America, With Tentacles
Speculative fiction writer Robert Jackson Bennett travels back to the future
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.