Chris Benjamin writes both fiction and non-fiction, and is the current managing editor of Atlantic Books Today. He is the author of three books, Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School (Nimbus Publishing, 2014), Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada (Nimbus, 2011), and a novel, Drive-by Saviours (Fernwood, 2010), which was longlisted for a ReLit Prize and made the Canada Reads Top Essential Books List. (Before being published with Fernwood, Drive-by Saviours won the WFNS’s H.R. [Bill] Percy Prize.) After having lived and worked across Canada and abroad, Benjamin is now based in Halifax. In what follows, he talks about how he got started as a writer, the first time he was paid for his writing, his new projects, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and ficiton and non-fiction in particular?
When I was around six or seven years old (picture it: Westphal, 1981), I impressed some friends and family with a short story I wrote about a little boy who owns a dinosaur. The concept was completely ripped off from Syd Hoff’s children’s classic, Danny and the Dinosaur, but I loved the attention, and I did have a good way with words. The stories got a little more original as I aged—in Grade 6 my classmates and teacher loved a story I wrote called “The Monster Who Wanted to Eat New York.” Spoiler: he was a foot shorter than the 100-foot sign saying “You Must Be Taller Than this Sign to Eat New York.” A star was born.
Fiction is still really my thing, but what initially drew me into non-fiction was the world’s perpetual state of crisis and an earnest desire to save it. Maturation again proved good for me, filing down such harmful aspirations. I still find I can do some good in sharing true stories that shed light on the lives of the afflicted. World not saved, but occasional lives positively affected.
In addition to being a writer, you are the managing editor of Atlantic Books Today. Do you find that these two roles (writer and editor) complement each other? Are there any particular challenges for writers who also work as editors?
Mostly yes. It’s a steady gig and as an otherwise self-employed freelancer that is complementary. The skills I use and improve as a structural and copy editor (editing books as well) are really useful in my own prose efforts. And it can’t hurt that I’ve gotten to know the Who’s Who of the Atlantic Canadian literary scene better.
But of course there are challenges, like editing negative reviews of works by people (writers, publishers) I know and like. That hurts and can make for some awkward Christmas parties.
There’s also a significant challenge as a reader, turning off that editorial brain. I can’t seem to read anything aloud to my children without tightening sentences as I go.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
Read I suppose. Waste away on social media or NBA basketball blogs. I’m never short of ideas though. Writer’s block, for me, is more a certain laziness, and it’s unfortunate because actual writing time is so limited in my life. To fritter it away is tragic, and knowing that is usually what kicks my arse back into gear at some point.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
I think there are two equally large misconceptions at the opposite ends of a spectrum, balancing one another. The first is the idea that writing pays, and this is mostly held by people who are young or young at heart and love to read and hold writers in high esteem. They see it as a profession, like doctoring or lawyering or professing. On the other end are the people who see writing as a hobby and never stop wondering when you’ll get a regular job. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Writing is hard work, it can pay a little if you’re disciplined and savvy and lucky (and good), and most of us need another source of income to make it work.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Related to the above, find a way to make it work financially, which means (until you become the next Atwood) finding work that pays your bills and still allows you an acceptable number of writing hours each week. Once you do that, do not fritter away those writing hours (or let anyone infringe on them), because they are the most important part of your working week. It’s not a hobby.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
I love that every time I go to my local coffee shop (Local Jo) to work, I run into other writers (and other freelancers from other professions too). And there we kvetch and catch up and cheer one another on.
I love the writers. There are so many here you can’t go to the market on Saturday without bumping into them, and they are by and large an incredibly supportive community and willing to give a hand (cheerleading, advice giving, coffee drinking, work sharing, hot tip offering). Writing is a solitary artistic practice, connecting with the writing community breaks the isolation.
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?
I think it was in the early aughts, a narrative nonfiction piece I wrote—called “The Law Won,” about a regrettable encounter with the New Orleans penal system—won an honourable mention from a writers’ guild in Ottawa and it came with a prize of perhaps $20. The money was less significant than the fact that a group of writers somewhere, anywhere, had recognized quality in my work. The story was eventually published in an issue of the much missed Descant magazine.
Did you have a mentor when you started writing? What was that relationship like?
I had good teachers along the way and the best thing they did for me was believe in me. Soon after I returned Nova Scotia (after a long economic exile in Toronto and then working at a newspaper in Ghana), I met Silver Donald Cameron. He’d written a nice foreword to my Great Aunt’s poetry book (Dim Time and History on a Garrison Clock); he and I soon became friends and for a time I was involved with his Green Interview project. I’ve always been able to rely on him for kind support and excellent advice, especially regarding the business side of being a professional, freelance writer. The most important thing I’ve learned from him is to never sell myself short, to remember my worth and that professionals must be paid for their work.
What’s the last great book you read?
I recently read Alden Nowlan’s novel, The Wanton Troopers. It was the prose of a poet, yet its greatest strengths were the characters, who were fully fleshed out, realized, with all their flaws and humanity and foibles and unexpected strength. It was hard not to hate them, impossible not to love them. Remarkably, Nowlan sent the manuscript to just one publisher and, upon rejection, put it away in a drawer somewhere.
What are you working on right now?
A couple of short stories, a novel that keeps getting retitled, another novel that has just started, articles on cannabis in the workplace and the impacts of climate change on Halifax, and a profile of an ophthalmologist. And also the spring issue of Atlantic Books Today.