Interview With Ben Lieberman
I would like to introduce the author of a great debut novel, Odd Jobs author Ben Lieberman has agreed to interview with book reviewer and online interviewer Fran Lewis
Thank you so much for agreeing to discuss your career and this outstanding novel with me.
Ben Lieberman earned a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Maryland and further developed his writing skills through courses at Columbia University, NYU and writers workshops.
His professional career in bond trading brings a fresh perspective to fiction by harnessing the cynical, volatile, and cutthroat nature of the trading floor. Ben currently resides in Chappaqua, NY.
“Working in institutional bond trading for several ambitious entities exposed me to a competitive and urgent environment. While my novel has nothing to do with finance, I applied the often-ruthless nature and created an exciting crime thriller.
People who read the novel often ask how much of this is from my own personal experiences. I usually say for sure one thing – I never killed anybody. I leave the rest up to them.”
Fran: Give our readers just a short summary of this great book to entice them into buying it for themselves and for others.
Ben: ODD JOBS is a crime thriller about a college kid, who like many of today’s students, has to pay his way through school by taking whatever job comes along. One of those jobs is working for a mob-owned meat factory. It pretty much stinks, but what stinks, even more, is that during this time, he learns who killed his father. Now he has to even the score or die trying.
What would you do if you found out who killed your father? What if that person was killing and ruining other families… could you sit still and watch? What if going to the police was not only ineffective but it was virtual suicide? How would you stop him? The different crazy jobs, situations, and misadventures will have the reader laughing, but the hazard is real and Kevin Davenport is in way over his head in this gritty, fast-paced thriller.
Fran: How did you create the character of Kevin?
Ben: In creating any protagonist the first thing an author has to do is to create a character in conflict. I think back on my college days and remember those days as a reflection point facing multiple crossroads. In creating Kevin’s character and his circumstances not only is he at a difficult point in life but also when I played the game of what-if. What if Kevin wasn’t rich? What if he had to struggle to pay his way through school? What if he didn’t have a father? What if the father was murdered? So on and so forth.
Fran: What made you decide on a Kosher Meat Factory as his main source of income?
Ben: The meat factory is a smelly, bloody place owned by a crime syndicate. It’s a foreshadowing of the events that take place in Kevin’s life. And, even though the novel is about murder and revenge, the story does have a “sense of humor” that runs through it and the strange world of working at a meat factory lends itself to some naturally comical moments.
Fran: What type of research did you have to do in order to learn about the inner workings of a meat factory and what goes on behind the scenes?
Ben: Fiction often reflects reality. While some of the jobs in the novel were researched, the meat factory was created on paper from my first-hand experience.
Fran: Have you ever been inside a meat factory and actually seen what is done there? If so what did you observe and what were your reactions to what you saw?
Ben: Yep, I’ve been inside a meat factory. I actually worked in one. It was a difficult and tedious job. There was little room for any creative expression except for figuring out ways to “cheat the system” and play jokes on one another. I remember how some of the workers would slow up production during the day so they can get some overtime. It’s a rough life in the meatpacking factory. For me, it was just an “odd job”. At the end of the summer, I went back to school.
Fran: How did the idea for your plot originate? Why did you decide to focus on a college student that needed to live from hand to mouth by taking Odd Jobs?
Ben: Kevin worked at a lot of strange, funny and dangerous jobs to get enough money for college. The jobs are characters in and of themselves. I always found it fascinating how many people have really strange jobs in their background but even more interesting is the pride they have looking back at what they overcame. Personally, I find it nearly unbelievable the jobs I was willing to do. But, there is a lesson attached to every job I ever did. And, it appears…a book!
I decided on a college kid who needed to live hand-to-mouth because working in the financial world, as I do, I know that, in light of the economic picture, the kids today are in for a lot of that kind of living. My novel is contemporary and I believe I capture the times within the pages of ODD JOBS.
Fran: How did Kevin develop the trust of some of the other workers in the plant? What was special about his relationship with Sev?
Ben: Trust developed when Kevin represented Kosher World Meat Factory in a boxing match. It’s a huge source of pride to win one for your factory. Up until then, Kevin was just a lowly college grunt that was a target of jealousy and resentment.
Fran: What pitfalls did you face when writing this novel? Did you have any stumbling blocks when creating the plotline and making sure it was fast-paced?
Ben: Stumbling blocks/pitfalls: The protagonist, Kevin Davenport. He unintentionally came across as unsympathetic in the early drafts simply because I was trying to create a flawed character and failed miserably.
I was trying to avoid the typical ‘great at everything hero’ that is so common now. But I went too far. My editor and publisher told me that they didn’t like Kevin, therefore didn’t care about him. OUCH!!! It was time for adjustments. After seeing and hearing Kevin from this perspective and making time-consuming changes, he ended up in the right place: likeably flawed.
Maintaining pace: I was always proud of the pace of the story but it got markedly better after editing, rewriting, more editing and more rewriting. The final page count of the novel is down about 140 pages from the original manuscript. As my editors repeatedly told me, I had way too much script-like dialogue. Ah-h-h editors: A love/hate/love relationship. Believe me, cutting out full chapters at a time really hurt.
It was like being stung by a swarm of bees. In the early stages of the editing and rewriting process, my mind wasn’t as “open” as it is now to editorial suggestions. Somewhere along the line, my editor threatened to blow my brains out if I didn’t stop arguing and start listening.
In the end, it all worked out: I’ve been getting great reviews, won the Tommy Award, got endorsements from Donald Trump and James Patterson. My heart skips a beat whenever someone says that ODD JOBS is fast-paced and that they couldn’t put the book down. I did a tremendous amount of work on ODD JOBS (so did my editor). I love that novel as if it were my child! Actually, I think I understand what it feels like to deliver a 10 lb. baby. It’s painful!
Fran: Kevin is a dynamic character who wanted to seek revenge for the death of his father and sister. How does he come to deal with the truth behind death? Why did he go to such extremes for revenge?
Ben: He went to such extremes because conventional methods weren’t working. His father was killed working within conventional methods. Kevin concluded that using the enemy’s strengths against them was the only way he could compete. In addition, the same person was ruining other lives and sitting on the sideline was not an option for Kevin. Something had to be done.
Fran: Who is Rocky and why was she such great support for him?
Ben: Rocky is a woman who sees the real Kevin Davenport. While those at New York State University see Kevin Davenport as a small-time crook, Rocky can see Kevin’s real self and real potential. Kevin never fully understands why Rocky would choose a guy like him, but the reader comes to see both characters for what they truly are and why they get along so well. While Rocky and Kevin have their differences they are also alike in many ways. Both are good but scarred people.
Fran: What other avenues did Kevin explore and how did he manage to stay afloat? Who were his major allies and why did they stick with him?
Ben: Kevin fought his enemies with their own weapons, so to speak. Conventional methods were not going to work so Kevin was willing to deal drugs, become a bookie and immerse himself into organized crime. Kevin also had some childhood buddies and a few close friends who became invaluable allies.
Fran: As the plot unfolds even further we learn much more about Kevin, Sev’s past and many other characters in this novel. How does Sev prove to be a true friend to him and why does Kevin depend on him for his survival?
Ben: Sev is the ultimate leader. Sev has no official title in the workplace or the outside world for that matter; yet, Kevin observes that people listen to Sev because they ‘want to’ and not because they ‘have to’. As is the case with many mentors, Sev sees a lot of Kevin in himself. Sev’s life was knocked off course and he doesn’t want that to happen to Kevin. Ultimately, that proves impossible but in the end, Sev is responsible for Kevin’s survival.
Fran: Kevin crosses many fine lines when things come full circle. How did you decide on the final outcome and will you bring him back again in another novel?
Ben: The final outcome developed because just when you think you have nothing to lose you discover you have a lot to lose.
The readers like Kevin. I like Kevin. Kevin would like to have another “novel” adventure. So I think we’ll be hearing from Kevin Davenport again.
Fran: The ending was quite profound and quite different from many endings of books that I have reviewed. Where do you see him headed and will he succeed at what he has decided to do next without the help of any counseling or program to deal with his anger and losses?
Ben: That’s a great question. I suspect that Kevin will succeed professionally but he will have difficulties socially. Counseling can be instrumental, but there are still very real and lingering issues that will make it difficult for him to get close to people.
Fran: Will his friendship with Loot and Carey continue or will he totally divorce himself from his past and develop a whole new life?
Ben: Again, speculating. Kevin is flawed but he is loyal. It would be out of character for him to “dust” his friends. I particularly like Loot and Carey and I don’t want to dust them either. One reviewer put it this way “Loot is a hoot.” It’s hard to give those kinds of character (and friends) up. Right now, it’s my opinion that wherever Kevin goes Loot and Carey will follow.
Career and writing questions:
Fran: When did you decide to write this book and from start to finish how long did it take for you to complete it?
Ben: After taking several writing classes and workshops in 2004 I decided to write a novel. It took another of six years to complete. I had a day job and according to my editor, I’m a slow, stubborn learner!
Fran: How much of what you have written is realistic or based on real-life incidents?
Ben: I get asked that a lot because of the first-person narrative. ODD JOBS is by no means a memoir. I never killed and I was never a bookie but I did work in a meat factory. As far as feelings, thoughts, desires and the like, you have to reach inside and visit some pretty dark places and recall some events that you would rather allow to lay dormant. But you need to do that to create an effective character.
Fran: What issues did you raise in this novel?
Ben: Oh things like:
How far would you go if you knew your father’s killer?
When you believe you have nothing to lose is that accurate? Could there be more?
What does it take to be able to embrace your situation…good or bad?
What does it take to change a negative into a positive?
Fran: What kind of feedback have you received from your readers? What have they said about your novel?
Ben: The feedback is, how can I put this? Exactly what every author wants to hear. Readers are consistently telling me they read it in two days and couldn’t put it down. But the biggest thrill – readers are actually quoting the book.
And you know what? I am going to enjoy the moment because it’s short-lived. I’m working on another book and I know the editor is going to blow my head of this time around. She’ll probably call me up and ask me if there is nothing that I learned from the rewriting of the first book.
Fran: Why are book reviews vital to the success of a novel? What are ways have you promoted your book?
Ben: The publishing world is out-of-order at the moment. Around a million books were published in 2010. Everyone is vying for position in a crumbling industry. The “traditional” review system that used to dictate how many books bookstores would order doesn’t work anymore because bookstores are having their troubles. Yet, Fran, what is very important, almost essential, are reviews from people such as yourself.
It is obvious that you love books, tolerate nicely us authors, and care about the industry. You spend much of your time posting your detailed reviews and this truly helps both the reader and the author. I’m doing what authors need to do to promote their work. I Facebook, Twitter, run advertisements, go to tradeshows, book fairs, do readings, carry books in the trunk of my car, my briefcase and my coat pockets (never know who you’ll meet that’s looking for a good book).
Basically, I’m working closely with my publisher and PR specialist to develop a long-term plan. I plan on sticking around, so this will not be the last book you’ll read by Ben Lieberman. I’m actually holding up James Patterson as my guidepost.
Fran: How important or helpful is a publicist? How did you or do you get endorsements for your novel?
Ben: In the fewest words possible: VITAL.
I got endorsements from people who knew people, who knew people.
Fran: What advice would you give a new author? How did you get SterlingHouse to publish your book?
Ben: First – “will it” to happen and fight through the rejection. Ask for feedback along the way. I did this to view how the piece was being interpreted but equally important, to put pressure on myself to finish. By seeking feedback enough people knew the project was started, so not finishing the novel simply wasn’t an option.
Get yourself a great editor and you will most likely end up a good writer. SterlingHouse’s editing staff is awesome. Find someone like them. See rejection for what it is: Maybe your work is being rejected because you sent it to the wrong type of publisher or because the publisher’s line is filled or because your work isn’t ready to be published. You need to be honest with yourself regarding the marketplace and the quality of your work.
If you are a serious writer; you will find a way to make it happen. I was lucky: I got an introduction to SterlingHouse, finally, they moved forward with offering me a contract (I think they just wanted to stop the needy whining) and they kicked me repeatedly in the butt to help me create a work that entertains the reader. By the way, entertaining the reader is the primary goal of a writer. They are our first responsibility.
Fran: What is your next project? Will you include the same characters or will it be an entirely different plot and new ideas?
Ben: My publisher is probably going to cringe at this, but I’m working on two novels at the moment and I have a shot at being one of three writers on a screenplay. Same characters, different plotline in one manuscript and new characters and a new genre in there other. The movie script is “top-secret” and I am keeping my fingers crossed on that project.
Fran: What other marketing strategies have helped promote your novel?
Ben: Hiring a PR specialist, creating a PR and promotion plan, conducting a viral campaign, continuing with public appearances (I don’t care where I have to go or how many people end up in the audience) and picking the brain of my publisher every chance I get. (She’s been in the industry more years than I’ll bet she is willing to admit to.)
Fran: What else would you like to add to this interview or share with our readers?
Ben: Well, like me think. How about: PLEASE…please…please…buy a copy of ODDS JOBS. Did that sound too needy?
Fran: What about your novel warrants a five-star review?
Ben: The novel is fast-paced, interesting, unique and sometimes funny. I listened to the readers and gave them what they wanted. They are the ones who gave me five stars. I am humbled and grateful. I’m planning on improving with every novel I write.
Fran: One last question: What makes your novel stand out above the rest?
Having an endorsement from James Patterson and Donald Trump on the cover of the book doesn’t hurt. Either does winning the Tommy Award for Excellence in Writing. For that matter, the cover of the book is fantastic. (Thanks Nicole) And, great editing (thanks Megan). Writing this book took teamwork and everyone gave their best…. and it shows.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview and I hope that many people will join in the discussion after reading your book or want to read your book as a result of this online interview. I am looking forward to reading and reviewing your next novel.