An Interview With Robert Jackson Bennett on MR. SHIVERS
What made you want to write about The Great Depression?
Well, while the era suits a desperate, horrifying story, the real reason I chose it is that just mentioning its name summons up a world in the reader’s head. People immediately picture tottering Zephyrs or red ashen fields or the photographs of Dorothea Lange. The Grapes of Wrath gets brought up quite a bit. We all have a preconception of The Great Depression, a series of images and stories rattling around in our collective subconscious. It provided a big playground for me to tear up, to do flips off the monkeybars or kick holes in the slide, or spray-paint colors no one expected.
But while the story’s got some historical grounding to it, I don’t think I set the story in The Great Depression as much as I did the idea of The Great Depression, the one we all have. Almost in the dream-version of The Depression. The historical details, really, are just details. They’re interesting and necessary, to a certain extent, but the bones of the backdrop, and maybe even the story itself, are already waiting in your head.
What fascinated you about hobo culture?
There’s a sense of adventure and transience there that I thought had gone untapped in horror/fantasy. The idea of an American hobo is already half-founded in tall tales and folklore, and the novel’s got a basic epic fantasy framework – the protagonist goes on a quest, and while journeying across a strange land he gathers companions and encounters obstacles and strangers. But the backdrop and the culture gave me a lot of room to examine some dark thoughts about the nature of right and wrong, and how it holds up in a world that doesn’t seem to care if you’re there or not.
Any advice for those eager to go a-hoboin’?
A screwdriver is both a useful tool and a handy weapon. But the best way to hurt a man is to steal his shoes in the night while he’s sleeping. If he’s dead drunk, it shouldn’t be hard.
What made you want to be a writer?
Mostly I was looking for a career where the majority of my time wasn’t spent getting yelled at, which was how all my other jobs were. Now that I’ve got a book out, people all over the world have the opportunity to yell at me over the internet twenty-four-seven, but at least it’s quieter this way.
What are your favorite hobbies?
I have a game my friend and I play where one of us blindfolds the other, drives them to some far corner of the county, and drops them off without a phone or a dime. Then they have to figure out where they are and navigate home before nightfall. We never really figured out scoring, since there’s not much room to lose. I guess it’s one of those Zero-Sum games.
Who are your favorite artists?
As is probably evident, I’m fascinated by people who exist at the fringes of society, by the worlds that exist between the cracks. Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy, and Tom Waits are all favorites, and I probably wear that love on my sleeve. Francis Bacon (the painter) is another fascination of mine, along with John Le Carré. There’s also a guy by the highway out here who cuts tin cans into statues of your favorite cartoon characters. He’s pretty dang talented, but sometimes he’s there and sometimes he’s not.
Where did you get your inspiration for the figure of Mr. Shivers?
When I was a kid I lived in a neighborhood that was constantly under construction. My pals and I passed our days in cement drainage ditches and vacant lots and muddy fields. One day I went down to one of the small drainage sites by myself, but there was a man camping there under the bridge. I didn’t get close at all, but he saw me. He was wearing a tattered gray coat and it looked like he’d been sleeping in the mud. His face was smeared dark brown and he had a soaking old cigarette but dangling from the corner of his lip, dribbling smoke. He waved at me like he recognized me, and smiled, and it wasn’t a nice smile. Funny thing was, I felt like I recognized him, too.
So the answer is that I wasn’t inspired at all. Because I’m pretty sure Mr. Shivers is real.
Any advice for future writers, or for readers in general?
When flounder gigging, approach the flounder slowly on the balls of your feet. Raising your heels up and down creates suction, which the flounder will sense. Aim for its spine directly behind its skull, and make sure your wrist is straight when you stab down. Remember that the power comes from your upper arm and shoulder, not your elbow. This will ensure a tasty treat that’s efficiently caught, but will pretty much ruin the flounder’s day.