Robert Jackson Bennett—the award-winning author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, and Mr. Shivers—recently took to reddit to answer your questions! His latest, City of Stairs, is an atmospheric and intrigue-filled spy novel complete with dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city. The novel is available now in the US (Crown Publishing) and publishes October 2nd in the UK (Jo Fletcher Books).
Read an excerpt from City of Stairs here on Tor.com, and be sure to check out Kameron Hurley’s response the novel’s protagonist, the Rocket Talk podcast episode where Bennett discusses the future of genre fiction, Brian Slattery’s interview with the Bennett, and our own Pop Quiz Q&A! Oh, and do yourself a favor—follow Bennet’s hilarious Twitter feed. You’ll thank us later.
Bennett talked about his influences and writing process in a great reddit AMA this week, and we’ve collected the highlights below!
Yettibeats: Instead of asking if you have any advice for aspiring writers, I’m always curious what established authors think is terrible advice. So is there any cliche advice that you’ve found to be rubbish?
Robertjbennett: “Write what you know.” This is true on an emotional level—if you know loss, if you know love, write those things—but people sometimes don’t take it that way, and instead feel like they can’t write about lives and worlds beyond their own. One of the hardest things about being a new writer is realizing that there is the truth, and then there is what feels true on the page. The latter makes a book work, and people have been fighting about the former since they could figure out how to fight. Understanding what “feels true” within a narrative, and how to land the beats in order to make that truth resonate, is sort of like trying to walk across a frozen lake, over and over again: eventually you realize from the creak of the ice and the color of the water which places are sound to walk on, but attempting to articulate this, to describe how you learned to read the lake, is nearly impossible. I think experience is the only thing that can fill that gap.
Ameeface: There’s going to be a City of Stairs sequel, right? Can you tell us anything about it?
Robertjbennett: As I’m writing it now, it’s Mulaghesh and Sigrud in the ruined coastal city of the Divinity Voortya—the goddess of war, death, and the sea. Mulaghesh has been dragged out of retirement and sent there to try and track down a missing Ministry agent who was investigating a new, world-changing natural resource discovered nearby, but soon she starts to wonder to what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the various afterlives when the Divinities vanished—because it’s starting to look like the dead don’t sleep very well in the city of death. There. That was pretty good for something I just pulled out of my ass, right?
BrentWeeks: More Sigrud? :twitches: Ya got any a’ that Sigrud? Please, sir, may I have some more Sigrud? MOAR Sigrud.
Robertjbennett: Yes. Sigrud—and his family—will be a major part of the sequel. His eldest daughter is kind of like that world’s Elon Musk. You can imagine how well they get along.
BrianMcClellan: You have adopted a rather unorthodox persona on social media. You seem to play a parody of yourself. Was this a conscious decision, or something that just seemed to happen over time?
Robertjbennett: When I first started tweeting, I basically tried to be myself. This was boring, and the more it went on, and the more I watched other writers tweet, the more I got tired of it. There is this philosophy that is common in our world right now that the more you know about the artist, the more you know about the art. As if knowing that my brother is a chiropractor or that I was bitten by a lizard at a bar mitzvah as a child or even what kind of toilet paper I use could somehow give you some fleeting glimpse into the secret heart of my novels. This is bullshit, and it’s unnerving to me that people are seeking this, or are seeking to be part of some cult of personality. So rather than give people what they want or expect, I basically act like a greasy, angry, delusional hobo on twitter and on social media, ranting about diapers and petting zoos and Benghazi, just spouting alienating, confusing shit that you don’t want to read.
You could say it’s performance art, or that I’m trolling my audience. Whatever you want to call it, I find it incredibly fun.
RAuffrey: Why did you include reference to a djinnifrit in City of Stairs as that creature is part of Arabic folklore, so it seemed out of place to me in your setting?
Robertjbennett: My inspiration for Bulikov was partially Constantinople, which is now Istanbul, of course. A lot of the architecture in the “old city” of Bulikov is actually quite Arabic: white, vegetal friezes, things like that. However, the names and attitudes of the people living in the city itself are quite Eastern European. BUT, none of their gods or their faiths are particularly Eastern European, or European in any sense. In other words, I wanted this world to feel like a giant, strange, mishmash of things, familiar and yet not familiar at once. This was just an unusually unfamiliar part of it.
CracksonHobo: Just curious as to what it is that gets you to write what you want to write? Any childhood influences, day-to-day experiences, movies, other books, self-inspiration? And a second part, I assume that as a writer you have tons of ideas, what makes you pick one instead of the other?
Robertjbennett: I don’t particularly tend to link my desire to write to any personal experience. If a personal experience of mine has shaped my writing tastes and style, it’s done so in an invisible way that I can’t identify. A camera can’t see itself, in other words. I like writing about bruised, moral loners who feel like they’re getting one big shot to actually do something with their lives. A lot of my books fixate on this idea of personal transformation, this building of churning experiences and questions that usually culminates in one loud, wordless answer, a big, symbolic act. I also like writing about worlds with “soft” realities, ones that are usually tangled up in their own histories and their ideas about themselves, often populated with people who are defiantly, desperately saying one thing while knowing all along that they are something else. I like seeing people attempt to make peace with the world, to reconcile themselves to reality rather than waiting for reality to bend in their favor. And generally I know when I want to write one idea when I find myself itching to sit down and write it. I have a lot of ideas, but the ones that are good enough to put me in front of a keyboard are pretty rare.
YourBestFriemd: What advice could you give to a writer that is just beginning to write?
Robertjbennett: Read. Read everything. Read and treat books with a critical, surgical eye, act like they’re strange animals and every time they do something, or they do something to you, it’s your job to find out why and how. A book is not just a feed of information, like a radio announcer narrating a game, it’s a 3D structure that’s constantly in conversation with itself. If you want to learn how to make some, you need to get in the conversation yourself.
Nikiverse: Did you ever write fanfiction?
Robertjbennett: Yeah, that was actually how I got started. I was writing fanfiction for Warcraft 3, before it even came out. People responded really, really well to it and that gave me the urge to keep writing. Man, I’m a dork.
yodaman92: If you had to pitch your books to someone who has never read them before (like me), how would you do that?
Robertjbennett: I would say my books are about worlds with shifting realities, realities that are hollow and honey-combed, and people trying to navigate through these worlds in search of the truth. Sometimes it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s sci-fi, sometimes they don’t have a word for it.
Ristea: When can we expect to see the inaugural “City of Dares” drinking game at a con?
Robertjbennett: Drinking games are for people who need to trick themselves into drinking.
nexuslab5: I want to ask you about your journey becoming a successful author. See, I’m a senior in high school and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my future and career. I originally wanted to be a veterinarian (I come from a family of doctors), but I realized that just wasn’t the right path for me. My real passion is writing. My whole life plan took a huge shift. I went from being a potential biology major to a potential English major. My question for you is, do you have any advice? I know that I won’t make nearly as much money as an author, as I would pursuing a career in medicine. And I also know that it won’t be easy finding success, yet I just have this feeling that I can’t give up on my passion. Sorry if I’m rambling, but it would be nice to get some input from an actual author. Thanks!
Robertjbennett: I would say that writing is like religion: it’s not something you have to practice all day in order to keep to it. You’re going to be a lot of things in this world, no matter what your plans are. If you want to be a writer, that will happen. But you can be other things, too. I intentionally didn’t try and find a career path besides a writer because I wanted to be Just a Writer. And looking back on that, that was a mistake. I got lucky and fell back-asswards into a good job with the help of friends and family, but I was surprised at the level of satisfaction that I got from a job that wasn’t writing. Even if I become a big hit bazillionaire writer, I don’t think I’ll ever stop working and having a dayjob in some fashion. And sometimes I wish I’d gotten more training in certain things, got the right degrees, because I feel like I have more to give this world besides writing.
But no matter what job I have, I’m always going to be writing. I can do that in the middle of the night or I can do it in the morning, it doesn’t matter.
Something else to keep in mind: writing draws from a lot of experiences. A lot of what I’m writing is drawn from my dayjob. Knowing about industries and other places helped me write. So there’s also that.