Tony Bender: 10 Q&A with Tony

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10 Q&A with Tony

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Q: I’m confused. Your new novel, The Last Ghost Dancer, has  alternately been described as both your first and second novel. Which  is it?

A: Both. It was the first novel I wrote but it was my third novel, If Every Month Were June, that was published first. By the time I had written my third novel, I had fine-tuned my method. When I sat down to write The Last Ghost Dancer, I really didn’t know what the story would be. I just let it happen… stream of consciousness. I sensed that it was only about 90 percent "there," but I had this illusion that some enlightened publisher would hook me up with a genius editor and help me fine-tune the book. Of course, the industry doesn’t work like that anymore. You have to figure it out on your own! Even so, one of the first publishers we sent the book to responded enthusiastically. The editorial board loved it. It would almost certainly be published! However, it was abandoned at the altar by the publisher, who I think understood that the first incarnation of the book did not live up to its ambitions. As disappointing as that was, it gave me the time to get it right. Novel writing is like a college education, and after three of them, I had the skills to turn Ghost Dancer into the book it was destined to be. When we sent it off to Thomas Dunne, he loved it. It took seven edits, though.

Q: Seven edits? Really?

A: Really. There was one rewrite and some major overhauls. I took a couple lessons from other writers. Mark Twain, my favorite author, said that a writer must be willing "to kill his darlings." By that he meant you have to be willing to edit out prose that is near and dear to you if it will make the whole of the story better. I had a hard time killing my darlings at first, but after a while I became ruthless as a serial killer and edited out about 80 pages. Suddenly, the story became the one I had intended to write. Often less is more. On the other hand, a writer I know told me to be true to the writer I was when I wrote the book so I was careful not to lose the dreamlike voice of the book.   

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have two novels brewing—one action/adventure and the other  comedic—and several screenplays. I haven't decided which novel to  write first. I'm leaning toward comedy. I'll keep writing  screenplays, too. I really like the format. I write in a very visual  manner, so creating a movie in my head comes naturally. And I really  like to write snappy dialogue. I think screenwriting has given me  some skills that I can apply to novel writing.

As the publisher of two newspapers, where do you find the time to write?

A: It's a challenge. It's hard to go to the office when I am on a  roll on a novel. But I've discovered that the interaction with the  community stimulates me as a writer. Where would my ideas come from  if I didn't mix it up out there in the real world?

Q: What motivates you to write?

A: I suppose it's the same reason everyone has. Everyone says they are going to write a book someday, because everyone has something  they want to say. We all want to be heard. We all want to be  remembered ... appreciated. I think many people are  frustrated rock  stars and frustrated authors. I find most of the rewards to be  personal. The other day my daughter, India, who is 9, was reading  something at my desk. "Who wrote this?" she asked. "I did," I  answered. "It's beautiful," she said. The admiration in her voice  alone was worth it. My kids are only now getting interested in what I  do. Someday I'll be gone, but they'll still find my voice in my books and columns and they will discover a whole lot about their old man  they didn't know. The Redhead, on the other hand, does not dispense  compliments often. I believe there is a conspiracy in my family to  keep my ego in check, but I suppose I perform better under those  circumstances than with a bunch of sycophants.

Q: You've said The Last Ghost Dancer was a book you were driven to  write. What did you mean by that?

A: Growing up in Frederick, SD, I was part of a very tight clique of  friends—people who are very dear to me even today. They were  convinced that I would be a writer some day, and that some day I  would write about them. One of my great goals in life was to have  this book published.

Q: So is Ghost Dancer a memoir?

A: Not really, but the tone of the times and the relationships is real. I was certainly inspired by those around me. Some characters are composites of more than one person. I used some of the names and nicknames of some people I have known as an homage, even though the characters may not bear any resemblance to the people in the book. When I was young, I spent a lot of time fishing at the river with an old Finlander who spoke no English. I planned to make that character a black man, based on a man who lived in Frederick long before I was born named (with no malice intended) Nigger Ben. But I didn’t think anyone would believe the truth so I made the spiritual center of the book Joe Big Cloud. No doubt some will dissect and psychoanalyze the book, but some things are best left unrevealed. Some of it is drawn from real events. In the end, this book was written to honor my friends and to capture a sense of the times in which we lived. The strength of our friendships and our loyalty to each other is a prominent theme.

Q: Different reviewers have described this book as "coming-of-age", a  "spiritual journey" and a "mystery." Who's right?

A: All of them. I've discovered as a writer that what I thought I was saying is not always what readers were hearing. Novels can have all kinds of layers, some subconscious and unintended. The wonderful thing about a novel is it allows the reader to create the pictures in their own mind. I can create the landscape, but I can't tell the reader where to look, nor should I presume to do so. I must say I was surprised when the book was described as a mystery, but you know what—many of people in the book are mysterious. Most people run deeper than what is apparent on the surface. I find others often do a better job of describing my work than I do.

Q: Both of your published novels have surprise endings. Did you plan  them that way?

A: With If Every Month Were June, I did plan the ending, but in Ghost Dancer, the ending came as a surprise to even me. I had written it one way, but in one of the final edits, I realized the characters were leading another direction. One of the intriguing things about writing a novel is that once you have created a character, you must be true to their nature. So the "whodunnit" changed. 

Both of your novels have been optioned for movies. What's the status?

A: Well, both projects are in the hands of first rate producers.  Getting a movie made is a lot like watching a duck swimming on a  pond. There doesn't seem to be anything going on on the surface, but  underneath, things are churning away. Financing is everything. You  don't have the money until you have the money. One thing I have  learned is that the odds don't mean a thing. Tens of thousands of  novels are written each year but only a few get published. It took a  while, but it happened for me. We've got really good scripts and  really good stories. It's just a matter of time before the doors  open. You just have to keep knocking. My father, who was stingy with  compliments—probably because I always cocky—once remarked to a friend  of mine, "One thing about Tony. If he says he's going to do it, he  does it." My wife told my kids the same thing one day, so it must be  true. Everything I have accomplished has been the result of years of  work. In 1990, I sat down to write a book and realized how woefully  unprepared I was, so I created a syndicated newspaper column to force  me to write creatively once a week. After 10 years and some 500  columns, I tackled The Last Ghost Dancer, and nearly a decade after  that, the book was born. Twenty years is a long gestation period. In  contrast, I wrote If Every Month Were June in six months, so it gets  easier. So if we can just get one movie made ...