INTERVIEW: Ben Winters, author of “The Food Taster’s Boy”

Ben H. Winters is the bestselling author of two posthumous, “mash-up” collaborations: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (with Jane Austen) and Android Karenina (with Leo Tolstoy). He is also the author of Bedbugs, the middle-grade novel The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, and the children’s musicals The Midnight Ride of Paul RevereA (Tooth) Fairy Tale, and Uncle Pirate. Other works include writing for newspapers and magazines and the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Guide series.

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s a grim science-fiction fable about a man named C., the supreme leader of a dark future world. C. is seized by melancholy when he realizes that his unquestioned power means there is no longer anything in life to challenge or inspire him. So he plucks a poor child from obscurity and embarks on a brutal sociological and psychological experiment, the goal of which is to build himself a suitable nemesis.

What’s was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Reflecting on strange and sad it must be, to be someone like Kim Jong-Il, the so-called Supreme Leader of North Korea: to be the absolutely center of power, and yet ultimately alone, with no friends who aren’t lackeys, no one to challenge you, no one with whom you can really engage. What a cruel paradox, in its way, to have everything and yet to lead a life so hollow. Of course the guy’s a total a villain, whose people starve while he enjoys every luxury, so I’m talking more about writerly curiosity than actual empathy.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

My challenge on this story was to keep it serious. Though there is a lightly satirical aspect to The Food Taster’s Boy, as I’ve transplanted the stereotypical malaise of the “man who has everything” onto a demented dictator, the tone remains pretty dark. Much of my previous work, even sci-fi stuff like Android Karenina, has been largely comedic. So I had to work to keep my default jokiness at bay.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I guess I’ve experienced, even in small moments of creative success, a despairing sense of “all right, then, what now?” So when C., stares out at the boundless horizon of his conquered land and thinks “What’s next?” I can understand — monster though he may be.

What is the appeal of mad scientist fiction? Why do writers–or you yourself–write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

We all know the John Milton Rule, that no matter how he tried (in Paradise Lost) to make God interesting, Satan really steals the show. The truth is that evil people and their evil actions tend to be deeply interesting, in part because they get to do all the nasty stuff tat most of us normal, law-abiding readers and writers never do. This is perhaps especially true for scientists and geniuses, who are choosing to use their extraordinary abilities to do bad things.

What are some of your favorite examples of mad scientists in fiction (or perhaps in fact!), and what makes them your favorites?

Well, I recently reread the short story Thirteen to Centaurus by J.G. Ballard. It’s more like a small cabal of governmental scientists, and they’re not really mad so much as enacting a controversial social program…but man, is that is a fun story.