When I met Robert Dinning at the Canterbury Tales Literary Festival last year, he explained to me that he had …
Once Upon a TimeBy Shannon Webb-Campbell | Oct 3, 2012
An established short-story writer, Ben Stephenson grabs attention with his first novel—a children’s story for adults.
Ben Stephenson came out as a writer in art school.
While his peers at NSCAD University studied fine art, creating large instillations, covering canvases in paint, he sat in the studio at his desk, neatly writing A Matter of Life and Death or Something, published by Douglas & McIntyre.
“Art school influenced me in terms of what art school has to teach you about all creative pursuits,” says Stephenson. “I grew into someone who understands how to be artist because of art school. I think it gave me an idea and made me realize if you make it important to you, then it’s worth it. Where most everywhere else you go in the real world, art is kind of laughed at. Eyes are rolled. It’s a place where this is real.”
At 25, Stephenson (who grew up in Saint John, New Brunswick), seems unaware of his own success. While the literary community heralds him as the next Mark Haddon, or Jonathan Safran Foer, Stephenson lives in a house on the outskirts of the North End with 10 other people, dances his heart out at Gus’ Pub and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“It’s become my entire life, talking about the book. I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s okay. It’s weird,” he says. “It’s not really helping me in terms of working on new stuff. I am kind of hoping the buzz about it will die down soon, so I can keep writing.”
In October 2010, he attended the Banff Centre’s two-week Wired Writing Studio residency during WordFest, the annual international writers’ festival held in Calgary and Banff, where he met agent John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists. Stephenson was too shy to introduce himself, so he asked two friends to do so. Pearce was intrigued by Stephenson’s awkwardness and read his manuscript. Both author and agent clicked, and Pearce saw great potential in A Matter of Life and Death or Something, a children’s story intended for adults.
For Stephenson, A Matter of Life and Death or Something, seems like an emotional catharsis, a vehicle to explore his own existentialism. He took how he felt about the world and split it into three narrators: Arthur, Phil and the trees.“Arthur is curious and innocent. Phil is kind of scared of a whole lot of big realities he’s unable to come to terms with,” he says. “Then with the trees, they have knowledge of the whole bigger picture, balancing between the terrible anxiety of the day-to-day and knowing how much none of that matters in the big picture.”
The book explores large-hearted Arthur Williams, a 10-year-old who is certain about a few things, such as bridge, trilobites, tapping maple trees causes them pain and that his real dad may be flying a hot-air balloon across the Pacific. Or maybe he’s paving a city with moss. He is certain his stepfather Simon knows nothing.
National Post reviewer Raymond Beauchemin gave the book a mixed review. He disliked elements of Stephenson’s writing but praised the overall story. “The storyline is compelling,” he said. “Arthur is a smart, sensitive boy on the cusp of adolescence, with all its physical, mental and emotional changes, facing a new life situation and full of deep questions about himself and that self’s place in the world.”
As an inquisitive, curious child, Arthur questions the meaning of the universe. When he finds a notebook in the woods, which ends at page 43, he sets out on a secret mission to find who the author Phil is, or was. On his journey he realizes everything he knew about life is wrong, that nothing is certain.
“My mom thinks that Arthur is a good illustration of myself as a child,” says Stephenson. “That is not what I was trying to do. I feel like the more honest I was about what these characters were feeling, the more of myself I had to put into them. Phil was the hardest to write. He’s probably the closest to me age wise and mentality wise.”
Stephenson assures readers the philosophical aspect of the book is an amateur one, more a DIY, naïve philosophy. “You have a character who doesn’t want to live in this world, who decides not to. I never wanted it to be a story dramatizing that,” says Stephenson. “I didn’t want it to be the story of Phil’s demise, which is a given. There’s more of a self-help component, where Arthur has to come to some resolution about it being impossible to resolve tragedy.”