Author Q&A:
Benjamin Wood

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In A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better (Scribner, £14.99), Daniel and his estranged father Francis – a character of “two weathers” – set out on a road trip across the north in a bid to salvage their relationship. But with every passing mile, the layers of Fran’s mendacity and desperation are exposed, pushing him to acts of violence that will define the rest of his son’s life.

Daniel’s father grew up baling hay and tending sheep and is alienated from his son who collects antique spectacles and obsesses over a fantasy TV show. Do you think conversations and stories about toxic masculinity can bring about a positive shift in attitudes? 
Well, first it’s worth pointing out that Daniel’s father, Francis, also grew up feeling disconnected – he was supposed to inherit the shepherd’s instinct from his own father but it bypassed him. The toxicity of his character, I would say, is rooted in this disenfranchisement  – from his parents, from the landscape of his upbringing – not in his particular brand of masculinity. Fran’s darker qualities quickly become evident in the novel – his callous womanising and chronic dishonesty, among other things – but I see him as having been a quiet, studious boy like Daniel once. It’s important to discuss issues like toxic masculinity, of course, but I didn’t purposefully set out to examine that subject in the novel.

Fran paints Chloe as a hysterical woman when she accuses him of sexual abuse. But for the reader there’s a question mark hanging over her version of events since Fran has an alibi in his friend QC. What were you hoping the reader would take away from this?
Fran has a history of disloyalty and he’s an arch deceiver, so I wanted the reader to be placed in the position of doubting him from the outset of the book. But the truth of certain situations is sometimes grey and inconvenient – more complex than we expect. I tried to give the reader the feeling that perhaps – amid all Fran’s lies and despicable behaviour – there might be some small glint of truth to his account of things. Because that’s the same position Daniel is in for most of his life – he cleaves to
the faint hope that his father can redeem himself.

Is Daniel a reliable narrator? 
I’m not sure that a first person narrator can ever be wholly reliable. As Daniel says in the novel, “When a story is told, it is changed” – the distance between the events and the reporting of them invites departures from the truth. There are a few tiny glitches in the fabric of his story, honest mistakes of memory that I’ve planted in there. But Daniel’s reliability comes down to how much he’s wilfully manipulating the reader from the outset, and I don’t think he’s ever calculating or insincere in that regard.

Tell us about your relationship with the north of England and how its landscape has informed this novel?
I grew up in Merseyside and spent most of my youth shifting about from place to place in Lancashire. I lived in the north until my mid-twenties – it’s ingrained in me, an informing aspect of my personality – and I’d always wanted to be able to write about it convincingly. When I first dabbled with fiction as a teenager, all my stories came out with an American accent. I suppose I didn’t view my own country as cinematic or intriguing enough. But that feeling waned as I got older. With Station, I wanted to see if I could capture something atmospheric, grave, and dramatic in the landscapes that are most familiar to me. I tried to draw out the hidden darkness from some of the places in my childhood. The motorway service stations and the stultifying A-roads: I wanted to try and make them edgy, surprising. I wanted to see if I could set a scene in a Little Chef and make it possess the same desperate, ominous feeling you get from looking at an Edward Hopper painting. I don’t know if I came anywhere near to achieving that, but I was committed to the challenge at least.

The Artifex is an elaborately plotted and detailed story within this story, with its own Wiki page even. Have you considered actually writing and publishing it?
Not exactly. It was devised to be a parallel story within this novel, and that’s all it became, but I ended up writing so many different versions
of it that I’ve probably got the material for a few children’s books!
Maybe one of them will see the light of day at some point. It’ll probably end up being a special thing I read to my kids when they get older –
if I tell them someone else wrote it, they might be interested.

Fran tells Daniel that if skill goes unrecognised for long enough it suffocates. What’s your advice to struggling writers?
I’m wary of dispensing advice to other writers because I really don’t have everything figured out – I am still knotted with all the same anxieties and insecurities that I was before I ever published anything. But I’ve learned this, for what it’s worth: there is nothing you can do to control what happens to your work when it is finished, how it is read or received, what kind of recognition it achieves; the only thing you can control is the work itself. You can’t let the result influence the process; you simply have to write as best as you can in the time you have. Meanwhile, read, read, read. Absorb the tenor of good fiction by engaging with other people’s work – unpick the moments that astound you, word by word, learn from them. Improve your understanding of authorial technique (a good creative writing course can help you with this part, no matter how vociferously Will Self insists it can’t). Nothing might come of all your efforts. But let this be your motivation every time you write, in preparation for the other eventuality, that everything will turn out well.

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