In this Emerging Author segment, we’re happy to bring you a conversation with debut novelist of The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood. Born in 1981, Wood grew up in north-west England. In 2004, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the MFA Creative Writing Programme at the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he was also fiction editor of the Canadian literary journal PRISM International. Benjamin is now a lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London.
LS: Music is a dominating element in the The Bellwether Revivals. How has music impacted your life and when did your interest in it begin?
My attachment to music has always come from the emotional part of me, rather than the intellectual. Growing up Merseyside, where some of that old Lennon and McCartney spirit still remains in the water, I bought a second hand acoustic guitar when I was fourteen and taught myself to play. I saw it as creative release, a way to put melody to the poetry and lyrics I was writing back then. As a kid, I’d always been drawn to the lyrical aspects of the music in my parents’ record collections—songs by Paul Simon and Billy Joel, in particular—and I think the first song I ever wrote was a product of fairly lofty ambitions to tackle the world’s big issues: a kind of belated Vietnam protest song that was utterly ridiculous but which had a passable melody. Once I developed and refined my musical tastes (and ability), I began to express my own thoughts and emotions in the music more overtly. Music’s effects on the emotions is something that has always fascinated me. Even back then, as a teenager writing songs in his bedroom, if I hit the right chord in the right sequence with the right lyric at the right time, I would be overwhelmed by the intensity of the sadness it evoked in me. I’ve always been intrigued by the impact a simple melody can have on our state of being. Later in life, that’s what I came to The Bellwether Revivals still wanting to define.
LS: Do you, like Eden, believe that music has healing properties?
Hmm, I think I’d like to plead the fifth on this question, if I may. It only matters what the characters believe and what the readers believe. All I will say is that music possesses such unique and mysterious qualities that more work should be done to understand its effects on us. But this is rather complicated by the conflict between science and faith explored in the novel.
LS: You are a singer/songwriter as well as a gifted novelist. Do you consider yourself simply a ‘writer’ in all facets now or do you still have a preference: music or literature?
It dawned on me, when I hit my early twenties, that the biggest reason I wrote songs was to use language, to tell stories; since I came to that realization, I’ve concentrated mostly on writing fiction. But if I’m ever stumped by a story I’m working on, I’ll leave it aside for a while and write a song instead—it’s a different kind of creative outlet. I still compose and record demos of songs with my brother now and then (we have a band called Arbiter Deputy), and I hope to put together an album some time in the future. I wouldn’t say I have a preference for any form of writing over another. They each have their own nuances, challenges, and mysteries.
LS: What variables led you to write this novel? If any of those variables had been different, do you think you still would have written this book? How different do you think it would be?
What a great question… The Bellwether Revivals would not have been written had I not moved to Cambridge in 2007, and, for that, I can only thank the paucity of affordable housing in London at the time. I came back to the north of England after I finished a Master’s degree in Canada and, when I landed a teaching job at Birkbeck College I couldn’t find anywhere suitable to live in London. So I decided to find somewhere in Cambridge, which is only a 40-minute train-ride from the capital (and a very good friend of mine was a post-doctoral student in the Materials Science department at the University back then).
Before I got to Cambridge, I was working on an early version of The Bellwether Revivals—different characters, different locations, different title, but with the same musical themes and ideas running through the draft. On my first morning in the old city, I decided to relocate the story to the environs of Cambridge, because I saw a way to make the concept work much better within an academic setting. Had I been a student at the university, rather than living on the fringes of it, I’m certain that The Bellwether Revivals would be a very different book. The outsider’s perspective of Oscar is, to my mind, one of the novel’s most important aspects. I’m not sure I would have been moved to write it if I had been a Cambridge student.
LS: Has there been one stabilizing force that has kept you motivated to publish? Has that changed over the years?
I’m pretty good at motivating myself to write, and I work best when I have a deadline to work towards. I wrote The Bellwether Revivals on a Thursday-Friday-Sunday routine over three years until I completed a full draft. I kept the business card of the agent I wanted to send the book to on my desk throughout that time, to remind me of the point I was aiming to reach. The hardest part of that was sticking to the regimen of writing when, at the back of my mind, the Voices of Doubt began to get louder and more loquacious, and the prospect of publication seemed minimal. Having sold my next two (as-yet-unwritten) novels to my UK publisher this year, I am now in a fortunate position where I can concentrate solely on the work itself, and think less about hawking the typescript around when its finished.
LS: How has your circle of friends and/or peers influenced your writing, if at all?
Before I went to Canada to study creative writing, I didn’t really know any other writers. As an MFA student, I was surrounded by them: a crowd of like-minded people, all of them interested in books, all of them wanting to share and discuss ideas; and they weren’t just fiction writers, but poets, playwrights, screenwriters, songwriters, performers. It was a unique environment, and one I’d recommend to anyone. I made a lot of lasting friendships while I was in Canada, and, whilst those friends and peers might not have influenced my writing directly, they certainly gave me vital support and feedback. I also learned a huge amount about the craft of writing by reading submissions for the literary journal I edited in Canada, PRISM international. Appraising the merits and weaknesses of short stories and poems at editorial board meetings every month, with my peers at UBC, was hugely beneficial to my development as a writer.
LS: Many writers struggle on their Writer’s Road. What was your journey to publication like?
In the current publishing climate, it takes a fair amount of resolve and determination to get your first book out there. I had a lot of setbacks on the way to publication. Before The Bellwether Revivals, I wrote a novella that was taken on by a prominent literary agent in London, whom I was rather swiftly dropped by when the book was passed over by editors at the major houses. Having spent several years writing that novella, I had to pick myself up and get on with writing something better. And I’m very glad I found the necessary motivation to keep on writing, even when I had serious doubts about my publishing prospects, because it led to me creating The Bellwether Revivals.
For this novel, I found a different agent, Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton, whose card I’d kept on my desk all through the writing process. Judith is a very knowledgeable and avid reader, and she took the trouble to give me detailed notes and spoke to me extensively about my manuscript before she even considered trying to sell it. Once she approached UK editors with the novel, it was all about waiting and seeing who would respond to it. It was a very, very long summer, and I thought it might not happen for me again. But all it takes is one editor amongst the multitude who truly understands and connects with your work.
Eventually, I found that person in Francesca Main at Simon & Schuster (who has since moved on to become Editorial Director at Picador). She saw enough in The Bellwether Revivals to ask me to trim the manuscript by several thousand words and resubmit it, which I did. Soon, other editors began to show an interest, when an early version of the book was shortlisted for the Sony Reader Award for Unpublished Writers at the Dylan Thomas Prize, but I chose to go with Francesca at S&S because she was the first to see the potential of the book. After that, I was very lucky to find enthusiastic and skilled editors at Viking Penguin in the USA and McClelland & Stewart in Canada. The novel was accepted for publication in November 2010, and it has only just been released this year, so, all things considered, it’s been a pretty arduous journey to this point.
LS: The scope of the publishing industry is changing. What is your opinion of the evolution of the e-book and self-publishing and their impact on the industry?
Yikes. How long have you got? Let me see… I think I will always be the kind of reader who needs to engage with texts in print form, but that isn’t to say that I’m in any way opposed to e-books. I have always found that when I read my own work on paper, it reads differently to the way it appears on the screen—they are the same words, in the same order, but there is some unexplainable, almost magical effect on the eye that makes their effect sharper, brighter, more immediate. I’m also a stickler for proper formatting and typesetting, and most e-books, in my experience, fall woefully short of acceptable standards, which only aggravates me as I read them.
That said, when I was hauling the hardbacks of The Marriage Plot and The Stranger’s Child and The Art of Fielding around lately, I began to see the attraction of owning them all on a Kindle. I think there are book consumers who prefer convenience over longevity or tactility, and there are bibliophiles who need to hold the novel in their hands as they read and store it on their shelves like a hard-won trophy after they finish it. There is certainly room for both kinds of readers in the world.
Self-publishing is positive and negative in equal measure. I know for certain that there are many excellent novels declined by the major houses every year—the sheer volume of material that passes across editors’ and agents’ desks makes it difficult for everything to be published. Not everyone will be lucky enough to find that ‘one editor’ I alluded to above. In this way, self-publishing provides an opportunity for genuinely good writing to find an audience, be it literary fiction or genre fiction or otherwise, and many good writers have found a readership this way.
The flipside, of course, is that it also removes the quality filters from the publishing process, which leads to a confluence of truly bad writing being available for purchase. I worry that this will lead to an ever-swelling fog of content, in which readers will lose their awareness of what exceptional writing looks and sounds like, where the direst use of language becomes more recognized and prized than the most skillful, dexterous, and considered. Sales of EL James’s Fifty Shades series have only heightened these anxieties in me, so perhaps it’s a bad time to be asking me this particular question.
LS: What is your idea of career fulfillment?
Improving with every book I write, and still having things to say when I’m gone.
LS: Who are you reading right now? Who are you listening to?
I am currently researching my next novel, so I’m devouring a lot of non-fiction, mostly biographies of people I am interested in as characters. But once I have a window of time in the summer, I’ll be starting Richard Ford’s latest novel, Canada, which I’ve been looking forward to for a long while.
I’ve been listening to “Young Man in America” by Anais Mitchell on repeat for the last month and a half. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful, idiosyncratic album, based on a novel written by her father. I’ve been ordering her back catalogue to catch up on what I’ve missed, as her body of work had somehow eluded me. Also, I’m looking forward to the new album by Why? later this year. Lyrically and musically, Why? are one of the most interesting and original bands I’ve come across in the last decade, and their new songs sounded great when I heard them at recent live show in London.