Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Benjamin Wood

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Benjamin Wood

British-born author Benjamin Wood enters the literary scene with his debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals (McClelland & Stewart), which hits the shelves today. Erstwhile fiction editor of the prestigious UBC literary magazine PRISM International, Benjamin now works as a lecturer in creative writing at the University of England.

Benjamin talks to Open Book about The Bellwether Revivals, his musical leanings and the paranoia that comes with new projects.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Bellwether Revivals.

Benjamin Wood:

The novel follows Oscar Lowe, a bright young nursing home assistant in Cambridge. He falls in love with a medical student at King’s College, Iris Bellwether, after he is drawn into an evensong service at the chapel by the ethereal sound of an organ. Soon, he becomes embroiled in the machinations of Iris’s older brother, Eden, who is a rather self-confident but troubled musical prodigy. Eden believes he can adapt the theories of a forgotten Baroque composer for healing purposes, and he lures Oscar into a series of experiments to prove his claims.

The novel is a love story at heart — the graduating romance between Oscar and Iris is very much at the foreground. It adopts a different viewpoint from most campus-set novels, in that Oscar isn’t a student at the university but an outsider looking in on a world of scholarship and privilege. With Eden’s musical claims at the centre of the plot, the novel explores the partition between genius and madness, touching on wider themes along the way, such as the conflict between science and faith.


Was there one character you related to in particular while writing this novel?


I related most to the protagonist, Oscar — his observations as a non-student living in the shadow of the Cambridge colleges partly reflect my own. I relied on my positive experiences of growing up in a nursing home to depict Oscar’s working life at Cedarbrook. The fondness he feels towards the residents at Cedarbrook, the genial atmosphere of the place, were born of my own recollections of childhood.


Eden Bellwether has an unusual relationship with music. Do you have any musical background that informed your writing? Does music play a particular role in your writing process?


My passion for music has always been more visceral than intellectual. I was drawn to teaching myself to play an instrument as a teenager, not because I wanted to comprehend the mechanics of music, but because I saw it as emotional release. As a young singer-songwriter, I got close to record deal a couple of times, but things didn’t quite work out, and it dawned on me that the biggest reason I wrote songs was to use language, to tell stories — I’ve concentrated mostly on writing fiction ever since.

I’ve always been intrigued by the impact a piece of music can have on our state of being — how a simple melody can comfort and relieve us, elevate our spirits — and that’s what I came to The Bellwether Revivals wanting to investigate. I can’t seem to write to music, though, because I find it alters my perception of a scene, the way a film can be affected by its score. 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 release.


Tell us what your ideal writing space would be like.


A study with plenty of daylight, a solid desk and an iMac, and enough room to spread out the pages of my manuscript on the floor — that will do fine. But the absolute dream-space would also include a view of the ocean, bookshelves with a sliding ladder, an old leather wingback, one of those green lamps they have in libraries, and white shutters at the windows to tune out the sun (sometimes I need a spell of darkness to think clearly).


Is there a book you read recently that really knocked your socks off?


I really admired the storytelling and characterisation in The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, and the invention of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I enjoyed Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, The Cat’s Table, and Krys Lee’s debut story collection, Drifting House. But the last book that really made my socks roll up and down was published in 1959: A Separate Peace by John Knowles. It’s a gentle, slow-burning story about a school friendship before the war, and I was moved by the skill and subtlety of the writing. I’m almost glad it took thirty years for me to hear of it, because it proves that great novels can endure.


What are you working on now?


Another novel, which I’m aiming to deliver by the end of next year. I tend to be secretive about things I’m working on, because (a) I’m an unbearably paranoid control freak, and (b) I like to give the characters the privacy to define themselves before I go advertising their names and particulars. I can say that the next book is likely to inquire into metaphysical and philosophical ideas, in a similar vein as The Bellwether Revivals, but it will cover very different territory. I’m excited to be in the company of a new set of characters again; it’s fun to carry them around in my head wherever I go.

Benjamin Wood was born in 1981 and grew up in northwest England. In 2004, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the MFA Creative Writing programme at the University of British Columbia. Benjamin's short fiction has appeared in several international journals, and his novel The Bellwether Revivals was shortlisted for the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize Sony Reader Award for the best unpublished novel. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where he teaches and develops undergraduate programmes.

For more information about The Bellwether Revivals please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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