Ben Peek is a Sydney-based writer and his first novel, Black Sheep, A Dystopian Novel has recently been published by Prime Books. His short fiction will soon be appearing in Overland, Fantasy Magazine, Lonestar Stories, the anthology Paper Cities, edited by E. Sedia, and the Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 3, edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt. His blog is http://benpeek.livejournal.com
1.Your first novel Black Sheep, A Dystopian Novel has (finally!) just been published. Racial segregation is one of the cornerstones of the book and, indeed, I found some of the book’s events and the attitudes of the characters extremely pertinent to today’s climate. Do you think that there’s a danger that this could date the novel? Plus – bonus question – a quick search on Amazon shows Black Sheep is a relatively common title. Why call it that?
I had the idea for the BLACK SHEEP in 1999, and I thought, then, that I ought to write it quick or otherwise I’ll miss my time for it.
In the end, due to life ™, I didn’t actually sit down and finish the novel until 2002. After I’d cleaned out some life, I said fuck it, and in a burn of three months over Xmas, rewrote all that I had, and finished the last half. A few people read it after that, then I rewrote, and I had it done by the middle of the year. After that was the long journey of trying agents within Australia, all of who said it was too niche, and too intense, and the few independent publishers in the country that I could get through the door of–all who said the same thing, as well. It wasn’t until late 2004 that I tried outside the country, and I figured Wallace at Prime knew me a little by reputation there–the very little of reputation I had back then–so I asked if he was interested. He took it in 2005, and in 2007, it was published.
So, what, that’s like eight years?
During all that time, my worry that the book would suddenly become dated, was, I’m sad to say, proven to be quite wrong. Eventually, I was forced to admit that there was never any worry, really. Everything in the world just kept bubbling along with its hate and fear and I figured that our shit regarding race was so deeply ingrained that we’d been feeding off it since we could all remember. Nowadays I figure I could have taken another fifty years to publish it.
It’s like, recently, I read Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’d never read it before, and a girl I teach, she was reading it, and said it was quite good, and I figured I’d take the recommendation of a fifteen year old, because it wasn’t some kid’s book. Besides, I was interested in it on a very basic level because of Lee’s connection to Truman Capote. It’s a cool book, too. I really dug it. But–and this is the point I’m trying to make here–for a book published in 1960, it sure hadn’t dated much. Just the costumes, really, and they were dated in the first place. All that hate we’ve got now in the world was still there.
And the title?
Well, the title was given to me by a writer I knew at the time, Chris Mowbray, and it stuck, since it suited the book, and it suited me. In a way, the first novel you write defines what kind of author you are–or at least, it does at times. Well, perhaps very rarely. Perhaps just for Joseph Heller. Me, I figure black sheep describes what I am, just as it talks about what the novel is about. I suppose it’s horribly self involved for me to sit round and say that, but there you go.
Maybe it’s why all those other authors are naming their novels that, too.
2. You were instrumental in facilitating the 2005 Snapshot, giant love-in that is was. As you say in the introduction published on Tabula Rasa, future ‘Snapshots’ (like this one) will inevitably present a different picture of the ‘Scene’ because of the fleeting nature of the exercise and the natural rise and fall of editors and writers. However, do you expect to see any fundamental changes revealed in the 2007 Snapshot? Is the love still there?
Ah, I dunno about the love. Maybe that is gone. It’s gone around me, that’s for sure.
When I did the first one, there seemed to be a bit of a buzz going round, with a lot of potential–both in terms of new writers and their opportunities, and in what the scene could make of itself. There was a new Eidolon. Russ Farr was coming back with Ticonderoga. Bill and Michelle had their Year’s Best series (which has proved to be one of the real successes, I think). The Prime opportunities looked shiny. And there was Agog!, Sarah Endicott, a manga anthology… sure, the books coming out of Harpercollins and the like were rubbish to me, but other people were behind them, and the whole country just felt real alive at that moment. I was waiting for something really fucking cool to come along and make it beautiful for me.
But, y’know, that didn’t happen. In fact, in two years, no one really interesting or defining has emerged. Well, actually, that’s not true: the only thing to emerge since then was ASif and Alisa K, who has done something quite defining and interesting, and altered the independent scene much for the good. Yet, much as I like that, what I’m talking about is art, and I’ve not seen any new work from an author here that has just made me go, ‘fuuuuuck,’ and made my head expand, like that real good work does. Maybe that’s just the cynic in me, though.
So, you’ll ask me what I think the change will be? Well, I think some of those authors who were on the edge–or looked like they were on the edge of something–last time, will be slipping into the scene obscurity. I’ve held to this theory that you have around five years to establish yourself, to make a mark, and get somewhere in this country so that you can get an audience, or you start to diminish, and I reckon that’s what you’ll find now. The diminishing act.
Whoever does the next snapshot won’t even have to bother trying to contact half of them, for good or worse.
3. In the last 12 months you’ve published two books and gained yourself an agent. Not bad for a years work – or is it? Can you estimate how much time you’ve actually had to invest to achieve these things? Should we expect a lull in future output while you regroup?
How much time?
Jesus. What a question.
I started doing this in High School. I was eighteen. I thought being a writer would be cool. I’m thirty now. The math is kind of there, though there was a period in my mid twenties when I was fucked up good and proper, and didn’t much write, and didn’t much think about what I was doing. It’s probably best to say that the last seven years have been me putting my energies in the right way into it, and while it looks good on paper, it’s important to note that I can’t make my living out of this yet, and I might never. I’ve got a second business for that and my business card uses the word Dr, and rarely utters the word author.
I’m not sure about the lull, though. My agents have my third novel, A YEAR IN THE CITY, doing the rounds, and with a bit of luck they’ll sell it before the year is out, and I can have a release in 2008. But that might not happen. It’s a difficult novel to sell. The novel I’m writing now won’t be done until the end of the year, and we’ll see how that goes–it will be a lot more accessible that A YEAR IN THE CITY, though I tend to think YEAR is the most ambitious, interesting, and best thing I’ve written, peroid. This thing I’m writting now is pretty cool though, and if it comes out right, I’ll maybe change my opinion–though I tend to have a habit of thinking every new thing finished is the best, and every old thing the worse, so ignoring me on this is probably the best.
But you never know with me. I have a project upcoming which, I think, will surprise more than a few people, and there’s a bit of short fiction coming out, as well, so my name’ll be around. Maybe next year I’ll look to doing a collection, even. I’m not real set in my ways on what I do around the novels, and I have the next one planned as well, so the work will be there, for sure.
But, at the moment, 2008 is not looking like a huge year, and I suppose it could be a lull, publishing wise. I’d rather it didn’t, but that’s how it is at times. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get to a position where I can get people interested in my projects, and get through the doors, and have an audience who will follow me when I do something… so even if 2008 is quiet, it’ll only be on a publishing front, and not a working one.
It’s too fucking late to go back anyway.
4. Enough about the writing, what’s the best thing you’ve read this year?
That would have to be Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD, easy. I’d probably put Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in second, as I think the two fold nicely upon one another, actually.
I get little obsessions about authors and the moments when authors feed off each other, and it seems to be that there’s an interesting connection between the two works, and the lives of the authors. Anyhow, I’m sure a lot of other people have had that thought–i’m sure it’s written about, since one conspiracy theory is that Capote wrote MOCKINGBIRD himself–and I’m not going to go on about it. But Capote’s book was just–well, so heartbreaking, so beautiful, and so complex, in both the contents of the novel itself, the history of it, the reality, and Capote himself.
Anyhow, I’m probably the last person on the planet to read both, but fuck it, hey? We’re all reading at our pace.
5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you’re given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who’s it gonna be and why?
Cause I want to be the straight author who fucked Jesus in the ass until he called me Daddy. Then I’ll move through all them prophets, till I’ve collected me a whole belt of notches, and maybe some broken hearts and a fatwa or two. Salman Rushdie oughtn’t have all the fun and I don’t like to use girls like that.