Unfortunately Jane and Leo couldn’t make the party, but I did meet Ben Winters at the Edgar Awards cocktail schmooze. He was hard to miss in his tuxedo with gold lamé vest and matching bowtie. Right away, I asked for a picture and found out his Edgar nomination
was for The Secret Life of Ms Finkleman, a “YA” title, also known as the Young American genre. Publisher’s Weekly gave Ms Finkleman a starred review, calling it “fast-paced, funny, and highly original…” Ben is a former rock-‘n-roller (that must be where the taste for gold lamé comes from), who now balances his writing career with a full time teaching position. He’s also the devoted father of two children, with a third on the way. —Elaine Ash
Ben Winters: I was especially delighted with the Edgar nomination because I never conceived of The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman (HarperCollins) as a mystery, per se. The novel’s origins were in my own past. In high-school I played in various bands, and did some recording and touring. I had a desire to write about that period of my life: how exciting it was, and what it meant to me.
(RIGHT): Me, grabbing a pic with Ben @ the Edgars.
The other source of inspiration, what I guess you would call the mystery part, came from the several years I spent as a creative-writing teacher in New York elementary and middle schools. Kids are super- fascinated by the private lives of their teachers; whenever a teacher mentions something about their college days, for example, or their own children, the kids totally perk up and lean forward. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens when a kid decides to dig up a little dirt on a favorite teacher. Chaos ensues, naturally, but there is also some good-old-fashioned sleuthing along the way, and I guess that’s what the Edgar committee responded to…to my everlasting pride and gratitude.
Elaine: Are you a full time writer? What are you doing now?
Ben: What a great question – what am I doing now? As fate would have it, I’ll start a new teaching gig in September; I’ve been invited to be an “author in residence” at a wonderful elementary school in Wellesley, Mass. So I’ll be doing all sorts of classroom workshops, book clubs, and seminars. I also have two young kids and a third on the way, so that keeps me pretty busy.
Elaine: How did you balance writing with teaching before getting published? What was your routine?
(RIGHT) Shinin’ at the Edgars
Ben: My routine has always varied, depending on what kind of “day job” I have — over the years I’ve done everything from scoop ice cream to editing a website — but over the years I’ve gotten better at the crucial thing, which is to make the most of the time I do get. If on a given day my writing time is squeezed down to one lonely hour by my teaching and parenting and logistical responsibilities (that is, all the things about being a writer that don’t involve actual writing), then I better be able to do as much that is productive and positive with that hour as I can.
(BELOW): Ben’s first book, published by Quirk Books. (More about this book company in a separate post.)
Ben: I’m always reluctant to talk about “how to get published,” because I hold the old-fashioned and basically unhelpful idea that talent and determination ultimately yield success. That said, I would give teachers who are aspiring writers the same advice they surely give their students: write whenever possible; rewrite ruthlessly; glory in the details; learn not to fear setbacks, but to embrace them as opportunities for fresh invention.
One more thing: Writers who teach as their “day job” have been given a huge gift, just by virtue of spending so much time with young people. If you write for young readers (as I do about half the time), you get to observe their language and habits and interests; but no matter what your genre, you get to be inspired by their enthusiasm, their lust for life, the way they feel everything so deeply. That sort of passion tends to leach out of us as we age, and I always find it exciting and interesting to be around people who haven’t yet learned to be bored by life.
Ben: I was fortunate in that a good friend, Abby Sher, had published a (marvelous) YA novel, called Kissing Snowflakes, and she had a great agent named Molly Lyons. Molly read and (thank heavens) responded well to the first five chapters of The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman. But then, of course, I had to write the rest of it, and Molly gave me tons of feedback – so my new agent really became an important person in my creative life as I finished that first draft. Molly was then able to sell the book to HarperCollins. So I guess the short answer is, no, I had no outside editing before sending it out to agents, and only feedback – not real editing, per se – from my agent, before sending it to publishers. To be clear: I have had, in the past, sent lots of things out to lots of places, and been rejected lots and lots of times. I used to do a lot of playwriting, and cherish a rejection letter from one theater agent, who said my submission was A) incoherent and B) printed double-sided. I’m not sure which element she found more objectionable. (RIGHT): Molly Lyons
(RIGHT) Jane Austen as drawn by her sister Cassandra (public domain)
Ben: Tolstoy’s beloved epic, recast in a dystopian world of robots, cyborgs, and space travel! Actually, Austen’s original included the sea monsters, and her publisher edited them out. So my book just corrected the historical injustice.
Elaine: What about your second book called Android Karenina, which Amazon calls a “Quirk classic”?
Ben: It’s a new version of Anna Karenina, but imagining that Tolstoy’s Russia had the advantage of miraculous technologies, thanks to a mysterious and powerful element called Groznium, discovered in the Russian soil. So, you know – all the love, intrigue, war, and adultery, but with the addition of robots, lasers, lizard-aliens, and journeys to the moon.
Elaine: How is it possible that the book cover says you wrote it with Tolstoy when he was actually DEAD???
Ben: Many people do lots of wonderful writing after they die.
Elaine: Ha ha! Seriously, can you elaborate on that?
Ben: Oh, sure. Basically I took the original text and massively edited, amended, and recast it, emerging with a new work that maintains the core elements of the original, and much of the language, but is very much something new: a sci-fi action adventure epic.
Elaine: The legal department must have had a field day with that one…
RIGHT: Illustration from Android Karenina
Elaine: I understand there is a companion book to Ms. Finkleman.
Ben: It’s due out this fall, called The Mystery of the Missing Everything, which I conceived as much more of a traditional, almost Agatha-Christie-style mystery, with a broken cabinet, a missing treasure, and a short list of suspects. I wrote it before I got the Edgar nom for Finkleman – in other words, I think the nominators saw that I was a budding mystery writer before I did. It’s just your average middle-school punk rock detective novel. A plucky seventh grader named Bethesda is determined to find out the hidden truth about her boring Music www,benhwinters.com
teacher. Soon the whole school is in a rock-and-roll frenzy, with Bethesda, Ms. Finkleman, and a pop-music obsessive named Tenny Boyer leading the charge.
Thank you, Ben! —Elaine Ash
HarperCollins page for Ms Finkleman: http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/books/Secret-Life-Ms-Finkleman-Ben-H-Winters/?isbn13=9780061965418&tctid=100