'Story is so vital in forming who we are. I cannot separate myself from the stories I've been told, or the stories I tell about myself. Fiction is so important. It makes us more empathetic, which is something this world desperately needs. I wanted to add to that. I wanted to start conversations.'
Ben Hobson lives in Brisbane and is entirely keen on his wife, Lena, and their two small boys, Charlie and Henry. He currently teaches English and Music at Bribie Island State High School. In 2014 his novella, If the Saddle Breaks My Spine, was shortlisted for the Viva La Novella prize, run by Seizureonline. To Become a Whale is his first novel.
Cover photo of Ben by Jo Hammond.
Have you always been a writer and identified as one?
I'm not sure I've always been a writer, but I've always been creative. I've always loved reading to the point of obsession, but I didn't truly pick up a pen (or keyboard) with intent until I moved to Queensland, in 2007. I was in a band in Melbourne, called Sounds Like Chicken, which helped feed my creative urge for a bit. But when I moved up here I lost those wonderful bandmates, so I needed a venue for solo creation. And I'm a terrible singer.
Why fiction in particular?
Story is so vital in forming who we are. I cannot separate myself from the stories I've been told, or the stories I tell about myself. Fiction is so important. It makes us more empathetic, which is something this world desperately needs. I wanted to add to that. I wanted to start conversations.
As a teacher yourself do you think you can teach writing? Were you yourself ever part of a creative writing group and was it helpful?
Good question! I do teach writing at Bribie Island High School, where I currently teach English and Music, and I think I do a decent job. It would come as no surprise that teenagers are incredibly impressive creators, so I'd hope I could offer something to more mature storytellers too! When I was completing my education degree at QUT I took English as a second pathway, and went to a few creative writing lectures, but the biggest boon for me was the university library. I devoured book after book after creative writing book.
Looking back though, I think a writing group would be incredibly helpful. Sometimes it's very difficult to see the problems in your own story. And believe me, there'll be some. Finding a creative writing group to help you more quickly identify such things would be very valuable.
Can you tell us how you came to be published by Allen & Unwin?
After writing a first draft, editing it through twice, completely rewriting it, and editing it again, I sent my manuscript off to The Australian/Vogel's literary award. I received a rejection slip a few months later, which completely devastated me for a moment. There was, however, one piece of advice on the slip I clung to: this novel does not quite reach the dramatic heights it was aiming for. So I went back and added drama! This, however, was the dying gasp.
After sending off a few agent queries I hung up my gloves, so to speak. I was done. I'd utterly exhausted myself on this novel and I was finished. After nine years of rejection slips, I was going to give writing a break for a while. So I forgot about it.
Months later I received an email, out of the blue, in my inbox, from my eventual agent Gaby Naher. She's responsible for getting my novel in the hands of Allen & Unwin, and for making the book much better, and you know, everything. She's awesome.
Any suggestions to aspiring writers on getting published?
I would honestly say, though I remember this advice annoying me when I was aspiring myself, that you need to write a heck of a lot. I've written five novels – To Become a Whale is the fifth. The first was utterly terrible. They became progressively better as I learned my craft. Take a bit of the pressure off yourself to be good quickly – because it doesn't work that way. Writing is a craft. It takes years of training, refinement, disappointment and success. I would really emphasise that last point: take the pressure off. Go easy on yourself, have fun, read a lot, and write a lot of garbage quickly.
What was the most difficult aspect of bringing your novel to life?
It wasn't the historical detail, strangely. What was hard for me was bringing a real father/son relationship to life. To balance that was incredibly tricky. I needed the father to be strong, determined, harsh, kind; a real person. Not a caricature. But consistent all the same! Balancing that was a constant challenge. Trimming moments, adding them. I'm very proud of how it turned out.
Can you tell us how you came to write To Become a Whale? Any particular influences?
The first thing that came to me was the relationship and the setting; not the whaling station setting, but of the father and son building a home together on the beach. I wanted to know what their lives were like. I started writing a few scenes to see how it felt and loved it. The whaling station came a bit later.
Was it difficult to find the right tone and narrative voice or did that come to you early in the process?
It was incredibly difficult! Over years of getting rejection slips I'd actually lost my narrative voice. I'd started to change myself to suit what I thought publishers wanted to hear. I was trying to sound like other authors; and I lost myself in that. It wasn't until I went to see Rohan Wilson speak that he helped unlock the idea in me that I could write however the heck I wanted to. So I actually rewrote the entire book, from page one. On one side of my screen I had my old version; on the other, a completely new draft. And I wrote this new draft the way I wanted to; simple, direct, honest, bare.
What did you learn from your publisher and also your editor?
So much! I'm still learning! They are absolutely invaluable. I learned so much. One huge editorial point for me was adding elements to help pull people through the story. I've heard this referred to as a "ticking clock" – the idea being, as the bomb ticks down, tension increases. Small changes helped give the story more momentum. There was actually an entire character born from this suggestion, and the novel wouldn't be the same without him.
Any advice on writing more generally? This is hard to summarise but any suggestions appreciated.
Write something important. It is very difficult to stay motivated despite the rejection slips and you need to be writing something personal, from the heart. I have a very strong belief that men in this country find it difficult to talk to each other about their feelings. I needed to talk about that. Find something personal. Tell a story about it.
I'd also say; get connected somehow. Even on twitter. Give to other authors. Read their stuff, talk to them about it. The writing community in Australia is incredibly supportive, I've found. So many people have gone out of their way to help me. Come talk to me on twitter! I'd love to hear from you.
Do you think it’s important that authors today are proactive in terms of self-promotion online and otherwise?
I think it's important writers connect with each other – and yes, self-promotion has its place. But you need to strike a careful balance. Authors who talk about themselves only, or spam links to their latest novel endlessly, won't get far. Be honest in investing in the writing community. Give of yourself, talk to authors, celebrate their successes. Give and you shall receive.
Are you going to keep teaching? Do you think it’s possible for writers today write full-time?
I am definitely going to keep teaching. I couldn't afford to write full-time. With a family, house repayments, a car loan, and so on, I need to have a solid income. It is very hard for writers to write full-time nowadays. I'm not sure how many there are in Australia, but I'm sure they're few and far between.
That being said, I think fitting your writing in around other responsibilities actually forces you to care about it more. I get, roughly, thirty minutes to an hour every day in which to write. You better believe, in those moments, I am insanely productive. On the opposite hand, in the school holidays I barely get anything done. Everything starts to ooze.
Who are some of the writers you’ve learnt the most from (and what)?
Rohan Wilson, as I mentioned earlier. I've learned a lot from Hemingway, too, though he'd long dead, about being clear, direct, and choosing the best word for the job. I learned from Cormac McCarthy that prose can be beautiful, that craft needn't dictate form. I learned from Tim Winton to be proud of being Australian, that our language is beautiful in its way. And I learned from Aaron Sorkin how to deal in exposition. Hide it in conflict, question, or a joke. I've learned from good writers and bad. You can always learn something.