It was quite a privilege to be able to interview Robert Bennett, who is also an author for a cause. His interview is intriguing, and I am sure you will want to read it to the end. I will be looking forward to the release of his new book, Blind Traveler’s Blues.
Robert Bennett, a former social worker turned writer, lives in the house he grew up in with his mother, one of his two brothers, two dogs that don’t get along, and a turtle. His lifelong focus has been a concern for the needs of society’s disenfranchised. His articles span a wide range of topics from sports to technology and from politics to social justice. His fiction is grounded in real world events and technologies as well as his own philosophical concerns. "It is the act of truly living and believing in yourself that is important, not the manner in which that action is undertaken." Mr. Bennett has spoken to groups of physical therapy students, church members and senior citizens, and has appeared on several radio programs.
Tell us about the genre of your work.
How is this defined? What do you consider a "mystery/Sci-fi”?
Simply put, my stories take place in a possible future world, the year is 2021. There are many elements of future technological advances (advances like sonic canes, GPS/virtual sound devices and auto-drive vehicles that are just now actually being developed). At their core they are murder mysteries, more along the lines of why-done-it rather than who-dun nit stories.
Why did you choose this genre?
It actually chose me. I had written an article about a piece of technology (at the time in prototype) that would allow a blind person to navigate his environment using virtual sound and the global positioning satellite system. One day I wondered what would happen if the device malfunctioned and, instead of “seeing” what was immediately around him, the user would find himself in an unfamiliar environment. Then I wondered what he would do if what he stumbled upon was a murder about to occur. These wonderings eventually became the threads of my first novel, Blind Traveler Down a Dark River.
What are some of your books that have been published?
My first book was Blind Traveler Down a Dark River (2005). The next book in the series, Blind Traveler’s Blues, will be published as an eBook soon by Echelon Press. As an eBook soon by Echelon Press.
Any idea when it will be released?
Alas, no idea. Ask Karen Syed (grin).
Have you had other things published?
My published articles have appeared in peer reviewed journals, and commercial magazines.
I am, also, a public speaker, and have spoken to groups of physical therapy students, church members and senior citizens, and have appeared on several radio programs.
What were your presentation topics, and why did you do this?
To medical students and senior groups, I have spoken about life as a person with a disability, the need for compassionate and effective treatment of people with spinal cord injuries. To church members I lectured about the need for religious centers to become more accessible for people with disabilities (they are exempt under the Americans with Disabilities Act). On the radio I’ve talked about life as a person with a disability, technologies that make life better, adaptive sporting events, and of course about why and how I created my stories.
Can you expand some, why are you a disabilities' advocate?
I started writing about disability issues roughly seventeen years ago. A car accident on July 25, 1988 led to a year of agonizing pain, loss of motor function and finally several spinal surgeries, which left scar tissue. By 2001 my condition worsened, and I became a wheelchair user. At first my writing was cathartic. I saw life from a different angle, literally, and learned a lot about myself and the society we live in during that time. I learned that many people really are scared, distrustful, and often downright dishonorable toward those with disabilities. I lost a few “friends” and my girlfriend broke up with me. I wrote about my own experience, what is was like to be newly disabled and how society treated me. One of my first self-appointed tasks was to take Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of death and dying and apply them to becoming newly disabled. Some years ago a pamphlet was published with those five articles. From there I branched out into writing about other people with disabilities. Today I write about the challenges people with disabilities face to meld into the able-bodied world, the activities that they have adapted for their own ability levels, the technologies that help them lead better lives, and the politics of inclusion. I like to think that my fiction continues that effort in that it shows how a blind man can face daily challenges and achieve great things.
Can you give a short description of your books?
Blind Traveler Down a Dark River is the story of Douglas Abledan, a blind man using a GPS unit to navigate the world. One day the device malfunctions. He stumbles upon the scene of a murder about to take place. Due to the confusion caused by the failure of his technology, it isn’t until he hears a radio announcer reporting an accidental shooting that pieces start falling into place. Unable to convince authorities to look into the matter, he launches his own investigation.
In the year 2021 increasing global earthquakes threaten civilization’s infrastructure. Unimat Incorporated is trying to stop the destruction by introducing a new building material. Special interests are up in arms. Environmentalists blame technology for the problem and want a different solution. Steel workers worry about jobs and safety. Now someone has hired a contract killer to stop the project.
My new book, Blind Traveler’s Blues begins in Mexico where members of an archaeological team investigate the remains of an ancient village uncovered by a quake; racing to prove their theories about the civilization that once lived there. But, disaster strikes when the accidental destruction of an artifact unleashes a worldwide agricultural plague.
Halfway across the continent, Douglas Abledan, a blind computer technologist, embarks on a long anticipated vacation. On the plane to Chicago, he meets world-renowned agricultural pathologist Cara Cordelia. Little do either of them know that she has been targeted for murder.
How do you come up with the names of places and characters in your books?
For characters, I start off by deciding on the race and gender, and then look in baby name books for names with meanings that I like. For example, I wanted my protagonist to be a blind man. That’s where I started. Then I looked in many naming books and came up with the name Abledan, which translates (in a language I have forgotten) into ‘traveler on a dark river.’ For locations I usually set the story in places I’ve either visited or wish to visit at some later date.
How did you develop the character of your protagonist in this book?
I write about disability issues. Several years ago I wrote an article about a device that allows blind people to navigate through their world using a combination of GPS mapping and virtual sound technologies. One day I wondered what would happen if the device malfunctioned so that the user, rather than “seeing” the environment he was currently it, instead “saw” an environment several blocks away and in that environment a murder was taking place. I wondered what the person would do. Who would believe him?
What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind?
Though the antagonist in each of my stories is different, the group that s/he is associated with is not. So, the recurring nemesis, if you will, is a group called Gaia’s Children. Collectively they are a group of environmental terrorists who believe that they are soldiers fighting against mankind to protect the spiritual embodiment of the Earth, Gaia.
What’s your favorite thing about your book?
I don’t have one specific favorite thing. There are a lot of things I like about my stories. I like doing the research each story requires. For me writing isn’t about writing what I know. It’s about writing what I can find out about. I like creating the characters, who are made of an amalgam of all the people I’ve ever met.
What is your writing schedule?
I am not one of those people who think a writer needs to write a certain number of words or a certain length of time every day. I constantly have thoughts running through my mind, as we all do, but I don’t start putting them down, on paper or computer screen, until I have a thread that I think will lead somewhere. In other words I write based on solid leads, kind of like a detective investigating a crime. Some days I write for hours. Some days I don’t write at all. But I am constantly thinking, planning, waiting for that lead.
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
I am trying very hard to write a short story about my protagonist, Douglas Abledan. I want to bring him, and some of my other recurring characters, more into the minds of readers, so more people will look for my novels, and I think short stories might be the way to do that. I’d like to write something short enough for people to read while riding one way on a train. I’m also doing research for my next Blind Traveler novel. At the moment I’m thinking it will take place in Antarctica and have something to do with the search for alternative fuels.
What kind of advice or tips do you have for someone who wants to write (especially mystery)?
Don’t get caught up in writing only what you think you know. As my mother always tells me, you have to stretch or you don’t learn. Do the research. Also, give consideration to the concept that there really is no such thing as fiction. Ask yourself “What is imagination?” I don’t believe in fiction. In my mind everything comes from a part of who a writer is, his experiences, and the people he comes in contact with during the day to day of his life. It also originates from the feelings he has about the world around him. We, as writers, may not be conscious of the fact that we are, in some senses, writing about our own lives. But, I believe we all are.
Are there any other comments, advice or tips that you would give to beginning writers?
Learn to really watch people, to listen to them. Take some philosophy classes. They will help you design your character’s inner selves.
What do you do when you are not writing?
When I’m not writing I hang out with friends, I read a lot (currently: a Batman comic book, a non-fiction book about the history of human senses, and one of the True Blood novels. My tastes are eclectic), I watch movies, I attend photography classes and writing seminars, I travel (when I have money), and I play Scrabble and card games. But, when I’m looking for true down time I play on my Xbox, or watch TV.
What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?I remember distinctly when my first article came out. When I saw my name in print I ran/rolled outside, into the rain, and started screaming at the top of my lungs. I also remember when my first novel came out. I wasn’t home when the box arrived at the door. When I came into the house my mother was all smiles. She was antsy, almost bouncing out of her skin, and thrust a box at me. We celebrated with a huge party where we invited all our friends and neighbors.