THE END IS NOW Author Interview: Ben H. Winters

This interview was conducted by Sandra Odell.

You begin the story with a stark sensory impression—the voice of God—and the immediacy of present tense.  Both of these elements help set the mood and immediately place the reader beside Robert and Pea.  What inspired such an intense opening?

After finishing “Bring Her to Me,” my story for the first book, I took some time not thinking about this project and this world before coming back to it to write this new story. One of the cool things about that was re-discovering the story I had written, seeing what all I had done with it. It was like this treasure chest of weird gifts that I had buried and then dug up. I was like, oh right, I created this idea of God talking secretly in everybody’s head, and giving them precise instructions—well, cool. Well, all right. Let’s definitely start there.

You create a world that is not quite a utopia and not quite a dystopia.  This is a very different approach to a post-apocalyptic world.  How conscious were you of the thin line between these two cornerstones of apocalyptic fiction?

Interesting question, I like that. To be honest I wasn’t thinking that way at all—it’s funny how those two genres, “apocalyptic” and “dystopian/utopian” have come to be so strongly linked. I mean, you think of say, Lord of the Flies, which is surely dystopian fiction at its finest, and nary a zombie to be found! Anyway, I guess for these stories I was really challenging myself to  find a way to end the world that we haven’t seen before, and something about everybody being told by God to kill themselves, all at once—that seemed fresh to me. It seemed like a big, unexpected choice. The rest of the details, including I guess the degree of utopianism/dystopianism, lined up around that concept.

Pea and Robert both face very different struggles—Robert’s with God, Pea’s with her deafness and the weight of her grief.  You make mention of the Center, yet you don’t explore what part the Center played in the community.  How do you see the Center?  As a church?  A government?  Something else entirely?

Oh, the Center! Good old Center. It’s probably a good bit church, a good bit government, a good bit community center. It’s the cathedral, it’s the castle, it’s the source of authority. You love it and you are fearful of it. It’s one of these offstage elements, you know, and I did a fair bit of this in my Last Policeman series—where you as the writer want to allude to some idea or event without giving too much detail (even in promotional interviews!), and you let it float through the story as this intriguing unnamed, because whatever the reader conjures from her wondering is bound to be more fascinating than any details I might paint onto it.

Even with the dual points of view, the story flows with a grim, beautiful grace, a trait it shares with certain of your novels, in particular Bedbugs.  What would you say is the biggest difference between writing a short story versus a novel?

God, thank you so much. That is really nice of you to say, and I am particularly fond of you mentioning Bedbugs, which I labored mightily on and am very proud of. Anyway, the tool kit for novels and stories is the same—gotta have sharp characters, gotta have conflict, gotta explain things well but not too much—and you have the additional burden, in a story, of the limited canvas. Can’t linger, can’t build too long, can’t digress. Those are powerful restrictions, and I think in a good story they function like meter and rhyme in a poem: when you are forced to work in a defined and limited space, you are forced straight to the heart of the matter.

You do a great job of telegraphing the final conflict at the beginning of the story while still holding the readers’ interest, giving just enough to keep the pages turning.  To whom do you turn when you want that element of teasing and mystery when you crack the cover?

Thanks! And, wow, I mean, a lot of people. John Le Carre, in his best work, is insanely good, and for me, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is tops in terms of the careful and clever withholding of information. You know, and yet you don’t know—you think you know, but you don’t know, and then you do… Another book I can’t get enough of, for pure slow build of suspense, is Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin, who I think should be celebrated more than he has been as a master of multiple genres.