When the idea came up to do Critics’ Week for The Thrill Begins, interviewing Ben immediately came to mind. We’ve been friends for a long time (maybe seven or eight years now) and he’s reviewed all four of my books. Friends or not, he’s an honest critic, and if he doesn’t like something you wrote, he’ll tell you exactly why. I thought it was worth getting inside his head. You can read all his reviews at DeadEndFollies.com.
JENNIFER: How do you value what you do? What does Dead End Follies contribute to the world?
BEN: I really don’t have an answer to that. I started blogging about books because I was reading like a maniac and had nobody to share my thoughts with. My girlfriend loves reading as much as I do, but she does it for different reasons. She thinks I’m an overanalyzing basket case, and she might not be wrong. So the blog has clear value to me. It’s unclear to me how much value it has to authors. I guess it varies. I often feel like a beggar when asking for ARCs [Advance Review Copies], though.
JENNIFER: I think there’s a ton of value in what you do, and I mean you, specifically. I depend on reviews to help sell books, and you give so much more than the average blog review. I appreciate the time you take to “overanalyze.”
BEN: Thanks. I like thinking about this kind of stuff. Fiction, and things we’re being sold in general. I think it shapes our day-to-day reality as much as anything that’s being forced upon us because it’s what we deliberately choose to spend time with, so it must tell something about who we are. I just don’t know how much of what I’m doing helps authors. An author told me once that he saw a spike in sales after I included him in a year-end list, but that’s it, and I’ve written over 500 reviews. So I try to keep it fun for myself, first and foremost. I think it’s what people like in the first place.
JENNIFER: How do you read so many books in a year? Are you a speed reader? Or do you skim?
BEN: My reading time is insanely structured. I read 20 to 30 pages before going to work, 20 to 30 pages on my lunch break, and 20 to 30 pages before going to bed. So it’s 60 to 90 pages on any given day. It can go up to 120 to 150 pages if the book is really good. It amounts to 2 to 3 books a week, depending on the length. I don’t know why I do it this way, but I enjoy it. I’ve never been able to do anything in life if I didn’t turn it into a ritual.
I do skim, but rarely. If I find a book infuriating, I’m going to skim some parts. I’ve committed a personal heresy lately as I skimmed some parts of James Ellroy’s Perfidia. I got really bored and frustrated with Ellroy’s cops fucking Hollywood starlets. It just keeps happening over and over.
JENNIFER: But don’t you find a lot of writers do that? They find something that works so they stick to it? It’s frustrating when I’m accused of writing something too similar to my last book, but readers also get irritated when I stray too far outside the genre. Which do you prefer?
BEN: I don’t mind reading about the sex lives of Buzz Meeks or Dudley Smith. What I mean is that it happens several times over WITHIN THE SAME BOOK. Sometimes within the same chapter. It doesn’t take long until it comes off as gimmicky. I would agree that your three first novels were rather similar, but Wonderland blew up any narrow-minded expectations anybody might have about you. It was your best novel (at least, according to me) and it will assure you greater creative freedom in the future. Personally, I read certain writers because I know they’re going to give me what I want, while other writers will challenge me. But I think it’s important every now and then to do what you did with Wonderland and expand the range of what you are doing.
Did that happen organically, by the way, or were you aware that you were taking a chance with such a different novel? The book is fucking tremendous, but I have a bad history of liking uncommercial stuff.
JENNIFER: Thanks so much for that. I don’t know that I’ve ever given it a lot of thought during the writing process, because it’s always organic…meaning, I don’t outline. I don’t even know how. Anytime I’ve tried to plan a story, I’ve killed it and lost interest. With Wonderland, it just fucking grew. I like intimate stories, two or three characters, that I can really dig into and expose, and Wonderland wasn’t like that at all. The setting made it so challenging – it’s hard to have an amusement park that’s creepy as hell and not have a cast of characters to go along with it. It gave me less time to get into their heads, but the story didn’t want to stay small, which was definitely out of my comfort zone.
If you’re comfortable answering, which book were you most excited to read – maybe because of the buzz, or because you’re a hardcore fan of the author – that turned out to be the biggest letdown?
BEN: I’m an easy audience, so I’m difficult to disappoint. I want to be entertained, I want to make it work, and I think I can understand a work of art for what it is. Last time I was disappointed by the buzz was with the TV show True Detective 2, but that was because my expectations were sky high.
Pre-launch buzz is rare for books, especially with small presses. Publishers try it two or three times, don’t see results, and get discouraged. Last two books that got me going before even reading them were The End of Everything by Megan Abbott and Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill. Sometimes it just hits the right notes. Sometimes I just read a title and look at a description blurb and know I’m going to like something. It’s a sixth sense only obsessive readers like me get. Not sure when it’ll happen again, it’s pretty organic. Last book that had me obsessed enough to alter my life was 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, so I’ll probably go bonkers when his next project is announced.
JENNIFER: Do you review every book you read, and every TV show and movie you watch? Your reviews are always so detailed and unique.
BEN: I’d say I review 97-98% of what I read and watch. The books I omit are stuff outside my readership’s interest (i.e. a business book for work). For movies and TV series, I often watch for the sole purpose of making content for the blog, but I want to slow down with that in 2016 because I find I’m turning in circles.
Whenever a book/movie/series captures my mind, I take notes in my smartphone. Trigger words that’ll help me remember the angles I want to discuss.
JENNIFER: Dead End Follies is often referred to as a mystery website. But I’ve always thought of you as more of a crime fiction aficionado. Why don’t you read romance?
BEN: My sister told me not long ago, “You always like stuff nobody’s interested in.” She’s not wrong, but I prefer to think of it as both extreme and marginal. I’m the kind of guy who will spend two hours browsing liveleak.com trying to find a deeper meaning to my existence by watching people meet their horrible fate. I’ve always tried to understand what people refuse to even acknowledge. It reflects on my reading. I have a reputation for reviewing noir because I did a lot of that when I started, but I like everything dark, really. I like dark literary novels, horror, bizarro, dark science-fiction, but what really kicks my ass is a tightly plotted hard-boiled mystery. Dennis Lehane and James Ellroy (my two favorite authors) are the uncontested kings of that.
JENNIFER: That’s a good answer. I never have a good answer to that question.
BEN: Why don’t you read romance?
JENNIFER: The politically correct thing to say would be that I’m more interested in learning about the dark side of human nature. I’m obsessed with the fact that we all have two faces – the one we present to the world, and the one nobody sees but us. Writing and reading about it is a way to safely explore that darkness. My non-PC answer would be that I don’t care whether the couple ends up together. I care about what’s tearing them apart.
But we’re supposed to showcase you. Have you ever pissed off an author with one of your reviews?
BEN: It’s happened a handful of times. The worst was in 2011 after I reviewed an Andrew Vachss novel I really, really hated. It wasn’t much of a review, to be honest. My piece was snarky and aimless, but in hindsight it was also rather sincere. For the first twenty-four hours I was praised for speaking my mind, but the winds turned overnight and I started getting showered with NASTY comments attacking my writing and my critical sense. A couple months later, after writing another uninspired review of a book I didn’t like, I received an email telling me I had no talent and I should find a hobby other than writing. I think I showed it to you. It said I was the laughingstock of a panel at ThrillerFest. I was nowhere near ready to take that sort of heat, so it damaged my confidence a lot. I’ve learned a lot about the business since then, though.
JENNIFER: I actually remember that, and it was all bullshit. You told me about it while I was still at ThrillerFest and I was able to ask people about it, and it never happened.
Do you think about the author’s reaction when you’re writing a review? Would your reviews be any different if you were reviewing them anonymously?
BEN: I would probably be a little meaner than I am, but I’m trying to think about it as little as I can. Sharing my thoughts with strangers on the internet has always been personally satisfying, and I try not to think about the audience. I think of the author when choosing a book to review, but not while reviewing it. If I keep doing it for the right reasons, people will keep reading, you know? I have a David Foster Wallace level of self-consciousness about it.
I’d say the only reason why I’d ever think of the author is that I worry people will think that I write buddy reviews, which is not the case. Everybody I work with is a good sport about criticism.
JENNIFER: Is there anything you’d like to see more of, or less of, in the books that you’re reading?
BEN: The main thing that bugs me about books is using morals as an excuse to build cardboard characters. “Oh, here’s a pedophile. Look how evil he is.” “Oh, look at this violent husband. He’s a mindless beast.” I don’t need an author painting a broad picture of an issue in order to understand that it’s an issue. I know pedophilia is bad, but a novel is a novel. If your character is not interesting, he’s a bad character. It doesn’t change because he’s moral. That sort of stuff infuriates me. I’d like to see more authors taking chances and exploring moral boundaries. My favorite thing is not being able to tell which guy is the good guy and which guy is the villain.
JENNIFER: That’s my favorite thing, too. Do you review self-published books?
BEN: Used to. Not anymore. Although there is the occasional gem, the quality is just not there. Now, I only review self-published books that are recommended to me by someone I trust.
JENNIFER: What percentage of submissions come to you via the publisher versus the author?
BEN: It’s hard to say because I’ve never established an official funnel for ARCs and review copies. Partly my fault, I guess. Mostly I request directly from the author/publisher. Some are offered to me, and sometimes I will receive the odd book from publicists. Some are easier to work with than others. Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, for example, sends me their stuff systematically and they don’t care when I review it, as long as I do. Otherwise, getting ARCs and review copies can be exhausting.
BEN: I am, although I’m trying to keep it a hobby more than anything else. I published two short stories in 2015 and I’m not trying to think beyond that at the moment. It’s my thing I do for fun.
JENNIFER: What is the one book you wish you had written?
BEN: It’s not just one book. It’s an entire category of books. Some novels hit my I-wish-I-had-written-that nerve. From the top of my head I can think of The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock, and the short story Lucy in the Pit by Jordan Harper.
JENNIFER: I’m with you on Fight Club. The first time I read it, Palahniuk’s writing – so lean and yet so impactful – made me question why I even bother.
You already know how I feel about you, but I’ll say it publicly – thanks for doing what you do.
BEN: Ha. It’s a labor of love.
JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.
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