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America, With Tentacles

Speculative fiction writer Robert Jackson Bennett travels back to the future

By Amy Gentry, Fri., Feb. 15, 2013

Robert Jackson Bennett
Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett's writing professor at the University of Texas gave him just one piece of advice: "Don't try to write a novel right out."

Luckily, Bennett ignored him. Six years, four published novels, and two book awards later, he has no reason to regret it. With a dark, philosophical sensibility and prose that has grown crisper and more even with every book, the Austin-based novelist has quietly acquired a reputation as a powerhouse of inventive speculative fiction that defies categorization, a trend he continues with his latest, American Elsewhere (Orbit).

Borrowing from every genre and fitting comfortably in none, Bennett's books combine elements of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy against backdrops often inspired by America's haunted past. In his award-winning debut, Mr. Shivers, hobos hunt a supernatural serial killer across the Depression-era Dust Bowl; The Company Man, which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original last year, sets a noirish sci-fi thriller in an alternate version of the 1920s. Bennett's third novel, The Troupe, which features travelling vaudevillians with a mysterious mission, topped Publishers Weekly's fantasy picks of 2012.

American Elsewhere evokes yet another bygone American era: the dawn of the atomic age, something Bennett says he's been "hooked on" since he was in college. "What's kind of weird is that this is a book that couches the idea of the 'bright new future' firmly in the past," Bennett says. In the book, ex-cop Mona Bright arrives in the tiny town of Wink, N.M., to claim a house left to her by a mother she barely knew. Built around a top-secret, Los Alamos-like research lab in the early Sixties, Wink resembles a Norman Rockwell painting by way of David Lynch: white picket fences, housewives in aprons and high heels, and an apple-pie perfect diner where everyone knows your name. Predictably, there is more to the squeaky-clean townsfolk than meets the eye, but Bennett's flare for creatively mixing up genre conventions carries the story into unexpected territory. (Let's just say there are a lot of tentacles involved.)

The Chronicle spoke to Bennett recently about American Elsewhere, our nostalgia for the future, and whether his aliens have a mommy complex. To read the interview, go to the Chronicle's Books blog.

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