[Go to June Gillam’s webpage http://www.junegillam.com to see her edited interview with me. June is a published novelist and the Secretary for the San Joaquin Valley branch of the California Writers Club. Below is my full submission to her for the interview.]
JUNE GILLAM INTERVIEWS AUTHOR BEN LEITER
Ben Leiter is the author of four previously published books, available on Amazon and Kindle:
CITY MANAGEMENT SNAPSHOTS: ON THE RUN—an illustrated memoir of his city management career across the country chronicling true tales of murder, suicide, political betrayals, a communist spy, and a monkey on the loose represented by Gloria Allred.
BABY BOOMERS’ LOVE-BETRAYAL—a sardonic, romance-noir exploring the love practices of the boomer generation. Will the protagonist, Bill Peters, find the holy grail of true romance?
GOD’S BETRAYAL: THE CREDO—a political-religious thriller. A young Father Gabriel Garza stumbles through blood soaked Vatican archives. He now possesses explosive religious and political files from his mysterious thesis advisor. His master’s thesis could precipitate The Second Reformation. Someone has placed him on The Watch List.
BETRAYAL OF FATHER GARZA—a political-religious thriller. An older disillusioned Roman Catholic priest ministers daily in his tough Washington, D.C. inner city parish. His mysterious Vatican thesis advisor, from back in Rome decades ago, continues to share secret files. But the real danger lurks in Garza’s old master’s thesis which could launch a crusader call to unite Christendom. Someone has moved Father Garza from The Watch List to The Hit List. Suspects include: the Vatican, the Mafia, the CIA, ISIS, the neighborhood gang, and Vladimir Putin.
Q: Is there a thread or theme that ties your books together, even though they are of different genres?
A. Yes, very much so. Together, these four books examine the cataclysmic collision between the expectations of the baby boomer generation and the primal forces of politics, religion and romance.
The question is: “Who betrayed whom?” (Ben Leiter thinks he knows.)
We are the children of the Greatest Generation, and we were supposed to finish their work. They saved the world from the darkness of fascism, and we were supposed to bring everyone to The Promised Land. We didn’t. How we squandered our inheritance links to the theme of betrayal in my books.
Three additional works, currently in draft form, with their working titles, include: The Murph Betrayals; God’s Betrayal: Quantum Resurrection; and Leiter Writing Tips.
Q: Why the pen name Ben Leiter?
A. If you read any of my books, you’ll understand why immediately with the authentic, explosive nature of the material and the controversy of story lines and subplots.
Also, since my memoir, City Management Snapshots: On the Run, is all true, I had to change and delete names to protect the guilty.
Using a pen name provides me the needed psychological freedom to write what I want; to explore themes without embarrassing me or my family.
A secondary reason for the pen name is so that the neighborhood won’t be cluttered with media or frenzied fans trying to find my house seeking autographs. (That’s a joke . . .more of a personal fantasy.)
The name Ben Leiter translates “been leader,” if you use the German pronunciation of the last name. It describes my previous profession as a city manager in seven cities across the country.
Q. Any writing associations you’d like to point out?
A: Yes. Writing as Ben Leiter, I am a member of two California professional writers’ clubs, have published articles in four anthologies, and have published over 50 items on medium.com. My website is benleiter.com (enter on address bar) or go to http://benleiter.com.
Q: Why do you write?
A: To find out what I think; to figure out why I think what I think; to investigate “what it’s all about.” And, to avoid boring people with my strong opinions in conversations. If I put my views on the written page, I must present them in an intelligent and interesting fashion, or the reader won’t turn the page.
Also, writing fiction allows me to explore my favorite theme of betrayal and its sub-themes involving politics, religion and romance.
“Fiction,” or “faction” as I like to call it, lets me roam. I use my version of the Pareto Principle—80/20. That means I want my writing to be 80% fact based, and 20% fiction. So, for example, my priest-protagonist in a future book can transition into the afterlife after his assassination, based on the hard science of Planck lengths, quantum physics, and string theory. He can then come back and interfere in actual historical human affairs. But then, the history he interrupts and changes will also be 80/20—80% historically accurate and 20% made up.
I embrace the responsibility to get the 80% history accurate, and the wonderful flexibility, fun, and creativity of the 20%.
Q: What do you want to achieve? Writing objective?
A: Validation as a good writer who has something to say that is worth reading.
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: Seriously, since 2010.
Q: Favorite authors?
A: John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Michael Connelly; Gillian Flynn, Andy Weir, Anne Lamott, Dennis Lehane, Tom Wolf, Robert Crais, Martin Cruz Smith, Leon Uris, Don Winslow. Right now, I’m reading Winslow’s The Cartel for the third time, as I did Flynn’s Gone Girl.
I’ve personally met and talked with Andy Weir and Bob Woodward.
Bob Woodward and I shared common associations from decades ago in Rockville, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C.
I just found out this year that my stockbroker, who is from the Netherlands, personally met John LeCarré. Why do I mention these names? Great to have a chance to name-drop. Ha!
Q: Can you describe the impact any books have had on you?
A: As I noted in one of my medium.com articles, I’d rather have lunch—at the risk of being lunch—with Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs than with the female protagonist in Flynn’s Gone Girl. That wife-protagonist is like real-world-scary. She’s out there walking around, fer sure. For me, Flynn’s book ranks with Catcher in the Rye; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; and Exodus.
In Exodus, I still remember the murder scene of Karen, Dov’s girlfriend. I was fourteen when I read it. The book made me militantly pro-Israeli.
Another Leon Uris book, Trinity, provided insight into what we Irish call The Troubles— the colonization atrocities of the English. (I’m part English too, but the Irish always wins out—so much more colorful.)
Soon after reading Trinity, I was talking to a business associate of my father’s generation who was born and raised in Scotland and bandied his brogue about. I mentioned my fascination with the book. His response, “Oh, that’s right. You’re of the Catholic persuasion, aren’t you.” I felt unease, filed it away, and mentioned it later to my father. He understood and explained it was an old colonial code phrase used, as if RC wasn’t a real religion.
While I stayed up all night on a school night at age sixteen to finish reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it was The Grapes of Wrath which rocked my political world. Over the three days I took to read the book, at age eighteen, I morphed from a card carrying Goldwaterite to the opposite end of the political spectrum. Never politically looked back, either.
Oh, interesting footnote. Twenty-one years after reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which opens up at Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall, I was at the exact same spot on a cold, drizzly day, as a minor American official.
A personal encounter there resulted in my helping a woman at The Wall get her three children back from the East German communists—those s.o.b.s. They had kidnapped her kids and put them up for adoption when the parents escaped to the West. It’s all in my memoir.
And, decades after reading The Grapes of Wrath, I interviewed for County Administrator of the California jurisdiction the story takes place in. I tried very hard to hide any attitude.
I didn’t get the job.
Years later would see Howard Zinn’s A Political History of the United States cement my leftist views with his expert historical research and insightful facts. Zinn flew bombers in WW II and was red, white, and blue American. Except, I’d change the “red” to “read”.
On the religious front, beside the Bible, the works of the Catholic theologian Hans Kung made the greatest impact. I’ve studied his work for over fifty years. Amazingly, he’s still a card carrying Catholic, despite past Vatican efforts to eliminate his employment as an academic theologian, and numerous attempts to shut him up or to excommunicate him.
As I’m writing this, I now realize why the renegade priest-protagonist of two of my books, Father Gabriel Alphonso Esquivel Garza, is on THE WATCH LIST of powerful people. He has Kung-DNA. And, some bad player has moved Garza to THE HIT LIST.
Q: Tell me about your protagonist in your most recent book. Why will readers like him?
My hero protagonist, Father Gabriel Alphonso Esquivel Garza, is an Hispanic-Schwarzenegger-Rambo-renegade Catholic priest with a Zorro complex. He refuses to let principles keep him from doing what is right. He is merciless in the defense of children.
Q: Daily writing schedule?
A: As soon as I can get out of bed, to the coffee pot, and to my writing office, I’m good for about two hours “in the zone.” “The Zone” provides that psychological, all-consuming mind-set that takes you and your creativity to other places. I believe it’s a healthy dynamic like meditation, or praying, or demanding exercise.
I try to get in an additional two to four hours of a lesser writing intensity, or reading, or research, or marketing, during the rest of the day.
Q: Are you a Pantser (write by the seat of the pants, ad hoc) or a Plotter (outline in detail before writing)?
A: Both—here’s how and why.
I rely on The Muse, or inspiration, or whatever has caught my fancy at the moment to fling words on paper. Once I have enough “somethings” on paper, I start organizing and putting them into a table of contents with detailed notes under each chapter, which is the equivalent of an outline. I then keep adding, revising. I move stuff I delete to the end of the working draft, to be probably brought forward at a future time, after it has “matured.” Advice: never throw anything away.
I experience difficulty deleting my pet phrases and scenes. Some famous author said that your favorite computer key should be the delete key.
Q: How do you vet your work?
A: Three critique groups; two California Writing Club memberships; past developmental editing by Scott Evans, author and English professor at the University of the Pacific.
Q: Strengths and weaknesses of your manuscripts?
A: From the professional writing feedback I have received over the years, the strengths of my work seem to be the imagination, the creativity of the work, and the character (good and bad) of my protagonists.
My drafts have received deserved hits by critique groups for not always letting the reader know immediately what is going on and where we are at. I accept that criticism because I want to pull the reader in. I want the reader to do a little bit of head work.
I love John LeCarré’s writing with its exceptional use of indirection. I remember becoming frustrated in one of his books because I now found myself on page 65 and had no idea what was going on. Then I realized. I was in exactly the same situation as the book’s protagonist, trying to identify the traitor in The Circus, LeCarré’s name for British intelligence. The protagonist reflected the puzzle-palace-nature of the events swirling about him. Well done, John.
Another self-critique: the wicked wolf constantly tempts Little Red Riding Hood to stray off the path and pick the pretty flowers. You can’t do it. Stay on the path. Stick strictly to the story arc. Never leave the path or you may lose the reader.
Me? I can’t resist the pretty flowers.
I also refuse to dumb down my work. If my reader doesn’t understand Watergate, or doesn’t know about the Reformation, or the Crusades, or the crimes committed by our CIA, then the reader must retain immediate access to Google, or put the book down.
I don’t have the patience, and there isn’t enough time, for me to educate in the nuances of Chappaquiddick, or excommunication, or disco fever.
I also plead guilty to occasional finger waving and sermonizing which I detest in an explicit form. I prefer for my characters to carry that water for me in a hopefully more subtle fashion.
Q: The word”betrayal” seems to come up a lot in your book titles. What’s going on?
A: Yes. I’m afraid that I’ve become slightly obsessed with betrayal in all of its manifestations.
For example, the betrayals “on my watch”—in my lifetime—just a taste, and in no order:
*CIA and Roman Catholic Church assistance to Nazis to escape arrest after World War II.
*The massive priestly child pedophilia in the Catholic Church.
*The false public relations construct of “Camelot” to cover perverse, risky sexual behavior by President Kennedy.
*The disaster of Vietnam: bad judgement, the manufactured Gulf of Tonkin incident; killing millions of Vietnamese in the name of their freedom;
*The Iran-Contra scandal.
*Invasion of Iraq for the 9/11 attack on the U.S. Invaded the wrong country and no weapons of mass destruction ever found. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian, not Iraqi.
*Intelligence failures before and after 9/11.
*2008 implosion of U.S. economy on the watch of the most incompetent President in U.S. history.
*Popular adulation of President Clinton, a totally charismatic, out-of-control sex addict. When asked why he committed sexual peccadilloes, he confessed, in an unguarded moment, “Because I could.”
*Nixon’s 1968 treason against the United States. He urged South Vietnam’s President Thieu, through back channels, to not sign the Paris Peace Treaty right before the 1968 presidential election because Nixon would get him a better deal if elected. The war continued seven more years with 20,000 additional American deaths and uncountable Vietnamese slain.
*Federal tax policies which have gifted massive subsidies to corporations who kept profits overseas and sent American jobs offshore by the millions. When I have problems with my CATV company, I end up talking to someone whom I can barely understand, in Costa Rica, the Philippines, or India.
*U.S. Army and CIA providing schools for foreign military and police in torture and terror techniques.
*The truth behind the Kennedy Assassination. We still don’t know it.
*The true power of the Mafia and organized crime.
*The War on Drugs which was really our U.S. drug companies vs. overseas drug cartels.
*The opiod addiction of the American population.
*The political refusal to provide basic rights to U.S. citizens: health care; safe communities; schools that work; jobs.
*The contemporary political domination of the NRA with the blasphemous use of the word “freedom” masquerading for “profit.”
*The refusal of Christian denominations to come together, as well as the need for The Reformation, Part II.
These are all some of my rants. My challenge—to make them interesting through story telling.
Please excuse the comparison—because I do not write anywhere near his quality—but I’m finding lately a new rant for betrayal. Dostoevsky has moved onto my writing radar screen. Like him, I refuse to accept ANY justification for children’s suffering. I think I prefer to stand with the suffering of the children and will not accept any higher honor presented to us by churches, or countries, or traditions.
While I and my family adore our pet maltipoo, named Ted D. Bear, I object to the macro attention and billions spent on pets while near term fetuses are aborted and American children are homeless and hungry. A pet peeve, you might say.
Q: Any writer advice?
A: I find comfort from famously successful authors who say:
*Write, write, write and then write some more and maybe you will get it right.
*Writing is something you must do; you have to do it. Not want to. If you are a writer, you understand what this means.
* “Keep your day job.”
*These terms surface often in advice from writing experts:
Write a lot
Read a lot.
Not for people easily discouraged.
Love the process.
*I’m a big fan of writing advice from Anne Lamott. One of her aphorisms: “I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.” That so appeals to the Catholic guilt I carry in my Irish DNA. Then, there’s my built-in German DNA which loves to wrestle with the big issues, even to the point of a personal, internal civil war. Then, the ever-so-slight, about 18%, English DNA says, “Well, organize it and write it all down.”
*One other thing. Let me quote John Gardner, a famous writing guru, ON BECOMING A NOVELIST. “Writing a novel takes an immense amount of time, at least for most people, and can test the writer’s psyche beyond endurance. The writer asks himself day after day, year after year, if he’s fooling himself, asks why people write novels anyhow–long, careful studies of the hopes, joys, and disasters of creatures who, strictly speaking, do not exist. The writer may be undermined by creeping misanthropy, while the writer’s wife, or husband, is growing sulky and embarrassed.”
Of course, there’s a satisfying creative upside to writing which we at least intuit, or we wouldn’t stay at the desk until our fingers are numb from typing.
Q: Tell us a little more about yourself.
A: I’ve been a city manager in 7 cities across the country, in Maryland, Texas, Michigan and California. My career also took me overseas as an American local government official to W. Germany, Poland, and Japan.
I have been married to a wonderful, patient woman for 33 years, a beautiful native of Peru, who endures my anxieties and writing distractedness with good humor.
I was raised red, white and blue American; and red, white and blue Roman Catholic. My decades on this earth and my writing ambitions authorize me to reexamine these two powerful institutions—country and church. For me, a lot of answers conceal themselves in a probable gray zone.
For example, is America an empire? You bet. Do I think that is a good thing? Not necessarily, because of the personal heroic cost of our dead soldiers and the squandering of our national treasure.
But, here’s the rub. Would you rather have the Russians in charge? Or, the Chinese? No. So let’s continue to export our mad modern culture of McDonald’s, Apple, Amazon and porn. Oh, and guns.
But remember, no gun ever shot anyone by itself. Guns don’t shoot people, people shoot people. Thanks for protecting us, NRA. [That was sarcastic in case my writing skills were deficient.] See how the finger-wagging surfaces for no reason?
God help us if the ever-neutral, bloodless Swiss were in charge.
All of our streets would be clean.
We’d speak at least three languages.
There’d be no exploited, trafficked, or missing children.
Everyone would be educated, go skiing, and drink hot chocolate.
I’d probably have an anxiety attack from the lack of anxiety—called boredom.
Q: Any indications of a writing life earlier?
A: Over my city management career, I penned lots of professional articles on everything from strategic planning to embezzlement which appeared in nation-wide publications. At one point, I even had my own column in a newspaper.
I always tried to make my articles interesting, or to have a twist. For example, one article, carried the all too true title, SOMEONE IS STEALING THE TAXPAYERS’ MONEY!
As budget director for a large Texas city, I always wanted to tell “the story” behind the numbers. I saw too many budget staff letting themselves get lost in the numbers or “hiding” in the numbers. I felt it important to be clear to my boss the city manager, his bosses the city council, and their bosses the public, about exactly what the budget meant for them for the next year.
I continually rewrote the 20 page budget message at the beginning of the 500 page budget document, to get the message right. One of my senior staff, exasperated at my numerous revisions said, “You’re just a frustrated novelist.” I demurred at the time, but she was correct.
Two of my favorite quotes from that same government staff, one from a very talented colleague, “Numbers are our friends.”
The second quote came from one of my budget staffers hiding behind his lazy incompetence. When I asked why the numbers didn’t add up, he pointed to a number on the budget page he had prepared and said, “Oh . . . that’s a bad number”—like the number jumped onto the page somehow and misbehaved.
I think my response was “Oh . . . really?”
Late in my career, in a job interview with a city council, I was asked why I had published so many articles. The totally unexpected question suddenly triggered a response that I did not know I possessed, “I guess it’s a way to leave a legacy.”
Q: What is your educational background?
A: I am a Case Western Reserve University Ph.D-in-political-science-drop-out. But, I did secure a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Urban Affairs, an interdisciplinary planning degree.
My B.A. held a major in political science, with minors in English, Philosophy and Theology.
Q: Other writing observations?
I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people out there who share my love of books, and reading, and ideas, and writing.
I relish the open-endedness of the mental challenge of writing. I will never be able to exhaust it. It will wear me down first, I fear.
I respect the work ethic required to become a successful writer, whether commercially published or not.
I admire the creativity of the process and the final product.
I have had Stephen King’s experience, where I get into the story or one of the characters, and it takes on a life of its own, and goes places I had not planned.
Since I developed my “rule” years ago to never go back and read a book the second time, this writing occupation gives me the justification and permission to revisit old book-friends.
I should be able to handle the rejection. In my past career, along with the public accolades and good salary, I experienced an enormous amount of criticism—it came with the job territory—on an almost weekly basis. I’m used to it; maybe I miss it and need it.
For decades, I have pushed paper. Why stop now?
While my brother has become an accomplished amateur oil painter, I paint with words.
I would like to be as accomplished as he, in my own artistic genre. But better than oil painting, I can constantly revise my work.
Another reason for writing—it keeps the mind sharp. My family shows too much history of Altzheimer’s. Maybe writing will delay or forestall some of the mental ravages of old age.
Then there is the possibility that I might have something to say. Having been around for decades, I would expect myself to paint some life pictures accurately if not brilliantly, perhaps with some insight, too; especially if I have been paying attention. Have I? Perhaps I can say something memorable about this thing we all share called the human condition. If I can, then what becomes fascinating are all the ways there are to describe this common experience: short stories; poems; essays; novels.
I like the sound of “I am a writer.”
I have always been a book worm, loved to read. The mid-westerner in me must justify all those academic credentials and insists on looking for a practical application—writing is it.
I have been energized by writing.
I do want to say something, my way, about the human condition, even if it’s merely to observe the whole tragic circumstance.
Q: Any final reflection?
A: I think I have permission now, from Stephen King and Amy Tan, to read and write all I want to.
In my case, the most important contributor to writing was reading at an early age and continuing non-stop the rest of my life. I was that 10 year old kid continuing to read under the sheets, after my father told me to turn the light off and go to sleep.
I’ll keep reading and writing until The Big Sleep.