Even though he’s much younger, I want to be like Chris Benjamin when I grow up. He’s the respected Sustainable City columnist at The Coast, Halifax’s progressive weekly, and I delight in watching him skewer the ecologically inept even as he finds the heart of the matter in issues that are pressing for the planet and its inhabitants. His expertise in all things environmental also gives us Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada, which Nimbus is offering to readers this fall.
But Chris is probably better known as the author of Drive-By Saviours, a highly-acclaimed release by Roseway Publishing that was one of the most talked-about debut novels of the last decade, praised for its fine characterizations, tight prose, and absorbing plot.
He seems to be moving constantly, shifting easily from journalism to prose to poetry, and I’m seriously impressed.
But none of that would matter if Chris was a dick. I’m here to tell you that he’s kind, amusing, and gracious.
Honestly, I was shocked earlier this summer when Chris invited me to join the Wired Monks, a writing circle that includes many published writers, including Mr. Benjamin, and Elizabeth Peirce, Dr. Michael Ungar, Dina Desveaux, and Simon Vigneault. As a group, they have proven to be delightful cheerleaders, informed critics and, more importantly, always welcoming and quick-to-laugh.
I will learn a great deal from these people.
By any measure, this is a terrific group and, though it’s self-serving to say, one that bears watching. It starts today with Chris Benjamin, and his entertaining answers to 25 Questions.
About Chris Benjamin
Chris Benjamin stumbled from Nova Scotia’s suburban badlands at the bewildered age of 21 years, clutching a hard-earned Marketing Communications degree from Dalhousie University. He has since been a market analyst in Waterloo, a forestry officer in St. Lucia, a farm worker in British Columbia, an environmental consultant in Indonesia, a researcher in Indonesia—-he published a summary of his work there with the University of Waterloo Press—-a hitchhiker across North America, an advocate for new Canadians in Toronto, a reclusive novelist in Finland, a reluctant train tourist in Russia, Mongolia, China and Japan, a journalist in Ghana, and an environmental lobbyist in Nova Scotia.
Sometime along the way he picked up a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University and a small grant from the Toronto Arts Council to write this Drive-By Saviours, which won the Percy Prize for best novel in the Atlantic Writing Competition. Chris has been a freelance writer throughout and has published hundreds of news stories, features, essays, and editorials in various anthologies, newspapers, magazines, and online publications. He is now the Sustainable City Columnist for The Coast weekly newspaper in Halifax. Chris has written fiction and features for The Toronto Star, VoicePrint Canada, This Magazine, Now Magazine, Descant, Nashwaak Review, Pottersfield Press, Rattling Books, the University of Waterloo Press, Z Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, The Chronicle Herald, Progress Magazine, The Maritime Policy Review, and many others. He lives with his wife and little boy in a house owned by two cats in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada
Eco-Innovators is a collection of stories about the region’s most forward-thinking leaders in sustainability. These entrepreneurs and educators, activists and agitators, farmers and fishers have all made measurable contributions in their respective fields of interest and in motivating others to make change.
Meet Kim Thompson, a strawbale builder and consultant, who has recently brought her building experience to a renovation of an older house in downtown Halifax. And Edwin Theriault, who bought a bale of clothing back in 1971 and launched Frenchy’s, a chain of seventy-six used-clothing stores that has become an East Coast institution and kept countless tonnes of material out of landfills. Also profiled are Speerville Flour Mill and Olivier Soaps in New Brunswick, Sean Gallagher of Local Source in Halifax, David and Edith Ling of Fair Acre Farm on PEI, and Jim Meaney of Cansolair solar heat air exchangers in Newfoundland, among many others.
With ten chapters on matters like reducing consumption, greening the home, sustainable eating, dressing, transportation, and vacationing, the book is an important look into the lives of Atlantic Canadians committed to creating viable green options in our region. (Book launch is slated for Tuesday, October 11)
Demoralized at his job and dissatisfied with his life, Mark punches the clock with increasing indifference. All that changes when he meets Bumi, an Indonesian restaurant worker.
Bumi’s radical genius and obsessive-compulsive disorder raise suspicion among his paranoid neighbours. With the mysterious death of local children the neighbours’ fear reaches a fevered pitch and Bumi is forced to flee to Canada.
Brought together by a chance encounter on the subway, Mark and Bumi develop a friendship that forces them to confront their pasts. It is the one of Roseway Publishing most recent offerings.
“Bringing to mind Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Chris Benjamin’s prose is beautiful, engaging and taut with tension as it transports us back and forth between several worlds.”
Weeks after its September 2010 release Drive-by Saviours made the Canada Reads Top 40 Essential Books list. It won the Salty Ink 2010 Judge a Book by Its Cover contest and was named one of the year’s four top-notch debut novels.
25 Questions with Chris Benjamin
1) What was your favorite book as a child? What is your favorite children’s book?
There were two series of books that gave me the most joy as a child: The Hardy Boys and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I supposed wasn’t meant as a kids book but reading all that profanity was a joyful taboo in junior high). I was also pretty crazy about the BFG by Roald Dahl and The Wind in the Willows. And before all that I really liked the Richard Scary books.
Nowadays the original Winnie the Pooh books seem all-the-more brilliant to me, and I hope my boy will be into them when he’s a little older.
2) What is your most marked characteristic? Does it help or hinder you?
Stubbornness is the first thing that comes to mind, and it serves me well as a writer. I once heard Robbie MacGregor of Invisible Publishing say the distinguishing feature of all published writers is an unwillingness to accept the word ‘no.’ As a human being though, it has at times pushed me too far down the wrong path, too reticent to accept my own errors in judgment. It wastes a lot of precious time.
3) Which quality do you most like in a man?
Honesty, openness, integrity, warmth, strength, courage.
4) Which quality do you most like in a woman?
Honesty, openness, integrity, warmth, strength, courage.
5) What is your favorite memory?
The birth of my son.
6) Describe the best meal you’ve ever had.
If you laid it before me now I’m not sure it would be the absolute best tasting, but its deliciousness and significance etch it into my memory as the best: It was an early date with my now wife. She made me tortillas by hand, which she learned to do when she lived in Nicaragua working with street children. (That was before we met, but while she was there we corresponded briefly by email, and her email moved me deeply.) She also made refried beans and Central American-style rice, along with her own guacamole. It was so simple and absolutely delicious. This woman could do anything.
7) What’s the best book you’ve read in the last two years? The best movie you’ve seen?
The best book has probably been The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, in which he eloquently tells the story of what we’re losing, and how it will cost us more than we know, based on decades of work with hunter-gatherer peoples in regions across the globe. It’s heartbreaking, and a much needed kick in our culture’s ass to get off our highhorses and start paying attention to reality.
The best movie is tougher, maybe a tie between Che, the ultra-realistic documentary-like biopic of not just the man, but the movement, the Cuban revolution; Genghis Blues, a documentary about blind bluesman Paul Pena’s experience competing in a national Tuvan throat-singing competition; and Children of Men, a gripping and prophetic near-future dystopian adventure about the birth of the first new human in 18 years.
8) What characteristic about yourself would you most like to change?
Being unable to think of anything wrong with myself, I’ll say my modesty (badum-cha!). But seriously, folks, rather than rag on myself I’ll just say that something I admire most in the people I love best is their warmth, their ability to connect with other humans in an instant, their complete lack of inhibition. I wish I could be more like that.
9) What always make you happy?
Winning. I wish I had an answer that made me look better, but…winning pretty much always feels good. (Hm, another character flaw for question 8.)
10) What always angers you?
When the strong exploit the weak. (A tendency possibly explained by my answer to question 9.)
11) At this moment, where would you most like to be?
Right here in my office, catching up on work after a relaxing vacation.
12) Tell me about a boneheaded mistake you make in writing Drive By Saviours.
I don’t know about boneheaded mistakes. The choices were pretty carefully thought out. But judging by reader reactions I may have made the character of Mark even more annoying than I intended. He was supposed to be like that kind of friend you have who irritates you but you empathize with anyway. A lot of people just wanted to throttle him. But they largely seemed OK with that, like he was kind of a nerdy anti-hero.
13) What has blogging brought to your life?
I started blogging before Facebook and all that new shorthand social media stuff, so for me it was a way to connect with other writers, and that’s been huge. I had hoped to get more constructive feedback via blogging, but what I got was supportive writer friends around the world – also valuable. I’ve met a few in person and we continue to share our work with each other. I have noticed that blogging has changed since Twitter, Facebook etc. took off. Now writers often talk about the art of writing as a way to connect to readers. Probably a good idea.
14) Who is your favorite fictional heroine and why? And fictional hero?
Boy these favourite questions are tough. It would take so much dissecting and comparison and remembering to answer properly. Being lazy, let me give you what comes straight to mind.
Heroine: probably Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee wrote from the child’s perspective so effectively – childlike and simple without being childish or dumbed down – and she was the perfect narrator to describe that coming of age, the harsh lessons about race, place and power that tragedy had to offer. She was what a great character should be: bigger than herself.
Hero: Sripathi from Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk. I like my heroes flawed, their arcs subtle, and Sripathi qualifies as he deals with the guilt of cutting off his now-departed daughter by writing pithy writers to the editor about minor goings on. Brilliant.
15) Who are your three favorite composers?
Bob Dylan; Danny Michel; Paul Simon.
16) Who is your favorite painter?
17) Which talent would you most like to have?
18) How would you like to be remembered?
Loving father, faithful son/grandson/brother/husband, loyal friend, who gave more than he took.
19) What has been the most exciting part of being published?
What I’ve enjoyed most is discussing the book with readers, be they critics, friends, acquaintances or strangers. To have a knowing audience makes it all so much more real than banging away at it in isolation, wondering if I’m delusional. In the end they can love it or hate it, as long as they engaged with the story and characters and themes.
20) What is your greatest regret?
Like Mark says in Drive-by Saviours, we all carry “an unshakeable tinge of regret for all the things we decided against, all the times we chose work over pleasure, colleagues over loved ones.” I think that’s true, at least, for those of us who love our work.
21) Aside from your novel, of what accomplishment are you most proud?
I have a happy, healthy two-and-a-half year-old boy.
22) What is in heavy rotation on your iPod?
i-What? Is that similar to the Blueberry I keep hearing about?
Aside from the above-noted geniuses, a few of my current fav musical joys are The Extremities; Cat Power; Drive-by Truckers; Tracy Chapman; Lefty Frizell; Kathleen Edwards; Mike Evin; Sarah Vaughan and Justin Rutledge.
23) When was the last time you wept?
Yesterday I think.
24) What is your guilty pleasure?
NBA basketball; coffee and chocolate.
25) In what way do you hope your life will change this year?
I’d like more children in my life, more time spent on the actual process of writing, to triple…let’s say quadruple, my writing income (yeah $4 a year would be sweeeet), spend more time playing sports (and at 36 it’s high time I learned to dunk), and more date nights with the love of my life.
Sounds doable no?
Other interviews in the 25 Questions series
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