Interview with JAMES BENMORE

BenmoreJ-AuthorPicLet’s start with an introduction: Who is James Benmore?

I’m the author of a trilogy of novels that further the adventures of Jack Dawkins from Oliver Twist – or the Artful Dodger as you and I might call him. The first of these books, Dodger, was released to a very warm reception last year and so it’s been a real pleasure to keep his story going for another two books.

Your next novel, Dodger of the Dials, is published in paperback this year by Heron. It’s your second novel about the Artful Dodger. How would you introduce the series to a new reader, and what can fans of the first expect?

So, Dodger picks up six years after the events of Oliver Twist. In that book, Jack was arrested for pickpocketing and was transported to an Australian penal colony. But now he’s back in London under mysterious circumstances with a task to locate a priceless jewel which is lost somewhere within the city. The story leads Jack back into some of the darker areas of his past and he finds out what has become of many of the other young orphans that once shared Fagin’s home with him. It’s a historical crime caper with one of literature’s most irreverent anti-heroes at its center.

Dodger of the Dials is set a year after that and now an even more emboldened Dawkins is establishing himself as one of London’s most ambitious criminals. He’s moved from pickpocketing and is now a burglar-on-demand, cracking great houses on behalf of dubious wealthy clients. He also runs a significantly large gang in the Seven Dials vicinity called ‘the Diallers’ but his success attracts unwanted attention from an even bigger career criminal called Weeping Billy Slade. We see the beginnings of what we now call organized crime but this prototype is a disaster for Jack. Before long he’s in a condemned cell awaiting his own execution like Fagin before him and with some desperate plans for escape.

BenmoreJ-D2-DodgerDialsUK

What inspired you to write the novels, and what were the challenges of writing about such an iconic and beloved character?

Definitely the biggest attraction for me was the chance to write in the Dodger’s own voice. It wasn’t just that I wanted to find out what would happen to him next but I also wanted him to tell the story in his own unique way. So not only does he speak in a Victorian cockney vernacular but he also gets to express his own distinctive worldview, a psychologically skewed morality that is very different to one that we might find in in a typical Dickensian novel. Despite being a compulsive thief, the Artful Dodger doesn’t see himself as a villain and he views some of the people in his world in an unconventional way. For instance, he remembers the child corrupting Fagin with great fondness, a much-loved father figure, while he detests Oliver Twist who he considers to be a class traitor.

The challenges of writing for such a famous character were many but I told myself that I was entitled to my own interpretation of the Dodger. Just because you didn’t create a character does not mean you can’t create your own characterization of them. If you watch enough adaptations of Oliver Twist you’ll notice that he’s been depicted in some very diverse ways over the years. Sometimes he’s a cheeky scamp, sometimes a surly thug, sometimes he’s a cool kid. He’s often presented as funny but occasionally also as somewhat sinister. And so, if it was possible, I wanted my Dodger to adhere to all these different visions without it seeming contradictory. And, in his own story, he can also show flashes of genuine heroism – although they rarely last for long.

How were you first introduced to Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the character of Dodger?

I have a very clear memory of being ill as a kid and convalescing in front of the television as Oliver! came on. I’ve never been a big fan of musicals, not even at that age, but Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger really got my attention. The Dodger was such a little charisma bomb and he livened up the whole thing and I’m sure that most people associate the character with Wild’s performance. Even now when I’m writing his narration I often still imagine him speaking in Jack Wild’s older voice.

However, I didn’t read the Dickens novel until I was much older and backpacking around Thailand. I was completely hooked by the gritty world of the London slums that it presented and by how every scene with either Fagin or the Artful Dodger was just so electric. The criminals are certainly the stars of the book, there’s no doubt about that.

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How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?

It’s been a lifetime ambition of mine to be a published novelist so there is no greater satisfaction than when I’m passing through a shop or a library and spot either Dodger or Dodger of the Dials there on the shelves (preferably both.) I also really enjoy the daily business of writing although it’s obviously a very solitary occupation. But it never seems like that because there’s so much stuff going on in your head that sometimes I feel as though I’ve been chatting to interesting people all day despite having barely looked up from my laptop. Which makes me sound like a bit of a nutter, I grant you.

I still haven’t spotted anyone reading my book on public transport though. When that happens you really know you’ve made it!

Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

I often write in libraries because I find it really easy to just focus and get stuff written there. In particular I regularly visit the British Library as it provides a wealth of historical documents from that period.

I also developed a bit of an odd writing habit during the 2012 Olympics when I was working on Dodger and I’ve kept it up. I would write the date, time and word count at the top of the page in my notebook before starting my morning’s work and then set myself three achievable goals for the day which I label Bronze, Silver and Gold. So the first goal might be to write another 1000 words and if I manage that I award myself with a Bronze. Then if I hit 2000 I might award myself with a Silver. A Gold would be for something like finishing a chapter. That way I can always look back on whatever I was writing that week and think “more bronzes than silvers this week. Must do better.” Or, “it’s been almost a fortnight since I last won Gold. I’m a disgrace to my country.”

I appreciate that admitting this makes me sound like even more of a nutter.

When did you realize that you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was young but I didn’t get proactive about it until about ten years ago. I saw a writing competition advertised in my local branch of Ottokars and sent them in a story. It was called “The Taster” and was told from the perspective of a eunuch slave in ancient Rome whose job it was to taste his master’s food first for poison. It was only 2000 words and in all honesty it was pretty lame but – amazingly – it won second place in the competition. That was a huge encouragement to continue so it goes to show that local competitions can really get the pen flowing. I remember being more excited by that win than I subsequently was about my three book publication deal and I think that’s because I hadn’t even known I could write up to that point.

What’s your opinion of historical fiction today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

MantelH-2-BringUpTheBodiesUKI never set out to be a historical novelist in particular and had I not thought of writing about the Artful Dodger I doubt that I ever would have become one. But I am a huge fan of the genre and there is something magical about the way a good historical novel can transport you backwards through time. When I started writing I was greatly inspired by I Claudius (as evidenced by “The Taster” above). I’m also a huge admirer of Hilary Mantel and am in complete awe of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies in particular. I’m also a big fan of the historical novelist Conn Iggulden who very kindly gave me a nice cover quote for Dodger.

That said, I’m not certain I’ll continue writing historical fiction myself once the Dodger books are finished. I’m keen to see what’ll happen to my writing once its placed in the modern world.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?

Yes, I’m halfway through writing Dodger of the Revolution, the third in the series of Dodger books, and it’s coming along very nicely indeed. In that, Jack ends up in Paris just in time for the June Days Uprising of 1848 and its been fun to completely remove him from the comforts of a city he knows well and place him in another where things are getting very dangerous. I’ve been taking a few research trips to Paris for that, although unfortunately Jack wasn’t able to travel by Eurostar like I’ve been doing.

What are you reading at the moment? (fiction,non-fiction?)

deTocqueville-Recollections-FrenchRevolutionOf1848As part of my research for Dodger of the Revolution I’ve been reading Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 by Alexis de Tocqueville, a historian and politician alive at the time who documented the uprising in some detail. That’s been a hugely helpful book although de Tocqueville was an establishment figure so on a very different side of the barricade than Dawkins inadvertently finds himself on.

I’ve also been reading Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert and The Red and the Black by Stendhal as they are both set in Paris around and during that period.

In fact, if any of your readers can recommend any other good written sources for what life was like on those dangerous Parisian streets of 1848 then do get in touch via Twitter.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I’m not quite the Dickens apologist that some people might expect me to be. Yes, he’s been a gigantic influence on me and I’ve relished playing with his characters but I do understand some of the misgivings that many people have about his work. He can be very sentimental, long-winded and there is some dodgy anti-semitic stuff in Oliver Twist. But of course what is great about Dickens – including all those immortal characters, the important social commentary and the sheer storytelling power – far outweighs what is bad.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

I can’t wait to see how Dodger of the Dials is received and I look forward to some feedback from readers. I’m also keen to finish Dodger of the Revolution although I strongly suspect that I’ll miss Jack Dawkins a great deal when it’s finally over.

Thank you.

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Dodger and Dodger of the Dials are published by Heron/Quercus Books.

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