Ben Sanders was not a name I had heard of when I saw his books in stores for Christmas. So after a few sightings, I got the message and read American Blood. I liked it. The hero, Marshall, wasn’t as arrogant as Jack Reacher, and not as active as Jason Bourne. He was a good fusion of both. The back cover boasted how the book had been picked up by Hollywood, with Bradley Cooper to star; impressive. I then looked up Ben Sanders, and was more impressed to see he was a New Zealander living in Auckland’s Takapuna. So I had to get this well accomplished New Zealander in for a chat.
Ben, how did you get into writing?
Well, it has always been a hobby. I got into it as a consequence of my love of reading. I started reading thrillers when I was 13 or 14, and trying my hand at one of my own just seemed like a natural extension of that interest. So I plugged away at my own books after school, during my teenage years. Eventually, when I was 17 or 18, I came up with this character, Sean Devereaux, who was an Auckland-based cop. He became the central character of this novel, The Fallen, which was picked up by HarperCollins, and ultimately published in 2010. So it felt to me at the time like a quite long road, but it was quite a nice progression of my evening hobby into a job.
You were working at the time as well?
Yes I was. I wrote the first draft while I was studying engineering at university. So that was a funny balance – to go in and do maths and physics during the day. And then have my detox times making up crime and thriller stories during the evening. It was a balance that worked really well for me.
What authors inspired you to get into the game?
I vividly remember reading, The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth, when I was probably 11 or 12. My intermediate school teacher had a copy of it, so I worked away on it in sort of 10-minute segments over the course of a year. I remember being completely blown away by it. I’d always read books, but up until that point I’d just been in the world of Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. Not to say that they aren’t absolutely brilliant books, but reading about the BFG is comfortably within the parameters of childhood. I think when you get to 10 or 12 [years old], you’re aware there’s this adult world out there that people aren’t letting you in on. The Day of the Jackal was Fredrick Forsyth really cracking the door open and saying: “These are the kind of books that are out there.” But that book was really a total revelation for me because it is about an assassin being hired to take out the French president in the 1960s. And the novel is very detailed; it tells you how this guy procures a fake ID. How he procures a gun. It’s all very systematic and precise. As a 12 year old, I literally didn’t know that people were allowed to write about those things – the sort of secret knowledge that was out there, but it seemed it was almost illegal to disseminate it. So, [when I was] 12, that was sort of a very potent attraction. I wanted to be someone who knew about this stuff, and could weave it into stories. I always remember that introduction to the genre. After that, it was the likes of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Robert Gray and Elmore Leonard. They solidified my interest in crime and thrillers and strong characters who had their own way of doing things.
How do you develop your characters?
That’s always a very tough question to answer, because a character is just a type of idea and it’s always very hard to put your finger on where your ideas come from. All I know is that I go for a walk in the morning along Takapuna Beach to try and stir up and percolate some ideas, and things pop into my head. Stories, for me, always originate as pictures. I don’t have a theme or a setting or something that kind of presents itself in my head as words. I always see it very vividly. There’s almost a film playing out in my head, as a sequence of freeze frames. I can see a freeze frame of an interaction, maybe? Maybe it’s in a diner or on a street or involves certain characters. And developing a story is just the process of asking myself: “what’s actually going on there? Who’s this guy I can see? Who are these people he’s meeting?” That’s kind of the mental process of it. Just tugging on the thread associated with those pictures that pop up in my head.
When you get started on a story, do you actually think about how it’s going to end, and work backwards?
No, I sort of fly by the seat of my pants a little bit. But writers seem to be in two very distinct camps on that topic. There are people like James Elroy, who plot everything out very carefully and they know where the page breaks are going to be. And then there are people like me who just have a vague idea of the shape of the story and just trust that everything is going to work out in the end. I’ve always found that I can’t actually plan things out precisely, without having written half a dozen chapters. The reason for that is my stories are, to a great extent, determined by character motivation. The shape of the story is dictated by what the characters want to do and I don’t know what the characters want to do until I’m five chapters in, and I’m well inside their head space.
Do you find yourself sometimes going through a maze, and thinking ‘I don’t know where this is going?’
I’ve got a pretty good feel for when I’m heading down the wrong track. I’ve followed my procedure of working it out as I go along. Or rather, I’ve done that enough times and I can get everything within 80 or 90 percent on the first draft. But the downside of that approach is that there’s quite a bit of going back and tidying things up. It makes it exciting for the writer as well, [as] you don’t quite know the minutiae of how everything’s going to resolve.
By February 2014, the film option had been sold to Warner Brothers with Bradley Cooper attached to star. It felt like a leap into a new level of success. It was hugely exciting.
How do you develop your female characters?
Writing has always been an act of speculation and everyone has their unique perspective. If you limit yourself to your own perspective, whether that is gender or personal experience, then you wouldn’t have a lot to write about. But the reality is that writers draw on their life experience, and that’s personal interaction. So I create characters based on that. I know a lot of great women, and I try and put them on the page. Hopefully I’ve done that convincingly.
Do you catch up with friends or people you’re looking to incorporate in your books, to double check you’ve got the facts right?
No real people have made it wholly into my books. I’ve never tried to put someone on the page in their entirety. I think a lot of writers by nature observe things, whether they want to or not, and put [aspects into their] characters on the page. I guess it’s an exercise in remembering all those subconscious details you’ve picked up gradually. How people speak, how they interact when they’re confronted. How they interact when they’re nervous. All those things are worked into a novel to hopefully give a sense of the layers to someone’s personality.
In American Blood, with Marshall, your hero character, I could see a bit of Jack Reacher coming through, but I would say without the arrogance of Jack Reacher. But at the same time, I didn’t see the hyperactivity of Jason Bourne either.
Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne are obviously such famous characters in this genre, and they cast very big shadows. So any writer in the thriller genre has to be conscious of going down well-trodden territory. With Marshall, I’ve worked hard to try and thread that needle between that. I want a character that has a unique mould, but at the same time, has those qualities that people really love. I agree with you; I like to think that he doesn’t quite have Reach’s iron-clad self-confidence. He’s not so much a happy-go-lucky guy, but a man with a few anxieties and a few things that keep him awake at night. And despite being a very physically capable guy, he’s someone who’s come from a self-taught and pragmatic background, where he’s picked up skills on the job through his undercover work, as opposed to coming through a military officer training. I like to think he could give Reacher a run for his money in a fist fight. But no, he’s certainly not out to imitate him to a t.
Marshall has his problems like all real people?
I think Marshall’s got a bit of texture to his psychology. He’s done some morally questionable things in his past and he obviously feels he’s got a little bit to do to balance out on the ethical ledger, and that causes him a bit of insomnia.
It’s interesting the way you’ve written American Blood with each chapter being a different character’s point of view. Did that make it more difficult to write?
It’s a funny process by virtue of the fact that I don’t plan it, it’s all instinctive. In my mind I have this virtual arc planned out, where I can see the path of each of the characters and can see them converge. But in terms of how I juggle the story lines, it’s a bit of practice. The thing is, the characters in my book are all intertwined in the sense that their stories all interrelate. So the actions of one person affect the actions of another and so on. You get a running series of events where I don’t have to write five stories in parallel, if I have five characters, but you have a certain number of events. How each of those characters is affected with an ultimate view comes out with a collision at the end.
Do you flip from one to the other? Or do you think, “Right, I’ll get all my Marshall bits done first”?
I try and do it linearly. So I’ll jump from one to the other. Simply because with everyone’s story being so closely interlinked, if I come up with a detail from one character’s perspective, it has implications for someone else. So it’s those small changes that can influence the shape of the story, chapter by chapter.
I live a very happy but I guess unexciting life by most people’s standards. So I try and have a level of excitement and danger – by proxy, through my characters.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
I’ve been very lucky; I think I benefit from having a balanced work load. On Monday and Tuesday I’m a structural engineer. Then Wednesday to Friday are my writing days. So it’s an extension of my university up, where I was in logic overload during the day, and then I had my stories to kind of detox from that. It’s a nice arrangement at the moment, where I’m in the real world pursuing a profession that I trained for, which is very satisfying. But at the same time, I have a really nice balance of being able to pursue my creative side for the second half of the week. Saturday and Sunday I try my very best to do nothing at all or nothing work-related at least. And I guess that’s the other funny change, I definitely think of writing as work now. I still love it, and the way that people have careers or jobs that they are really passionate about. But I’m much less inclined to turn on the computer at the weekend, and tidy something up. It’s very much a Wednesday to Friday thing now.
Who are you reading at the moment?
I’m in a Martin Amis phase. I’ve just finished his 1989 novel London Fields, which is incredible – 500 pages of satire – so I might be ready for something a bit more serious. And I’m on Lionel Asbo, at the moment, which is one of his more recent ones. My favourite crime writer is a guy called David Peace, an English guy who wrote a quartet of crime novels, set in the North of England. I’ve just finished 1977, which was the first of those. It was absolutely brilliant. Very much cut from the James Elroy cloth, so I’ve enjoyed him a lot.
Do you have a word target each day?
I try and do 1500 words a day that I’m happy with. The daily writing process involves the writing itself, and then the polishing and the hitting of the backspace key every now and then.
How many words are, on average, in a full book?
It varies, but between 90,000 and 105,000, generally.
So you’re looking at about 70 days of writing?
I’m not sure whether its enthusiasm or creative inspiration, but I find that I’m most productive during the last 20 percent of the writing process. So you start a book and you’re full of enthusiasm and when you’re only five chapters in, there’s still that chance it’s going to be a perfect novel. Then when you’re 40,000 words in, you feel like you’re really in the thick of it and whether you do 2000 or 5000 words that day, it doesn’t feel like you’re making much progress. But when you hit the 75,000 to 80,000-word mark, you can see the finish line. You’re sure of how everything’s going to wrap up. It’s a really nice boost at the end, where I might write 4000 or 5000 words a day, just to smash out that last portion. It’s a great feeling to see the word count hit 100,000, and then type the end.
All I know is that I go for a walk in the morning along Takapuna Beach to try and stir up and percolate some ideas, and things pop into my head.
On your writing days, Wednesday to Friday, is it 9 to 5?
I try to sit down at 9 o’clock, and write for however long it takes me to be happy with the 1500 words. Sometimes I can be done by 2 or 3 o’clock, or other times I might be polishing off the last few hundred after dinner. Generally, though, I find that I still love this job so much that I get to 5 o’clock and think: “I’m happy with that. I can close the lid on the laptop.”
With you being a structural engineer, are you bringing some of that discipline and systematisation to your creativity?
I suppose so; I’ve always been a regimented person, I’m comforted by routine. I like to go for a walk at a certain time. I like to eat at certain times. It’s just the way my brain works. So I’m not sure whether it’s that aspect of my personality that is applied most dominantly to my writing, or whether it’s sort of a consequence of having very good logical training from engineering, that gives me the discipline.
When you first started, at 20 years old, you wrote three books, how did they do?
I think they did well, compared with the average New Zealand fiction novel. But the thing is, New Zealand’s a tiny market. And I quickly realised, if I was going to make this my job, or make any money out of it, I needed to break out into an overseas market. So, in 2013, I went to New York. My friend Tom Dalo was living there at the time and I stayed with him for two weeks with the intention of just having a holiday. But then I thought: “well I’m in the global capital of publishing, I may as well try while I’m here.” So my agent emailed all his contacts, and said: “who’s prepared to give this kid 15 minutes?” And fortunately my editor to be, Brendan at Macmillan, said: “okay send him along. He can have 15 minutes.” I went and saw Brendan, and basically put my hands together and said: “please, please, please – publish this book.” And I left him a copy of my third novel, Only the Dead, which he took away and read. Macmillan ultimately said yes, they’d sign me up and give me a contract. But they wanted me to write a US-set novel. Hence the change in setting.
Was that hard to do?
No. I’d always been reading a lot of US hit fiction. So I felt like I had a pretty good ambient knowledge of the United States. But I think New Zealanders in general are in a fairly unique position, when it comes to America, because our culture is so Americanised. We watch American TV and American movies. We probably see just as much US politics as we do our own politics. So there’s a very high level of US culture in our own. Having that exposure gave me the confidence to write something set in there. And then, by the time I’d travelled there, and spent time in the places I was going to write about, I felt I was in a position to give it a really serious crack.
So you got started with the contract with Macmillan, you came home and you started writing the new book?
They wouldn’t give me any money until I outlined what I was going to do. I sent them a sample of the first three chapters, and a five-page outline of what it was going to be. From that, they sent me a contract.
Since then you’ve done Marshall’s Law. Any others after that?
I’m working on next year’s book at the moment, that’s going to be a standalone thriller, set in New York City. I finished the draft and I’m into the editing at the moment. A few more weeks and it will be sent off to the States. So that’ll be a very nice feeling.
How did your first two books do in America?
The first book did well, the second book came out last week, so it’s too soon to tell. But I keep my fingers firmly crossed that one day I’ll be in the same sales league as James Patterson. It’s good to aim high!
When was American Blood released?
What’s doing better, the hard copy version or Kindle?
Actually, the hard copy version. It’s been interesting that a lot of the news out of the book industry was sort of doom and gloom for a while. That eBooks were going to bring about the downfall of print books. But I certainly make most of my money from actual hard copy, printed paper-and-ink books. And I can only assume that a lot of readers are just like me and really like having it on their bookshelves afterwards, to remember the actual experience of where they were when they read it – whether they were on holiday – or the memory associated with actually having something on your shelf and expressing your personality and your interests and all that sort of thing, rather than having 10,000 books hidden away in a Kindle that no one ever sees.
Did you do a lot of promo in America for the books?
No I didn’t. I guess it’s just the consequence of the fact that the US is a minimum 12-hour flight away and there’s a cost associated with that. They would have to put me in a hotel for however long. So I keep my fingers crossed that I meet that magic sales threshold where I can be flown around the world first class, living in hotels for a year!
Warner Brothers have picked up the rights to American Blood, how did that come about?
They purchased an option, which has actually since expired. But the silver lining to that cloud is that another studio has optioned it. So hopefully something will come out of that. But the way the Warner Brothers deal came about was I started American Blood in December 2013, wrote the first five or six chapters and then sent them off to my editor to make sure they were happy with the direction everything was going in. They were happy with the sample, and thought: “we’ll just send it out to our Hollywood contacts to see whether we can get any interest.” Sure enough, they did. By February 2014, the film option had been sold to Warner Brothers with Bradley Cooper attached to star. It felt like a leap into a new level of success. It was hugely exciting.
How much influence do your book publishers have over the book?
I’ve never felt pressured to change anything drastically. My editor has always read everything very closely, and gives very good feedback. I normally find it takes me a month or two to incorporate all their suggestions. But I always feel that they have my vision in mind when they’re making their comments.
What kind of hobbies do you have to keep your creative mind?
I guess they’re boring hobbies. But I love to read. I love walking, I love running. I play a bit of tennis. I try and have a game of tennis once a week. But I can’t say that I love base jumping or parachuting or anything like that. I live a very happy, but I guess unexciting, life by most people’s standards. So I try and have a level of excitement and danger, by proxy, through my characters.