Chris Benjamin is a freelance journalist and fiction writer. His critically acclaimed first novel, Drive-by Saviours, was listed as a Canada Reads Top 40 essential read of the decade. He is the Sustainable City Columnist for The Coast. He was a finalist for the 2010 Fusion Go Sustainability Award and shared an honourable mention in the 2009 National Magazine Awards. Chris has written opinion, fiction and features for numerable newspapers, magazines and literary journals.
About Drive-by Saviours: Demoralized at his job and dissatisfied with his life, Mark punches the clock with increasing indifference. All that changes when he meets Bumi, an Indonesian restaurant worker. Bumi’s radical genius and obsessive-compulsive disorder raise suspicion among his paranoid neighbours. With the mysterious death of local children the neighbours’ fear reaches a fevered pitch and Bumi is forced to flee to Canada. Brought together by a chance encounter on the subway, Mark and Bumi develop a friendship that forces them to confront their pasts.
It had a lot to do with love. I’d been banging away at all kinds of writing projects that never seemed to go anywhere, partially because I hadn’t quite found my voice yet and was trying hard to get into other people’s heads without having cleaned out my own. Then I fell in love with someone who fell in love with my writing and told me I walked above the earth. So sometimes inspiration comes from the loins.
About that same time I was working with immigrants and refugees and met with a guy in one of those soulless little meeting rooms to give him the new volunteer application form I’d proudly whipped up. He talked at length of his research back home, how it had been applied to save the lives of humans and possibly puppies too. Then he noticed some unethical practices at the lab and made the mistake of objecting, out loud. Next thing he knew he was couch-surfing at his cousin’s in Toronto.
Stories like that stuck with me. I thought a lot about how people had overcome the seemingly insurmountable to come to Canada and plead their cases to a guy who would rather be writing stories, or in some cases indifferent faceless tribunals. And I’d been trying to write a decent story set in Indonesia for a while. I’d lived there for a few months during grad school … it hooked me. So I imagined an Indonesian man, more specifically a Buginese man, new to Canada, and I jotted down a paragraph about him. Bumi was born, face all small and crinkly, eyes wide and wondrous. And so was Fred, who became Mark, and was falling in love with Toronto, and the faces he saw, and drawing them and writing stories about them. Many things changed once my pen got moving; sometimes characters made their own choices without my help. But the novel remained the story of Bumi and Mark.
You’ve got a loyal (and growing) following, due in part because you are a fine writer but you also use Facebook and blog to your advantage. Are you strategic with your approach?
I wasn’t even on Facebook until a year ago. But I’ve connected with a lot of other writers and artists with it. I’m not sure that I’m strategic, maybe just tactical.
I try to personalize it and not have my posts be all about my writing all the time. And I try to take time to promote the work of others. I also try not to overdo it—not too many posts in one day.
But most importantly, keep it varied.
I have a listserv and I try to mix up writing posts with new video (from readings or interviews) and audio clips. I try to inject humour and not take myself too seriously.
I’ve also come up with a set of book club questions and now have a contest for people who take the time to answer and post online. So that helps spread the word on my book but also engages my audience and gives a small take-home prize.
Note: You’ll find Chris’ blog here: www.chrisbenjaminwriting.com/
What would you advise new authors who are looking for a publisher?
I went to a day-long seminar on getting published and it gave me a practical run-down of the process—how to choose who to submit to, how to pitch, how to query, what’s in a contract and what to negotiate. I recommend finding a workshop like that and attending. Get yourself a copy of the Canadian Writer’s Market and see who publishes stuff you like to read, or writers you admire. Make your A list of publishers and query them. If you get no response, query your B list. Then your C list. Make sure you have a killer cover letter—if you can’t sell people in your query letter they probably won’t bother with the excerpt.
And speaking of the excerpt, edit, edit, and edit again. Show it to other writers and invite their brutally honest feedback. Wear your rhino skin and be objective on which feedback you act on, because you will get conflicting advice. Get out to literary events—readings, workshops, festivals—and meet writers and publishers there. Don’t come on too strong, but don’t be afraid to tell them about your work either. It could be just what they’re looking for.
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PS Chris’ first book of nonfiction, Green Soul, will be published by Nimbus, in Fall 2011.
PPS If you have any questions for Chris, click on Comments and fire away!