Bentley Little’s newest book, The Vanishing, is out in paperback from Signet, so we tracked him down (somehow he’s managed to remain offline and completely Internet free) to ask him a few questions. Here’s what he had to say …
Hellnotes: Tell us about The Vanishing. What inspired the idea, any surprises you encountered while writing the book, and if it turned out the way you originally envisioned it.
Little: This time around, for some reason, my editor at Signet wanted me to give her a list of ideas to choose from before I actually sat down to write my next book. Generally speaking, I write the novel I want and then turn it in, but she wanted to pre-approve my idea, so I sent her a list of five or six possibilities.
For some time, I’d wanted to do a horror story about the California gold rush, and that was one of the concepts I submitted. She liked it, so I went with it, but now I wish I hadn’t. I think it’s a little too close in tone to my previous novel, The Burning.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good book, and I definitely would have written it at some point, but I probably would have waited awhile. There’s a rhythm my career has that I like to keep. I think it’s important to vary the type of books I put out, and it feels to me as though there should have been some space between The Burning and The Vanishing. Just as I should have had a book between The University and Dominion, which were also too close in tone and style.
To answer your question, it did pretty much turn out the way I envisioned it, although a looming deadline caused me to rush the ending a little. The only real surprise I encountered was that Signet wanted to title the novel The Vanishing. I wasn’t too keen on this because for one thing there was already a great Dutch film (and its American remake) with that title, and for another, nothing vanished in the story. Luckily, I was still finishing up the book when I received this news, so I did add something in the latter third of the story that disappears. It’s slightly peripheral to the plotline, but I think I managed to tie it in well enough that readers won’t feel too cheated.
Hellnotes: You don’t like to do research if you can avoid it. How do you work around it?
Little: Most of the time, it doesn’t come up. I generally set my fiction in contemporary times and, as is so often advised, “write what I know.” In novels like The Walking or The Burning, that have sections taking place in the past, I utilize whatever general historical knowledge I have – and make everything else up.
For The Vanishing, I actually did do a little bit of research. Not much, but a little. I wanted one of the main characters to be James Marshall, the man who discovered gold in California, and another to be John Sutter, who owned Sutter’s Mill, where the gold was found (in fact, the novel’s working title was Sutter’s Children). I incorporated what I remembered from elementary school history, but left several blank spaces for specific dates and place names. I then checked a book out of the library and used it to fill in the missing information.
While skimming the book, I came across a chapter on Marshall’s life before he arrived in California, and used those facts as well. Ironically, James Marshall is not as well-known as I thought he was – at least outside of California – and most of the book’s reviewers have assumed that he is a fictional character and that, once again, I made everything up! So I guess it doesn’t pay to do research.
Hellnotes: The Vanishing was just released, which means you’re already deep into another book by now. Is it hard talk about The Vanishing? Have you moved on to the point where you’d rather just put it behind you?
Little: Not really. It’s when people ask me questions about a novel from three or four years ago that I get into trouble because my mind’s on the book that just came out and the one I’m currently writing, so I sometimes forget some of the minutiae from the earlier works. But I don’t really mind answering questions about my writing. I’m glad that someone’s interested.
Hellnotes: I know you’ve built your career exactly the way you’ve wanted it … one book a year, making enough money to live comfortably while you can still enjoy all the other aspects of your life. Do you have any other long-range writing goals?
Little: I actually do, but I don’t like to talk about them because it makes me sound like a pretentious jackass. Sometime in the future, there’s an ambitious novel that I would like to write – or attempt to write – but I’d need to get off this one-book-a-year grind to do it. It also might be a spectacular failure, so I’d need some money in the bank to survive a couple of lean years should it not connect with my readers. But I’ll do it someday. I may be eighty years old … but I’ll do it.
Hellnotes: Any upcoming short stories we should look for?
Little: Yes, but I forget the names of the anthologies and I’m too lazy to look them up. Richard Chizmar’s been holding two of my stories at Cemetery Dance for the past three or four years, and I suppose they’ll be published one day, although I don’t know when. I just had a short story titled “Slam Dance” appear in, of all places, a young adult anthology. The book’s called 666 The Number of The Beast and is published by Scholastic. I’m in good company. Joyce Carol Oates has a story in there! She’s one of my idols.
Hellnotes: Do you enjoy writing short stories more than novels? Or is it the other way around?
Little: I probably like short stories better because I’m lazy and they’re quick to finish. But I really do enjoy writing both types of fiction.
Hellnotes: What are you working on now?
Little: I’m finishing up a novel about a charter school. After that, who knows?
Hellnotes: Anything else you’d like to add?
Little: Floss regularly.
If you’d like to take a look at Bentley’s newest book you can pick up a copy here: The Vanishing