From the far side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Johncock, author of The Last Pilot, tells us what it was that made him look to the skies, and about the love of reading he’s taken with him every step of the way to the publication of his first novel.
Is there a book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
There are too many. I only give a novel a few pages, because that’s all you need. It’s an extraordinary privilege to be published; to have someone spend a portion of their wages on something you’ve written; to demand, then command, the complete attention of a stranger—to momentarily pause their life!—hell, as a writer, you damn well need to respect that. And if you’re a writer serious about fiction, then you will have worked extraordinarily hard over many years to get your novel published and into the hands of this stranger. So, with all that time, effort, sacrifice, hope, failure, success to get yourself into that position, your opening pages should be outstanding, and there’s absolutely no excuse if they’re not. If they’re not, it tells me the writer isn’t taking their fiction seriously. And, in all honesty, it probably isn’t going to get any better. Novels are like soup: if the first spoonful tastes horrible, the rest of the bowl isn’t going to taste miraculously better . . .
Can you tell us what you’re reading now?
I’ve just finished Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg – an extraordinary novel about an extraordinary woman, Mazie Philips. Best I’ve read all year. Everyone should buy it, then everyone should tell their friends to buy it, and they theirs, etc., etc.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
The Green Mile by Stephen King. I cry at movies more than books, I think, but I remember walking home from work finishing the final pages of this and having to stop and sit down outside my building before I could go inside. It may be the only book that has made me cry.
Who is your favorite literary character? Why?
Danny’s father, from Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. This book has been my blueprint for life—and for fatherhood —ever since I first read it as a boy.
“A message to children who have read this book…” If it’s unusual for adult fiction to include an afterword where the author addresses the reader, it’s virtually unheard of in children’s books. And yet, there it was—a note from Roald Dahl himself (or was it Danny?) imploring me, at some unthinkable point in my distant future (as an adult! a father!) to be SPARKY. It was remarkable. It was life-changing. I was a boy, but I already knew the kind of man I wanted to be. It wasn’t simply to not be stodgy, it was a calling to be something else entirely.
Who would you say is your ideal reader?
My wife, my agent, my editor.
What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?
Easy: What made you write about the space race? Which is odd, because I think the wider question should really be, why aren’t you writing about the space race? Mailer himself said that Armstrong’s lunar landing was the “the climax of the greatest week since Christ was born”, and it was no exaggeration. Andrew Smith observed that the further we get from Apollo, the stranger it looks. I think we’ve got to the point where fact (that is, non-fiction) has told us all it can about this strange adventure that mankind undertook so long ago, and we are now entering the realm of fiction to understand the greater truths about what it meant, and what it continues to mean, to humanity.
Benjamin Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press’s National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel.
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