing and so excited. She sent through a contract, and I signed it that week. She asked for a few more changes. She’s always been a great note giver, which I don’t know if all agents are. After that she sent it out to some publishers and within two weeks, we had some answers back from multiple publishers. That was when my work went from being nine years of uncertainty to suddenly people wanting to pay me, and it was one of the most significant moments in my life.
Helen: It just goes to show that to become successful you have to maintain a passion and doggedness if you love the craft, and it can’t be about money.
Ben: Yes. For me it wasn’t even about the money. The validation came when I found out that there were people who liked what I write. It was 100% persistence. I often say that you just need one champion, and after nine years I found Gabby, and she is still my champion and my agent. She found me and she was on the inside of the fence, and she could open all these doors for me. I have a huge amount of loyalty to her. Just write the best you can. There is a bit of fate because you have to get yourself in front of the person who likes the same thing that you write and find them at the right time. There is a lot of luck, timing, and persistence.
Helen: What are you working on at the moment?
Ben: I have started on two projects but I’m taking my time in trying to figure out what I want to do. I’ve always wanted to write screenplays, so I’m looking at doing a course on that. I have 20,000–30,000 words on two different things at the moment. I have some weird ideas. Sometimes I wish that what I loved is what a lot of people love, so that my books were these instant bestsellers that everyone recommended because they like the same thing. I like weird stuff and genre stuff and I like art that makes you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I wish I was a bit more normal in what I enjoy but I’ve got to be me.
Helen: Can see yourself writing full-time?
Ben: Just taking one day off a week from teaching this year has been really difficult. I don’t make a liveable wage off being a writer by a stretch and even if I were to make a liveable wage, there is a lot of hustling in it. If I did it full-time, I would be writing with a different kind of passion; not because I love it but because I have to pay the bills. In addition to that, you have to put yourself out there and sell yourself. You have to do the courses and the interviews and put your hand up so you are visible all the time. My brother is a tradie and I don’t know how he does it with all the invoicing and the ups and downs. You get a big payment sometimes and then nothing. I need my paycheque. I really can’t see it happening unless there was a significant amount of investment in me. In Australia particularly, I think it’s difficult to live off the uncertainty of it.
Helen: What books are on your shelves?
Ben: I have two bookshelves. My wife is a minimalist, so I’m only allowed two. On my favourite shelf I have Cormack McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Rohan Wilson, and Richard Flanagan as the main ones. I also have a lot of crime thrillers as well and my fantasy books I used to read as a teenager which I’ve drifted away from—Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb. I love The Farseer Trilogy.
Helen: If you could be a character from one of your favourite books, who would you be?
Ben: That’s a tough one. The type of fiction I like tends to have characters who are very flawed and complicated, and I don’t know that I want to be like any of them. Actually, I would like to be Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea. He’s an honourable, giving, kind man. He’s a good fighter and works hard.
Helen: Who has been the biggest supporter of your craft?
Ben: My wife Lena. It is interesting because when you are starting to write you expect the person you love, live with, and who supports you will love what you write. I don’t think she always does. She admires it, but it is not what she always reads. Some of my family members don’t read books at all and haven’t read mine. I used to think they would read everything I wrote but if they like an action thriller and I’m writing these literary books, it is not their thing. I have to try not to take it personally. At the front of The Death of John Lacey I wrote, “This is for Lena who reads all the dark and gritty stories I write”. She reads every single thing. She gives me notes and she looks after our children when I’m off doing press. She is a very good reader and a tough but fair critic. In the industry it is my agent Gabby, my publisher Jane Palfreyman, and Allen and Unwin who have been amazing to work with.
Helen: Finally, how do you know the author Rohan Wilson, who is also our lecturer at QUT Kelvin Grove?
Ben: I actually stalked him. I’m a massive fan of his writing. He was one of my main role models. Reading his writing made me realise that there is room in Australia for people to write historical fiction the way that I love. I used to think that it had to fit into a box, but he broke me out of that idea. He has had so many meetings with me, supported me, given me feedback. He has given me opportunities and quotes on my books and been amazing. He’s a very generous man.
Helen Roche is an emerging writer of short stories, poetry, and novels, with a particular interest in themes surrounding the beauty and frailty of humanity. She is passionate about travel and has had a wealth of life experience in her nearly 60 years travelling around the sun. She is in her third year of studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at QUT and is very excited to be on the newsletter team of ScratchThat this semester.