Interview by Shannon Slocum and Alix McManus
Benjamin Ludwig is a life-long teacher of English and writing in New Hampshire. He and his wife are foster/adoptive parents. His novella, Sourdough, won the Clay Reynolds Prize for the Novella in 2013, and was published by Texas Review Press. His debut novel, The Original Ginny Moon, has been selected as the inaugural title at HarperCollins new literary imprint, Park Row Books. Its release date in the US is May 2, 2017. To date it will be published in fifteen other countries and translated into twelve languages. He holds an MAT in English Education, and in May will graduate with an MFA in Writing from UNH. Currently he is in the process of applying for tenure-track creative writing positions.
We recently met with Ben on campus to talk about his highly-anticipated novel.
Shannon: So Ben, you’re working to complete your MFA and you got your novel - The Original Ginny Moon – published. What has that been like to have it in the middle of school, as opposed to after?
Benjamin Ludwig: Well, I kind of planned it that way…When I applied to this program in 2014, I had a novella under contract, and I knew that there was no way I would ever be able to teach in an MFA program anywhere, someday in the future, if I didn’t have a book and the degree to go with it. You really need to have both.
Alix: Is that your goal in the end? To be a teacher?
BL: Yeah, absolutely, I’m actually applying right now for tenure-track creative writing positions. But that first book was a very small book –
BL: That’s the one. And no one has read it –
S: I read it.
BL: You have not.
S: I have.
BL: I’m so embarrassed now.
BL: I wrote it years and years before it got the contract, so you know what three or four years does to your writing – your writing style changes and develops and improves, so I just think I was an awful writer and I don’t know how I got anything published.
S: I think it has merits.
BL: I don’t know – it feels so long-winded and psychological now. Anyway, I wanted to teach because as an undergrad I was in a few fiction workshops and, you know, what’s better than a fiction workshop? Nothing, pretty much nothing. So that was my long-term goal, I wanted to teach in an MFA program someday. I was a teacher-mentor in Dover at the time, so I got the book first and said okay, now it’s time to apply to an MFA program.
A: Did you apply to more than just UNH?
BL: Nope. I live nearby, only fifteen minutes away. I have a wife, three children, and at the time a full-time job. Moving really wasn’t an option.
S: That’s funny that you think Sourdough is terrible because I did notice that in the novella, your main character grapples with a family secret and it reminded me of the novel that you shared in workshop last year.
BL: I wish I could get back to writing that book.
Shannon: Is that a theme in Ginny Moon, too?
Ben: Yea, it is a theme but to be fair, though, in every work of literature--ever. If there’s a secret, the reader wants to know what it is but also if there’s just a great desire, I think the reader wants to see whether or not the character is able to realize that desire.
A: When does your book come out?
BL: May 2, 2017. Ginny is a disabled child. She’s autistic and developmentally delayed and not the best communicator. And she’s constantly, constantly asking for…something…that she left behind in her mother’s apartment. And everyone assumes that really what she wants is to get back with Mom, because that’s what every child wants, you want to get back to Mom, right? If Mom has been removed from us. And in her case, Ginny was taken away by police.
But yea, she wants to get back to the apartment and she has to find this thing and she specifies what this thing is but I can’t say what that is without giving away an important part of the plot – but that’s really what she wants. Everyone - including her therapist, guidance counselor, foster parents – all think she just wants to get back to Mom. But she doesn’t, she wants to get back to this other thing that she left behind.
S: In your AWP Writer to Writer’s Fall 2016 Mentors bio, it says that book started by talking with parents at Special Olympics basketball. What did you talk about? What was it that stirred you to write this book?
BL: What a lot of people don’t know is that a significant portion of the parents are parents who have adopted a special needs child. That’s what my wife and I were. You talk to these people and very quickly, the ones who’ve adopted group together and say, “Oh man, you do this, too? I thought I was the only one.” And it’s just this wonderful camaraderie. You hear these stories and some of them are really horrific about what their poor kids have been through. A couple years of that and, you know, the ideas ruminate and…Ginny Moon.
S: Is it that you wanted to give a different view?
BL: The book was inspired by the different stories I heard. But, the thing that drove me to actually do the writing was the voice. Kids with autism, especially, all develop their own very unique way of speaking and it is not a stereotypical, “They all talk this way because they’re autistic.” So it becomes like a brain-mind game for a lot of us, a lot of people, me especially I think, just to listen and think, “How’s this autistic person talking? Oh, okay, she says this because she thinks this and she works this way,” and the differences among them all are huge. But you get very quickly caught up in it.
It’s almost like listening to a really cool accent that you hear on TV or that your friend has and you hear the accent and you fall in love with it. And so, I fell in love with these voices, a bunch of them, and they kind of came together. I thought, what if we took this element, and this element, and that one over there and combined them – that would make a really amazing voice.
A: Were most of the parents supportive when you told them you were writing a book?
BL: Most of them don’t know. Well, you know how it is – you’re writing a book and the last thing you want is people to know because…what’s that going to turn into? You just have this crazy hobby that no one can see or relate to. That’s how it feels to me, anyway. No one wants to hear that you’re a writer.
S: No, you’re right. I think even now, with graduation coming up, everyone outside of school wants to know, “What are you going to do?” “Well, be a writer.” “Okay, but if that doesn’t work out…”
BL: And that’s why there should be secret MFA programs! No one knows. You take a vow when you get in, “I’m not going to tell anybody.” And then look at the freedom you’ve give yourself. No one’s going to ask you that obnoxious question. “Where you been for three years?” “Honolulu.” [Laughs] "I was surfing."
S: Did you worry that you would make another “This is autism” box?
BL: It wasn’t a concern; it was part of the mission. It drives me nuts that autism has stereotypes attached to it. 'They’re all good at math.' No. Actually, they’re not. But once in a while an autistic person will be really good at one thing and the media gloms onto that: all autistic people are good at math. Not true. So in the book I really hope people see that it’s a mixed bag. Very rarely, actually, is there some great, sacred gift that’s given to a disabled person, especially an autistic person. Having autism is incredibly difficult. Parents don’t know what to do with themselves when it happens.
I hope this book helps break stereotypes. That might be too much to hope for, but maybe it will whittle away at them. Ginny thinks she’s great at math, but she’s not. That’s intentional. Ginny-Math is awful. She gets it hysterically wrong.
A: Is she the only autistic character in the book?
BL: She’s the only autistic character in the book. There are some others who are also disabled. There’s Larry, who has a crush on Ginny, and she uses him, but he doesn’t have autism.
A: What’s been the most fun part about getting your book published?
BL: When I found out I had a book deal, it was like finding out I was a real person. Because, remember I said you don’t tell people? I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book. No one believes you’re writing a book that might become something.
So, to actually break through and – they call it “breaking out”– is like you’re tremendously validated, you have a real existence. It’s absolutely a fulfillment of a dream. And as hokey as that sounds, it’s the best damn feeling in the world. Really. Knocks everything else out.
S: Could you share a little more about that? I, and I think other MFA students, want to know how it started. Was it a really fast process getting this book deal?
BL: The actual wheeling and dealing took one day. Part of it happened in our class with Tom.
S: What do you mean? On your phone?
BL: Yup. It was one day, you probably didn’t notice, but this one day, Wednesday, remember our Wednesday night class? I got home from work. I picked up my kids and I got home and rush-rush-rush, make dinner so my wife can get home, feed the kids and get them to bed while I’m at class and my agent sent me a text. And the text said, “Ben, can we talk?” And I say, “Nooo,” I’m horrible at texting. “I have to go to class, you know I have to go to class.” And he says, “You need to call me.” So I called him.
S: Oh my gosh!
BL: It was really one hell of a class. I don’t remember any of it.
S: Okay, and I feel like I remember you saying you had a different agent at first? So how did that work for you? You had one before the MFA program?
BL: I had two. When I was living in Alaska a million years ago, I had an agent for about three months but she wasn’t a good agent. There’s no other way to say that. You can both go and become agents tomorrow by setting up your own websites saying that you’re agents. I wasn’t scammed or anything but here was an agent who had never sold any books. But she really liked my book. So she said, “Okay, sign the contract” and tried to offer it to a few different editors and they’d go, “Sorry, who are you?”
Agents sell books not only on the merits of the book itself, but on the reputation of all the books they’ve sold previously. And I learned that the hard way. But that’s fine. I don’t regret it at all. I learned a whole bunch. It’s not like anything is taken away from you when you make a mistake like that. When you sign with an agent, no money changes hands, you’re not signing away rights or anything, you’re just saying “Yes, this person can go talk to this person and ask if he wants to buy the book” and as long as it’s only a handful of editors, no harm is done.
S: And this was for Sourdough?
BL: No, I was writing…I can’t even remember…not Sourdough. I’ve written a lot of books. I’ve probably written ten. Maybe fifteen novels.
S: Are you going to go back to them at all?
B: No, they’re awful! [Laughs]
S: But that’s cool that you can look back and see how your style has evolved.
BL: The thing that has helped me the most is, and the reason I’ve written so many novels, even though they’re lousy, is I learned early on that the act of finishing a book tells you how you should have started the book. So that knowledge tells you, you have to write a bunch of books in order to make any of them really good.
A: How long have you been writing Ginny Moon?
BL: I don’t know. [Laughs] Let me think. I’m just going to say three years, start to finish, to get a contract. Blank page to contract, three years.
S: And you workshopped parts of it here, too?
BL: I did, and I thanked Ann, Russell, Jayce, Kate, and Jimmy in the acknowledgements. They were in my first workshop here in 2014. I workshopped I think thirty pages.
A: Was it helpful?
BL: Yes, from the people I just mentioned. And then from some folks I got some awful, awful…
S: Which happens.
BL: It’s hard, because all the people at that table, in workshop, all of their opinions are equal. To me, anyway. Even the ones who are really, really smart and you love their work and everything they’ve said, you know you’ve disagreed with them on some major issue at some point, so whose opinion do you trust this time around? Trust your agent’s. [Laughs]
And that’s another thing that really amazes me. I showed the same manuscript, same information, to a lot of different agents and only one said yes. What does that mean? Does that mean it’s a really good book and only he recognized it? Or does it mean that it’s a shitty book and he saw something that could be good in it? I’ll never know. And it might be both of those at the same time. Or something else entirely.
That’s why the most important thing I’ve taken away from this is: persistence. That sounds so old-fashioned but I think of it like, like the big wheel of fortune. You spin the wheel and you see where it lands. But why spin it only once? You need to keep at it as many times…just massive amounts of action trying to get an agent or a publisher is what did it for me.
S: Both of us have only workshopped short stories. Would you recommend workshopping novels?
BL: I fell in love with novels at an early age and I think most people really dig a long story, they want that long-term relationship with these characters and this situation and whatever. In a lot of short stories, nothing really happens. Or if something happens, it’s way too subtle and I have to read the piece like five times in order to figure out what it was.
S: Because we only got a little blip of their life.
BL: Or I’m just not smart enough to understand the blip. [Laughs] That’s usually the case with me. It’s just too obscure. So I just don’t love it. I very badly want to teach the process and structure of novels. I think novels can be workshopped. I think MFA students desperately want to workshop them. I know that short stories lend themselves to the workshop format, but who says the workshop format can’t change? Most people don’t come into an MFA program to learn how to write short stories. They come to learn how to write the book they’ve been dreaming about since they were teenagers.
I think the difference between short stories and novels is similar to the difference between sprinting, and running a marathon. The training for both events is completely different. It’s just not accurate to say that a short story is just a short-short novel, or that a novel is just a really long short story. So you can imagine how happy I was when Ann and Tom both said yes, you can bring sections of a novel to workshop.
S: Which novels would you teach in your MFA class?
BL: Okay. But this would be for a literature class or form and theory. I would love to teach Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude. In a heartbeat I would teach that novel. I would teach Shakespearean plays not only because really show how to structure a story, but also how to move it forward. I would teach Toni Morrison. I would teach…too many to name.
S: Are there any stories or novels you go to help with your craft?
S: No go-to favorites, like, “I’m stuck, I’m going to go read…”
BL: No, because when I’m writing a book every day, then I can’t be reading something else. Your brain really gets all worked up and obsessed with one thing. Mine does, anyway. Plus, human beings are narrative creatures. They think and breathe in stories. You have to trust that.
S: No, that makes sense, I don’t think that’s bad.
BL: Writing a novel for me is like dating someone new. Or those first few weeks of that relationship or first few months or years, that “Does she really dig me or not? Is this a marriage thing or not?” It’s really heated. So, I don’t have room for any other thing.
S: Where do you write?
BL: Wherever. I will sit on the couch or at the kitchen table or on a bed, pretty much anywhere, as long as there’s a laptop. I can’t write by hand anymore.
S: You’ve given a lot of good advice already, but do you have any "go-to" tips for writers who are starting out? Like our Barnstorm readers?
BL: Here’s something that I hope is helpful and I hope it’s hopeful for everybody. The good news for me, that I received, not directly but was just demonstrated by the whole experience of publishing: everybody in this industry wants you to succeed. Every agent, every editor, every publisher wants you to be the next big thing. If you have a great story, they want to know it.
S: So what’s your one sentence sum-up for Ginny Moon? We’ve been learning about that.
A: Your logline.
BL: You know about loglines? I’m so happy.
S: Yea, we just learned the other day.
BL: I didn’t know about loglines until my agent said, “You need a logline so we can submit this book.”
The logline is: "A recently adopted autistic teenager plots to get herself kidnapped by her birth mother.”
That sentence felt like it took more work and pain than the book itself.