TEARAWAY Maverick THOMAS STEVENSON interviews Ben Atkins, the 20-year-old author who’s just released his novel, Drowning City.
While reading Drowning City, hot off the press from Random House, one notices a few things about the author. His style shows a high level of maturity, with wit and grit in good amounts. His characters and setting are shadowed in every sense of the word. Throughout the novel is an ever-present web of complex political, social and economic threads, woven together in a way only well-versed historians could manage. This makes it all the more surprising when one sees the ‘About the Author’ page and discovers that Ben Atkins, the man who crafted all this, is barely beyond his teen years.
Ben turned 20 in February and is currently a Political Studies and Media Studies student at Auckland University. He was only 17 years old when he completed the first draft of Drowning City. At that time he was a keen History student at high school, with a particular interest in the Great Depression and how it affected American society. Having his novel take place in this period was a logical choice.
Fontana is the protagonist; a bootlegger with a reserved personality and a life of crime. One evening, he finds his business under threat and the crazy circumstances of the time result in a perilous search through the city.
Nowhere in this noir-style thriller does Ben mention the name of Fontana’s home city, rather he lets the reader work it out as the story progresses. “It’s much more interesting,” he says, “to see how things can play out without becoming attached to a very specific place.”
So rather than having readers focus on unnecessary details, Ben brings the political extremism and social crises into attention. Through the array of people Fontana meets, one sees a world completely different to modern NZ, but we can still believe this place and time existed. The author has put in a phenomenal amount of time, in and out of school, doing the research to make this happen.
“I started writing seriously when I was at intermediate,” he explains. “My English teacher was a barrel of laughs and I really enjoyed the subject.” Before Drowning City, Ben built up his skills by writing short stories, but never had his work published. This makes his early success with critics even more impressive. “It still feels a bit surreal.” he says.
Never did Ben feel his age was getting in the way of his novel. “My honest belief is that anyone who can commit to it can write a novel. But if you don’t give it a go, you’ll never do it at all.” However young you are, as long as you’re prepared to put aside some time for the job, you can do it. Believe in yourself!
As for the future, there isn’t much chance of a sequel. “That’s something I only thought about very briefly,” Ben explains. Instead, he plans to nurture his growing interest in screenwriting and film. He’s already planning to make a short film or a series of short films, perhaps with a more local flavour, after the heavy American-ness of this novel.
Whatever he gets up to, Ben is certainly somebody to watch and is making his mark as an author. Drowning City is an awesome read and definitely deserves to be called a thriller. It also provides a superb insight into that dark part of US history which both fascinates and disturbs people around the world.
Drowning City is out now. Keep an eye out for it in your local bookstore or online!
Three out of three stars.