An introduction to Richard James Bentley, author of the novel Greenbeard (Exterminating Angel Press, 2013). Before writing fiction, Bentley was a technical writer, so it isn’t a surprise that he collects mechanical adding machines and dictionaries. When asked how his experience writing technical manuals influenced the way he approaches storytelling, he answered:
The written word has always been part of my environment, and the narrative always part of my internal landscape, which is to say that my head has always been filled with stories. In the end, I suspect, everything is defined by narratives. When I worked as a technical author, trying to pick engineers’ brains for the information that I needed to do my job, one of the psychological tricks I used was to get the guys to reminisce about the history of the project. Then, instead of a grunted list of facts and a bundle of paperwork thrust at me, I would instead get a coherent account of how the project had come to be its current state. A narrative. A story.
Quick Facts on Richard James Bentley
- Greenbeard online
- Home: A small village in the north of England.
- Comfort food: Haggis, neeps, and bashed tatties.
- Top reads: There’s so many authors whom I like, but these ‘oldies’ should not be forgotten: Rafael Sabatini, Olivia Manning, John Masters, and these ‘moderns’: China Mieville, Neal Stephenson.
- Current reads: Tunny by Chris Berry
What are you working on at the moment?
I don’t discuss work in progress, but I will say that I tend to work chaotically on several projects at once. I have a novel that I’ve been researching for over a decade, but every time I think the research is finished I will find some information that means I have to re-think the whole thing over again from scratch. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the wretched thing done.
Where did the idea come from for Greenbeard?
The inspiration came from an email exchange. I jokingly mocked an Italian art fan-mag, saying it was no good because it was all in Italian, and a fellow threatened me with a capricciamento, which is a scary form of execution practised by the Calabrian N’Dragheta. I employed humour to defuse the situation, claiming that my ancestors were all critics so I had a family reputation to uphold. To add verisimilitude, I invented a few ancestors, and one of them was Captain Sylvestre de Greybagges, who wrote critical articles on piratical affairs. And there he was.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
“Fun is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
I hope that readers will find the novel amusing, and fun. Fun is what it’s all about, isn’t it? There’s not a lot of fun around at the moment, so I’m just doing my bit to make more.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
You have to find the Well of Hippocrene, but each time you visit there you must go by a different path. Hip young writers would say they “get in the zone,” but those old Greeks had been there already, and gave it a different name.
Do you listen to anything while you write?
Sometimes, but usually not when actually writing. I often listen to music when I am just sitting in an armchair thinking (which is a vital part of writing, too, even if one falls asleep doing it). Sibelius’s Finlandia Suite was very helpful when I was writing the last two chapters of Greenbeard (it’s so spacious), but getting shit-faced drunk on rough cider and doing air-guitar to ear-splitting rock music can also be very stimulating to the creative faculties, if the stars are correctly aligned and the wind is in the right quarter.
It’s been said writers can do their work from any place, where would you most want to live and write?
I could write a novel that would shake Planet Earth so hard that its magma would fizz up like soda pop, if only I were able to live in a suite at the Plaza and could charge all my restaurant bills. (I only say this, of course, in case the Guggenheim Foundation reads this and has some cash to spend before the end of the financial year, because under those circumstances I probably would not write a thing except occasional articles upon Havana cigars, vintage wines or sports cars.)
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
No, not really. The desire to beguile and ensorcel the reader is a given, of course, but that’s hardly a philosophy.
How do you balance content with form? How does the structure of the book influence the story?
Not fair, that’s two questions! Q1: I won’t, and you can’t make me! Q2: It doesn’t, unless you make it loose-leaf, as all stories have the same structure; a beginning, a middle, and an end.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
Getting one’s friends to read what one has written, and then getting them to make comments and criticisms that are actually useful. One needs feedback.
“One needs feedback.“
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
There’s a tale that an alcoholic writer was once hired to teach creative writing at a college. On the first day he arrived completely blootered, clambered up to the rostrum and stared at his class through blood-shot eyes. “You stupid arseholes!” he screamed, “what are you doing here? If you want to write, just fucking write! Jesus!” Then he passed out and fell over. It is said that all of the students in that class wrote novels which were published to great acclaim, except for the class dunce, who became the poet laureate of Kazakhstan.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write all your best ideas down on a single sheet of paper, then send it to me so that I can ‘advise’ you which ones are worth proceeding with.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
“You tell them that you are going to tell them, then you tell them, then you tell them that you’ve told them.” Mind you, that was advice on writing manuals on computer-programming languages.
Greenbeard is your first novel, so what surprised you about the writing process?
It’s my first novel, but not by any means my first book, so the surprises were subtle ones and not easily described. “It will all take much longer than you think,” is the lesson we all have to learn again and again.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
“Just living one’s life is an art form.”
I like to live. Just living one’s life is an art form, and an art form that is being forgotten, it seems, as the world rushes from one ersatz pleasure to the next, their zombie-hunger for new sensations blocking them from feeling any actual sensations of pleasure. We must enjoy life. It must be fun, or what’s the point of it all, eh?
About Richard James Bentley
Richard James Bentley, who happens to look the part of a salty English sea captain, has trodden many paths and worn many hats. From his early work as a dealer in dodgy motorcars, he progressed to being a design engineer on a zeppelin project. Computers then caught his attention and he authored a number of incomprehensible technical manuals before turning to fiction. He has lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands and now spins yarns in the north of England. Greenbeard is his first novel.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Richard James Bentley.” Words With Writers (June 7, 2013), https://wordswithwriters.com/2013/06/07/richard-james-bentley.]