Benjamin Warner’s debut novel Thirst (Bloomsbury, £12.99/Audible, £14.99) takes place in the immediate aftermath of a mysterious disaster that has scorched riverbeds and evaporated all the natural water. Eddie Chapman and his wife Laura find themselves thrust together with their neighbours as they suffer the effects of the searing heat, their rising thirst and the realisation that no one is coming to help.
Well done on your first novel. What did it take to get here and what did you learn along the way?
Thank you. I’ve been interested in writing novels for a while now, ever since I learned it was possible, really – that you didn’t have to live several hundred years ago to attempt one. But in writing Thirst, what I really learned was how to polish a novel. I was lucky enough to work with a really smart editor at Bloomsbury, Lea Beresford, who was both meticulous and caring enough to get after me about word choice. We had many very productive battles over particular words, and spent almost a week going back and forth about a single sentence. It was a wonderful experience, and I felt very privileged to find myself in that kind of creative space.
They’re characters under tremendous environmental stresses, they’re sick and they’re getting sicker.
What inspired you to write Thirst?
I was reading an article about some inventors in San Francisco, and one of them mentioned how stable water is. He was complaining about that. That he couldn’t really change its composition made it hard to work with. That idea of “stability” got me thinking about water, of course, but also about suburban life and how its stability is often built on very thin stuff.
The environmental disaster that unfolds feels frighteningly plausible. What research did you do?
I have a scientist friend who turned me on to a few articles about dehydration. The environmental disaster itself is a mystery to the main character and I try to burrow deep inside his head and remain there. Because of that, I know what he knows, and so my research, if you can call it that, had more to do with fear and anxiety.
Was it challenging to take your characters into such dark places and ensure unlikeable characters retained their magnetism?
I don’t think of Eddie and Laura as unlikeable. They’re characters under tremendous environmental stresses, they’re sick and they’re getting sicker. They make some really poor decisions, but I don’t hold that against them. They become versions of themselves they wouldn’t have recognised even a day earlier. Yes, it was a challenge taking them to such dark places but that’s because I grew to know them well and care about them as I wrote the novel.
Was it difficult to sustain the fast paced, urgent style of the novel?
I’m glad you found the style urgent. My goal was to infuse an uncertainty into each sentence – at least in the way those sentences charged the plotting of the story. This goes back to getting as deep as I could into the characters’ heads. To really live the experience of Eddie and Laura, I imagined the story could not get in its own way and slow itself down.
Does genre matter to you?
No, not really. I’ll read anything if I’m hooked by the voice of the storytelling and if I feel the characters are rendered with an artful hand.
The book begs the reader to ask what they would do in such a situation. How would you cope in a similar crisis?
I’m afraid that I’d behave badly too, though not as badly as Eddie. I don’t think I’d be caught as off guard as he was, or be quite as paranoid. But I’m not sure. We have a few gallon jugs of water in our basement and though those jugs would be the ultimate resource, having them would fill me with an anxiety to ration and protect them too.
What hope do you think there is for community-led action in the world which often feels so full of self-interest?
Oh, I think community-led action always leads to bigger, better, more peaceful results than acts motivated by self-interest. Once you start to care deeply about a community, selfishness begins to feel silly. That’s been my experience, at least.