A Conversation with Ben Monopoli
Hi, Ben! Great to meet you. Could you give us some background info? Where are you from? What first triggered your interest in writing fiction?Gay 30-year-old male in Boston likes books, Italian food and long walks on the beach. Just kidding. Actually that’s all true, especially beaches with lighthouses. As for the writing, I've always had a thing for writing. Books are important in my family, so that got me off to a good start, but mostly I just like how writing feels. There's a little jolt of awesome that happens when I feel like I've written a good sentence. And fiction, in particular, because I like making things up. To me, writing nonfiction feels too much like work.
What have the reactions to your book been like from readers who identify as bisexual? I guess I also should ask have there been generally different reactions from people who identify as straight or gay, etc?
So far the bisexuals have been silent, or at least haven’t identified themselves to me. But I know they’re out there and I’d love for them to tell me if I got my bi narrator right. As for other readers, most take Vince for the well-adjusted bi guy that he is. But I’ve read a number of comments and reviews where people either call him gay or label him a “so-called bisexual” or otherwise put giant air-quotes around his bisexuality. I think there’s still a widespread belief that bisexuals (especially bi men) don’t exist and are really just gay guys halfway in the closet. You only need to listen to ten minutes of Dan Savage’s podcast to know there are plenty of confident bi men out there, and Vince is one of them.
Not many books that are self-published receive
so much praise and attention. Did you
bother trying to go the route of traditional publishing or did you decide to
self-publish from the outset? If so,
what led to that decision?
I started the book in 2005, and two years later I proclaimed it finished and began sending query letters to agents and publishers. I got some bites but no deals, which in hindsight is no surprise because the book was a mess. Tinkering with it for another few years resulted in a story I’m much happier with. And of course during that time the Kindle and Nook came into existence. That gave me an alternative to the traditional process, which can be extremely time-consuming and frustrating and paper-intensive -- I didn't have the patience to try it again. Immediate gratification has its perks. I don’t think self-publishing or traditional has to be an either-or choice, though. Self-publishing might be a springboard to something more traditional. In the meantime, I was making money and getting great feedback within a week of clicking “publish,” whereas with the traditional route it takes weeks or months just to hear back about a query.
Similar to Generation
X by Douglas Coupland, it seems like part of your story is about today’s young
college graduates being in a direction-less limbo. How do you feel about that assessment?
I wasn’t trying to make any commentary on college students in general. The book is really about my own post-college void, but if people are relating to it (and they seem to be) maybe that’s proof such a thing exists. When I started the book I was only two years out of Emerson, and at that point I would’ve given anything to go back. It didn’t help that after graduating I moved into an apartment within sight of my old dorm. I had to walk past it every day and see people who weren’t me going in and out. Writing a book was the closest I could get to going back. In the end it pretty much resolved the issue for me. I've flown through the post-college void and have been safely on the other side for a long time.
It seems likely that your invention, Shuster College, is based on your experiences at Emerson, and Vince Dandro is such a fully realized character. How much, if any, of Vince is based on your experiences?
Shuster College is straight-up Emerson, only with different courses and school colors. As for the rest of the book, there are several scenes that are verbatim from my life, but that’s all I’ll say!
The title, The
Cranberry Hush, comes from your character, Griff, and his synesthesia. He perceives emotions as having colors. Is synesthesia part of your life or of
someone you know? If someone asked you,
“exactly what kind of mood is cranberry,” how would you respond?
Cranberry is the color of the mood of musty comic books, black-and-white movies, and Billie Holiday. It’s the opposite of pop, which would probably be neon yellow or something. That’s according to Griff. I made up the form of synesthesia Griff has, based on an extreme version of how everyone’s mood is affected by color (if there was ever a waiting room painted fire-engine red people would be murdering each other rather than quietly perusing US Weekly). As for me, I do have a mild form of it where words and letters make me think of specific colors (E, for example, is a blue letter) but I don’t talk about it much. I imagine people suspect it’s just an affectation I’ve put on to sound interesting, something I chose instead of dressing goth. But really it’s no more interesting than smelling chocolate-chip cookies and thinking of grandma. The difference is that cookies/grandma is a learned, explainable connection and E/blue is just a brain hiccup. But color is important to me, and I tried to infuse The Cranberry Hush with color. It's also a big theme in my next novel, The Painting of Porcupine City, which is about graffiti artists.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing The Cranberry Hush? Was there some aspect that you found to be
the most enjoyable? What kind of process
do you use when working on a novel or is that something that is still
The most difficult things were technical things I'd never even thought about before plunging into the book. Like the importance of using varying sentence structures so not every sentence begins with “he” or “I.” Also pacing was a nightmare – the book once had a gigantic epilogue that I eventually collapsed into a brief daydream that appears near the end of the book. The only thing that comes easy for me is dialog, so when I’m writing a scene I write the conversation first and then fill the action in around it. I don’t plan much and usually when I start a scene I don’t know where it’s going to end up. Given that, you can imagine it was pretty exciting for me every time Griff and Vince got into bed together. I was always thinking, “This might be the time!”
Could you discuss some of the books that are most important to you? Who are some of your favorite authors?John Steinbeck and John Updike are my two big favorites. They make me want to quit writing because I’ll never be as good as them, but they also make me want to write every day just to try to come closer. Michael Chabon is another favorite – Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh are big influences. Junot Diaz (who wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) is practically god incarnate, as far as I’m concerned. As for other self-published authors, I’ve been talking regularly with Jay Bell, who wrote Something Like Summer (which you should definitely read... after The Cranberry Hush, haha). It’s fun to compare notes and watch our books tussle in the bestseller rankings.
You are one of the first men I know who is
legally married to a man. What
unexpected difficulties, if any, have you had from incorrect assumptions,
confused heterosexuals, and so forth?
Has it been getting easier?
I’m lucky that the difficulties have been mostly paperwork-related. For example, filing taxes is a confusing pain because according to Massachusetts I’m married, but according to the federal government my husband and I don’t even know each other. But family, friends, coworkers have been supportive across the board, and we’re very thankful for that. Strangers do of course make assumptions that the ring on my finger has a twin on the finger of a woman, but that's a perfectly acceptable assumption to make as far as I'm concerned. No one has ever reacted badly when I correct them. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for more than seven years, and I think to most people here it's old news.
Compared to a lot of authors who write so well, you’re quite young. Looking toward the future, if you could picture your dream life, how would you imagine it?
My automatic response is to say I want to be able to write full-time someday, but I don’t know if that’s true. I wouldn’t want writing to feel like a job rather than the escape I like it to be -- something I squeeze into evenings and lunch-hours. I like to imagine the book becoming a movie, but man, that could be a disaster too. I guess my only genuine goal is to do my best to write like the writers I mentioned earlier. I’ll never get there, of course, but the effort's a worthwhile goal. I think The Cranberry Hush is a good start and The Painting of Porcupine City is a step in the right direction. I hope people like them both!
Thanks so much, Ben!
Thank you, sir! It's been fun.