Sunday, May 3, 2015

Robert A. Benjamin, Author


Robert A. Benjamin is a well-rounded writer. He has penned four novels, including his new release A Gift of Dreams.  Besides writing, Robert is a lover of all things aviation and is eager to talk about his flying adventures. He is also an accomplished artist and teacher...

Welcome Robert!

What is your favorite memory of growing up in the ‘50’s? 
Looking back over half a century later, I would have to say that the best part of growing up during the 1950’s in a traditional New England village, the son of a traditional New England family, was the pervasive sense of community that was always part of the place. I knew where I fit and what was expected of me. I knew that if I continued to do well in school and to meet the expectations set by my elders, I could count on knowing I would be allowed, for example, to spend a warm Saturday afternoon carrying one of my “gas-engine-powered” model airplanes and a cumbersome tool kit of control lines, fuel and other paraphernalia the quarter mile from our back door to the baseball field behind the Town Hall. I could start my admittedly noisy engine and fly at will as long as I remembered not to have to be asked to be out of the way in time for baseball team practice, and I knew that I could depend on that to be possible tomorrow and the day after that as well. I was intelligent enough to recognize that a comfortable, even privileged state of affairs like this could not last forever, that growing up would mean the end of it, but while it was real it was wonderful.

Did your radio control plane fly?
It sure did! Some of the decisions I chose to make in order to achieve that youthful goal changed my life in ways far beyond the building of model airplanes and an abiding interest in the entire world of aviation, but in the end much of the focus of that life would come back to aeromodeling.  I have become an internationally recognized competitor in the field of building and flying scale model airplanes by radio control, a prolific contributor over the past thirty five years to the model aviation periodical community, and recently an elected member of the U.S. Model Aviation Hall of Fame. How all that came to be is in large part what my books are all about.

You said you have dared to be different. How were you different?”
The model airplanes were a large part of that but there was more to it, and I would have failed to fit in even if I had nurtured a different interest. By the time I had reached junior high school age, I knew that I would rather take a newly-built model airplane out to an open (and deserted) field to see whether I could get it to fly than share the adolescent camaraderie that I knew would come with learning to do a better job of pretending to care whether or not I could be counted on to catch a hard-hit baseball. I developed a tendency to see through social phenomena that were supposed to be vital to the essence of “being a teenager”…for instance, I can remember being seriously puzzled by all the interest most of my peers were lavishing on somebody called Elvis Presley.  The results of admitting things like that were painful, but never painful enough to make me give up being the way I was.

Who is your niche market and who would enjoy reading your books?
There are so many things going on in the sequence of experiences that I have explored and shared in the Imperfectly Ordinary books that it has taken me a while to work out the best answer to that question.  In short, my ideal reader is anyone who can identify in any way with those model airplanes, and it turns out that there are probably a lot more of those folks around than you might at first imagine. Whenever I pose the question, “Did you ever build a model airplane that would fly, or try to, or know someone else who did, or maybe wished later that you had dared?” On average about half of them respond with a nod or a few words of affirmation.  That’s a lot of potential readers…but…that’s not all there is to it. I submit that traditional model airplane building is a legitimate American cultural icon. I have come to accept that I am a keeper of that tradition of skills and interests, and most of my current writing is being done in support of that notion. How and why I got to be this way makes for a considerable collection of stories.  

What is the premise of your Trilogy Imperfectly Ordinary?
Knowing that I was “different” was a fact of life for me from a very early age. Knowing how and why all that came about, and most important, what I was supposed to do about it has been the focus of a lot of effort on my part over most of my life. The question, “What am I?” has always been at the center of it. I had indeed finished writing the first of my books (A Gift of Dreams)  before I managed to recall a conversation with my parents when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. My tearful confession that, “I don’t know what to do because the other kids won’t stop teasing me because I’m too smart,” prompted a sharp reply from my primly Puritan mother. Concerned that I was about to stumble even further into making a poor impression in the community, she lectured me; “You’re no different from any of the other kids at school. You’d better get busy growing up and start acting like you are perfectly ordinary…and start learning to fit in and get along!” Years later it came to me that the best I had ever been able to manage in response was to be imperfectly ordinary.

The title of one of your novels is Side Door to Heaven. Is there a side door to heaven?
Yes. It took me a long time to work out what that’s all about. It’s one of the central themes of the Trilogy, but it’s also a very subtle notion. You will have to read the books yourself to appreciate what it might means for you.

“He is also an accomplished artist…”  Tell us about that…
For a long time, “art”, as in creating paint-on-canvas representations and working to make them good enough that real galleries would want to show them was one of the most important parts of my life.  I’ll let you decide for yourself, based on the images of my work that we’ve shared, whether that work ever became good enough to be taken seriously. In any event, I don’t do that anymore. Why is a question I won’t even try to answer here. You will have to read my Imperfectly Ordinary books…especially Side Door To Heaven…to discover the answers.

The several images I’ve shared with you are all paintings in acrylic medium on canvas or illustration board. The largest are all 40” x 30”.  Several are part of a project I did on U.S. Naval Aviation during the 1980’s and ‘90’s; the “others” are from my long series of classic private and racing airplanes of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. All are now in either private collections or museums; several were reproduced as magazine covers.




Who/what has had the biggest impact on your writing?
My first response to that question is that I have never had a favorite writer. In just about everything I find worth reading I encounter something about that writing (as distinct from that particular content) that interests me; perhaps even tempts me to emulate it. In a broad sense my approach to creating narrative nonfiction owes a generous debt to my academic studies of literature, history and philosophy at Bowdoin College. In contrast to that broad sweep of influence, I want to credit one specific journalist…William Winter, editor of several successful model aviation magazines from the 1940’s on into the ‘70’s…for inspiring me to write like Bill Winter, so the reader can believe he’s been there with you.

Describe your writing/editing style and routine…
That’s easy.  Over the past ten or fifteen years I have created a comfortable, productive work routine. Almost invariably I will draft new material, whether for a book project, a magazine feature or for my online presentations “by hand”, ball-point-pen-on-white-paper style, in the café of the Olympia, Washington Barnes & Noble Bookstore. (That’s where I’m sitting right now, drafting these answers.) My preference is to do this in the morning when the world is wide awake and fresh for me. It might be of interest that the fifteen minutes or so it takes me to drive there from home serves as an excellent mental buffer…an “idea insulator”. When I sit down there with that big cup of black coffee every part of me acknowledges that you’re here to write. The first stage of my editing is always at home in front of my desktop computer …transcribing those longhand first drafts, hours or perhaps day later, is the best way I’ve found to knock the worst of the rough edges off them. Next I’ll edit those printouts back at the café, bring them home for cleaning up, and then repeat that edit-and-polish routine as many times as necessary to get it right.

What are you currently reading?
That’s a tough one. Because I so enjoy literary imagery…not just creating it but also getting lost in reading it…I tend to ration my reading time pretty strictly in order to get as much writing done as I like.  Most recently I did indulge myself in the first five books of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (that my wife left handily in sight for me to “discover”). I liked the mental challenge of keeping the multiple/simultaneous character and plot developments in order, and, yes, the rich imagery as well.

What are you currently writing?
That’s another tough one.  I have a historical novel set in Essex, Massachusetts, the village I wrote about in A Gift of Dreams, well-researched and partly planned, but I’ve set it aside until I can assure myself that I have it headed in the right direction. With that creative lapse confessed, I have to admit that I’m exercising my pen nearly every day, but I’m still not quite sure where the output is leading me. My best guess (as I sit here pen in hand) is that I’ll compile and edit some of the model airplane material that’s being so well received by magazine and online readers alike into yet more narrative nonfiction exploring my American cultural icon theme.

Do you have advice for beginning writers?
Yes. It will be easy to hear, but tougher to follow…WRITE ! Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, whether or not there’s even the ghost of a chance it’ll get published…WRITE (and then let somebody else read it). As you make your own way along that step path you’ll work out what you want to write about and get plenty of those rough edges knocked off in the process. The more you write, the more you learn to write. “Style” comes with experience.  Where it all leads in the end will be up to you.

List a few things your fans may not know about you…
1.   Regardless of the passion for airplanes of all sizes I share throughout my work, I spent many of my “growing up” years in intimate touch with the tradition of building wooden boats. You can get the details about that by reading A Gift of Dreams.

2.   I was a college dropout during the worst years of the Vietnam War. (I also worked my way back onto campus and graduated four years late. (Read I Promised You Daisies for that story).

3.   I’ve worn that trimmed beard you see in my headshots since shortly after being married in 1975. My wife, Teryl, put me up to it and urged me to keep it. (No, it wasn’t white then!)

4.   I have a “thing” for cats. I like all animals, even dogs that belong to somebody else, but I relate to kitties…you have to work hard to gain their real trust.  Teryl and I have rescued MANY of them over the forty years or so we’ve been together.

5.    I prefer classical music. Mozart rocks!

6.   Part of the gift I talk about in A Gift of Dreams was what we now refer to as intellectual giftedness (being scary-smart). In those days nobody where I lived knew what to call it, other than perhaps too-smart-for-my-own-good.  There were many times when I believed it to be anything but a gift, and in my writing I have tried to share some of the pain that, for young Bobby Benjamin, came with it.

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