Benjamin Ludwig is the author of Ginny Moon, which was an Indie Next and Library Reads pick, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and one of Amazon.com’s 20 Best Books of 2017. It received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, BookPage, and Booklist. His novella, Sourdough, was the recipient of the 2013 Clay Reynolds Prize for the Novella. A former English teacher and new-teacher mentor, he holds an MAT in English education and an MFA in creative writing. He and his family live in New Hampshire.
“Narrative Creatures,” an Interview with Benjamin Ludwig
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Lian Ammerman. Of the process she said, “Benjamin Ludwig’s novel Ginny Moon is a great reflection of his passion of storytelling. It’s an emotionally charged novel of increasing intensity that always kept me on the edge of my seat. I loved learning more about his writing process, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to discuss his work.” In this interview, Benjamin Ludwig talks about making characters come to life, the act of storytelling, and human existence.
Superstition Review: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. Throughout the novel, each new chapter is titled with a specific time and date, which helped keep the timeline of the story clear. How did you decide to label the chapters this way? Did you try any other naming structures?
Benjamin Ludwig: The chapter headings are a function of Ginny’s need to know where she is in time. She’s a very anxious character, and needs to know where she is in terms of the day’s schedule. But in addition, she’s completely caught up in something that happened to her in the past, when she was nine years old. The time and date help keep her grounded in the present, so she doesn’t get swept back up into her memories.
SR: Ginny is a smart girl who almost seems more mature than the adults who surround her. Still, she is innocent and naive in some important ways. She tries desperately to get herself understood by the adults in the story, but they always end up telling her how they think she feels. What were some of the challenges with writing from Ginny’s point of view? Did the dichotomy within her character impact the way you wrote the other characters and events in the story?
BL: As a character, Ginny really came to life on the page. Her unique voice posed a lot of questions (Why is she so intense? Why is she so fixated on numbers? Why is she so concerned about food?) that informed the plot. What was difficult was undergoing all the anxiety and fear she experienced. Writers have to allow themselves to feel their characters’ emotions – and for me, that means letting the character get herself into difficult situations, without me agreeing to always save her. So the writing process was pretty harrowing, at times. It was challenging, I found, to have her be so dead-set on the “secret plan” she concocted, without letting her parents, teachers, and therapist disuade her. After all, what she sets out to do is completely dangerous. I had to make her intellectually capable of making and following through with the plan, but not so capable that she could actually pull it off. It was a fine line to tread, and I hope I did it successfully.
SR: Taking on Ginny’s emotions while writing must have taken a toll on you at times. How do you decompress after writing something that is especially taxing emotionally?
BL: Sometimes I think this thing we call writing isn’t really writing at all. It’s more a process of internalizing some very complicated situations and emotions, and somehow getting them on paper. A lot of the scenes in the book were so emotional for me that I just ended up crying, right then and there. And then taking a long break – or intending to take a long break, because often the scene occurred at a critical moment, and I knew I wouldn’t be all right until I knew Ginny was all right.
But I think that if it isn’t a scene that causes an all-out emotional event, I just need to take a walk. Maybe drink some wine, maybe sleep. Talking with people never helps me. I need to just do something that proves to me that everything is fine and perfectly normal.
SR: Ginny’s Forever Parents have a difficult time handling their emotions in response to Ginny’s behavior. They’re frustrated that Ginny doesn’t seem to be making progress in attaching to them, and that she doesn’t seem to be grateful for the things they do for her. You do a wonderful job of making sure the story keeps accelerating, and that each event that happens increases the conflict. Can you describe the process of creating these characters and the challenges that they have to face?
BL: For me, a story works best when the thing that one particular character wants or values is precisely the thing that has a negative impact on another. So when Ginny wants to communicate with her birth-mother, her adoptive parents’ privacy is threatened. And by trying to protect their newborn biological daughter, her Forever Parents render themselves unable to attend to Ginny’s needs. No one is purely selfish or selfless in this book; they’re all just very limited in different ways. In creating the characters, I tried to give each of them a quality that, when taken to an extreme, would create a conflict. That’s why Rick’s honesty in wanting to establish visitation rights for Ginny’s birth-mother causes such a stir, and that’s why Maura (Ginny’s Forever Mom) desire to be a good mother ends up dividing her own loyalties.
SR: I liked when you said you give different characters values that are directly and negatively related. What was your process like when creating each characters’ goals?
BL: I talk to myself on paper a lot. In fact, when I write a book I always work between two documents. One is the manuscript itself, and the other is a set of notes that ends up being at least as long the manuscript itself. But in that set of notes, I can make statements, and then question them. Like this: “Rick wants to open up the doors, so to speak, in the Moon household. He wants Gloria to have visitation rights. How will the Moons react to his suggestion and his openness? They’ll shut him out. The moment he tries to open the doors, they’ll shut the door on him.” When I think on paper I can be playful and dramatic. It lets me suggest things that won’t or can’t happen – but I don’t know they won’t or can’t happen until I say them.
SR: We see Ginny shift from being closer to her Forever Mom, Maura, in the beginning of the novel, to being closer to her Forever Dad, Brian, toward the middle and end. This is surprising, as Ginny is a little more wary of men toward the beginning. What precipitated this change? Could you discuss this progression?
BL: Ginny is very, very wary of men – and rightfully so, considering what she’s been through. She’s learned to trust women. But it’s a mistake on her part to assume that all women are somehow safe, or trustworthy. Ginny’s rigid thinking sets herself up for disappointment at every turn. It’s the point from which she learns and evolves, as a character. So when we first meet Ginny, she’s wary of her Forever Dad simply because he’s a man. But as Maura grows increasingly protective of Ginny’s newborn sister, Ginny is forced to turn to Brian for support and help. The two (Ginny and Brian) are equally surprised to find themselves in such a close relationship. I think that in my own experience, the strongest bonds I’ve formed with people have occurred in spite of my own preconceived ideas about the other person.
SR: It’s so interesting when we become close to people despite our preconceived ideas about them. How often do other little personal experiences or life lessons like this seep into your writing?
BL: Writers necessarily get caught up in the act of storytelling, so much so that they sometimes end up saying things on paper that they don’t even realize they believe. And that’s part of the joy – I often write from different perspectives, and then suddenly find myself saying, “You know, this make sense! It’s not a bad idea at all!” I’ve improved my own belief system, in this way. Writing is a self-reflective process. When we externalize ideas, instead of keeping them locked up in our heads, we can see how valuable or not valuable they truly are. Through writing – and this goes for any type of writing, I think – we become better versions of ourselves.
SR: One moment that stands out to me is when Ginny says, “It’s like I left the original me behind when I came to live with my new Forever Parents. With Brian and Maura Moon. My name is Ginny Moon now but there are still parts of the original left.” She seems stuck in a gray area where she doesn’t completely know who she is, and it seems that she’s trying to find her place. Is Ginny’s search for her identity part of the reason that she needed to find her baby sister? Can you talk more about why the theme of identity is important in telling this story?
BL: I think most of us can remember what it was like to be much younger than we are right now. Adults can often step, in turn, into their childhood selves, their adolescent selves, their teenage selves – and so human existence can sometimes feel like a hodgepodge, with different versions of our own selves surfacing and then falling back into the background again. We spent more time in the past then we have here, in this current moment, which is why (I think) the past sometimes seems particularly weighty. Ginny is searching for her sister, but you’re right, she’s also searching for who she used to be before she was adopted. One’s identity can haunt a person like a ghost, I think.
SR: In an interview with Shelf Awareness, you mention your love for stories and storytelling, which also drove you to become an English teacher. Your passion for literature and teaching really shines through. What sparked your interest in storytelling initially?
BL: Human beings are narrative creatures. We think and communicate in terms of stories. Our memories are stories, our experiences are stories – even our hope for the future exists as a story we hope to one day step into. Becoming aware that everything I knew and believed was a story (this happened at some point in my high school years, I’m pretty sure) gave me permission to take storytelling seriously. The idea that different versions of the same story can have different effects on a person made me want to teach. Ultimately, I believe that it’s the possibilities and constraints of the story a student tells herself about her own life that determine how far and in what direction she’ll travel.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
BL: I write in two places. In the morning before the kids are up, I write on the couch, with the woodstove burning, and the dogs sprawled out nearby. During the day, when everyone is at school or work, I write at the dining room table so that I can spread out all my notes, outlines, and papers. Most of my revision and planning takes place during the day because I can get to at all the things I need without worrying about waking up the rest of the family. My mornings, though, are for purely creative work.
SR: I love that you have a different space for creative work and revision. What types of notes do you take when revising and planning? Can you describe this process?
The notes I take when revising and planning usually take the form of printed manuscripts with line-edits. But I don’t make a single mark on a printed page until I’ve read the page out loud. My ears are much smarter than my eyes. I need to hear the rhythm of the sentences in order to catch parallels and contrasts between different ideas. Also, voice on the page is revealed through my own voice. I really can’t edit at all, without speaking either immediately before or during the process.