I am delighted that as a guinea pig for my first author interview I have Ben H Winters, author of the Hank Palace trilogy. The Last Policeman (book 1) was one of my 5 star reads last year and the excellent Countdown City is published this week.
You’re described on Wikipedia as “author, journalist and playwright” – is that how you see yourself?
Well, you know what they say about Wikipedia: Everything you read there is literally true. And yes, I am technically still a playwright, as a couple things I wrote in the past are produced now and again, but I haven’t written a new play or libretto in about eight years. I miss it! As for journalism, that’s how I started my career as a writer—at a Chicago free weekly called NewCity—but again, I’ve been pretty dormant on that front for years. I would more accurately call myself “an author and teacher.” When I’m not writing, I teach in the Master’s Program at Butler University, in Indianapolis, and online for a marvellous place in Boston called Grub Street.
I was unable to fix on a single genre to describe your book – how would you describe it and do you think being able to pigeonhole fiction into a genre is important?
I think it’s very important for people who sell books for a living, and not that important for people who write them. For the record, I think of these books (I’m including The Last Policeman, the sequel Countdown City, and the third in the trilogy, to come next summer) as mystery novels or detective novels, although I’m delighted to see them called “science fiction” by others. Really, there are only two kinds of books: good, and bad. I hope mine are good.
Hank is pretty unusual, especially as the main character in crime fiction. How do you think he would describe himself?
Inexperienced? Focused? Actually, he would be embarrassed about the question.
When you started The Last Policeman did you plan that it would be a trilogy and if so did you know how it was going to end?
The idea was for one novel, but my editor at Quirk felt it would make sense as a trilogy, and I agreed. I knew how it was going to end only in the very broadest sense: I have known from the beginning that at the end of the trilogy an asteroid will smash into the Earth. That fact being, after all, the animating conceit of the whole package. I’ve also known that in each book, Hank would try to solve one big, complicated crime while civilization slipped further into chaos.
What gave you the initial idea of the “Earth on the brink of disaster” setting?
I think if writers knew where interesting ideas came from, we would have a lot more of them! I knew I wanted to write a mystery story with an unusual, heightened setting, to test the fortitude of a very dedicated hero.
With the critical acclaim that you’ve now received for The Last Policeman, including the Edgar Award earlier in the year, do you now regret having a setting that had such a fixed end point?
Thanks, first of all—I’m delighted with the response, obviously, and particularly to have won the Edgar. And in terms of regrets, not really—without that fixed end point to inspire the story, it wouldn’t have been as good a book, and probably would have missed out on most of that acclaim. And hopefully people who dug these books will be interested in whatever I do next.
Are you currently working on the final book in the series? When is it due for publication?
I am indeed. There is a (very) rough draft. July of 2014.
You’re on Twitter (@BenHWinters) – how has your experience been of engaging with readers of your books?
Oh, extremely positive! I’m not a huge Twitter/Facebook person, because I try to stay off the internet as much as I can when I’m actively writing, but I do love to hear from people, especially when they say stuff like how they want to marry Hank Palace, or they wonder what diagnosis he would get from a trained clinician. I’ve also done a lot of book clubs, via Skype, which is always delightful.
Do you have writing plans for after the series is finished?
Many, many, many. I am working on a new novel for young readers (I’ve written two previously: The Mystery of the Missing Everything, and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, which was nominated for an Edgar in 2010), and researching a new police series set here in Indianapolis.
Who would you cite as your biggest influences as a writer?
Hard to pick one. Charles Dickens? PD James? Philip K. Dick? There is a short story called The Drowned Giant by JG Ballard, that is the single most interesting thing I’ve ever read.
Any plans to come to the UK to promote your books?
Not at present, but one never knows! I spent my junior year of college studying at Oxford, and had an extraordinary experience.
What are you reading at the moment?
Ripley Under Water, by Patricia Highsmith. A history of the Amish. Two back issues of the Economist I missed when we were on vacation. Oh, and I’ve also recently finished a remarkable first novel called The Unknowns, by Gabriel Roth. Highly recommended.
Thank you to Ben for taking the time to answer my questions – you can find out more about him and Hank at benhwinters.com