Ep 180 How to choose and set up a pen name; And meet Ben Hobson, author of ‘To Become a Whale’.

Share on Pinterest

podcast-artworkIn Episode 180 of So you want to be a writer: How to choose and set up a pen name. Should you talk about your book before it’s published? Discover how you could win a copy of ‘Only: A Singular Memoir’ by Caroline Baum and find out how AWC alumna Cat Rodie writes an article a day. Plus: meet Ben Hobson, author of To Become a Whale.
Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Shoutout of the Week
From Tyson:

Been trying to write a book while doing my first year of uni at the same time. Didn’t really know if what I was doing was right, and I was losing momentum as it was getting buried under study. This podcast is just what I needed to keep me motivated. As a result of this I have began seeking help to improve my writing and have started a blog. Thank you guys, for keeping my wheels turning.

Thanks, Tyson!

Show Notes
Mapmaker Chronicles Book 1 – USA

How to Choose and Set Up a Pen Name

Don’t Talk About Your Book Until It’s Published

Meet Cat Rodie – writing an article a day

Cat did this course: Magazine and Newspaper Writing Stage 1

Writer in Residence

Ben Hobson

Ben Hobson lives in Brisbane and is entirely keen on his wife, Lena, and their two small boys, Charlie and Henry.

He currently teaches English and Music at Bribie Island State High School.

In 2014 his novella, If the Saddle Breaks My Spine, was shortlisted for the Viva La Novella prize, run by Seizureonline. To Become a Whale is his first novel.

Follow Ben on Twitter

 

Competition

WIN: Caroline Baum’s “Only: A Singular Memoir”

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

Share the love!

Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Ben.

Ben

No problem. Happy to be here.

Valerie

Congratulations on your book, To Become a Whale. Now, this is your first novel, is that right?

Ben

Well, it’s the first novel I’ve written that was actually good, I think.

Valerie

Okay sure.

Ben

I had a few practice ones before this one. But this was the first proper published novel, yes.

Valerie

Fair enough. So for those people who haven’t got their hands on the book yet, tell us what it’s about.

Ben

Well, it’s set in 1961, and it’s set in Queensland. And a young boy has just recently lost his mum. And his mum’s an incredibly important part of his life and gives him a lot of direction. So he’s sort of left with his father, and his father has always been absent from his life, and has always been out on Tangalooma whaling station. And in the midst of everything, and in their grief and in the loss of losing his wife, he decides to take Sam, the young boy, over to Tangalooma whaling station during whaling season to make a man of him. And it’s sort of about masculinity, it’s about grief, and it’s about father and son relationships and how difficult they can be.

Valerie

What made you come up with the idea for this book? Did you come up with the plot first, or the themes first? What spurred this on?

Ben

I think it was definitely the idea of the father and son relationship that I wanted to explore. Because I’m a young… I think I’m young. I’m a young father, and I’ve got two young boys. And so just the questions I always ask of myself. Like, am I actually a good father, and am I doing the right thing? And the times when you maybe are a bit stern with them where you shouldn’t be, or you’re a bit soft with them when you shouldn’t be. And just the idea of that situation with a father and a son.

I’ve been a son as well with my own father, and I find it such a potent relationship with a lot of areas for nuance. Where on the one hand your father can seem quite stern or cruel to you, but he might be doing it from a place of protectiveness. And it’s just a very difficult thing.

And then I was researching something that the father could do. Like, a job he could have where he could abandon the boy for a little bit because I wanted to heighten the drama. And I stumbled onto this picture of the Tangalooma whale station and I just thought oh that is such an interesting place to set it. I just fell in love… I didn’t fall in love! That’s the wrong thing to say. Because the picture itself was actually quite horrible. A lot of whales. But I just thought it was such an interesting place. And I thought for a kid who is a bit sensitive with animals and animal cruelty and things like that, to just be thrust into that I thought it would be such a… So ripe with possibilities.

Valerie

What’s your relationship with your father like?

Ben

Really good. A few people have asked me that. My relationship with my dad is really good. I do think he’s from an era, because I’m thirty… What am I? Thirty-two now. And my dad’s nearly sixty. And he grew up in a time where I’m not sure men were given a lot of vocabulary to really talk or express themselves as much. I think we’ve come a long way as a society. My dad, sometimes even now, I had a chat with him last weekend, because I explained to him that I do these interviews. I mentioned this sort of thing. And he said that it’s hard for him to progress past weather talk.

Valerie

Yes.

Ben

Because we live interstate. He lives in Victoria. So whenever we’re on the phone it will always start, or if there’s an awkward pause, it’ll always be, “dad, how’s the weather going?” And oh yeah, it’s good.

I love my dad and he’s always been a provider and always supported me so much in so many things. But I think there are things that he wishes he could say and maybe doesn’t have the words for. There might be times, I mean, I can remember times when I was a kid where I felt like he didn’t notice me. And I don’t think he was doing that on purpose, obviously he wasn’t doing that on purpose. But when you’re a kid and you’re trying to find your way in the world, you’re sort of sensitive to the reactions of those who you love, like your parents. It’s a bit hard to navigate and understand… You can read a lot into situations where, my dad didn’t mean it the way it came across sometimes.

Valerie

And certainly in the book, the relationship of Sam with his father, it’s palpable. You can feel those nuances, you can feel the pain or awkwardness or grief or whatever that Sam is going through, even when his father hasn’t said anything in particular.

Ben

Yeah, exactly.

Valerie

So you’ve captured it through just a sense of place, but also through just the little, just the things that are left unsaid.

Ben

Thank you.

Valerie

So tell me then, did you go to Tangalooma?

Ben

I haven’t actually been to the proper whaling station itself. I’ve been to Morton Island. And part of me was just relying on a lot of research that I did for Tangalooma. But a part of me, also… It’s kind of weird to say. I didn’t want to spoil what I’d pictured in my head. So I know, for instance, in the book for the sake of ease I’ve sort of changed a little bit of the geography or the layout of how everything was placed on the island. And that was simply so that the boy could always have a vantage point over the whaling station. And so I think if I went, and it sounds really weird to say it, but if I went over there I feel like I’d have a fidelity to capture every single thing that was there in concrete. And I like to let my imagination go a little bit with that.

Valerie

Yeah. Now, when did you decide that you wanted to write?

Ben

Well… Geez, that’s a big question. When I was in high school, I loved writing. So I actually had a teacher who, again, it’s one of these things where I’m sure they didn’t mean it the way it came across, but did not like what I was writing. It was sort of very creative without any… What’s the word I’m looking for? Any form or craft, I guess you could say. And instead of saying, “there’s a good heart in this,” it was “you haven’t met X and Y with grammar and punctuation.”

So I actually gave it up for a while and got into music a fair bit and I joined a band and we did all that for a few years in Victoria. Yeah, that was pretty fun. Touring and doing a few things with them. My band was called Sounds Like Chicken. We were a ska punk rock, it was weird. But we had a few niche fans.

But when I moved to Queensland to be with my, she was my girlfriend then but she’s my wife now, Lena really encouraged me to go back to Uni – sorry, to go to Uni in the first place. And I chose to study music there. And while I was there, I was living by myself in the city and I just, I don’t know what it was, but just one day I was reading something and I thought, maybe I could have a crack at this. And I just started to write.

The first thing I wrote was a young adult novel where dragons looked like gigantic bulldogs. And it was all over the place. But the feeling of creativity was something that I missed from being in a band. You know what I mean? I had my friends around me to play music with but up in Queensland I hadn’t made those friends yet. So I was able to put my creativity into something different. And that was about ten years ago now, when I started to write.

Valerie

So when you started to write, so obviously you enjoyed it at school but unfortunately your teacher dampened your enthusiasm on it. Which is such a shame. But fortunately you regained it.

Ben

Yes.

Valerie

When you started writing again, then, what did you think? At the time did you think, I’m just going to do this for fun, you know, explore my creativity. Did you think this could be a vocation? What was the plan in your head at the time?

Ben

That’s a really good question. Sometimes I don’t whether I plan things that far in advance. Sometimes I just go with what feels good, and it just felt good to create this world and to create this thing. And I soon grew addicted to it.

And it was one of the first short stories that I wrote was like a little horror story. And it was really, it was a fun little thing. And it was the first submission I ever sent off. But I remember trolling through forums on the internet and trying like, what do I do? I had no idea. I didn’t know anything about formatting or even tense. I mean, I’d been out of high school for that long, I had to relearn everything. And I sent through this submission to Midnight Echo from the Australian Horror Writer’s Association. And it was picked up. My first thing. And I thought, this is easy! This is such an easy thing to do. I can do this all the time. I’ll just write a few more, and then I’ll write a novel, and it’ll be all good. But it did not turn out that way.

Valerie

Now you currently teach, I understand, English and Music at Bribie Island State High School.

Ben

Yes, I do.

Valerie

My friend lives on Bribie Island. Although would not be at high school. Now, so… Presumably you fit your writing around your day job, is that right?

Ben

Absolutely. Yeah.

Valerie

So tell us how you juggle that? Or when you make time to write. Do you have specific days that you decide that this is my writing time? Do you just fit it whenever? How does that all work on a practical level?

Ben

Can I just say, this is one of my favourite things about this podcast, is all the nitty gritty writing craft stuff that you guys get into. It’s one of the things that I’ve… Because you hear so many authors and they all do things differently. I find that really incredible, that these different works can be produced using completely different methods.

For me, I also have two young boys as I mentioned earlier. And fitting in a fulltime job and then everything like that, it’s often, I don’t know, about 8:30 or 9:00 that I can switch off for the day. Once you do marking and drafting and all that sort of stuff. And you know, try to rest a little bit as well. And so then I try to cram in, honestly, probably about 30 minutes’ worth of writing a day, to an hour. When I’m writing a first draft, I force myself to do 1000 words every day.

Valerie

In 30 minutes? Or an hour?

Ben

Yeah.

Valerie

Wow.

Ben

I know. I’m quick. It doesn’t come out that good. It comes out really rough. But I like to write without looking back, and I don’t analyse whether or not the sentences are making sense or the plot’s progressing the way it needs to. I just try to write from my heart or my guts or whatever emotional thing is happening in the story. And in a way, try to step back and witness what is happening.

So I just have to get my fingers typing as quickly as I can. And it’s a slog some days, but some days you get to that spot where you can watch a scene unfold like it’s not from you. And that’s where I like to get to. I also write while I watch TV sometimes, with my wife Lena. So in the ad breaks I try to actually have conversations with my wife, which is important.

Valerie

Talk about multi-tasking. You’re writing a novel, you’re watching TV, and you’re trying to have a conversation with your wife. That’s astounding.

Ben

I’m not sure, I don’t know whether I’m doing any of the three things that well. But I’m trying to do everything.

Valerie

Now, I’m so intrigued by this getting out 1000 words in half an hour or an hour. Do you find that it generally does flow? And do you already know, okay, I’m going to write this bit tonight? Because you’ve already plotted it out? How does that work?

Ben

The way I work with outlining is I have a fairly solid idea of what needs to happen without getting into too many specifics. So I can still be creative within the moment. But obviously you need a real thread through a novel to keep things progressing. So I do have, sort of, I know what I need, I’ll do this scene tonight, that sort of thing.

But then once I start, sometimes honestly, it’s really hard. You’re a writer, you know, you get those nights where it’s, it just flows out of you and everything’s perfect and it’s romantic and it’s like you’re dimly lit with an overhanging light and someone’s filming this beautiful writer at their task. And some nights it’s just like crawling through mud and difficult and you start and everything’s terrible. But because I force myself to do it, I just write badly until it starts to come good.

And then in the later stages of when I’m writing I try to go back and edit those rough bits. And sometimes I can’t tell when I was in a creative flow or when I was struggling. It all seems to come out the same sometimes when I’m reading it back.

Valerie

Yes. So, To Become a Whale, when you were writing that, had you already mapped out your plot points? Or did you just kind of start with the premise and let yourself go?

Ben

That one, I’ve sort of refined my process since writing To Become a Whale. Because I think I wrote the first draft of that in 2013, I think. So a little while ago. But I had a rough, I just had, I write in Pages on my Mac, and just at the end of the document I just had a page worth of sentences. So from my research, scenes that I wanted to see, and sort of just a really general outline. And I’d sort of go, okay, I’ll write this one tonight. And I Just wrote it from start to finish.

So I sort of know where I’m going. But I find it surprising sometimes what happens when I don’t have too many restrictions on. You know, for instance, in To Become a Whale, the dog Albert is probably one of the most significant parts of that book. And he was not in any outline that I wrote. I just was writing and I thought, oh, he needs a dog. And I wrote a scene where he found it. It’s sort of, I find it, another publisher once said to me you can either be, and I think you guys use the word too, the pantser or the plotter. I think I’m a 10% plotter, 90% pantser.

Valerie

Okay. Cool. So the first thing you got published in the horror story, the short story, is that a genre that you actually like or that you resonate with?

Ben

It was in the day. It was back then. I was loving Stephen King, especially, was huge for me. And Chuck, whose last name I can never pronounce, Palahniuk, I think? I don’t think you pronounce…

Valerie

I know. I never, I just go Chuck Blahblahblah, and hope that people don’t notice.

Ben

Chuck Blahblahblah.

Valerie

Yeah.

Ben

His book. He had a book called Haunted, I think. So I used to love that. And the first novel I wrote was a horror, a sort of horror. Oh man. Sorry. It was so messy, back in the day. I had recently read, oh what’s that author called? The one where the old lady is dead and they go across sort of thing… It’s very stream of consciousness. Faulkner! William Faulkner. Very stream of consciousness. Glad I got there in the end. And so I’d recently read that, and it had all these chapters that stopped half way through, and it was all messy and I loved it. And I tried to write this horror thing about people on a plane going to hell and they didn’t know they were going to hell and demons and stream of consciousness, William Faulkner… And it was really bad. But I used to like that stuff. I’m not into that stuff as much anymore.

Valerie

Bit more refined now?

Ben

Having young children, I think, I don’t know, I don’t like that stuff in my head as much anymore. I still like the occasional zombie book.

Valerie

Okay. So you started getting back into this ten years ago, you really liked it, you got the first horror story published. At one point did you think, I’m going to make a real go of this. I’m going to get a novel published.

Ben

Well, like I said, from that I thought this is easy. So then I just wrote the first novel. And I just wrote it. I didn’t really…

Valerie

Was it this one? Was this the first novel?

Ben

No, no. The plane load of people going to hell. And then I had a historical fiction. I wrote so many bad novels that progressively I hope got better until To Become a Whale.

Valerie

What do you think made them get better? Just sheer volume of writing? Or what made you get better?

Ben

I think, yeah, honestly, sheer volume of writing. And just looking back over your own work. And if you can have a space of time between writing a thing, and you submit it, and then six months later you get a rejection slip and you go back over that short story, and you’re like, did I really write this? This is not very good. And yeah, just going back over my own stuff constantly. And if you write so many sentences you’re bound to come to a good one eventually.

Valerie

Tell me about the journey to publication. When you did write this and refine it, what were your next steps? How did you eventually get published?

Ben

Well, it’s a pretty, yeah it was a big process. I originally sent off a copy to a man named David Jones, who wrote the book The Whalers of Tangalooma. So he had a look over it for historical authenticity and helped me with a few things. And then I went and saw Rowan Wilson. He’s pretty much my favourite Australian author. He spoke at my book launch, which was humongous, like a massive honour for me. And watching him speak made me change the way I wrote completely. And I went back and wrote the whole book from the start, fresh.

Valerie

Are you serious? Wow.

Ben

Yeah. I had on one side, one half of my screen, I had the old draft, and on the other side I had my new draft. And I would look at the sentences in the old draft and I would try to capture it in a new way in the new draft. And I changed tense, I changed everything.

Valerie

What did you take from him speaking and what was your approach then in your rewrite?

Ben

To be honest it was that I had whittled down my voice to be vanilla. To be bland and safe, I guess. I think facing a pile of rejection slips over a long time and trying to read a lot of short stories and modern literature, I think I was really trying hard to fit into what I thought people wanted. And so hearing him speak, I don’t know whether you’ve read any of his books?

Valerie

I think just the first one.

Ben

Just the boldness of his voice. That’s what I loved. And I realised that I wasn’t actually writing in the voice, in my own voice. I was writing something that was trying to please everybody. And instead of doing that I went back to thinking I actually have to write something that I’m proud of. And so I just went for it. I went for my own voice.

Valerie

And when you did that then, and you rewrote the whole thing, how did you know at the end that you had written the thing that you were proud of? How did you know that you had let your own voice come out?

Ben

It was just on a purely sentence by sentence, sentence by sentence level. Just as I was writing it I was just fighting for the new way of saying something, and not trying to say it the way everybody else has said it. And just trying to really paint pictures with words.

I’d sort of let it become a bit mundane, I guess, and I just sort of let a bit more blood get to it, I guess. And reading it back, I was much prouder of it. And there were so many moments where I was reading it and I was like, this is actually something that I would enjoy myself. Instead of, yeah, instead of being so unsure of myself. And then I kept on editing for a little while after that.

Valerie

And then what happened? So you rewrote it?

Ben

Yep.

Valerie

And then what happened?

Ben

I sent it off for the Australian Vogel literary awards. And yeah, I had a lot… It’s hard to talk about honestly because you have so many years where you don’t have any feedback from people and you just get rejection after rejection. And it just builds on you. And I think it’s absolutely the way the industry has to be. It would be unreasonable to expect every single publisher to write back a little note or something to you, because that would be a ridiculous volume of work. So while I understand it, you question yourself, do I actually have anything good to offer? So when the rejection came through for the Vogel, I actually kind of gave up.

Valerie

Wow.

Ben

It was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was maybe not giving up, but I was like, I’m not doing this, I’m not going to do this anymore for a little while. I’m going to have a break. Because I had just put everything into that. And then to not get anywhere with that, and it seems silly to be so hung up on one thing, but it was just really devastating.

And in the note, it had a little thing that said, and I still remember what it said exactly – “it does not quite reach the dramatic heights it was aiming for.” And you can tell the way my brain’s wired, because there was also some lovely stuff that they wrote, really positive things. But that last bit…

So I added a few more things to heighten the drama, and it was sort of like the last gasp and I was done. And I just, I did that, I sent it off to some agents, just a few query emails, and that was it. I was done. So I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, and I wasn’t going to write.

And, you know, amazingly three months later I got an email from my agent, Gaby Naher, and she loved it. And it was so strange. Because for so long you’ve had, your writing hasn’t been worth much to anybody else. And then all of a sudden, someone within the industry is giving you that validation and saying, this is worth something. This is amazing. Oh man. I’d been saving a bottle of wine for about three or four years to celebrate a writing success. And I busted it out that night. It was a big deal. Yeah, it was really cool. And then –

Valerie

So when you… No, go on, go on.

Ben

Oh, well Gaby did her thing. And I’m so thankful for her. Because I would have no idea. But yeah eventually Allen & Unwin bought the book, bought the manuscript, and again another bottle of wine to celebrate that one.

And then I found out later that I was actually longlisted for the Vogel award. I had no idea! I’d either not read the note properly or it hadn’t been communicated to me well, or maybe an email in a junk email. I’d actually achieved something but I had no idea. They told me after, they were like, yeah, we remember you from the award a year ago. And I was like, what?! I had no idea!

Valerie

I’m sure they, don’t they publish that list?

Ben

I’m sure it’s my fault. I’m sure it was my thing that I missed. But hey, it was kind of good that I missed that. Because it just sort of, I don’t know, it worked out in the end, I guess, is what I’m saying.

Valerie

Wow. Yeah. Okay. So tell me about that moment when you read that email. Do you remember where you were? Or what was happening at the time? Or is it a blur?

Ben

From Gaby?

Valerie

From Gaby.

Ben

It was… I don’t remember exactly. I remember the phone call. Because she wrote a quick email that said, “have you got representation? This is an amazing book. Can I call you tomorrow?” And already I was jumping out of my skin. And I remember pacing my backyard talking to her on the phone trying my best not to sound stupid.

Valerie

Oh gosh.

Ben

Trying to sound down to earth and impressive, but with a strangely high vocabulary. Probably coming off very nervous. But she was very nice. And so then she sent through the paperwork and I signed it. And it was just the most amazing rollercoaster.

Valerie

So tell me now, because obviously you would have submitted this, because the book has just come out and you would have submitted the manuscript like a year or whatever ago. What have you been working on since? What’s next for you?

Ben

I’ve got another book that I’m currently… So I tried… What I did, there was a big space of time between Allen & Unwin buying the book, and then getting to me with some story edits. There was about a five-month limbo there. And I thought, while I’m not doing anything I might try to get a new draft done on a new book. So I just quickly, I’d had an idea forming in my head for a few years for a new book, and so I wrote that incredibly quickly trying to get it in under the wire before I had to start doing a few edits and stuff on To Become a Whale.

And so yeah, still in the refining stages with that one at the moment, but it’s a completely different type of book. It’s much more kind of a thriller, kind of crime, kind of like that TV show Justified. So warring families and things like that. So yeah. I’m very proud of it, but it still needs a lot more refinement. It’s still pretty straight from the guts. I haven’t refined it with craft yet, properly.

Valerie

So what’s your, finally, what’s your advice to aspiring writers who are currently where you were?

Ben

Yeah.

Valerie

Before all of this happened. What’s your advice to them who would love to be in a position like you one day?

Ben

I would say a couple of things. I think the first thing I’d say would be to just write a lot. To write a lot of bad stuff. don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make it good straight away. Because it’s never going to be spectacular, the first thing you write. Just let yourself off the hook and write for fun, and write with your own voice. Just write a lot. Write a lot of novels. When you finish one, write another one. And have a lot of fun while you do it. Yeah, I think that’s what I would say.

Valerie

Absolutely. Well, congratulations on the book, and thank you so much for talking to us today, Ben.

Ben

Thank you, Valerie. It was an absolute pleasure. This is another peak achievement for me, being on the So You Want to be a Writer podcast. Yay! It’s huge. So thank you.

Valerie

Glad to hear it. Thanks so much, Ben.

Ben

Thank you very much.

 

Share on Pinterest
Comments