Ben Peek is a Sydney-based writer. He has published short stories, poems, a chapbook, and essays. His novels include Black Sheep, a dystopian novel published by Prime Books, and an autobiography, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, published by Wheatland Press. His first short story collection, Dead Americans, is forthcoming from ChiZine Publications. His blog is http://benpeek.livejournal.com and he tweets at https://twitter.com/#!/nosubstance.
1. Congratulations on your 2012 Ditmar nomination for ‘Below’, alongside its companion novella ‘Above’, by Stephanie Campisi. You’ve famously (notoriously?) been critical of awards in the past. Do you derive any satisfaction from the nomination, and does the double nomination reflect how ‘Above/Below’ has been received since publication? Perhaps, most importantly, what happens if you win… ??
Aw, now you and I both know I won’t win.
That there is Paul Haines’ last nomination on that ballot and, if at the very least for the memory and his contribution to the scene through his work and personality, he should win. If people want to pay their respects professionally to the man, then they should. He was a fine person, but in this context, he was also a fine author, who had grown so much and become so unique over the last handful of years. We should be proud and recognise this and I am sure we will. But, in general, awards…
Man, I always get in trouble with awards. Don’t shit on peoples shiny pieces, I guess. In general, I don’t have a problem with nominations. At a very base level it means people liked my story and I’d rather have people like my stuff than hate it. Do I think awards are still flawed? Sure. But I guess as I’ve gotten older I’ve seen that all awards are flawed, not just the spec fic ones. The Booker had a thing about one of the judges saying books should be ‘readable’. The pulitizer awarded no prize this year. Me, all I see is the politics and personalities and lines in the spec fic awards, but these days, I suppose I’ve mellowed some. I can see how much it means to people–how important it can be to some, how much it rewards them. It’s not my thing still, but there’s more important things in the world, and if people want to be nice to me in particular, I’d rather have that than the shit I’ve gotten tossed at me over the years. That’s gotten a bit old, that.
As for Above/Below, I really don’t know if it does reflect the reception it got. It got a decent reception, but I don’t think a lot of people have given it the chance that they should–my feel is everyone has been more interested in what YA book is currently popular than looking around for anything that is a bit different, or plays with a bit of form. It can feel like you’re constantly pushing against a wall of pseudo teenage expectations these days when you’ve got something new in speculative fiction, and this is double when you’re coming out of an independent press.
But the book was sweet and Alisa, the publisher, ought to be given credit for that. She found the secret of Amanda Rainey and her covers made the book an object of cool. And Alisa got behind the idea, which is a neat little idea, the split novella, two story thing–and the people who read it, they dug it, and I thank them for nominating both.
2. Your collection, ‘Dead Americans’, forthcoming from ChiZine Publications in 2013, will include stories from both your ‘Dead Americans’, and your ‘Red Sun’ story cycles. These two series are probably your most recognised works, yet are quite different. Do you see the collection as defining your career to-date, or is themed in another way? How is it shaping up?
It’s really just a way of pulling together the work so far, I think. I mean, it’s been seventeen years since I began…
3. You wrote a thoughtful post recently about the nature of commercial art (http://benpeek.livejournal.com/867333.html), and the balance between artistic desire and mass appeal. Is this shaping what you’re currently working on, and at what point do you give up and write the next ‘Twilight’?
When I get tired of being poor.
Even, y’know, moreso.
But yeah, it is shaping what I’m working on now. For a while it was nice to be told how commericially unviable I was, how difficult I was, how unflinching and uncompromising. You can kind of get off on that shit, if you got the right frame of mind for it, and I do. People even called me a genius, which is flattering, if a bit silly. But after the market crash that became the GFC, those kind of statements usually meant the end of a publishing opportunity for me, and things dried up pretty quick with the same words. One agent even called me a genius. At the time, she was telling me she couldn’t represent me anymore, mind you.
Beneath the Red Sun is probably the most infamous work of that GFC peroid for me. It’s the novel I wrote on the prompting of an editor from Tor, which never got read. Then it was waiting on a contract from Angry Robot after a verbal agreement on wanting it before Harper Collins dropped them. It cost me two agents, one of my own doing, the other not. And… it was kind of hard, that time. I won’t lie. It’s the kind of time that can break you in this business and it came close. My friends and the people who weren’t my friends both got deals in this time, got agents, had success, and when you’re down and out, that can kind of be hard. It’s harder still when you’re just eeking by to pay your rent. It takes a lot to be able to front your friends and be happy for them without feeling like you’ve been done dirty by the world, and it took time. I had to work at that. It’s human nature to resent someone their success when you’re doing bad, but it’s not the kind of human nature I like or value, so I worked hard to get over it and kept a low profile while doing so.
But still, I don’t write not to be read. I certainly don’t write to be poor and unpublished and so obscure that my girlfriend is the only person whose read my latest work. I write because I love to write, and because it’s how I want to live, and when the opportunities leave you, you have to step back and ask yourself about the nature of art and commerical viability. Which is what I did, and that challenge, of finding work that rewards both you as an artist, and you as someone who needs to pay his rent, is I think the big conflict and struggle for me. I can’t even honestly say I do it well right now, since I still struggle to pay my rent, and will likely do so for a while until I finish this book and sell it.
And if it doesn’t sell, I hear you ask?
There’s another book after that, and another still. There’s always ideas. There’s always art.
Sadly, there’s always rent as well.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I read Haines’ novella ‘Wives’ recently, shortly before he died, and that I loved. It was the dark, satirical heat of his body of work, and I recommend it entirely to anyone who hasn’t read it.
5. Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think have been the biggest changes to the Australian SpecFic scene?
I didn’t even go to that–I have no idea what kind of drama or gossip or bad sex that was video tapped at the time and held for blackmail later.
Don’t share with me the last, though.
I have senior porn.
Don’t make me use it again.
But, if I had to say the biggest change, it’s the usual changes: new people, new technology, new ideas, that sort of thing. It’s easier now, I imagine, to record someone’s drunken shame than it was two years ago, and in the speculative fiction scene, I bet that has become important.