Benjamin Whitmer :: Pike (VO)

Could you tell us about your childhood and about how you started writing novels ?
Most of my childhood was spent on back-to-the-land communes with my mother. It was tough living, in that there were times we didn’t have electricity or running water. You haven’t experience life until you’ve spent a New York winter using an outhouse, that’s a fact. Nor did we ever have any money. We raised most of our own crops, butchered our own meat, and logged our firewood. But we always had books around. Reading was a huge part of my childhood, and from as young as I can remember, I figured a novelist was pretty much the only thing worth being.

That’s one thing that’s always stayed true for me. Even when my mother and I ran away from the last commune and settled in a small Southern Ohio town and I started tearing through my teenage years. I was getting in a lot of trouble. I ended up dropping out of high school and living in an abandoned building for a little while. But even then, I was always reading, even if I had to shoplift the books. I always figured someday I’d be a novelist in my own right. I just figured it’d take a long time. It’s probably best I didn’t know how long.

How did you make your researches for your novel Pike ?
I lived in Cincinnati while I was working on it, so research was real easy. I could just step outside and walk the sites I was depicting in the book. So that’s what I did. I did a lot of walking and took a lot of pictures and trolled a lot of places I probably shouldn’t have been. I also read a lot about violence. In fact, that’s probably what started the book. I had a copy of William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume history of violence, Rising Up And Rising Down, and that got me thinking a lot about when violence is justified and when it isn’t. That probably raised most of the questions that became Pike. I’m not sure I answered any of them, at least not well, but I got to ask them in ways that kept me interested.

Could you describe, for those who haven’t read your novel yet, your two main characters : Douglas Pike and Derrick Krieger ?
Pike comes with a long history of violence, most of it criminal. He’s been a drug dealer, a coyote, and a hired leg-breaker. But he’s somewhat reformed. He’s returned to his hometown and is trying to reconcile his past, and he’s done a lot of thinking about violence. Derrick’s a Vietnam vet, a dirty cop, and is a little younger. For him violence is just another tool in his toolbox. It’s probably the first one he grabs, but it’s just another tool.

Your vision of Cincinatti is very dark : overdose, racism, bribery, is it really that way ?
Sure. I mean the details in the book are invented, of course, but there’s a portion of the city where plenty of people live exactly that hard. There are nice parts of Cincinnati also, but a large part of the city is pretty beat up. And I’ve sure enough known people in my own life who’ve lived that hard, and, to lesser degree, made some of the same bad choices myself. As to the corruption of the police, that exists. When I was living there, there was a lot of tension. There’d been a wave of riots a couple of years prior, and the cops were on a rampage. I remember them killing a black guy for dancing outside of a burger joint. Choked him to death. It was pretty much non-stop brutality.

Do you have an anecdote about your novel Pike, published by Gallmeister Edition ?
Well, like I said, I did lots and lots of walking around Cincinnati while I was writing Pike. Our place was close to Over-The-Rhine, which was where the worst of it took place, so it was pretty easy to get a firsthand view of what I was writing about. At the time my daughter had just been born, so I’d put her in a stroller and stick a 9mm handgun in the diaper bag and we’d go out walking all over. She’s eight years old now and she’s always begging me to read Pike, but I tell her she doesn’t need to. After all, she’s been every place the book describes.

I’ve read that you spend a big amount of you free time haunting bookshops, drugstores and the shooting ranges of the porrest areas of Denver. Could you tell us more about that ?
I wouldn’t say the poorest areas of Denver; I just prefer the parts that haven’t yet been turned into an open air mall. Too much of my beloved city has had the heart cut out of it by developers. As to why those specific types of places, I gravitate to them because they’re what I’m interested in. I’m always on the hunt for good cheap cigars and used books, and if there’s any money left over you’ll probably find me spending it on ammunition. I’m a whole-hearted firearms enthusiast, and I’d spend all day, every day in gun shops if I could.

The Concierge is curious ! What are your litterary plans ? If of course you can or want to tell us.
I’ve got too many plans. My next novel, Cry Father, is almost done. It’s a Colorado piece that circles some of the same themes as Pike. And then I have another that’s about three quarters of the way done which is a train-hopping, dynamiting, Victorian bloodbath. I’m really excited about that one. And then I’m beginning research for another, wherein my heavily flawed, complicated, violent protagonist will be Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s the kind of character you can’t make up. The perfect American confidence man. An asthmatic, near-sighted, rich gentleman who managed to somehow ensconce himself in the public consciousness as an outdoorsman, and drummed up an entire war just so he could prove his ability to kill a man in combat. He represents a lot of the questions about authenticity and masculinity that I’ve been thinking about lately.

What are your writing habits ? (in the morning, the evening, in an office, on a desk …)
I just got some substantial writing space for the first time in my life. Thanks to the housing crash, we bought a big house in the suburbs and it has a basement, which I have claimed half of. I’ve got a work table to unroll maps, filing cabinets, room for bookshelves and guns, my desk – which is actually my great-grandmother’s kitchen table – and even a little space to pace. It’s wonderful.
As to when I write, that’s easy: whenever I can. I have two small children and a day job, so if I can get up early enough to get it done then, I get it done then. Otherwise I stay up late. I do my best to get in at least two hours a day, every day, and I usually meet or exceed that.

Who are your favourite writers, and why ?
Well, my all time favorite writer is Herman Melville. I’ve been obsessed with him since I was maybe 20. I‘ve spent almost two decades reading up on America’s history of extermination campaigns against its indigenous peoples thanks to Melville, and just last week I found myself launching into a whole new angle with Schopenhauer. He’s responsible for about a quarter of my obsessions. To me it’s his wildness and his fearlessness, the way the whole world of books seems to get drawn into his novels with the references and the pastiche-work. And that he could not write falsely. No matter how pessimistic or strange his worldview was, he couldn’t help but write it. To me, that’s what makes the writing game the only worthwhile game.

What topic in the news makes you angry ? And which makes you laugh ?
It all makes me angry. Incredibly angry. I live in a country where everybody prattles constantly about freedom while there’s more people in prison than any country in the history of the world. Where you can’t open a newspaper without reading about the importance of law, while the president wakes up in the morning every day and decides who to robotically bomb into a puddle of blood with no accountability at all. The older I get the angrier I get, and the less I can take of the horseshit.
By the same token, very little makes me laugh in the news. Maybe the makeup jobs on some of the announcers? I find that the less I’m plugged in to the world, the happier I am. My children make me laugh. The news makes me want to walk through windows.

What are your passions and hobbies ?
I’m a bit of a Western history buff, for one thing. Particularly vis-à-vis the so-called Indian wars. I do a lot of reading along those lines, and whenever I can find an excuse to hit a historical site, I take it. And, of course, I’m into shooting and pretty much anything to do with guns. I carry a gun everywhere I can legally, practice as much as time and money allows, and do a little amateur kitchen-table gunsmithing. I also like hiking a lot. I try to get out a couple of times a week and hit the trails. I grew up in the woods, and I need to get outdoors a certain amount to keep myself grounded.

What is the definition of a good black novel ?
I think Dennis Lehane once defined noir as working-class tragedy. That’s always seemed the best definition to me. Most literature is aimed squarely at the middle class, and most noir doesn’t even bother. I like that. Noir also seems to be one of the last places where you can write seriously about some of the big topics. Class, race, outsider culture, freedom, prison and punishment, violence, the hell of history, all the good stuff. I may not write about any of that stuff well, but it’s what interests me.

What is your favourite style of music ?
Country and western. No doubt about it. In fact, my last book was country music legend Charlie Louvin’s memoir, which I co-wrote with him. I got to sit around on his back porch in Nashville, smoking cigarettes and listening to stories about the likes of Johnny Cash. Not to mention his own tales about himself and his hell-raising brother, Ira, who cussed out Elvis and was shot six times by his wife while trying to choke her with a telephone cord. Needless to say, I was in hog heaven.

What is your favourite movie ?
Right now I want to say Junior Bonner. I’m not sure if I’d say that again tomorrow, but it would probably be a Peckinpah flick nonetheless.

If you had to choose a place in the US, a place you like, what would it be ?
The San Luis Valley. It’s the largest alpine valley in the world, situated down on the Colorado and New Mexico border. It’s spare, beautiful, and haunted with all the ghosts of Colorado’s very brutal history.  My life’s goal is to someday make enough money writing that I can put a little cabin down there.

What will your final word be for your french readers ?
Just thank you. I’m incredibly grateful that folks are reading Pike. It was the best first novel I could write, and it makes me very happy that people are finding some value in it. I’m pretty humbled by the response.