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Interview with 2010 Pop Fiction Winner Benjamin Kowalsky

Benjamin Kowalsky’s short story, which earned the grand prize in the 2010 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, isolates two enemies in the Russian Revolution above a crowded theater and uses the methodical rhythm of weapon assembly to set the pace and tone. Here's a Q&A with the winner. by Melissa Hill

The following is an online-exclusive of the PopFiction Awards story that appears in theJuly/August issue of WD. Click here to order the issue.

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1. How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?
The first book I think I ever wrote was in first grade and it was called "Smarty". And it was about a smart boy who recited different sorts of facts. I can't remember how it ended, but I do remember my first grade teacher in Okte Elementary being impressed with it. She could have just been being supportive. It may have been entirely wretched. I don't write full-time. I don't even know if I would want to, but I feel that writing is something that I'm meant to be doing.

2. Who has inspired you as a writer?
I wish I could pick out for you the writer who inspires me the most. I mean, the writers that come most readily to mind would be Hemingway, Goethe, and Shakespeare. But going even further into it I would have to say Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Langston Hughes, Oscar Wilde, Adrienne Rich, Andrea Gibson, Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver and Roald Dahl. My parents loved books. We had a huge library of everything you could imagine. I used to pick out books at random and pretend to read them to make my dad and mom proud that I was trying to read something like Henry Miller or Gray's Anatomy. I pretended to read them so often that most of the time I actually read them by accident.

I have this memory of my mother reading me “The Red Pony” by John Steinbeck. I remember becoming so upset during the part where this red pony dies and her bones are bleaching in the sun. And then I thought about my mom and how she was going to die too. And then my face got all hot and tears started coming out. To this day, I have not finished “The Red Pony.”

But it's moments like that which inspired me to write. Steinbeck had been dead for years when my mom was reading me that story, and yet he'd just taught me something about human mortality in a way that no one else could. Maybe that's what good stories are supposed to do, lead us from innocence to experience. I don't know. Sounds pithy though.

3. Do you write in genres besides thriller/suspense?
I try not to pick genre before writing. But after writing, when I try to figure out what the story is, I've ended up doing things like fantasy, historical fiction, experimental fiction, and some erotica too. Though whenever I'm writing erotica I always get giggly and I can never finish. For me genre is an afterthought. Does that sound pretentious? I always think that what I'm doing is literary fiction while I'm doing it. Now that sounds pretentious.

4. What do you like about writing thriller/suspense?
The way that the emotions in the story complimented the mechanics of the story-telling was cool. That doesn't sound particularly literary, but “cool” was the only way I could describe that piece while I was writing it. Writing in the present tense isn't something I do very often, but for this story I don't think any other tense would do. What I wanted to do was capture the reader, and I mean just throw them onto this catwalk with these two characters, with no way out. Originally I thought it was coming out sort of like Sci-Fi, along the lines of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, but just a little snippet of it. The intensity of the situation is just modified further by the bits about rifle assembly: cold, logical, final.

5. Do you write novels or poetry in addition to short stories? If so, what do you like about each genre?
I've tried writing novels, but I don't think it's possible for me to devote that much attention to something like that. Whenever I write anything, I get crazy about it, and I start wondering about themes and things like wordplay. How each sentence flows, or if any particular sentence can be cut from the draft. I also do things like count the times I say "really" or "sometimes" and I wonder if that gets in the way of the narration. I know, I know: Get an editor. But as a guy with a 9-to-5 day job, I don't have time to go out and find one.

Poetry is something I've loved since I was little just because of all the things I was able to do with it. Just playing with the sounds of words, or the rhythm of speech. I guess the first poems I read on my own were the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. I got into formal poetry. Just the metre and rhyme schemes that were so complex it made me kind of a snob. But then there was one day, my dad got me this book of poems by Langston Hughes, and it blew my mind. I couldn't believe that someone could write like that. It was audacious to me, and I started copying down quotes from it and stuffing them into my wallet. Poetry reaches into you and changes you. It's the sort of stuff you keep on your wall, or written somewhere on your skin, or underneath it. I love the way that writing poetry changes me, and how my poetry changes with me. "I play it cool, and dig all jive." That still sticks with me.

6. Describe your writing routine.
The first thing I have to do is get a deadline. "Yusov" was written under the deadline: I needed something to read in front of an audience, and I had one week to do it. Once I've got that deadline, I need solitude. I can't write when there is anyone around. I like to talk myself through dialogue. I'll repeat phrases to see if they ring right. So it looks like I'm crazy. I'll write sentences and then argue about them. I'm just a mess. So that solitude is necessary because I haven't yet gotten to where I can just tell my friends, "Well, I'm an artist." Someday, maybe. The third thing I need is music. "Yusov" was written to one song which was set on repeat. (Combichrist "I'd Like to Thank My Buddies," if you're curious. Combichrist - "I'd like to thank my buddies") I've got to find that right song or set of songs to keep my brain in constant motion. Usually, using this method, I'm able to come up with enough momentum to carry the story through in about twenty minutes or so. Not that I'm going to finish the story in twenty minutes, but that I've got something going where I know what the endgame is.

7. What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
I have an incredibly good memory for certain things. I couldn't live without my memories. Even if it's just something like the smell of burning leaves. There's a memory in that for me. I also wouldn't be able to live without my brilliant friends who are also writers. I feel particularly blessed with just the sheer amount of talent I've had around me my whole life. All of them are incredibly supportive and I couldn't complete a single sentence without them being there to catch me. They know me. I get crazy about ideas or sentences or characters. They've seen me go off on a plot tangent, my hands flying everywhere and my hair pointed in all different directions. I get excited about my stories, I can't help it, and I get excited about their stories. Without that sort of understanding and reciprocal enthusiasm, I wouldn't be writing. I'd be institutionalized.

8. Where do you get ideas for your writing?
Plain and simple theft. I steal ideas and phrases from my friends. I steal their outfits and their faces. Or I steal something that happened between us and I put it in there. I steal from the family treasure mine of stories and I use them. Maybe a friend of mine came up with this brilliant idea about the origin of the universe. Or maybe she has this intricate conspiracy theory about the Freemasons. I'll steal both of those ideas and synthesize them. Or there's a mechanic I saw in one story that I loved, so I stole that too. This whole answer I'm giving you? I stole that from a professor I had in Creative Writing 101. But that's nothing new. I'm a total thief. I think most people who write are like that.

9. Where did you get the idea for “Yusov Assembles a Rifle?” What’s the process been for writing the story? (What research, revising, and rewriting have you done?)
My friend Kristen is going to hate me for this, but she was the inspiration for Katya, and thus the whole story. She and I were roommates for a year, and during that year was one of the coldest winters I've ever experienced. And our heat didn't work. And we had zero insulation in our main room, which was where everyone normally would hang out, and where I would do most of my writing. One day Kristen walks in wearing this, I don't know, big military looking coat of some sort, and her hands didn't quite reach out from the sleeves. And there was a German flag patch on the shoulder. And I could see her breath it was so cold in the apartment. And I wondered what it would be like if she'd been hired to kill me when I least expected it.

And thus, Katya sort of sprang into existence. Her appearance was completely based on Kristen. Russia came into the picture not because I have any particular insight about it, but because it makes for such an interesting story. The history of Russia around the time of the Revolution, everything was just so precarious. Revolutions often are. There's just so many possibilities, Russia becomes a character in and of herself. I had to ask one particular set of “what ifs.” Yusov sprang into it because I needed someone to play foil to Katya.

In the end, I really wanted to play with people's sympathies. I don't like stories where you're given the good guy and you're just supposed to root for him. People are so much more complex than that. Yes, Yusov is a freedom fighter against an "evil empire" but he's a lech and a bit of a nihilist. Yes, Katya is our protagonist, but she's also unapologetically Fascist. She IS the evil empire, there's no way around it. The crucial moment in the story is when she is almost spares Yusov's life, and it's almost like we're begging her not to!

I also was reading Tim O'Brian's "The Things They Carried" over and over again, and I loved the way that story just buried its way into me. It's almost like the story itself sort of snuck up on me and I was left a mess of tears on the floor, coiled up in a little ball telling myself "it will be alright." I wanted to play with the idea of the assembly of a rifle, like he played with the idea of a list, to turn the story itself into something that embodies the struggle between the two characters, which embodies the tension. An assembly manual is logical, it's purposeful, and if you follow all the steps it leads you inexorably to a particular conclusion. That's how I wanted people to feel reading it, and then to tweak that feeling as we went along together.

As far as research goes, I've never shot a gun before. Never really even touched one. I'm from suburban shoreline Connecticut. I'll admit it. Hopefully, if I ever touched one, I'd know what end to hold. I had to ask around to see if I could find someone who could give me a manual for a Mousin Nagent. I can't even recall how much research I did to find out which guns the Russians would have used at that time just to get to the point where I said "Yusov would have used a Mousin Nagent". I had a desk full of papers. I was reading about Russian History and the main players in the Revolution every day, and trying to figure out how I could twist it.

After the initial draft, I've read it over and over and revised it over the period of about 4 years. Every time I revised it, I titled it something different. Of all the things I've ever written, this was the hardest to title!

10. What types of research have you done for your work? How have you gone about your research?
The purpose of research into anything is to gain confidence about what I'm saying. It's so that I know what I'm talking about to the finest possible details, and then I'll tell the reader about 5% of what I know. The purpose, ultimately, isn't to show the reader "hey, look at how smart I am," or "Look at how much research I have done." But to gain that sort of confidence I need in order to tell the story the way it needs to be told. You'll see this a lot in fantasy and sci-fi (since I am a huge dork, I read a lot of it), where a character does some exposition about the world around them.

Think about it. Do you ever think "I am getting married today in a Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has been a dominant religious institution for thousands of years..." No. Of course you don't. You're too focused on getting married. So with Katya, for example, she's not thinking about how the Emperor rose to power, she's thinking about how much she loves the Emperor. She's thinking about her father. She's thinking about her mother. She's thinking about Yusov and how much he deserves what he's getting. You know, the normal stuff that imperial killing machines would think about. The normal stuff we all think about, really.

Research is just to put us into that world. So that talking about Lenin being the Czar or Emperor of Russia becomes about as banal to me as saying that George Washington was the first President of the United States. I don't need to say it. I just need to know it if I'm going to be writing about that world.

11. If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
I would put a ban on any vampire fiction that involves anything sparkling. There's nothing really that I could say I would change about publishing that wouldn't end up in some sort of rant about mass media and culture in general. I'll reserve those sorts of rants until after my third drink.

12. What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
I think I can characterize very well. I try to make people as whole as possible. The only real way to develop it is to read their dialogue out loud to yourself. If you can't find the voice, then you haven't found the character. I also have a huge amount of enthusiasm for written words.

13. What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
Besides just the practical aspect of just writing on a consistent basis, one of the things that I struggled with—that I think I've nearly overcome—is the emotional distance I've tired to put between myself and my stories. A friend of mine used to say that I was like a poker player who never showed his hand. It was cheap of me. I would keep on raising stakes, but I would never bring anything to a conclusion. I was just bluffing the whole time, and didn't satisfy the reader in any sort of way. That's been slowly improving. I think "Yusov" is a good example of me trying to write my way out of that problem.

14. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Gosh. I used to have this letter from my good friend Jeff, who I looked up to (and still do) as a paragon of fiction writers. The guy could just write circles around most people. He wrote me this critique/letter, which was supposed to be his 'final word' on my work in college. There really wasn't any one quote I could take from it, but it was a huge kick in the ass.

15. What your proudest moment as a writer?
Besides being able to call my mom and say that her boy just won a national contest? It's hard to top something like that! Whenever I get some kind of confirmation that "yes, Ben, you are good at this after all." It's a wonderful feeling. I don't necessarily want to know that I'm better than anyone, I just want to know that I'm good.

16. What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?
My goals? Well, I've got a lot of script projects that I'm working on, and I'd like to get those finished by their deadlines! For my career and work? I want to become a lawyer, to be honest. I don't want to ever stop writing, by any means. I don't think I ever could stop even if I wanted. I'd love to get more short stories published. Maybe even write a novel someday. But I've got this sense that I don't just want to be a writer. I'm ambitious enough to want to have it all. And I'm megalomaniacal enough to think that I can.

17. Any final thoughts or advice?
I don't know where I heard this, and it's far too insightful to have come from me: "Every story is a love story." It's not really advice, but it's a thought.

Call for Entries

Click here for information on next year's Popular Fiction competition.

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