INTERVIEW: Benjamin Whitmer, author of Cry Father
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
To channel James Crumley: Benjamin Whitmer and I are drinking Mexican Cokes right out of the heart of a fine Saturday afternoon next to an unlit campfire at Vedauwoo in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Forest. Talking about books, guns, and the general point of it all.
Court Merrigan: Your latest novel, Cry Father, comes out on 9/16. Why this book? Why this story?
Benjamin Whitmer: Part of it came from spending time in the San Luis Valley, down in southern Colorado. A buddy introduced me to the area, and you know, I’ve got a couple kids myself, I was thinking about what it meant to be a father. And so I took a drive through there with my ex-wife and kids and pretty quick came up with the ideas for the characters.
But also, I’m about ten years old at heart, and I wanted to write an outlaw novel. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, you know? About people heavily flawed and deeply disturbed. Those are the characters I like, but I wouldn’t recommend any of them as role models.
It’s funny, you know, people comment on what they see as the overt masculinity in my writing, and I have to tell you, the men in my books, they’re not paradigms of good masculine experience. I mean, which of these guys would you want to be like? How are they masculine, in any real sense of the word?
But you can’t write an outlaw book about bankers.
CM: How about a happy ending? Debts paid, victims rescued, wrongs righted?
BW: Nope. I don’t do redemption.
CM: I believe you, because Cry Father contains one of the most noirish line I’ve come across: “You don’t have to be particularly unhappy to shoot yourself. Your average life will do it.” That’s one of those lines that just has a ring to it beyond the particular plot point at which it occurs. Is that a credo, or just the words of a damaged character?
BW: I don’t know if it’s a credo, but it’s true to what I’ve seen. I’m hitting that middle-age period where everybody’s looking around at their life and going, “What the fuck have I got myself into? This is it?” Seems like everybody’s miserable for the life they didn’t live. The irony is that I’m probably the happiest person you’ll ever meet. My kids are beautiful and healthy, and it took me so long to get published, let alone for anybody to read anything I wrote, that all the rest is just gravy. It ain’t perfect, but what is?
CM: No cops in Cry Father. At all.
BW: Nope. Everyone is completely outside the law. They just don’t exist on that scope, where the police pay attention. Places like that are real in, say, unincorporated Adams County in Colorado, and the people live there are, too. I just took some of those folks and exaggerated them.
CM: Outlaw country.
BW: That’s it. Outlaw places and outlaw songs. That Billy Joe Shaver song that Waylon sang, “Ain’t No God in Mexico,” you know? That’s all about finding some place where there is no law, and the characters in Cry Father, they’re always looking for that place, beyond the law, whatever it costs them. And when they find that outlaw country, they don’t leave.
CM: How about the violence in Cry Father?
BW: Violence resolves nothing, not in my book. People say the violence is gratuitous, and I want to ask, what violence isn’t gratuitous? I mean, it’s not gratuitous to the novel. People will say, “the violence doesn’t serve any purpose, it isn’t doing anything.” No. It’s just not doing what you want it to do.
CM: In Cry Father, you write, “It’s almost impossible to measure the damage that damaged young men can do to themselves. Spending their nights drinking, doing whatever drugs they can afford, fumbling through the kind of endless and circular conversations only damaged young men can tolerate. Conversations full of self-pity and self-hatred they can only end by the sudden imposition of physical force.” The endlessly repeating nature of that sort of violence — because there are always more young men, everywhere, — is that what you mean by “violence not doing what you want it to?”
BW: Yep, that’s pretty much it. I had a lot of friends who lived that way, and I was one of the most pathetic. It ain’t real attractive, but that’s what a lot of us thought it meant to be a young man. Some of us lived through it, and some of us didn’t. I’m not a real religious guy, but there’s that old line, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Someday I’ll get that tattooed on my forehead to remind me how lucky I am.
CM: Alcohol and drugs figure heavily in Cry Father. But everyone’s using for a reason, and none of it’s fun. As Patterson Wells says of the men on the disaster-area crews: “The men I work with, they don’t grieve. They drink, then they erupt.” Would Cry Father be a totally different book if everyone were teetotalers, or would these damaged people find some other route to eruption? Games of horseshoes? Religious war?
BW: Man, I don’t even know what a teetotaler would look like. I mean, I know they exist, but I assume I’ve got a better chance of seeing a unicorn. Everybody’s got something to slow them down or speed them up, prescribed or otherwise. I’ve never met a true teetotaler in this country, and nobody looks like they’re having fun. Everybody I know is just trying to keep everything from falling apart. I don’t think my characters are that much different than anybody else in that regard.
CM: Your ambition. What are you after?
BW: I’m not real modest, but I have modest goals. I want to write a book better than the ones I’ve written. So next I want to write the best third novel I can. I know I’m not going to make a living at it. I’ll always have to have a day job. If I wrote the best country noir novel ever written, and I won’t, I’d still have to have a day job. So I just want to write better every time.
It’s just so incredibly arbitrary. You write the best book you can, and then, yeah, you try to sell it to a major publisher, as happened with Cry Father. That’s the market and I’m not trying to tear that down or anything. The folks at Simon & Schuster have been amazing, and my editor’s brilliant. Working with him has been one of the great highlights of my career. But you know, every book I’ve read the last six months has been from a small or even micropress. The big publishers have no kind of monopoly on quality, and there’s a lot better writers than me who haven’t been as lucky.
What I’d really like to do is get my kids through college, buy some cheap land in southern Colorado, and put a trailer on it. Then I’d be good.
CM: Guns. What’s your favorite, and why should everyone have a favorite?
BW: My current favorite is a Wiley Clapp Ruger GP100 .357. They had a run of only two thousand, I think, two or three years ago. It’s my pride and joy. It just has this incredible set up, a rear wide-notch Novak at the rear and a fiber-optic front sight. I had a trigger job done to it, and you can nail anything you point at.
People get all excited about guns. Every time I get into it online with someone, I keep finding how little people know about what they are livid about. Fact is, it doesn’t matter. They hate guns, reflexively. I don’t, reflexively.
I try not to get into the gun debates anymore, but watching what happened in Ferguson I’m a lot less scared of the guns my neighbor has than the guns the cops do. They’re armed and behaving like an occupying force, and I hope people don’t lose sight of that. One of my best friends, Paul Schenck, was killed last year in a village of 3000 in Ohio. By a SWAT team surrounding his house that included snipers, almost a hundred officers, and two armored vehicles.
Lately my thought on it is that I’ll support any and all gun laws, as long as they start with the police.