FOR ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT, the best part of the 2012 Edgar Awards ceremony wasn’t taking home an award for his second novel, The Company Man, at the end of the night — even though, as a 27-year-old speculative fiction writer surrounded by mystery writers thirty years his senior, he hadn’t exactly been expecting to win. The best part was shaking hands with Neil Gaiman. “He actually knew who I was,” Bennett says as if still a little dazed.
Gaiman, that rare nerd-lord who commands ongoing respect from the New York Times, had re-tweeted a video Bennett made parodying book trailers, the wan marketing videos publishers have used to push new books since the mid-aughts. The fake book is called A Sexual Experience. In the video, Bennett wears an ascot and a sports coat. The camera takes full advantage of his build and stature, and his normally rather bland face exudes a sleaziness reminiscent of Neil Patrick Harris’s character in “How I Met Your Mother.” He mugs for the camera and tickles a shoddy cardboard mock-up of the book with a long-stem rose, promising “mystery, drug abuse, fields of glorious lilies, people touching parts of other people with their own parts,” and, in reference to the book’s generic cover, “a horse and a rose, I guess.” You can see that he is enjoying himself immensely.
While Harlequin-style romance novels are, comedically speaking, low-hanging fruit, the faux book trailer seems to express a real frustration with the publishing world they represent. Constrained by necessity to low budgets and vague language, book trailers are not ideal for capturing any genre that requires special effects beyond a silk rose. Might Bennett be just a touch envious of how easy it would be to market something that falls within solid, well-articulated genre conventions — a book that doesn’t involve even a single tentacle, airship, or pan-dimensional lightning storm?
If so, it doesn’t seem to bother him all that much. He doesn’t take himself very seriously.
I first interviewed Bennett just after his encounter with Gaiman. Since then, I have read all of his books. They are inventive, strangely passionate tales populated with loners on the wrong side of the American dream who are trying to understand their place in the universe. Also, there are monsters, aliens, detectives, and gods.
There’s always an awkward moment in reviews of Bennett’s work when the reviewer tries to sum up his genre affiliations in a couple of words. Niall Ferguson called The Company Man “a love letter to airships and acid noir — by way of steampunk, sci-fi and murder mystery.” FantasyLiterature.com calls his latest book “classical mythology, Lovecraftian gothic, quantum science and what’s-in-the-woods horror.” Bennett himself once described his debut novel Mr. Shivers as “magical realist/fantastical/horror/whatever-the-reviewer-wants-to-call-it-that-day.”
We are sitting at a coffee shop in Austin, Texas; I am asking Bennett questions about his latest nov...read more