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Your Favorite's Favorite: An interview with Ben Hobson on Gilead by Marilynne Robinson / Justin Lee

I've always been fascinated with influence and how or why something is someone's favorite thing. Many moons ago, I was a musician. A bass player if you want to get technical. One of the best bits of advice I was ever gifted about playing music I feel like can also be applied to writing (or really any creative endeavor).

That advice: "Learn from your favorite's favorite".

So, I decided to start interviewing some of my (and soon-to-be your) favorite authors about their favorite books. I'm no scholar and have never claimed to be one. So, I will not be getting too in-depth about the books we are discussing. I'm more interested in the books influence on the author.

First up: Ben Hobson. I first read Hobson's work all because of a Willy Vlautin blurb. Yes, blurbs do in fact sell books. That blurb got me to pick up Hobson's debut To Become a Whale. It's a story about fathers and sons and masculinity all told with a soft touch. That novel changed so many things for me. It changed me as a reader, it changed me as a writer, it changed me as a father. It's an all-timer.

After that, I picked up his follow-up: Snake Island. It's a gritty story centered around family and regret. Again, fathers and sons and masculinity are laid bare throughout the novel. Many people have rightly compared it to Animal Kingdom and No Country For Old Men. Still, that touch that I noticed in To Become a Whale was there. Which, in so some ways, showed me that you can write gritty stories without sacrificing heart.

His latest novel, The Death of John Lacey, is a western novel set in the goldfields of Ballarat. It's been compared to HBO's Deadwood and There Will Be Blood. Again, all those hallmarks I've grown to truly appreciate have found their way into this awesome gritty western story.

Ben Hobson is one of my absolute favorite writers. Read his books. And hey, enjoy this interview!


Justin Lee: Tell everyone about yourself. I know you have to answer this question a lot, but I want people to know more about you.

Ben Hobson: I’m a husband, a father to two boys, an Australian, a high-school teacher, a writer (three novels so far!), an interviewer, a podcaster, a musician, and I enjoy Nintendo and cooking quite a bit. I’m also a sensitive soul who gets hurt easily and who has learned resilience the hard way. Though I’m also not sure there’s any other way to learn the art of resilience.

JL: Listen: I have to geek on you a bit. I discovered your work because of a Willy Vlautin blurb. It led me to your debut, “To Become a Whale”. Since then, I've read everything you have written. Well, everything I can find (Your novella hasn't been published yet, right?). Two of the things that have come up in your work rather frequently are fatherhood and masculinity. Explorations of them. How they fail. We have talked about the, ‘I want to let my children know me but I don't even know myself’ genre before and I feel like this book is a pretty stellar example of what that type of story can do.

BH: Mate, so nice of you to say all this! It still astonishes me that people enjoy the things I create, so I’m not sure I’ll ever stop being grateful. Yes, the novella is still in the drawer, though there’s a lot of its bones in something new I’m currently working on…

And in all honesty, when I wrote To Become a Whale, I didn’t know what I was writing about, not deep down. It actually took feedback from a judge in a competition to point out to me that I was very interested in ideas of fatherhood, and in, I think, the very deep down core of a man being quite sensitive, and that being okay. All of this came out from my subconscious, as I was mostly focused on character, and story as I was writing it. But of course these things are interesting to me. I would say it’s probably the thing I think most about in this world. What is the role of the father in the shaping of their children? I’m not sure we, as a world, are at the point right now where we can really define an answer to that question. It’s a complicated one. On one hand I want to prepare my kids for everything the world will throw at them, so I need to train them, teach them, grow their resilience. But on the other hand, I want them to understand they are loved, and heard, and understood. I want them to know it’s okay to be weak. We need to be tough and soft all at the same time. It’s tricky. But there’s honour in the trying.

JL:: I guess to boil all that down I need to ask: Is this the book that opened that thematic door to your own storytelling?

BH: I still feel as though that door is being opened! But yes, it really was the book that made me feel as though I had something to say, and it was what I needed to do. For a long time, as I developed as a writer, I found myself sanding off all my rough edges, to try to appeal to people. I wrote books I hoped people would like, not books I found personally interesting. To Become a Whale was the first book I’d truly written in a way that was searching for answers that I didn’t even know I wanted. And I’ve written in that same vein ever since.

JL:: You've led me to some fantastic Australian authors. People like: Rob Sturrock, Sofie Laguna, Rohan Wilson, and Nikki Mottram. Is there anyone else you want to give a shout out to? What are you reading these days?

BH: That is a fantastic list, and I’m so glad. All those authors deserve a lot of attention! Australia has such an enormous wealth of great writers, it’s honestly tricky to know where to start! Personally, I’ve just finished reading a debut called What I Would Do To You, by Georgia Harper. It’s fantastic – set in a future Australia where the death penalty is reinstated, only the families of the victims have to execute the sentence on the perpetrator. They are locked in a room with them for a day and are allowed to do whatever they want to him. It’s a fantastic premise that is really thoughtfully rendered. If you can get a hold of it, you won’t be disappointed.

JL:: There is a large swath of Australian fiction that explores masculinity in some amazing ways. Most of which are told from some very unique angles. I'm thinking about the films The Boys and Animal Kingdom, the Mr. Inbetween series, and just so many books. Is that topic as widely discussed there as it is here? I hate to sound like such a layman, but I grew up around a certain ideal of what masculinity was. I never checked all of the macho boxes that fit the criteria and felt like such an outsider for it. It wasn't until I discovered some of that fiction that I realized I wasn't alone there. It's a big touchstone for me as a father, a reader, and a writer. Do you choose to tackle those themes or are they mainly incidental?

BH: Whether or not it’s discussed as a culture is an interesting one. I think there’s a pretty big pre-occupation currently with figuring out the role of masculinity in our modern day, and, as far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. The rise of figures like Andrew Tate show that young men are looking for this type of direction – here’s what it means to be a man, and here’s how you do it – and are sadly left with whoever of these figures rises to the top. Often times, because softness is not esteemed in our culture, these men are often these alpha-dog types, shut off from “emotional weakness” so that they can be tough, they can push forward and achieve “success”.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Emotional sensitivity, or even empathy, is so often perceived as weak, so that many modern men, who are kind-hearted and trying their best to make the world a better place for their children, aren’t as esteemed. But these men exist. And if I were a young man again, I would be seeking them out for their guidance and advice, and perhaps not be so quick to chase after internet figures.

I’m not sure if I necessarily decide to tackle these themes in my fiction, but I think I write in what many describe as quite a masculine way – stripped back, gritty, terse. I don’t aim to do this, but I am a man, so I guess that’s what happens.

JL:: Gilead is a unique book for many reasons, but one that has stuck out to me is the lack of negative reviews. Which is almost unheard of. But, the one ding I have read has been that some believe this book is sentimental. People say the same thing about most of Steinbeck's work as well and I've never understood it. People are sentimental about a great many things in their lives. What are your thoughts on sentimentality and what role should it play in fiction?

BH: Sentimentality I think is often used as a term to describe feelings in novels which aren’t earned. You can have a happy ending, or something happen to a character that perhaps wouldn’t happen in real life, if you’ve earned it, if it comes from a place of character. I think some our greatest books are deeply sentimental. I don’t see it as a negative. If a novel feels cheesy though – that’s a different story.

I heard an interview with Jon Favreau about his film Chef, where in the end his character is dancing with his ex-wife, having remarried her, and everybody is happy. He said his artistic credibility might take a ding for it, but he just liked feeling good about the ending. It’s okay to feel good about things! Not everything artistic needs to be necessarily dire.

I think maybe we are so conditioned in our world to question goodness that maybe novels are a great way to experience it. As long as it’s earned.

JL:: Ames is a unique character. He seems like such a good person, yet it seems like he's seeking redemption for something. There’s a line that has stayed with me ever since I read it. “Being blessed meant being bloodied”. To see grace you have to take some of the dents and dings of life. Do you think this is a redemption story? A confessional?

BH: I think it’s all of the above! It’s interesting though, isn’t it, that what he sees as his need for redemption came from such an understandable place. And it’s so quiet. I think we are all looking for redemption, deep down, for our lives. We want our lives to have meaning. And that’s what Ames is searching for.

JL:: What about this book bumped it to the top of the pile?

BH: I loved the voice of it especially. The opening is so beautiful, and really sets the stage for the tone of the story. You read that opening paragraph and you’ll be immersed immediately in the soft beauty of the story. I loved everything to do with the voice of it, the tone, and what it deals with – faith, loss, moral conflict, history. And yet it is still so personal. Our stories may seem small, but they certainly carry weight.

JL:: Is there something else about this book that you want to talk about?

BH: I just think people need to read it. I think a lot of people have. It’s a modern classic. This is one of those novels I think in eighty years may be discussed in the same vein as Lord of the Flies, or To Kill a Mockingbird. It is that good, and that significant.

JL:: What are some of your favorite books about fatherhood and masculinity?

BH: The bible. In all honesty, if you’re curious at all about the plight of masculinity, and all it entails, the bible is a great starting point. The stories in the old-testament of honourable men trying their best and failing. Of war, of love. Or Jesus in the new-testament, standing up for the woman about to stoned. Direct, calm, stern. There are so many complex ideas and stories in the bible, even for non-believers. I’d give it a read in that light, and I think you’d be amazed. Trying to be a good man, turns out, is something we’ve always been thinking about. It’s not a modern idea at all.

JL:: What are you working on now?

BH: I’ve just completed a draft of a new novel. It’s another historic novel, like The Death of John Lacey. It involves a family in the middle of nowhere Australia, who get taken hostage by bushrangers, who want to hold up a passing stagecoach full of wages for miners in the goldfields. The family fight back. It’s a siege novel, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to write for a long, long time, ever since I saw the film Green Room. There’s something so thrilling about it, and I’m hoping everybody falls in love with the family, who I think are some of the best characters I’ve ever written.

JL:: When are you going on a tour in America? I feel like you'd fit in with all of our grit-lit writers so well.

BH: Mate! Someone needs to invite me! I tell you, an American trip has been such a long-harboured dream of mine, probably since I first saw Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. One thing I deeply, deeply, want to experience before I die is American BBQ – I’ve been smoking briskets for a few years now on an offset smoker, but I want to visit the land that invented it, and taste it for myself. I don’t know if I’m doing well or not! I need to measure up.


BEN HOBSON is a teacher, and an author, based in Brisbane. To Become a Whale, his debut novel, was released in 2017. It was longlisted for the ABIA Debut Fiction award and shortlisted for the Courier-Mail's People's Choice Award. His second novel, Snake Island, a literary thriller, was released in 2019. He also runs Ben's Book Club, a monthly online book club for libraries, and often does in-person interviews with authors. The Death of John Lacey, an Australian Western, was released in 2023, and is his third novel.

JUSTIN LEE lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. His work has appeared in Punk Noir Magazine, The Airgonaut, Reckon Review, Mirrors Reflecting Shadows: An Anthology, Cowboy Jamboree, among others. He is currently at work on a novella titled, Out There In The Dark.


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