Michele Hewitson interview: Ben Sanders

By Michele Hewitson

Funny, bossy 23-year-old crime writer and engineer has firm ideas on how he wants to be portrayed

Ben Sanders, who writes for a hobby, has just published his 3rd Sean Devereaux and John Hale crime novel. Photo / Natalie Slade
Ben Sanders, who writes for a hobby, has just published his 3rd Sean Devereaux and John Hale crime novel. Photo / Natalie Slade

Ben Sanders, crime writer and structural engineer, 23 years old, six foot two and a half, wearing a hoodie and sneakers, short spiky blond hair, an unlived-in face, on the lawn a dog called Wanda (or, more commonly, "Wandy Woo") refusing to sit still for the photographer, strange colonies of what appear to be hair in the garden. These might be a clue to ... something. It turns out to be fluff from the vacuum cleaner. Why would anyone put vacuum cleaner fluff on a garden? I'd say this was a strange thing to do but I am not allowed to use the word strange.

A completely normal scene then. Torbay, a quiet street, a lived-in house, mid-week, early afternoon. In the writer's room: a casually made single bed, a small desk and a computer, bookshelves full of crime novels. Later, in the lounge: a double bed head against a wall, the dog licking my piece of chocolate cake, a mug containing approximately a thimbleful of plunger coffee, piles of books. Some of them written by Sanders. In short, sharp, often funny sentences. A bit like that one, except, obviously, funny.

But I can't keep this up. I was really only doing it to annoy him but no doubt, all I'll have succeeded in doing is reminding him how good he is at his short, sharp, often funny sentences. Why would I want to annoy him?

Because he is 23, writes for a hobby, if a serious one, and has recently published his third very good Sean Devereaux and John Hale crime novel. That is fairly annoying. He is really quite annoying in other ways, too. He is very smart - he was top of Long Bay College in his sixth-form year - very funny and bossy, not just for a 23-year-old, but for anyone.

He gave me what would amount to a longish list of things I was and wasn't allowed to do. The first was that the dog had to be in the photograph. He thinks this would be funny. "What are the chances of a failed blind dog ending up on the back page of the Herald? The chances are vanishingly remote. It warrants a chuckle."

Why did she fail as a blind dog? "She doesn't talk about it."

I am to mention the chocolate cake which he made and which is "sublime".

I am not to say he is strange because he is completely normal, except for his deviant imagination, and he doesn't want John Key to be reading this with toast crumbs on the page and thinking: "Who's this?" And then reading it and being like: "Oh, he's strange. I don't need to read it." What an imagination he has.

I got thoroughly told off for idly opening one of the copies of his book (which he handily provided a pile of, for a photograph; I should say he did ask whether this flagrant piece of self-promotion would be okay. But you try stopping him.) I was not to open his books because I would crease the spine. It's a book. What would happen if I creased the spine? "Well, nothing. But I'd put it back on the shelf and people would come and be like: 'Look, there's 12 books and 11 of them are pristine and one's got a crease and people would notice that."' I didn't think people would notice any such thing. "I would. I like my books to be in excellently mint condition."

Also, could I please "reiterate" my review of his latest book, Only the Dead, which concluded: "Ben Sanders: Bloody good."

Oh, all right. Because he is. He sent me an email saying: "It's the first review I've had that has both made my day and cracked me up." So, intrigued, I emailed back to ask for an interview. He said, when we arrived: "What I liked about your review was that I didn't know how it was going to end. I was on the edge of my seat." And: "I'm so glad I sent that email!"

He doesn't need a publicist.

He lives here in Torbay with his parents, whom he loves, and his two brothers, ditto, and the dog. He has just moved home after going flatting for a year. He came home because he missed, probably in this order: the dog, his parents and "coming home to a nice cooked meal". Why did he leave in the first place? "Because I thought: 'I'm not going to miss the dog, my parents and coming home to a nice cooked meal."'

I asked what number child he is and he said: "No 1." He paused and then said, helpfully, as if explaining to an imbecile: "The oldest."

He has never had a girlfriend, or even a date. Or so he says. He is given to story telling, of course, and to flights of fancy, in conversation. Pretending he'd never had a girlfriend would be the opposite of a flight of fancy for a 23-year-old so I'm prepared to believe him. I thought perhaps that was the wrong question and that he might be gay, but, no: "I'm as straight as an arrow. I write books. I don't do social skills." He hardly meets girls because he doesn't go out much. "I suppose that's part of the problem."

The bed head is in the living room because he bought it to go flatting. He thought if he got a double bed "it's bound to be occupied by a plus one, but as it turned out, it wasn't. And then there was the small issue of what to do with it when I came home".

He says he assumes he'll fathom the mystery of girls one day, in the same way he cracked writing a novel. "We'll see what happens. But, anyway, life can't be perfect."

And one day, he said, spiralling off gleefully into one of his flights of fancy, he'll hire a private investigator to go back and: "Look, here's a list of women I could not woo. What I need you to do is review it to the roots. Go back to those early days and find out what went wrong and compile a definitive list." I wouldn't put it past him; he could get a novel out of it.

I thought he must get fan letters from girls but he's never seen one. "I'm hoping that somewhere at HarperCollins (his publishers) there's a drawer that is absolutely stuffed with fan mail from girls. Really good-looking ones and of course they have attached a photo for ease of selection." When does he think he might receive all of these letters? "Oh, I guess that will come with my next royalties payment."

Oh, he does, does he? See how annoying he is? I'll just stress again that he is 23, and add that he had his first book published when he was 20. How would you like to sit in a lounge in Torbay with a 23 year-old who casually inserts the phrase "my next royalties payment" into a sentence?

I said, to be nasty, that I bet that Lee Child - whom he read obsessively when he was 14 because Child writes books which are every young male's fantasy - girls, guns, fights he always wins - gets a lot of hot fan mail. "Do you reckon? Maybe I should take up smoking and hard drinking."

He has been a Type 1 diabetic since he was 7, so this is unlikely. "Drinking and diabetes don't really get on very well. I have a beer with dinner and maybe, if I'm feeling really wild, I might have two beers." He occasionally goes to parties, "but it's not a regular thing. I think, you know, I've been pretty shy and I enjoy my own company. I'm happy writing books and catching up with friends every now and then. But I think diabetes is probably part of that. I've never stayed out all night, after a huge night, and woke up thinking: 'Shit. What happened last night?' It's always, like: 'It's 10.30pm. Time to get home and pop the kettle on and get a bit of reading in before I go to sleep."'

He goes to his sensible, grown-up job then comes home, walks the dog and writes, most evenings and in the weekends. He has always wanted to be a novelist but he is too sensible, or "not brave enough" to try it full time, yet. He thinks he might try another genre at some stage. I said he'd have to do a J.K. Rowling and publish under a pseudonym. "I can publish it under J.K. Rowling."

He has never hankered for a wilder life. "No. Shit no. I don't aspire to live like a Bret Easton Ellis novel."

He popped the kettle on when we arrived and made two cups of coffee, for me and the photographer. He miscalculated the amount of water and so did himself out of a cup. I said we could share and he looked horrified. I didn't mean that we'd share as in out of the same cup? I certainly did not. He could pour half of it into his own cup - which is how I ended up with a thimbleful of coffee; he did rather better out of the deal. He sighed and said: "I feel like I'm going to pay dearly for the coffee."

The next day he emailed to say: "I'm pretty cut up about that coffee. Thank Christ it wasn't a date."

Imagine going on a date with him! What would it be like? Challenging, for one thing. Another of his many instructions was that I wasn't to write about him as though he was a character. I said I could write about him however I chose to. He said he could write about me too. "You could be in one of my books. You could be in book four. Depending on how well your write-up goes will determine whether you're victim or witness."

I can't wait to read it. And I'd really like to interview him again when he's 33 to see whether he's become properly grown-up. I do hope not. If I was writing about him as a character, I'd say he is an intriguing mix of a sensible, logically minded engineer who could as well be 53, and a winsome kid of the kind you'd want to throttle if he didn't make you laugh so much.

- NZ Herald

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