Sunday, April 27, 2014

9mm interview with Ben Atkins

In today's issue of 9mm, I'm introducing a recent debutant on the antipodean crime fiction scene, who has impressed me quite a lot with his exceptional first novel, DROWNING CITY. Ben Atkins is an Auckland-based author who began his Depression and Prohibition-era novel while at high school and crafted it to completion while currently studying at the University of Auckland. Yes, one of those talented people that makes you go hmm... what have I been doing with my life? Ha ha.

I really enjoyed interviewing Ben recently for a feature article in the Weekend Herald (read that article here). He comes across as a very intelligent and thoughtful young man, curious about the world. And as for his debut novel, as I said in that article:
Drowning City follows enigmatic bootlegger Fontana on a hazardous one-night search for the culprits behind the hijacking of part of a valuable shipment - a seemingly small crime that could create huge problems for his operation. Atkins peppers his debut with nods to mid-century noir: intriguing femmes fatales, hulking goons, a taciturn yet philosophical hero, mean streets, and plenty of zany characters. Yet Drowning City is no pastiche. There's maturity and freshness to Atkins' storytelling. Intriguing questions are raised as the plot dances along. An evocative atmosphere combines with a distinct authorial voice to raise the novel to something quite impressive.
As part of that interview, I also asked Ben Crime Watch's classic 9mm questions. So here we go:

9MM: An interview with Ben Atkins

Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective? 
I haven’t read enough of his stories, but Walter Mosely’s detective Easy Rawlins is an interesting guy. Mosely explored elements of the 1940s social landscape that had been largely overlooked in crime fiction for far too long.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why? 
It’s probably a cliché for my generation, but J K Rowling really did things to my brain. At 7 I was a Harry Potter junkie. You hear about the supposedly quantifiable impact Harry Potter’s made on young readers, in terms of literacy and literary enjoyment - I wouldn’t be surprised if those claims were largely true. The Philosopher’s Stone built a universe with words. Those characters lived another kind of existence, and I wanted to be part of it.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
My English teacher at intermediate school was kind of draconian but she inspired us, albeit with terror: she made us write a short story each term for two years. After that, at high school I wrote a few wordy yarns before realising that I wanted to get serious: I needed to overhaul my writing style and to go for a bigger project. The novel began. So, not much aside from Drowning City.

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise? 
I haven’t got sick of undergrad yet, so this will be my last year. I enjoy films and film-going on a weirdly deep level. Anyone talking during a movie gets a popcorn kernel to the face. Not like I’d eat popcorn, though. It’s too loud. I like making music, and travelling. I like finding new places and trying to get lost in them.

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider? 
Depends on where they’re coming from, though any visitors to Auckland should hit those Chinese restaurants like a sledgehammer. Seriously – just blast through them all. There are immigrant communities originating from many areas of China who’ve started restaurants here, many of which are faithful to their own regional cuisine. The main clusters are in the CBD, Sandringham and Mt Albert. Plenty of them are BYOs. Just go to New Flavour or Xi’an Food Bar and let your mind explode.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you? 
Aaron Eckhart, though we all know he’ll be too old by the time I get my own biopic.

Of your writings, which is your favourite, and why? 
There are a couple of stories written after Drowning City that I like. Probably my most recent one is my favourite. It’s all set in a dream, and questions whether that’s a valid story premise. Any tale that challenges my normal writing practices and narrative restrictions will be interesting and enjoyable to write. Crafting a whole story out of a dreamscape meets those requisites.

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? 
I was studying with my girlfriend when I got the email. As I read it I think I started swearing inanely because she thought something was really wrong – then I forced the right words out. It was an incredible moment, one I’ll never forget. Realising you’ve hit a life goal is good enough without sharing that precise moment with your loved one.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had thus far as an author?
I really haven’t been one for long – just being An Author is strange enough. And being able to introduce myself as one. I haven’t actually done it yet… well, maybe to a taxi driver or two, to see how it felt.


Thank you Ben. We appreciate you taking the time to chat with Crime Watch


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