The day after the election, Ben Winters decided it was time to get writing.
As we move ahead in unprecedented times here in the US, I knew I wanted to talk to Ben Winters. Not only did he launch an anthology project in the wake of the election in collaboration with numerous authors and Slate, he’s also the author of Underground Airlines, an alternative history novel that explores what might have happened if Lincoln was assassinated before he took office.
As Ben says in the episode, “Writing is always a political act,” and he and I discuss the role that fiction can play in starting important conversations, making people more aware of important issues, and how writing is an incredible way to manage what’s happening in the world at the moment. Even beyond this, we get into questions of how to write responsibly outside of your direct lived experience, the importance of not being an asshole when doing so, and all kinds of juicy stuff. As writers, we get to decide what topics we dive into, but given how much rich material is presenting itself right now, I wanted to make sure we talked about writing in a crazy time as soon as we could. I hope you leave this conversation as fired up as I did.
Show notes for Episode 43 with Ben Winters:
- The tension between “alternative facts” and alternative reality fiction (2:30)
- Fiction that’s meant to feel real vs. fiction that’s meant to be a metaphor (3:00)
- Being in a political and cultural moment when truth is relative (3:45)
- The Trump Story Project (4:30) Mentioned: Lauren Beukes – Patriot Points
- Dealing with the world that we’re currently living in and its absurdity (5:45)
- The timeline for creating and executing the series (6:10)
- The morning after the election (6:45)
- Creation coming out of politics (7:10)
- Collaborating with Slate and authors (7:50)
- Writing in historic moments (8:35)
- Bringing the political and fiction together with Underground Airlines (10:00)
- Using mystery and sci-fi to address racial violence and inequality in America (10:45)
- Alternate history novels and their relationship to explore aspects turning points in history (12:00)
- The trajectory of Ben’s writing life (14:30) Mentioned: Sense and Sensibility & Sea Monsters
- On being a NY Times bestseller with an asterisk (16:00)
- Using fiction to contemplate the larger issues of being human (18:00) Mentioned: The Last Policeman Series | Der Spiegel meteor Trump cover
- Dealing with the history of white authors writing black characters in ways that are gross and attempting to do a better job (19:35) Mentioned: Octavia Butler | Paul Beatty – The Sellout | Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations | Toni Morrison | Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man | Trayvon Martin | Michael Brown | Sandra Bland
- Getting to the point where the character and the world take on a life of their own (21:20)
- The responsibility writers have to get outside their own experience and confront larger questions (21:50)
- The tension between appropriation and addressing larger experience to expand empathy (22:30) Mentioned: Zadie Smith on appropriation | Lionel Shriver speech
- Writing characters from outside our own experience responsibly (23:15)
- What is the purpose of fiction? (25:20)
- Race, writing, and diversity (26:15)
- Critical responses to Underground Airlines & The Trump Story Project (29:00) Mentioned: Octavia Butler – Kindred | Leslie Jones’ treatment on twitter
- Ben Winters’ story in the Trump Story Project (33:15) Mentioned: Fifth Avenue | Edan Lepucki – Chorus | Jeff VanderMeere – Trump Land | Nisi Shawl – Slippernet
- Trying to publish fiction in real time when current events keep changing (37:15)
- Realizations in the children’s section of the bookstore (38:20)
- Surrealism in newspaper headlines (40:00)
- Working on his next novel (40:20)
- Writing and its connection to politics (41:30)
This episode sponsored by Scrivener
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