In this deeply moving and personal account, Benjamin talks about his writing journey, his life experiences, and of course his new book
Firstly, thank you for taking the time to chat with us about your new book today. To begin with, I always like to get an introduction from the author, so would you kindly tell us a bit about yourself and let us into the wonderful world of Benjamin Alire Sáenz?
You’re very kind. I’m afraid the wonderful world of Benjamin Alire Saenz does not exist. The word tumultuous comes to mind. I have challenged myself in every possible way, but at least the word boring does not come to mind. You might say I’ve had several lives. I was once a Catholic priest. The word mistake comes to mind. After that I made a living as a waiter and felt that there was only one thing I wanted to be: a writer. I was thirty years old at the time. I had no Plan B. After eight years of living from paycheck to paycheck, I published my first book of poems and a collection of short stories. And I continued to live paycheck to paycheck.
I landed a job as a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at EI Paso where I taught for twenty-three years. That job offered me the opportunity to come back to live on the border of the United States and Mexico—a place that has always owned my heart. I was married to a woman for fifteen years and got a divorce after falling apart and spending some time in a therapeutic setting. Another mistake. My life is littered with mistakes. Somehow, I don’t regret making those mistakes. I was, at least, sincere in the decisions I’ve made. I came out as a gay man at the age of 54. There are very painful and personal reasons why it took me so long to arrive at the word gay. The word abuse comes to mind. I came out rather publicly by writing two books which could have only been written by a gay man, Everything Begins and Ends with the Kentucky Club (for which I was awarded the PEN Faulkner Award for fiction) and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—a book that became famous and dragged me along for the ride.
I managed to become a rather prolific writer, even a respected author and poet—and I had also started a dangerous affair with mood altering substances. The term drug addict comes to mind. The fact that I survived my own self-destructive tendencies is a testament to the fact that the universe had other plans for me. What word would I use to describe my life? The term risk averse does not come to mind. The words fearless and curious and wonderous—these words come to mind. The real word is miraculous. At times, If I have been careless with my life, I have somehow managed to be careful with words. And I have, at last, discovered who I am. The word writer comes to mind. Writer is not what I do, it is who I am. I hope you do not regret asking this question.
Mentioning one wonderful world, let’s move on to the next, the world of Aristotle and Dante. I’m a huge fan of ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe' and I know others who are huge fans too! Could you tell us a little about this wonderful pair and their glorious story together?
Ari was born from the self-doubting-troubled-overthinking-everything part of me. Dante comes from the poet-artist in me, the seems-to-belong-everywhere-he-goes part of me. I wanted to write some kind of coming-of-age story that was completely different from mine, perhaps a coming out story that wasn’t as sad or painful as mine. In short, my own story as I wish it had been. I loved writing these characters. I felt incredibly vulnerable bringing them into existence. There are many who insist the book has no plot. I beg to differ. The book was about how simple and complicated it is for two boys to realize that they have fallen in love with each other. The plot is their journey. I loved creating their journey. I found it painful and beautiful and innocent and tender. I hoped others would find that innocence and tenderness still mattered. And, anyway, I didn’t think a lot of people were going to read that book. The book sold exactly 11 copies in its first week. Not exactly promising.
Their second adventure is now out and is titled ‘Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World’, could you introduce this new book to us?
I do not view the book as a sequel. I view it as book that finishes what I started. The book begins exactly where it left off. But while the first book looked inward and examined the emotions of two boys and their parents, the second book looks outward at the world the two boys inhabit. And that is crucial to understanding what it meant for two boys to be in love in that particular era. This was the age of AIDS and that crucial political and social environment had a profound effect on any gay man who fell in love in that era. I left that out of the first book. Shame on me. AIDS took away a mentor, my older brother, and one of my closest friends. Shame on me. Young people should know about that era and what it meant for queer people because it ushered in the modern-day movement for gay liberation. Love stories do not happen in a cultural or societal vacuum. And the young members of the LGBTQ+ community deserve to know their history.
These books have been released 9 years apart and I know many people have been eagerly awaiting the next chapter in Aristotle and Dante’s journeys. How does it feel to have so many people eager to hear what’s next, the dedication of the fan base must be so important?
The dedication of the fan base becomes extremely important. Because it was those very readers who made the first book such a huge success. It’s an odd thing for a book of mine to be eagerly awaited. Nothing I have written has ever been long awaited—eagerly or otherwise. I don’t particularly like the limelight. I’m a different man than I was ten years ago. I don’t particularly feel that I’m all that admirable of a person. And I’m a little embarrassed to find that many young people admire me. I’m sure most of them would be disappointed if we met. I dislike celebrity culture and I wish there was a way to talk about the book without me being involved in the discussion. And thinking about the expectations of my readers was paralyzing. Only when I was able to shut out the expectations of my readers was able to write a book that I wanted—and needed—to write. I’ll be honest, I write for the most selfish of reasons. I write to survive. I write to remain sane. I write because not to write is to die. I write as if everything depends on what I’m writing. So, I did that very thing with this book. All of these things in mind, I am profoundly grateful for the readership I have.
I know someone who is a HUGE fan of yours and I wanted to give them the chance to ask you a few questions, so they’ve asked “When and how did you realise Ari and Dante’s story wasn’t finished and how did it feel to dive back into writing their story?”
I realized the story wasn’t finished when I heard Lin-Manuel Miranda read my own story back to me. I had just finished reading an article on the internet about the AIDS quilt and that had thrown me back to Ari and Dante. I had a moment of panic: oh no, how could I have published a novel with such a huge omission? I knew I had to get back into that story and finish it. Nobody is interested in publishing a sequel to a book that didn’t sell regardless of its literary merits and regardless of what the author feels. I never dreamed that the story of Ari and Dante would find such a large audience. In fact, I had all but forgotten that my own book existed. My mother died on the day of its publication. Her death devastated me, and I was living in a grief that was surprisingly painful. I felt myself to be a broken man and the hurt that lived in me very nearly brought my life to a standstill. I began to ease my sorrow with mood altering substances. It was one of the darkest chapters of my life. Ari and Dante sold eleven copies in the first week of its publication—and it was only the awards given to Ari and Dante by the American Librarians Association that saved my book from being entirely forgotten. But the fact that I felt that nobody was going to read my book did not deter me from writing it. I’m not known for being a practical person. And I did hold out a faint hope that the book would mean something to the readers who discovered its existence. I needed to write Ari and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe just as I found it necessary to write its sequel. That is what writers do, they write the books they feel they must write.
After such a long time between books, did the characters ever feel like strangers once you got back into writing about them?
Not at all. They were all old friends. Whatever difficulties I had in writing the novel, discovering who my characters were was not the problem. I knew them intimately and loved them. It’s so weird to say that because they’re not real. But they were and are real to me. And they’re real to a lot of young people out there.
Which parts of the two books bring you the most joy, do you have any highlight moments throughout both instalments?
The scene where Dante gives Ari a sponge bath in the first novel is a passage that was a highlight moment for me. And the scene when Ari wakes up in the hospital. And the scenes where Ari is so angry that he goes looking for the boys who hurt Dante—those were important scenes for me. And the conversations between Ari and his mother. Those were incredibly easy to write—perhaps because they were scenes that reminded me of my own relationship to my mother. They were also scenes that made me cry. Liliana is so very much like my own mother.
And finally, there may be a lot of young and aspiring writers out there who will read this interview, do you have any advice for younger writers out there who want to follow in your footsteps?
If you want to be a writer, then be a writer. A little self-doubt is a good thing. It means you have humility and without that quality, your writing can’t be any good. Understand who you are—that’s where your writing comes from. Your writing will be informed with your virtues and your flaws—that is the good news and that is the bad news. You must have desire and discipline in spades. If you do not have a burning desire to write, your writing will have no heart. And without the discipline to articulate that desire on the page, you will never be able to finish a piece of writing that is worth the paper it’s written on. And don’t forget to discipline your anger—and don’t deny that it is there. And remember, too, that anger comes from hurt, from your pain. Go to the place of the pain.
Be fearless. Never be afraid to be vulnerable on the page. You will know you are on the right path when you feel your heart struggling against itself. Don’t be afraid of failure. Failure will be your friend for a few years—maybe for many years. But don’t romanticize about your failures either. I said make failure your friend—don’t make it your lover. Learn to enjoy your own company. If you are addicted to hating yourself, go see a therapist. Don’t be afraid of therapists. We are all a little crazy. Bring along a sense of humour, a sense of gratitude, and fall in love with coffee. Collect friends who are decent and engaged with the world. Friends are not like your family—they are your family. As lonely as writing can be, never think for a minute that you do this alone. Hold on to some sense of humility for all that you are worth. That humility will save you from your worst instincts and will save your career if you’re lucky enough to have one. Never let go of the people you love. Don’t pick up smoking, and leave mood altering at the door when you enter the space where you write. Mood altering substances do not give you deeper insights into the human condition and they do not give you superpowers. I speak from experience.
If success comes your way, don’t get cocky. In this business, success can leave as suddenly as it came. Listen to your editors. They’re on your side. They may not always be right—but you’re not always right either. Having talent doesn’t make you a god, and it doesn’t make you a superior being. Admit that if you had been born with a good voice, you would have become a singer. Remember that just because you wrote a book does not entitle you to an audience. An audience is earned. Respect your readers. Be aware that some of them are crazy. Respect the crazy ones too. Being a writer is to hold an office that is holy, and it is your duty to hold that office with as much dignity as you can manage. Learn to listen to the rhythms and the language that you write in and love that language. It is your only tool. Someday, you may yet learn to speak the language of hope, the language of pain, and the language of the rain.
Thank you so much to Benjamin for opening up to us about his journey, and sharing stories to help other writers. Make sure to follow Benjamin on Twitter to keep up to date with his news, and check out 'Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World' here.