Daniel Bennett was born in Shropshire. After studying American and English Literature at the University of East Anglia and the University of Colorado, he moved to London, where he has lived ever since. His first novel, All The Dogs, was published in 2008, and his fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines both in print and online. His sf novella, Requiem for an Astronaut was published in 2021 by New Con Press. He lives with his family in East London.
IZ Digital: When did you first begin to imagine East City? Was ‘Vines’ an East City story you had been thinking about for a long time?
Daniel Bennett: I had the idea for ‘Vines’ quite a long time ago now, back when I lived in Brixton and I rented a house near Brockwell Park. The garden became infested with knotweed and sometimes it felt it was going to creep up through the window.
East City is partly based on Mumbai and partly the area of East London where I live. My partner and I moved here the year before the pandemic. At the time, our block of flats stood in the middle of a development which was practically a building site. I’d watch cranes lifting machinery outside my window and planes landing at nearby City airport, and it felt like I was inhabiting a space that was partly Ballardian, and partly, well, something else. It’s the something else I’ve tried to draw out in my writing. The locations – the market, the area by the river in particular – are grandiose re-imaginings of this area. I visited Mumbai about five years ago. The idea of a city built over islands really inspired me. And the slums are a discrete economy, driven by technology. It’s a fascinating city.
IZD: Some writers have favourite pens or notebooks; others write on and with whatever is closest to hand. What tools, if any, are essential for you when you write?
DB: Once upon a time, I’d write at a desk in front of a group of postcards and magazines cut-outs arranged in a collage. I’ve moved house more times than I can count, but the first thing I always unpacked was that collage. These days, I’m a bit more opportunistic about the way I write, writing on trains, in cafes, on lunch breaks from work; often, I’ll work on my phone. The one tool I’ve retained? Music. Boards of Canada, Gentlemen Losers, Cluster, Harmonia, John Fahey, Pye Corner Audio: anything without words. Music helps feed your thoughts.
IZD: Which books have you been reading recently?
DB: Recent books I’ve enjoyed:
Drone State by Tom Hillenbrand. A German SF/crime story set in the near future, which looks at the growth of AI and the future of the EU.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez. Dark, uncompromising stories about wild dogs, poverty, and summer lust, by an outstanding Argentinian writer.
Difficult Lives/ Hitching Rides by James Sallis. Essays on noir and writing lives by one of my favourite writers
IZD: Where do you find recommendations for translated genre fiction like Drone State?
DB: Well, I found Drone State in an article in the Guardian on how sf writers have responded to Brexit, I think. I’m always on the lookout for work in translation, whether that’s crime or sf or even literary fiction. Most of the time, I look out for publishers. Bitter Lemon Press (Jorg Fauser’s The Snowman is one of my favourite crime novels), Pushkin Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions (I’ve loved Mallo’s Nocilla books): these are all great publishers of work in translation. I like looking out for niche things, and whenever I travel, I aim to read poetry and crime or sf from the countries or cities I visit.
IZD: You mentioned the book of essays by James Sallis. It looks like a fascinating book about a fascinating group of writers. When did you first read Sallis and what draws you back to his writing? Which other writers of short fiction do you admire stylistically?
DB: Sallis is still one of my favourite writers. I adore his sense of place. I first read his Lew Griffin novels when I lived in Brixton, and I sometimes felt that world leaking out into South London around me. I love his ability to offer a kind of meta-critique of genre writing without giving a sense of ironic distance. You’re aware these are texts, but you still care about the people. And his work across poetry, crime and SF, is really inspirational.
In terms of other short story writers I admire, the list is rather long and constantly evolving. A few that come to mind are Robert Coover, Flannery O’Connor, William Goyen, Saki, J.G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, and Robert Silverberg. I love Kelly Link’s work, too. Amanda Davies’s story ‘Louisiana Loses Its Cricket Hum’ really gave me something to aim for with its play with genre. For his absurdity and lightness of touch, my favourite sf short story writer is probably Robert Sheckley. For style, the writer I return to most is Bruno Schultz. I love the sense of magic and isolation in his writing.
IZD: Andy Cox published your first story ‘Acton Undream’ in the first issue of Black Static (with that beautiful cover). How have you grown as a writer since then? What do you know now that you wish you had known sooner?
DB: Yes, I’m really grateful for the support Andy has given me over the years. I wrote ‘Acton Undream’ when TTA Press still published The Third Alternative, and I always saw that piece as a slipstream story. In some ways, some of the themes from ‘Acton Undream’ find echoes across my later work. The way even a small group of people can isolate themselves from society and reality and create their own world: it’s in the story, and it’s in all my writing, really. I think learning to have a lighter touch is probably where I’ve made the most strides with my work.
IZD: I think Requiem for an Astronaut (NewCon Press, 2021) has that lightness of touch. Reading it, it felt very measured, and I enjoyed how you built to the finale. How did it feel to see that East City story out in the world as a book all of its own?
DB: Requiem steps outside of East City, and focuses on a character who has isolated himself from the city to concentrate on his work. In a strange way, getting that kind of distance on the setting of the earlier stories helped me get more of a grasp on the overall fictional world. I wrote the novella in a bit of a blur before my son was born, and I think that sense of the responsibility of parenthood washes around in the background. It was a great experience to work on a novella, although my next piece will be more like a full novel.
IZD: What projects are you currently most excited to see the light of day?
DB: I have a few short stories on the go at the moment, but my main focus is making strides with an East City novel. It’s early days, but it’s shaping up quite well. It’s more or less a sequel to Requiem For An Astronaut, although broader in scope. I hope it will be done by next year.
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