Monday, July 20, 2015

Twenty Quesitons With Ben Sobieck

Ben Sobieck did something James Patterson, Thomas Harris, and John Sandford were all unable to do: get me to enjoy a serial killer novel. The first book of his I read, Cleansing Eden, brought a new perspective to the genre, and struck a chord with me as the relationship between duo of killers reminded me of the DC sniper case, which was still fresh in mind then. (I live in the DC suburbs.) His series of humorous short stories starring geriatric “gal-damn” detective Maynard Soloman are great fun, and served to keep him comfortably on the radar. His new novel is Glass Eye, the story of a fake psychic suddenly called upon to help solve a crime.

Ben is also the author of The Writer’s Guide to Weapons (Writer’s Digest Books, which I explored in detail last week), The Invisible Hand (New Pulp Press), and various bits of crime fiction spread about the Internet. His website is and his favorite sandwich is the Rueben, king of the ‘wiches. (Ben’s description. I still vote for the Blimpie’s Best, but that’s me.)

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Glass Eye.

Ben Sobieck: First off, thank you for hosting one of your 20 Questions with me. It’s a pleasure and a privilege.

Glass Eye is about a psychic, Zandra, called in to locate a girl abducted from a city park in central Wisconsin. The catch is she’s not a psychic, and she knows it. She’s a total fraud, but she’s damn good at it. She uses her “powers” to fleece the gullible residents of her hometown and to gain insights into their secrets. Despite knowing she’s a fraud, she takes the case as a means of revenge. The father of the missing girl is the same person who may have murdered her husband years ago.

Zandra is definitely an anti-hero, but she doesn’t lack a soul, either. The crux of the novel is about breaking free from the reality someone else defined for you. Because, as Zandra would say, “The world is make-believe.”

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
BS: Glass Eye is based loosely on a fraudulent psychic formerly based in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, who was active when my wife and I lived there.

I wasn’t a client, but my wife worked for the newspaper in town, and she caught wind of this person’s (alleged) scam. Apparently, this “psychic” was requesting people give her wallets and jewelry to sleep with in the hopes of, I don’t know, attracting wealth or some BS. Surprise, surprise, the wallets and jewelry only attracted wealth to the psychic, and they never returned to their rightful owners. By that time, the psychic skipped town.

I can’t imagine this event was exclusive to Stevens Point, but it did get me thinking: What would happen if a “psychic” who knew he/she was a fraud had their bluff called by the police? What if those “powers” needed to produce a tangible result with lives on the line?

If anyone could pull it off, it would have to be the best “psychic” con artist in the world. After all, great detectives and scammers share plenty in common. They understand how the human psyche functions, how to manipulate perception and how to piece together a picture of someone or something from small bits of information.

Throw in some piss and vinegar, and that’s how Zandra was born.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Glass Eye, start to finish?
BS: Three months, which was a record pace for me. I wanted something fresh on the fiction front to come out in 2015 prior to the launch of The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. The latter is a Writer’s Digest book, so I knew it would bring some nice exposure. Working in publishing full-time, I’ve come to appreciate the power of the upsell. Never put out one product as the be all and end all, unless you’re J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee (I know there’s a new one coming from her, but that doesn’t count).

If that’s too cynical, let me put it this way. Our son was born in December. I don’t have time to piss away like I used to. If I’m going to write, I’m going to sit down and do it. I figured the writing would slow down after he was born. As it turned out, the six months before and six months after he arrived were/are the most productive of my life. No BS. No procrastination. Lots of thinking more strategically about what I do with my time.

OBAAT: Where did Zandra come from? In what ways is she like, and unlike, you? (Aside from that whole plumbing thing.)
BS: Zandra as a character is a natural extension of two things. The first is Maynard Soloman, which is another detective character of mine. He shares the outcast role that Zandra occupies, but his series is much more geared toward slapstick comedy. If you remove that element, take the tone 12 shades darker and switch genders, you get Zandra.

The other element is, once again, tied to The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. About midway through Glass Eye, I got word that David Morrell would be writing the foreword to The Writer’s Guide to Weapons (I still get goosebumps thinking about that e-mail). I went on a Morrell kick, starting with a re-read of First Blood. Even though the iconic “Rambo knife” doesn’t make an appearance in the book, I wanted to do something of an homage to it. I work for BLADE, a knife magazine, and the significance of that knife’s appearance in the First Blood movie on the larger knife industry can’t be understated.

That’s why Zandra gets her friend, a knife maker, to forge a custom knife for her out of a lawnmower blade in Glass Eye. She carries it around for most of the novel.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Glass Eye set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
BS: It’s set in the present day in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I could’ve renamed it to something else given I’m referring to the actual city, but I felt like that was a cop-out. I feel like too many writers err toward covering their butts when it comes to naming names. Say what you need to say. It’s fiction, not a newspaper.

From a practical standpoint, I needed a town small enough that a bad reputation could ruin a person, but big enough that I could pull in a character not in the know. It needed a full-sized downtown with quick access to rivers and rural areas. For those reasons, even if Stevens Point wasn’t home to a scamming psychic (allegedly), it was the right fit for the pieces I needed to lay for the plot.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
BS: I’ll always caucus with the crime fiction side of things, but I’m finding myself more and more drawn into thrillers. That has more to do with my subscription to BookBub than anything else. I’m at the point now where I only follow a handful of authors closely, mostly through social media. It gets scattershot in a hurry after that.

Again, that’s the result of having an infant to take care of. The genius of BookBub is that it does the curating for you. The downside is you don’t stick to one writer very long. Plot matters a lot more than the byline.

But if we’re talking lists of writers, let’s go with Elmore Leonard, Benjamin Whitmer, you, Vincent Zandri, Julie Kramer, David Morrell, Anthony Neil Smith and whomever is writing for Out of the Gutter that week.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
BS: I’m a walking cliché. I knew I wanted to be a writer from the moment I figured out there was such a thing. I pursued it through journalism school and into a career in publishing. I’ve played the fiction game since 2008, and I only feel like things are starting to catch on now.

I suppose I could say I need to write, that I don’t have a choice, but I think I’d punch myself if I caught myself saying that. What I’ll add to that trope is that a lot of people, in fact most people, go through life not knowing what they want to do with it. And the years tick away until it’s either too late to do anything about it or they die waiting for an epiphany in the shower. I’m grateful I found a direction early in my life. Obscene wealth and mounds of groupies aside, that’s probably the best part of being a writer: knowing this is what you want to do with your life.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
BS: I gained a real sense of mortality when I was about five and my brother died. Death and the point behind existence are things my brain cranked away at ever since. Crime fiction is the perfect canvas for exploring those areas from a safe distance. Anything I’ve written in fiction addresses one of those two topics in some way.

That came into focus even more after I received a kidney transplant about five years ago. That hit me out of the blue, and in a way, is a great motivator. Life is short and unpredictable. If writing and reading make you happy, do those things as much as you can.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
BS: It’s probably the purity of the pursuit. I like Alan Moore’s take on art’s position within reality. There are only so many things you can know are true about yourself. Your senses are limited. At best, your brain can only put together a censored image of what it is you’re actually experiencing based on the information plugged into it. Even hard sciences, like math, can only prove what happens inside this limited view. (That’s not to say science should be disregarded in favor of metaphysics. It gave me a new kidney after all.)

On the other hand, our thoughts and ideas are the truest things we can experience. Despite them being almost impossible to measure, they precede every action we take. In that way, there’s a separate reality behind your eyes equivalent to the one in front of them.

Art, like writing, is a way to access the invisible world that must precede this one. That means if I write a story about Zandra or Maynard Soloman or some other character, there’s a chance that story manifested itself somewhere else in physical reality. It could be happening right now in an alternate universe or dimension.

I’m not so out there to buy into all of this hook, line and sinker. I’m paraphrasing Alan Moore’s thoughts as I see them. But even if it’s a little true, it puts writing into an incredible context. The imagination is a powerful and mysterious thing. Seeing where it leads you is a ride. The pure and perfect pursuit of that rush makes me feel like I’m alive. That’s the best part of being a writer.

Glass Eye actually covers a lot of this, but in a much more accessible way. These ideas go back to Plato and the Theory of Forms, too.

If I lost you, let’s roll with, “It’s a lot of fun and I get to meet smart, talented people like Dana King.”

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
BS: When I read fiction, a writer’s style can certainly rub off on me, but I don’t think that’s where most of the influence hits me. I’ll give that to non-fiction, mostly current events. Would I sound like a total Luddite if I said the print newspaper? Most of my best ideas came from reading about politics, despite them having nothing to do with politics.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
BS: Fun fact: I work from home for my full-time job, so I think that answers the second question. I only recently started outlining because of the time crunch of having an infant. Holy Hannah, what a difference. I use a technique Laura Roberts talks about in her book, Confessions of a 3-Day Novelist. You list out dissonant pieces of a story, connect them together and reorganize everything into a timeline. That’s how my brain thinks when I’m writing by the seat of my pants. This is a more formal way of doing it, and it works for me.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
BS: I don’t overthink it on the first draft. I give it one revision within Word before transferring the manuscript to the Kindle. This puts me in the reader’s POV, and it’s incredible how much better I can critique myself.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
BS: I get onto kicks of certain music as I write, but one I always go back to is Ramsay Midwood. I’d describe his sound as Texas-fried swamp stomp, but I’m not sure that’s a thing. Which is OK. He’s my diamond in the rough. I found him, and I’m keeping him like a Kilgore Trout novel under my pillow just for me.

I don’t think Glass Eye has a theme song, though, and I wouldn’t want it to have one. I’ve read a few short stories that made their theme songs obvious, and I felt like it got in the way of the story. For example, I don’t like The Police, but I might’ve enjoyed the story that required I like it had the writer not made such a huge deal about it. It’s sort of like writers who attach themselves to politics. What do you do about the readers who don’t agree with you? Are you so in love with your own dogma that you’re willing to turn them away?

It’s a fine thing to be both a person with strong beliefs and a writer, but don’t overdo it. I run a website,, about guns and knives in fiction, and I definitely have beliefs about the politics related to them, but I don’t make a point of it. I want my content to stand on its own regardless of politics. It’s the same with music.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
BS: Avoid eating a ton of sugar before you write. At least for me, it makes it hard to concentrate. I break this rule often.

Outside of that, have a kid. You won’t know what hustle is until you’re limited to writing during naps.

For a while when I worked on The Writer’s Guide to Weapons, I’d light a candle next to my computer. So long as the candle was lit, I did nothing but write. That helped for a little bit. I blew through candles too fast.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
BS: Ignore lists of writing rules. You will drive yourself insane seeking approval from people who don’t give a damn about you. Take advice from people you trust, not necessarily from those with the loudest voices or the most sales.

The exception is The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. You can trust me. Honest.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
BS: I’d rank them from top to bottom like this:

Story/plot: Readers want an escape. If the story can’t whisk them off to somewhere else, the point of reading is moot.

Tone: I know I have a certain tone, but I can’t describe what it is. It’s sort of like the quirks only a spouse would ever know. The tone is the wrapper for the plot, the peel to the banana. It can cue the reader into what’s inside without him/her going any farther than the first page.

Character: I only recently discovered the joy of fleshing out a character. I used to treat them like meat sticks and avoid picking apart the pieces that went into the grinder to form the sausage. I know better now. Readers want characters, not characters.

Narrative: I wrote Glass Eye in third person after writing in first for a long while. It felt great. I didn’t need to expound every detail going on in the POV, which let me move the story forward faster.

Setting: Were this Q&A focused on my North Dakota oil boom novel coming from New Pulp Press, The Invisible Hand, I would’ve ranked setting as the most important. But that’s the exception, not the rule. Settings grow out of the requirements of everything else.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
BS: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Going back to Zandra, “The world is make-believe.” Guns, Germs and Steel explains why. Fixed, objective factors played into how the world as we know it came to be in human terms. But totally arbitrary factors, the ones cultures more or less made up, molded this world to the greatest degree. Perception isn’t always reality, but it’s good enough for most people.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
BS: First place is cooking, since I always enjoy what comes next. Second place probably has something to do with firearms or knives. I like heading out for some range therapy. Then there are the 700 other hobbies I pursue off and on. For a while, I was on a kick to win the blueberry pie competition at the county fair (baking, not eating). And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a blue ribbon hanging on the wall right now.

OBAAT: Let’s digress for a moment and talk a little about your current non-fiction book, The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. This is, in my opinion—and it’s my blog so my opinion rules—as fine a writer’s resource as anything I’ve read. Tell us a little about it, and how it came to be.
BS: I’m happy you felt that way about it. I don’t think I’ve worked harder on any project in my life, and I hope it’s as relevant in 20 years as it is today.

Its genesis started in 2008, when I took a job as associate editor of BLADE magazine, the leading knife publication. BLADE’s sister brands include Gun Digest, Deer & Deer Hunting, Living Ready and a host of other firearm and outdoor magazines, books, TV shows and digital content hubs.

So during the day I’d get into the guts of guns and knives, and at night I’d read crime fiction. Because my eyes were already tuned to finding errors in copy at work, I honed in on the firearm and knife mistakes in the fiction I read. Then I started noticing patterns in the mistakes. Writers made the same ones over and over again.

I ignored that until one short story that shall remain nameless. A character used a shotgun to fire slugs at clay pigeons. This was getting embarrassing. Rather than be a dick about it and call people out online, I figured there might be an opportunity in all this.

In 2012, I came up with a 13,000-word manuscript that, in a very roundabout way, I wound up pitching to Writer’s Digest through some contacts at work. That sat for six months before I got an e-mail from Phil Sexton, the publisher, asking if the ‘script was still available. I said yes, and he told me to deliver a full-sized manuscript.

I spent the first half of 2013 wayyy over-delivering on that manuscript, to the tune of 130,000 words. Writer’s Digest needed about half of that. All the while I used the huge libraries of information going back to 1944 at BLADE and Gun Digest to flesh out my research and content. By mid-2013, I signed contract for a print and digital book deal.

Two years of edits, re-edits, re-re-edits and the like later, the book hit shelves in June 2015.

I wrangled this without an agent, although I recognize I had an “in” from the get-go through my connections. But I still think there’s a lesson in there for other writers. I always put Writer’s Digest in the position where saying “yes” would making them look smart. I brought the entire book to their feet, from the rights for photos to endorsements from other people letting them know I knew what I was talking about. All Writer’s Digest had to do was say, “yes.”

Some writers might say I risked selling myself short, that all that work could’ve been for nothing since I operated without a contract for so long. That’s fair. Writing on spec is a gamble. But so is going into a negotiation with nothing but promises and a hand out looking for an advance. Publishers want low risk wins. If you approach a project with that in mind, you might get farther. It doesn’t always work out that way, but in my case it did.

I’m fully aware there are other manuals, websites and blog posts out there on how to write about weapons in fiction. At the risk of sounding like a pompous jerk, I think I lapped them twice, especially on the knife front. No one’s writing about knives in fiction.

That doesn’t make me a certified expert. I don’t think of myself as one, especially considering some of the incredible people I’ve worked with at my full-time job. Instead, I picture myself as a communicator of these topics in the same way Carl Sagan or Bill Nye are to science. They weren’t masters of all the disciplines they talked about, but they could condense complicated ideas into digestible pieces for the everyday person. That’s what I tried to do with The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. “Gun nuts” and “knife nuts” will find exceptions to the rules I write about. I appreciate their attention, but I’m not concerned about meeting them on their ground. I want to reach the writers afraid to ask about these topics because they’re worried they’ll look stupid or get shouted down by some blowhard.

To that end, I think I was successful. The book isn’t confrontational or meandering. It’s free of self-righteous BS, and the information stands on its own regardless of politics or worldview. To me, that’s being respectful of the writers who will read it.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
BS: It’s a real honor to be working with Vincent Zandri on expanding the universe of his best-selling novels. I’ll be adding installments to his various series, starting with Chase Baker and the Working Title. (Note that that is the working title.) It’s a mix between Dan Brown and Indiana Jones, but with more mystery and less BS. I’ll be dropping Zandri’s Chase character into a hunt for proof that the Chinese arrived in the Americas long before anyone from Europe. Watch for that soon.

Thanks again for hosting me here, Dana. You’re a gentleman and a scholar.


Steve MC said...

This is one of the most excellent interviews I've read in a while. Not only for how thorough it is, but how it covers so many fronts, from the professional to the personal, with good tips all along the way. Many thanks to you both.

Dana King said...

Thank you, Steve. Much appreciated. And thank you, too, Ben, for your thoughtful replies.