My guest today is Larry Benjamin, Bronx-born wordsmith for whom writing is a way of life. Author of romance What Binds Us and short story collection Damaged Angels, Larry has agreed to visit today to talk about his new release Unbroken, a book with a very special meaning for Larry. I’ve been lucky enough to read it and can say that it impressed me very much.
Thanks, Larry, for visiting and for answering my questions.
Elin: Can you tell me a little about yourself? For instance, do you have to have a day job as well as being a writer?
Larry: While I’ve always been a writer—that is, I would write and stick my stories in a drawer (or later, a folder called “Larry’s writing” on my computer) —I got serious about it as a career a few years ago when both my partner and I ended up unemployed at the same time. I began to panic thinking I’d never get another job which lead me to wonder what else I was qualified to do. I dusted off the manuscript for What Binds Us and I was on my way. Returning to writing was like returning to a first love long lost.
Yes, I have a day job. I work in Corporate communications for a global chemical company. So writing is both my vocation and my avocation.
Elin: When you aren’t writing, is there any other creative activity you enjoy? Have you ever written about it?
Larry: Besides writing, I’m absolutely passionate about houses. We’re 6 years into the 5-year renovation of our current house (the 5-year plan on our previous house actually took eight). And most weekends you can find us attending open houses in our favorite neighborhoods. Realtors don’t even make us sign the visitor’s book anymore.
Readers can pick up on my obsession with houses and their furnishings in my descriptions of both in my books.
Elin: What are you reading? Fiction or non-fiction?
Larry: I’m currently reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and other Animals, which is unusual for me because generally I tend to stick to fiction as I find reality to be overrated and often grim. I’m loving the book, though, because the story is quite hilariously told and the writing is very fine.
Elin: In that crucial inspiration stage of a new story, for instance Unbroken, which comes first? Plot, situation or character?
Larry: Because my stories are heavily character-driven the characters tend to come first. However, I started writing Unbroken, just after I came across a tweet that asked: when was the moment you first knew you were gay? For me the moment occurred when I was in seventh grade. I was 12. He was the new kid. Jose. One look at him and I knew, absolutely knew I was gay. So in the case of Unbroken, the situation came first. Everything else was built on that defining moment.
Elin: Do your characters arrive fully fledged and ready to fly or do they develop as you work with them?
Larry: It depends. Dondi in What Binds Us arrived in my head fully formed and he never really changed. Unbroken spans 40 years. Lincoln, the main character, is first introduced as a 6-year-old so he definitely developed as I wrote. Same with the other main character, Jose. Lincoln first meets Jose when they are both twelve. He is the new kid in school so a complete unknown. As the story progresses, Jose’s personality is revealed and we watch him grow and mature as struggles to understand himself and the world around him. For me the most astonishing character in Unbroken was Jose’s sister, Maritza. She was meant to be a very minor character but she kept nagging me and whispering her story. I was routinely getting up in the middle of the night and writing out more of her story, which surprised me at every turn. In the end she became the first fully formed female character I’ve ever written.
Elin: Do you have a crisp mental picture of them or are they more a thought and a feeling than an image?
Larry: I generally know what the characters look like but little else at the beginning. I have a feeling for who they are as people but I find by relaxing and listening really hard they will tell me who they are as they reveal their story to me. I don’t outline, or plot out my stories in detail, in advance of writing, I just sort of write. For me writing is an organic—and chaotic—experience.
Elin: Is there any genre you would love to write, ditto one you would avoid like a rattlesnake?
Larry: You know when I was submitting Unbroken for consideration for publication, I had to identify its genre. That was a struggle because I tend not to think about what genre I’m writing in. I just write because I have a story I want to tell. Unbroken is part gay romance, part coming of age novel, part love letter to the boy I fell in love with at twelve.
The other day, I came across a reader’s review of What Binds Us and she said, “Yes, it’s love story but really so much more than that. More like a life story.” A life story. I absolutely love that description.
Elin: When you were writing Unbroken, was there a point where you felt you should pull back a little because you were putting too much of yourself into it?
Larry: Oh yeah. I tend to reach that point with all my books. My books are all fiction but they are firmly rooted in my experiences. I’m an emotional writer and that emotion is grounded in truth.
With the writing of Unbroken, I had to revisit my past: the bullying, my parents’ disappointment, the innocent longing for a boy I barely knew─It was a painful part of my history and documenting it was to revive that long-forgotten pain, to show a side of me—part hopeful, part stupid—I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to see. In the end the struggle to share the truth won out.
When I set out to write the book, I didn’t want to just tell the story of one boy’s love for another, I wanted to share details of a first crush and what it’s like to discover the world thinks you’re wrong in that love, thinks that you’re broken. So yes there’s a lot of me in Lincoln, a lot of my own truth in Unbroken. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Elin: Put together your ideal team of men/women – drawing from all and any walks of life, fictional or non-fictional – who you would want to come to your rescue if menaced by muggers/alligators/fundamentalists?
Larry: That team would consist of William Morgan—Gar—from my friend Andrew Q. Gordon’s remarkable fantasy novel, Purpose. Gar is strong, extremely rational and practically bullet-proof. Plus he can read and manipulate minds. Second on the team would be Toby, my 9-year old silky terrier.
He’s small but fiercely loyal and extremely protective. And finally Matt Damon. He was, after all, Jason Bourne in the Bourne trilogy; I’m sure he picked up some useful skills from playing that part. Plus he looks like…well…like he does.
Elin: Villains are incredibly important in fiction since they challenge the main protagonists and give them something to contend with beyond the tension of a developing relationship. What sort of villains do you prize?
I prefer villains who aren’t purely evil, who have some trace of humanity. I also like to believe that every character can become a villain for a moment in a particular situation. In Unbroken, there are many, many villains but only in the sense they give the main protagonists something to contend with, they are the people Lincoln and Jose must battle in their journey to be their authentic selves—parents and petty bullies. And for that reason the villains are unexpected, people well meaning in their own way but narrow minded, some are cruel, others, afraid.
Sometimes though, at least for me, villains aren’t people. In What Binds Us, the main villain was the HIV virus. In Damaged Angels the villain was drugs and desperation and mental illness. In addition to the “people villains” in Unbroken, there is also the villain of internalized homophobia which can makes Lincoln believe he is broken.
Elin: What are you working on at the moment? Can you discuss it or do you prefer to keep it a secret until it’s finished.
Anyone who knows me knows I am terrible at keeping secrets. When I’m working on something I start talking about it right away. I’m not writing anything at the moment. When I finish a book, I find I need a “fallow” period to rest, to recover, to just be. Then at some point, an idea will form, or a character will introduce himself and I’m off.
Elin: Could we please have an excerpt of something?
Here’s an excerpt from Unbroken
They hurled words like stones: “Brainiac. Sissy. Faggot.”
I sat on the ground, surrounded by a circle of boys bigger and tougher than I. They’d taken my glasses so I couldn’t see. I could only sit there helplessly, trying not to cry, trying not to hear the names they called me.
I let myself go silent in defense, refusing to acknowledge the hateful words: Brainiac. Sissy. Faggot. I refused to acknowledge their hostility, this hostility, this constant hostility, which seemed to be driven less by the fact that I was almost certainly gay, than by the fact I had never denied their accusations. I knew instinctively that to deny, to lie, was to agree they were right, I was wrong, I was broken. That I would not, could not, do.
Looking back, I realize I’d let them, those savage boys whom I did not know or care about, silence me, take my voice away. It would take years, but I would find my voice. I would learn to make myself heard over the sounds of war.
“Hey,” Jose shouted suddenly. “Hey!” I couldn’t see him through the circle of boys, but I recognized his voice, that deep, thunderous rumble.
“Come on,” I heard Elsie say. “It’s just that faggot. This happens to him all the time. He’ll be fine.”
She’d known me since fourth grade yet still, to her, I was “just that faggot.” “My name is Lincoln,” I wanted to shout. “You’ve known me since fourth grade.” Instead I remained on the ground fighting new tears.
Jose pushed through the circle of boys. “Leave him alone.”
He must have seen my raw, naked face for he turned to the boy holding my glasses. “Are those his?” he asked, pulling them out of his hands. “Get lost!”
The boy, surprised, shrugged as if it made no difference to him, and he and his posse of tyrants turned and walked away.
Jose crouched beside me; bouncing on the balls of his feet, he looked at my scattered books, my knapsack open, empty. His eyes went soft, dark with concern. He turned, and said something to Elsie. Then to me, “You okay?”
I nodded, tried to smile, cried instead.
“Hey,” he snapped.
“What?” Elsie popped her gum, stared at him.
“I said, give me a tissue.”
She sucked her teeth, reached into her purse and handed him a single tissue as if it were her last dollar. He glared at her, dark eyes flashing. She reluctantly handed him a handful more which he gave to me. “Dry your eyes and blow your nose,” he instructed me.
I did as I was told.
“You okay?” he asked again, handing me my glasses. I took them from him, put them on.
“Better now,” I said trying to smile.
The boys gone, Elsie moved closer, hovering at the edge of our interaction. Her eyes darted around; she looked everywhere but at me. She appeared less concerned about returning danger than about witnesses to this.
“Okay,” Jose said. “Let’s get your books, and we’ll walk you to the bus stop.” He glanced at Elsie who said nothing.
At the bus stop, Elsie sulked on a bench, again looking everywhere but at me. Jose talked to me of little things: did I understand that Shakespeare passage we’d read in English today? Why does the cafeteria always smell of fish?
Finally the bus came and we were each released from his prison.
“Thanks,” I said as the bus drew to a halt. I was reluctant to leave him, my dashing young hero, but happy to put the day’s events behind me.
My parents, unable to change me, had instead, silenced me. When they’d stilled my hands, they’d taken my words, made me lower my voice to a whisper. Later I remained silent in defense, refusing to acknowledge the hateful words: Brainiac. Sissy. Antiman. Faggot.
Lincoln de Chabert’s life is pretty unremarkable until he comes home from kindergarten and announces he will marry his best friend, Orlando, when he grows up. His parents spring into immediate action, determined to fix him―his father takes him to baseball games and the movie “Patton”―igniting an epic battle of wills as Lincoln is determined to remain himself, and marry whom he chooses, at all costs.