Ben Jonjak was born
in Wisconsin in 1975. After receiving a degree in English Literature
in 2001, he embarked on a diligent
quest to avoid any kind of real work in search of something rewarding
to do. Ben currently lives in Lima, where living is inexpensive
and writing in English is a treat. Ben's two novels are THIEF
and GLORIOUS FAILURE.
Pageonelit.com: Where did
you grow up and was reading and writing a part of your life?
Who were your earliest influences and why?
Ben Jonjak: I grew up in
Northern Wisconsin and I had pretty severe asthma so I was naturally
drawn to reading because I couldn´t run around very well.
I generally got terribly sick about twice a year to the point
where I´d end up spending about two weeks in bed. Reading
was about the only thing I could do to keep my sanity during
those illnesses so I read endlessly. It was never anything heavy,
just fantasy, Tolkien and such, about people who could run around
outside and not worry about their
ability to breathe. I liked Dumas about that time as well, ¨The
Three Musketeers¨ really cracks me up. You also can´t
beat ¨The Call of the Wild¨ by Jack London, I keep coming
back to that book, it´s the first book I remember reading.
Eventually I started to look forward to being sick so that I
could just sit and read without being bothered, I even faked
it a couple of times.
Pageonelit.com: Why did
you write THIEF? Where did this story come from?
Ben Jonjak: I write about
this pretty extensively in the prologue of the novel. I was vacationing
in Lima and I got robbed on a bus. Somebody distracted me while
another guy picked my pocket. It was just at the time I was starting
to feel comfortable in the city, and to have that happen was
a terrible blow. I felt so unwanted and vulnerable. It literally
kept me up at night for a few days. I got kind of agressive and
down this guy I thought was robbing a little kid, it turned out
the two of them were just horsing around, but I was really ready
to kill the guy. Anyway I decided that the only way I could get
rid of all my weird emotions was to understand the situation
fully. There is a lot of poverty in Peru and it is easy to see
the progression from begging child to adult thief. I simply decided
to think it through logically. At
first I really wanted to just make up a character and torture
him, but I felt a lot of pitty for my thief by the time I was
done. The book floats really close to reality, and once I saw
the other side I realized I really didn´t have anything
to be mad about anymore.
Pageonelit.com: Why Lima
as the setting?
Ben Jonjak: That´s
just where I was and where all the action is. Thief is a work
of fiction, but all the pieces are sitting out there in the streets
of Lima, all you have to do is go down there and take a look.
Ninety-nine percent of the people of Lima are wonderful and will
give you the shirt off their back if you ask for it, but there
are those that, justifiably so, get frustrated with all the poverty
and start to target dumb tourists like me. But even that little
danger shouldn´t be enough to put anybody off to going
there. The thieves are generally just petty and not violent.
And having them there brings the community together and makes
it more appreciative of good people. Once they know you, they
trust you completely. It isn´t like America where you can´t
even strike up a conversation with a stranger in Shop-ko without
them thinking you´re a mass murderer. And anyway, something
ironic that I didn´t think about until later, I´ve
lost more money to American police than I´ll ever loose
to the pickpockets of Lima.
Pageonelit.com: THIEF could/would
do well as a screenplay for film. Any thoughts on this?
Ben Jonjak: I don´t
think it would make a lot of money as a movie, I think it is
too psychological. You could put all the actual episodes in a
film, but without the thoughts of the characters I think it would
come across as too ugly and unsympathetic. But I guess it all
comes down to the director and the other people involved in making
the film. If I really put my mind to it I could get excited about
that type of project, but that would take quite a bit of energy.
Pageonelit.com: THIEF is
your second novel - Tell us about your first GLORIOUS FAILURE?
Ben Jonjak: I wrote "Glorious
Failure" when I was in college. I wanted to use it as my
senior project but they told me that since I was a literature
major and not creative
writing I had to do a literature-type final project. I was mostly
done by the time they told
me that so I just finished it up anyway. I´d always wanted
to write a book, and I was sick of being one of those people
who always says, "I´m going to write a book someday."
It is like anything else, running a marathon, learning another
language, finishing college, you just have to do it. The title
is meant to be secretly funny. I figured that I´d have
to write a bad book before I wrote a good one, "Glorious
Failure" is the inevitably shaky first step. I figured if
people told me they hated it I´d tell them that I knew
it all along, it is a glorious failure, the first inevitable
disaster before you reach success. But I´ve had mostly
positive responses from it so that´s been rewarding.
Pageonelit.com: Being an
experienced published author - What advice can you offer for
those writers who are working on their first book?
Ben Jonjak: Write lots and
don´t listen to anybody. Don´t try to be commercial,
don´t try to please anybody. If you do that you aren´t
telling the truth and that is the only important thing. You have
to tell what you truly feel even if deep down you know what you
truly feel isn´t right. Let that conflict drive your words.
Your readers might not know Dostoevsky from Danielle Steele,
but they´ll know if you aren´t being truthful. Even
if you´re confused and naive, if you´re truthful
your readers will recognize it from their own life experience
and have some affection for your work. Don´t let people
discourage you. Just stick to your idea, get it done and get
it out there. Don´t agonize over every little detail. A
book is a snapshot of who you are at the time you wrote it. Take
a writer like Dostoevsky, he really only ever worried about one
thing, but through all his works you can see how the same things
look filtered through the eyes of a twenty year old, thirty year
old, etc. But the most important thing is to just keep writing,
make it second nature, like brushing your teeth.
Pageonelit.com: What has
been your feedback from readers? What do they say to you about
their interpretations of your books?
Ben Jonjak: They tell me
I make them think and sometimes I make them uncomfortable. I
always get a word or two from pseudo-intellectual that gets hung-up
on some mechanical thing I do as if the rules of grammar are
absolute. The truth is that the English language is a pretty
crude tool, sometimes I have to do some foul things to it to
make it work for me. Those guys that get hung up on that miss
all the artistry and the point.
Pageonelit.com: Who are
your favorite writers and why?
Ben Jonjak: I like Dostoevsky
just because he stuck to the same problem for so long. There
is a letter from when he is 18 in which he states that he is
dedicating himself to the study of man. I was holding a copy
of "The Brothers Karamazov" and reading about that
letter from when he was 18 just about brought me to tears. Nobody
probably listened to him when he was 18, but they're listning
to him now. But their praise for him when he was an old man didn´t
do him any good when he was 18 and confused and dedicated. He
probably was pretty isolated and uncomfortable at that time,
and undoubtedly that situation hardened him and disciplined him
enough so that he could eventually write "Karamazov."
Pageonelit.com: What's next?
Ben Jonjak: I´m going
to continue to learn Spanish and about the culture in Peru. When
I´ve done that so that I´m satisfied I´m going
to move to France or Russia or Germany or maybe all three. I´ll
just teach English to the natives and pick up the language and
find some quiet place where I can write. I´d like to check
out something in Asia at sometime just to keep taking bigger
and bigger jumps. Maybe eventually I´ll be brave enough
to live with some truly primitive tribe somewhere. I might run
out of life before that happens though.
Pageonelit.com: What was
the last book you read?
Ben Jonjak: "The Catcher
in the Rye" I just finished it this morning. I read it straight
though in one sitting. That´s one of those books that a
person should have with them at all times. It means something
different every time.
Pageonelit.com: Do you have
any hobbies? What are they? How do they enhance your writing?
Ben Jonjak: Once I got my
asthma under control I started running and cross-country skiiing.
I think the fact that I couldn´t do much physical activity
when I was younger
helped me develop an appetite for physical fitness. I´ve
run a heap of marathons and without that I probably would have
never had the discipline to write a book. When you know that
marathon is coming you make yourself practice every day or you
know that you are really going
to hurt. Writing a book is an abstract test that you can avoid
forever if you want to. Running a marathon is like preparing
for a deadline. On some level, anybody whose run a marathon knows
what it is to write a book. But it is cross-country skiing that
I love the most. There isn´t a more elegant sport in the
world, there is no more beautiful place than out on the ski trails
in the winter in Wisconsin. And I also follow the Packers. I
can´t help it, I´m from Wisconsin and I love my team,
I know it doesn´t sound all that literary or intellectual
or whatever, but it is the truth, and like I said, you´ve
always gotta write the truth. Plus, we´ve got Favre, that
guy is a poet too.