Interview with Ben Winters


As The Plot Thins (ATPT): You just published the final installment in the Detective Hank Palace trilogy, World of Trouble. As an author, how does it feel publishing the final story about a character you’ve spent so much time with? Is it a sense of relief? Was it sad to write those last chapters?

Ben Winters (BW): It feels pretty sad to say goodbye to Hank Palace. Not nearly as sad as saying goodbye to a real person, mind you, but sad. I really, really came to love that character and to feel that I understood not only his journey, but his psychology and (crucially for me as his writer) his voice. What’s tricky is starting a new project, which I’m trying to do, and having to remember not to write in Palace’s very specific cadence. Because so much of finding a character, particularly in a first-person narrative like the Policeman books, is finding the way he thinks and talks.

ATPT: As a reader, while it’s satisfying to make it to the end of a trilogy or story arc, there’s usually a little bit of a book hangover, trying to come to terms with its finality. How has the reception of this final book been? Are the people on your tours satisfied with the ending or have people been begging you to write another? If not, I’d like to be the first to do so. In all seriousness though, have you considered pulling a fast one on everyone and writing a book four?

BW: Well, for the most part people seem satisfied. Some have wished for more books, because they really love the character—someone even suggested a prequel sort of thing—which is tempting in its way, but I think the people who love it understand that this was always intended as a three-parter, and anything more would fundamentally change what it’s all about, and perhaps undermine what works about the series.

ATPT: Let’s talk a little about the trilogy itself. Where did the idea for The Last Policeman trilogy come from? Are any of the characters based off of people you know?

 BW: I wish I knew where the idea came from. I wish! If I knew the secret to coming up with good ideas, I would have one every day. But the truth is, you just keep digging and every once in a while you strike at something glittering. Although I’ll tell you, when aspiring writers say “Where do you come up with ideas?” I say “forget that, that’s not the hard part! The hard part is, how do you turn those ideas into books?” The hard part is in the year or five years after you come up with an idea!

The only character based directly on a real person is the medical examiner, Dr. Fention, who was inspired by a friend of mine, a forensic pathologist who helps me when I am trying to figure out how to kill people.

ATPT: The books were published by Quirk Books in three consecutive years. Take us through your writing process. After seeing how well received the first and second books were, did you feel any pressure to hammer this one out?

BW:  Writing World of Trouble I felt the same set of emotions I feel with every book I’ve ever written, which is an alternating sense of I can never do this, this is terrible, I hate this and I love this book, I can’t wait for everyone to see it, I am the great and powerful Oz. The context of exterior expectations may change, from project to project, but the basic interior fireworks show of writing is always the same: it’s impossible, it’s beautiful, it’s dreadful, it’s delightful. You hate it, you love it, you go on.

ATPT: Now that the tour is finished what’s next? Any new projects in the works?

BW: Yeah, I’m writing something. It’s a cop story, set in Indianapolis, and it’s about an undercover officer on a very special assignment It’s also about race and violence. There are no asteroids in it.

ATPT: What, if anything, are you currently reading?

BW: If anything? If anything?!? If you ever meet a writer who says he isn’t reading anything, take his computer and throw it in a canal. I’m reading Jo Nesbo’s The Bat; I just finished Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, and before that Megan Abbott’s The Fever. As part of my research for my new project I’ve been reading slave narratives, which I can’t believe I’ve never read before—I think everyone in this country should have to read them in high school. And I try to read The Economist every week because it makes me feel smart.

ATPT: Last question: if you knew an asteroid was going to hit the Earth in the next year, what would you do?

BW: I’ll be honest, I’ve answered this question a bunch of times over the last couple years, and usually I say something like “hang out with my kids,” or “read Middlemarch again.” So this time, just for fun, I will say that I would play the classic arcade game Asteroid in a nonstop marathon, to extract maximum ironic value out of my remaining days.

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