Interview with Ben Hourigan

What are you working on next?
Right now I'm finishing up the very last stages of the redraft for “Seize the Girl”, a third book that concludes the story begun in “Kiss Me”. The whole series is pretty epic, and after the sort of slow-burn, “Empire Strikes Back” kind of story hat you see in the second volume, “My Generation’s Lament”, the finale is where I get to make everything blow up. It's an exciting thing to be finishing.

And after that, I'll be writing a novel about pick-up artists, which I've already done a lot of planning for.
Who are your favorite authors?
In a sense, my answering this question could be misleading, because a lot of these authors are people whose books I haven't returned as often as I'd like. I read very widely, and often in response to what other people are reading, which means I often don't get deep into an author's whole body of work.

For some idea of what I'm talking about, check out my posts on what I read in 2011: http://benhourigan.com/2012/01/02/2011-a-year-in-reading-elation-and-heartbreak-part-1-of-3/ I mean to put these together into an book someday.

But there are a few authors whose work has been really influential for me, and I can call these my favorites. Here's my top 5.

No. 1, no one ever seems to have heard of---the Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburô Ôe. Even when I was living in Japan, people there would tell me that nobody reads him. They should! He writes harrowing semi-autobiographical books that explore the darkest sides of everyday human experience, in particular the thoughts and motivations that we hide from others. But he does this without being misanthropic. I've read many of his books: my favorite is *A Personal Matter*, which is about the birth of his intellectually disabled son.

No. 2 is a new addition, and someone I've not read nearly enough of: Graham Greene. *The Quiet American* is a fabulous example of great short books can be, and it's a fantastic dramatization of the conflict between youthful idealism and aged cynicism. Also, parts of the film version with Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine were shot in Hoi An, which is currently my favorite place to escape to and write. *The Power and the Glory* is also magnificent, especially for being a warning against the kind of conspicuous moral superiority that social media now gives us so many opportunities to exercise. In reality, the people who speak most loudly about their own virtue and what others should do can be horrible, substantially driven by pride and hatred. The protagonist of *The Power and the Glory*, who is one of the few decent people in the book, thinks of himself as weak and reprehensible, and makes no attempt to convince anyone otherwise.

No. 3 is Milan Kundera, who again, I haven't read nearly enough of. It's such a cliché to love *The Unbearable Lightness of Being*, but Kundera's writing is beautiful and clear, and he's the best writer I know of when it comes to infusing a story with profound philosophy without making it too heavy. If I wished I wrote like anyone else, it would be Kundera. You might also notice a bit of Tomas from *Unbearable Lightness* in Lily from *Kiss Me*.

No. 4 is Tolstoy. I read *War and Peace* when I was fifteen or sixteen, to keep pace with a brilliant guy I was friends with at school. Though at times it drags---I found the “war“ parts incredibly boring---it's also the most impressive book I've ever read. It seems to include the whole of life. For a shot of Tolstoy that's relatively easy to get through, I recommend his later book *Resurrection*. It gives you a some of the grandeur and intensity of *War and Peace* in a much more concentrated form.

No. 5 is Charles Bukowski. I read him only after hearing Hank Moody's daughter, Becca, calling him a "poor man's Bukowski" in an early season of *Californication*. I can't imagine Moody being anywhere near as good as Bukowski, so it was probably a fitting insult. I read *Post Office* when I in a job I hated, felt I hadn't achieved anything, and was feeling lost and worthless. And it made me feel less alone, and like it might be worth hanging in there in life and at my artistic pursuits. Bukowski was *fifty* before he got out of his horrible job at the post office, but he got out. I'm very, very lucky, that I had the chance to get out at thirty-two. One of my greatest fears is that circumstances might one day compel me to go back. That's quite a motivator in terms of trying to make my writing and my business work.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Sometimes, nothing. I know that's a pretty nihilistic answer, but I don't always feel that enthusiastic about life. I'm that kind of person. I'll go through phases where I feel like I've gotten stale, and almost nothing in my life is interesting to me. It's hard to talk about feeling this way, because it's hurtful to the people who we love and who love us---but I know I'm not remotely the only person with that problem.

The best antidote to this for me has been to have some interesting work to do, or to be learning something that fascinates me. I'll leap out of bed to write, or work on an interesting project for someone, or learn a new language or how to do something new with code and computers.

For a lot of my life when I got up it was always something I was *forced* to do, so I could go to school or to work, which I never liked. And so I wanted to sleep in all the time. I'm not really happy unless I can make my own decisions about what's valuable and interesting for me to do. I think a lot of people know better what their own lives are good for than their teachers or their bosses do. Being able to get up and do *that*---whatever your own life is good for---has got to be the most motivating thing there is.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I'm a terrible workaholic. I used to hold that against my father when I was young: I thought he must be a boring person. Probably people think the same of me now. But actually, I think that interesting work is really interesting, and I like doing it. So, most of the time, I'm writing, or working for my clients (as a freelance writer and editor, publishing consultant, and web developer), tinkering with something on my computer, learning something or reading something.

I try to read about two books a month, and wish I could manage more than that. I used to play videogames a lot, but I don't have the time anymore. And I try to pay as much attention as I can to my wife and my young daughter, because as wrapped up as I can be in my own world, the relationships that you have with people are one of the things in life that you really don't want to miss.

Oh, and I also like to travel! Although I do still spend a lot of time at the keyboard when I'm away, I (largely) have the freedom to be and to work anywhere I want, and I try to make good use of it. Since 2011 I've visited Germany, France, England, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and I'm writing this from a cafe in George Town on Penang Island. The best places I've ever been are Kyôto, Paris, Angkor Wat, and Hoi An. Being able to see so much of the world is an amazing privilege.
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
The whole rest of my family collects antiques, art, and other objects. I've only ever collected books---and not rare books, either, just books to read. My physical collection got up to around 700 volumes before I switched to e-books, and I've probably got another 400 of those. I've read only roughly half of that collection of 1,100 or so, so a lot of my reading is working through that backlog. I know I'll never finish it. Then there's books that have been "on my list" since university: books or authors I heard about, or books that are *connected* to those authors, and so on. And there are plenty of books that ended up on my Amazon wish-list because they appeared in an on-site recommendations, too.

Still, how do you choose out of six hundred or more unread books in your collection or on some kind of list you keep?

Probably the biggest influence on my reading these days is social. If people I know---or just one person who I'm particularly close to, intellectually---are talking about a book, it'll be at the top of my mind for a while and if I happen to finish something else while it's still there, that's what I'll read next. The same thing can happen if the people I know have been debating something. For instance, a while ago there were some discussions going around about collective guilt (which is a concept I disapprove of), so I started reading *The Question of German Guilt*, by Karl Jaspers. I need to finish that. Lately, another novelist friend has been keen to read *Being and Time*, so I may start on that soon.

That's not to say I spend all my time reading German existentialist philosophers. I've also been lucky to have found friends in the indie author community who have introduced me to their own work through offers of review swaps; Alexander Rigby (*The Seven Chances of Priam Wood*, *What Happened to Marilyn*) and Carolyn Gilpin (*Facing Up*) are to that immediately spring to mind. As a self-publishing consultant I've also helped edit and publish some fascinating books: *The Seventh List* by Grant Finnegan and *The Versailles Memorandum* by Peter Saunders are two thrillers I've been involved with that I thoroughly enjoyed and which deserve a wider audience.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Honestly, I don't think I do. My parents are often sending me photographs of very short stories I'd written as a young child, which I don't remember at all. Just recently my dad sent me a certificate, which a teacher at my primary school had made in Print Shop on an Apple IIe, naming me "writer of the year". That had been for a story I wrote in grade six called "Legend of Blade". Before that I'd written and illustrated a fairly long fanfic for *Cities of Gold*, a French-Japanese animation about children searching Peru for the lost city of El Dorado.

But in spite of not remembering some of those very early efforts, I know that I was quite interested in "being a writer", and in writing stories, by the time I was about eight years old. Sartre had a theory that the pivotal moments in our lives, which determine their course, tend to happen around the age of seven. I can't recall any particular event that made me want to be a writer, but I loved reading more than anything (and still do). I also had the idea that being a writer was a good way to get rich and to live and work anywhere you want to. The second part of that has turned out to be true, though most writers, including myself, will laugh at the naivety of the first.

Probably the first really serious thing I tried to write was an 11,000-word fantasy story called "Caldar's Dagger", which I submitted as an English assignment in year eleven. I won't say it was terribly *good*, but by that time I was trying to observe what the best writers did and to reproduce their results. After that I never stopped. I hope I never will.
What is your writing process?
When I'm at my most productive, I write new material for at least an hour a day. I've found that to get that done, it's often a good idea to get away from the computer, and write on paper. Most of *Kiss Me* and its sequels were written on my lunch-breaks at cafes, none of them particularly comfortable, while I was still working at a job that I was unhappy in. I wrote close to 250,000 words in unlined Moleskine notebooks over the course of about two years, and then spent the next three or four trying to beat that draft into three publishable volumes.

My process is actually quite haphazard. I tend to think of incidents out of order and try to collect them somewhere---in notebooks, on scraps of paper, in Evernote, Ulysses, Simplenote (I love trying new software). And then when I've accumulated a certain amount of material I'll start to write a draft, which involves putting the vignettes I've written in order and trying to connect them up. I have the feeling that this is actually a terrible, unwieldy habit, but I can't help myself from having ideas constantly and wanting to record them so I don't lose them.

Actually, when I was writing the *No More Dreams* series, which includes *Kiss Me*, *My Generation's Lament*, and *Seize the Girl*, I wrote a lot of my first full draft as new material from beginning to end, using the vignettes I'd laid up as guides or stepping stones rather than as pieces of finished text that I had to stitch together. That process of writing through from beginning to end was what finally let me finish. Probably my next book will come together in a similar way.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I'm not sure about the first *story* I ever read, but I can remember the first *novel* I ever read quite vividly. You can see part of this story recounted in *Kiss Me*, actually---I have the same thing happen to Joshua.

The book was *The Hobbit*, by Tolkien. My mother had a copy published by Allen & Unwin, which had quite an ugly cover on it---an illustration of Tolkien's that had Smaug flying through a gray sky above Lake-town. The book was falling apart, and with this terrible cover I have no idea why I wanted to read it. Certainly, I can't remember anyone pushing it on me. But read it I did. I was four years old. My mother, a teacher, had taught me how to read before I went to school. And I thought it was incredible. I read it sitting on the wooden slide my father had built me and put in the living room, and I read it in the patio at the back of our house.

It must have taken me weeks; and I'd have used a dictionary throughout. But I thought it was brilliant, and I still think *The Hobbit* is the best of Tolkien's books---a completely entertaining adventure story, packed with action and humor. It's exactly the sort of thing you want to give a kid, albeit not necessarily a four year old. But here I am: I read *The Hobbit* first, and it made me love reading enough that I write novels now.
How do you approach cover design?
My last job before I started working for myself was in design publishing, so I was, you might say, foolish enough to do my own covers for *Kiss Me, Genius Boy* (as it was originally called), and *My Generation's Lament* and I've had some positive feedback on them, but I still think they could be better. Since the first book was picked up by California Times, I entrust the design and marketing to my publisher there and his marketing expertise.

But for other things---say, for the work of my own clients, many of whom are self-published authors---I have a long-standing relationship with a designer in the UK who I won't even name because I want to keep that secret to myself. Some day in the near future, I hope, I'll get him to redesign the covers for the *No More Dreams* series.

I'm mainly an editor by trade, so of course I'll champion the value of editing as well, but really, if there's one thing you should spend money on as a self-published author, it's the cover. A good design adds an enormous amount of value to a book.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I've been an e-book reader since 2007, when I got an original Kindle (the ones with that strange wheel control and the silver bar on the side). Being an Australian, at the time this was quite hard to get: Amazon wouldn't sell outside the US so I had to use an agency with a US contact who would buy the devices and then ship them personally to Australia. And I *loved* it. I had been trying to read *Atlas Shrugged* on the train and all I had was a giant hardcover---which I replaced with a pirated version that I put on the Kindle, that sleek, light, extremely weird device.

I had a second-edition Kindle, too, and later a backlit Paperwhite, but eventually I gave them up in favor of an iPad Mini. I was working in the magazine industry when the first iPad came out, and I had an original iPad, too, that my boss bought for me to test our digital magazines on, but I didn't like it at all. The first iPad was heavy and ugly, and the 1024 x 768 screen was garbage. But my opinion changed when the Retina screens came out---then we had a backlit, color device with text as sharp as print. I still like the idea of e-ink, but on a full-fledged tablet you can use multiple reading apps (I use Kindle, iBooks, Google Play, and occasionally Kobo), and read PDFs (PDF Expert) and comics (Comixology).

Quite independent of what device I choose, though, simply being able to read e-books at all has changed the way I read. I read more, and more widely, and I can get whatever I want instantly, wherever I am in the world. In Australia the bookselling scene is … moribund would be putting it kindly. Getting the book you want has typically been both difficult and expensive, if you have specific tastes. E-books totally changed that. Now you can read anything, anytime. And it's exactly the same whether I'm in Australia, or Thailand, or Vietnam, or Japan, or any of the other places in which I frequently happen to find myself.
Describe your desk
My desk is usually just my lap, with a 13" Macbook Pro on it. Most days I'm sitting in a black vinyl recliner in my Bangkok apartment. It was foisted on me, but has served admirably nevertheless. At my old apartment in Melbourne I had a Poang armchair from Ikea, which has got to be one of my favorite chairs of all time.

I'm also fond of writing at wooden dining tables, sitting on a hard-backed wooden chair. And right now, I'm sitting in a 1940s-style chair of wood and wicker in a heritage hotel in Penang.

I'm actually a huge fan of exploring different technologies and software in writing, too, and what *software* I use is crucially important to me. I believe very strongly in writing in plain text, and thoroughly dislike Word and the mangled manuscripts that my friends and clients produce in it. My main tools on the computer are Sublime Text, which I use for writing in LaTeX, and iA Writer, which I use for writing Markdown. You can think of these programs are just glorified typewriters: I could actually use a typewriter for the same purpose if I needed to. All of Word's buttons, fonts, and tools, are just massive distractions, and they give you so many opportunities to stuff up your own work, it's unbelievable.

Plain text is just you and the words. There's a reason George R. R. Martin writes in Wordstar for DOS: this is the best way to do things.

Oh, it gets even more old-school than that: I just bought a *mechanical* keyboard, this sleek black Das Keyboard that goes clackety clack and is substantially made of metal. I type really fast and the chiclet keyboard on my Macbook can't keep up---it drops keystrokes from time to time. Couldn't have that. To use it, I'll need a real desk, though. Goodbye, lap.
Published 2015-11-13.
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Books by This Author

My Generation's Lament (No More Dreams #2)
Series: No More Dreams, Book 2. Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 60,690. Language: English. Published: January 5, 2013 by Nameless Books. Categories: Fiction » Literature » Literary, Fiction » Romance » Contemporary
(5.00 from 1 review)
It's been ten years since Joshua Rivers had his dream of the girl he believes he is supposed to marry, and she's still nowhere in sight. Now twenty-two, Joshua is stuck in a life markedly different from what he expected. Little does Joshua know that by the end of the year he'll have met his destined love at last.
Kiss Me, Genius Boy (No More Dreams #1)
Series: No More Dreams, Book 1. Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 51,470. Language: English. Published: September 10, 2011 by Nameless Books. Categories: Fiction » Literature » Literary, Fiction » Romance » Contemporary
(5.00 from 1 review)
Joshua Rivers was born to expect great things. A former child prodigy and the son of a lottery winner, he also believes himself blessed with a vision of his perfect destiny and his perfect love. Now in his early twenties, he waits for the moment, and the girl, that will show him his time has finally arrived. And when it does, he resolves to take what is his, whatever it costs him or anyone.