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Readerly Chats: Robert Jackson Bennet, Author of City of Stairs

Readerly: Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I’m Robert Jackson Bennett, and I tend to write about characters navigating their way through strangely distorted worlds, worlds where reality is somewhat “soft.” My last book, American Elsewhere, dealt with an eerily-perfect small town living in the shadows of a defunct government lab whose experiments pushed at the boundaries of reality. My latest, City of Stairs, is a murder mystery set in a city whose gods died years ago, causing reality to completely overwrite itself or, in some places, collapse.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson BennettSo far my work has one the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel twice, an Edgar Award, and the Syndey J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer.

Readerly: Writers respond to the process of writing a book in different ways. Can you share some of the routines and inspiration for your process?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I tend to send myself emails on my phone constantly, little notes for ideas that I want to work into the story. This results in an inbox full of emails whose subject lines are things like, “She catches the bullet” or “the cat was ALREADY dead” or “maybe more racism?” If I ever get hacked, they’ll be in for a surprise.

Readerly: What was it about this story that made it the one you had to tell now?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

Robert Jackson Bennett: It was such an interesting idea, I couldn’t resist. I’m something of a history nerd, and the idea of writing my own history – especially a history that is, to a certain degree, unknown, because the world of City of Stairs has no idea what its history is, being that reality has collapsed – was just too tantalizing for me to pass up.

I will say that I had to think in overdrive for this book. I had to create a whole lot of rules, then find creative ways to bend them. I was probably even more distracted during this book than I am normally, which is saying something.

Readerly: Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I have always felt that the best way to stop reading is to start writing. Writers tend to be the absolute worst readers out there, and I’m no exception. When I’m writing or doing book promotion, the last thing I want to do is go home and think about words some more.

But when I do read, I find I want to read outside of my genre – so-called “literary” books, in other words – for the same reason. I need variety to keep going.

Readerly: What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I made up a really fun note about how sainting people back when the gods were alive was a process that got completely out of control, resulting in a huge excess of saints, often sainted for very, very poor reasons, but I wound up having to cut that bit as it didn’t really move the book along. Call it a murdered darling. The note wound up finding a home in our online tour of Bulikov, found here. See if you can find it!

Readerly: What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?

Robert Jackson Bennett: Well, my book doesn’t take place in our reality, but if my characters were going to peruse our offering of the printed word… For Shara Komayd I’d choose The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for Sigrud I’d choose Egil’s Saga, and for Vohannes Votrov I’d probably choose Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis.

For Colonel Turyin Mulaghesh, I’d probably choose Fifty Shades of Grey. I think she’d get a kick out of that.

Readerly: If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?

Robert Jackson Bennett: What a coincidence – I just happen to have written five books myself!

But, I won’t go there. I would say people need to read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré, Pale Fire by Nabokov, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susana Clarke.

Readerly: Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I try to avoid it. Looking at old writing is like looking at old photos of yourself: it’s not you as you are, but as you were, like a facsimile of you. I look at old writing with all the enthusiasm one has for paging through one’s old high school yearbook.

Readerly: What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

Robert Jackson Bennett: My parents, both huge readers, were very encouraging of my reading, so I can’t really recall a moment before the age of five or six when I wasn’t devouring books. And I think I always wanted to be a writer: I was always sketching pictures, making my own comic books, directing my own films in my head. I think it was inevitable that I’d learn to manufacture the very things I’d been consuming.

Readerly: How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I always do just the one. I once wrote two books at once, and they had significant issues with voice similarity. I’m always writing, in my head, in a subconscious fashion: I think it disrupts that subconscious part of me if I put too much on its plate.

I know when a project needs to be scrapped when I’m no longer looking forward to writing it. I call tell when things are working when I’m enjoying writing them.

Readerly: What’s next?

Robert Jackson Bennett: Right now I’m working on the sequel to City of Stairs, which is currently called City of Blades. It’s about exactly what happened to all those souls who went to the Continental afterlife after the Divinities themselves died.