Behind the Pen: Ben Hobson

Welcome back to Behind the Pen. Today we are joined by Ben Hobson, Queensland author of the recently released novel, To Become a Whale. I read and reviewed To Become a Whale the week before last and absolutely loved it. I’m so pleased to be able to introduce Ben to you all today as he shares his writing process, creative inspirations, favourite books, and a whole lot more.

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When did you start writing and what was the catalyst?
I started writing, in earnest, when I first moved to Queensland, in 2007. In Victoria, where I’m from, I’d been in a punk/ska/hardcore/reggae band named Sounds Like Chicken, which was a wonderful way to create with like-minded people. When I moved up here, I hadn’t met people like that, and so I needed a way to be creative by myself. I’d always loved reading, so I thought I’d give writing a go!

How long did it take you to write To Become a Whale?
I like to let ideas float in my subconscious for a while before I start work on them. The idea of having a father and son discovering who they are, while constructing a new home together on the beach, was something I’d lived with for years. Finding Tangalooma Whaling Station, and doing a bit of research on that, got me excited about putting pen to page. The first draft of the book took around five or six months to write. It has been rewritten entirely at least twice, and countless edits since then. All up, from typing the first word to publication date was around four years.

What is your favourite scene from To Become a Whale and why?
Great question! There are many moments I love in To Become a Whale, but for some reason one I keep coming back to when the shark leaps from the water, attacking a whale on the slipway. Sam watches on, terrified, as the other men deal with the situation. I’m very proud of the way I captured that scene, and I think it speaks to all the themes in the novel without shouting about it. It took a lot of work.

Do you have any particular qualifications that relate to the subject matter covered in this novel?
No! I have qualifications in teaching and music. There is a musician in this book, Phil, so some of my experience informed his.

What inspired To Become a Whale?
Growing up as a young man, and being a father to young boys, definitely inspired this book. When I see my children being afraid of something – a nightmare, or a new situation – it’s such a fine line to walk between encouraging them, and helping them feel strong, and being too stern. Or only pacifying them, making them feel weaker than they are. And I’ve grown up in a generation that’s far more sensitive to this dichotomy. I wanted to tell a story about a man trying to father his son, but missing the mark. And a boy trying to feel loved by his father, but ultimately not seeing much within him at all.


How much research did you do for To Become a Whale? How did you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
This is such an important question. Aaron Sorkin once said, and I’m not sure if he’s actually quoting somebody else, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” – and I totally agree with that. There’s a fantastic short story by Tim O’Brien called How to Tell a True War Story which deals with this idea, within a fictional narrative. The idea being – what is truth? Can fiction get to a truth truer than literal truth? Even the most ardent historical book still needs fiction in order to drive a story – scenes that may have taken literal place will need framing in a way that is digestible to an audience.
It was a difficult balance. I did a lot of research, but, for example, I didn’t want to actually visit the real whaling station, because I didn’t want to feel beholden to the reality of it, when I knew, in my mind, I was going to need to shift a few things around geographically to capture the narrative as I wanted to tell it.

How much planning did you do? Did you plan/plot the entire story from beginning to end, or let it evolve naturally as the writing progressed? In terms of characters, were they already a firm picture in your mind before you started writing or did they develop a personality of their own as the story progressed?
Are you a pantser, or a plotter? I’m about 25% plotter, 75% pantser. I have a very loose idea of where I want things to head, but I don’t set much in concrete until I’m writing it. When I write I like to imagine myself watching a scene unfold as it does naturally. It’s perfect if I can get completely out of the way and just see what happens. Sometimes, within that, characters surprised me. As an example, Albert, a puppy who is fairly significant in terms of the overall narrative, didn’t appear in any planning. I just felt the father would do something for his son in those early chapters, and as I wrote I realised he was taking us to go and get a puppy.

Are you balancing a different career with your writing? How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?
I am a full-time high school teacher. I’m also a father, and husband. General adulting, too, takes up a fair chunk of time. I cram in writing wherever I can! Generally it’s at the end of the day, when everybody else in my house is asleep. When I’m writing a first draft I force myself to write 1,000 words a day, even if they’re bad. This normally takes half an hour to an hour.

Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
I write on the couch while I watch the Block or Masterchef with my wife, Lena. Sometimes in bed with the laptop on my knees. Sometimes whenever I get a spare moment.

What authors and types of books do you love the most?
My favourite types of books are one that don’t delve into the internal in too much detail. I like to be presented with a character, or a scene, and be left, then, to emotionally respond as I would like. Sometimes books get far too into how characters operate – why they do the things they do. Or they tell me how to feel about a certain situation. I enjoy those books, but not as much. Some of my favourite authors are Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Sofie Laguna, Rohan Wilson, Marilynne Robinson J. M. Coetzee. Cormac very rarely gets inside his characters’ heads.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why is this book so significant to you?
Whoa! My all time favourite work of fiction would quite possibly be The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy. It’s my favourite Cormac work. This book is more than a book to me. I’m not sure how to articulate my thoughts on it. It seems as though it has been hewn from the earth. It is a tale as old as time itself. It is beautiful and tragic and haunting.

If you could write a letter to your teenage self, what would be your main piece of advice?
Don’t be so worried all the time about what everybody else thinks of you.

Given that the main character from To Become a Whale is a thirteen-year-old boy and much of the novel is made up of his memories, can you share with us one of your own childhood memories?
There’s actually a moment in To Become a Whale that is based on my life (though I suppose most of it is, really!) – there’s a scene wherein the boy is riding his bike and topples into some stinging nettle. This really happened to me… sort of. It actually happened to my brother. He fell into some blackberry bushes and came up with a very-quickly spreading rash. I was terrified I’d killed him. I remember racing back home on my bike, crying, scared to death that when I returned with dad Andrew would be dead. But he wasn’t. This terror hopefully helped informed Sam Keogh’s!

Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I am deeply interested in the study of theology. I find it the most important question to ask – does God exist? If he does, what sort of impact does that have on you? If he doesn’t, then how to we consistently live within the framework of nihilism, or relativism? I’m a bit of a laymen in regard to this, but it deeply concerns me, and informs a lot of what I love to write about.

If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
Honestly? Hemingway. Though I’d like to chat with him after his suicide. He had such an interesting, strange, romantic, horrible life. I’d love to hear his thoughts on himself, though I’m not sure how into introspection he was.

A huge thanks is extended to Ben for joining in with Behind the Pen and allowing us to get to know him a little better. As an added bonus, Ben has given me this Sounds Like Chicken video to share with you all. I’m going to consider this a world wide exclusive re-launch via Theresa Smith Writes!

To find out more about Ben Hobson and to keep in touch with his writing, follow him at his blog.

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