David Bendernagel is the author of The End Of The City, a multi-layered study of love, loss and survival that I’m still thinking about days after finishing it (see my review). The latest addition to my list of great writers who live nearby in the Pacific Northwest, David was born in New York and raised in Reston, Virginia. He studied art at the University of Virginia and has an M.F.A. in fiction writing and a law degree from the University of Washington. I asked David to answer a few questions about himself, and his excellent debut novel.
Where did the idea for The End Of The City come from? How close to your original concept is the finished book?
During my first year of graduate school in the early 2000’s, I wrote two short stories that were (on the surface at least) very different from one another. One, entitled The Human Highlight Reel, is about a teenage athlete who is angry over the loss of his distant father. The other story, which shares the novel’s title, The End of the City, is about a nameless assassin who suspects his teacher is trying to kill him. Neither of these projects was entirely successful as a short story, but when I put them next to one another I felt I had something really compelling; I had stumbled upon a novel. The book’s two stories are in dialogue with one another—overlapping, contradicting, and supporting each other as the narrators reveal their feelings on loss, survival, and heroism. Although the work went through many revisions over the years, the book in its final form stays true to this initial premise.
The inner dialogues of Ben and the Assassin are vivid, featuring a lot of pop culture and current (for 2002/2011) events references. How do you set about writing these passages? Do they come to you complete or near-complete, or is it a process to hone them?
Both narrators—boy and assassin—struggle with feelings of alienation and powerlessness. They cope with the repercussions of societal strife (the attacks of 9/11, the war in Iraq) and private losses (the death of Ben’s father, the assassin’s estrangement from The Teacher). These narrators’ hearts are heavy with the weight of current events big and small. The pop culture references serve to ground the text in its time streams—2002 and 2011—but also to lighten the mood. These narrators are not above the ill-timed one-liner or off-kilter metaphor. And I am a sucker for a hero that laughs in the face of certain death. Like Ben, I grew up enjoying books, comics, movies, sports, and video games. Referring to those products of our culture in order to make a point or be funny or both is very natural to me. I came to this book with lots of practice quoting or referencing favorite works of popular art. With that said, some references don’t fit no matter how hard you try. I do not think The Toxic Avenger made it past the cutting room floor.
Ben is dealing, some may say “and not so well,” with a significant loss, the death of his father. I’ve often thought that the relationship between fathers and sons is much less examined than that of mothers and daughters, but no less complex and emotionally fraught. Thoughts?
I can’t say whether there is more or less literary exploration of father-son relationships than any other relationships, but the father-son dynamic was certainly a concern of mine as I approached this book. And I hope I’ve brought a unique perspective to a conversation about dads and their sons. One of the defining characteristics of the two narrators is their denial of vulnerability. At the same time, these characters long for connection—to a father, a teacher, a friend. I think there may be other sons out there that can relate to these conflicting feelings and also struggle to make sense of the cultural messages about manhood and strength. Is the Hulk the ideal? Or Bruce Banner? Of course, I’m a dad to a daughter as well as a son to a father. And I think that these feelings of confusion and defiance are human and not the sole domain of lonely boys and worried men. Angst for everyone!
Will we see these characters again?
I am working on follow-up as you read this.
The End Of The City is your debut novel. What did you find most surprising about the process of getting published?
The process of publishing has been full of surprises. Getting published at all was a pleasant surprise. I worked on the book for many years and I shopped the book for years after it was completed. I’ve always believed in The End of the City as a work of art, but I had no real knowledge of the publishing industry when I set out to share the book with a wider audience than my family and friends. It’s been very educational—from learning how to draft a query letter to collaborating with editors at the Pink Fish Press to make the book stronger. I’ve also learned a lot about marketing and social media. And I come out of all that with a renewed excitement for writing and future art projects.
Bonus: Ben’s High School team name is “the Seahawks.” Small shout-out to your “new” hometown of Seattle?
Actually, my Virginia high school’s mascot was the Seahawk. That part of the novel is taken straight from my biography. So, it’s just a happy accident that I currently live and work in a town with a winning football team of the same name.
Any final thoughts?
I appreciate the opportunity to share The End of the City with you and yourreaders. If people want any more information about the book or the author, they can go to my website: http://davidbendernagel.com. And they can follow me on twitter @DLBendernagel. Thanks so much! It was a pleasure.