Editing should take five times more time than you ever imagined. Trust me, you will look back on your first “perfect” draft to say “The horror! The horror!”
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary F. Bengier.
Gary F. Bengier is a writer, philosopher, and technologist. After a career in Silicon Valley, Gary pursued passion projects, studying astrophysics and philosophy. He’s spent the last two decades thinking about how to live a balanced, meaningful life in a rapidly evolving technological world. This self-reflective journey infuses his novel with insights about our future and the challenges we will face in finding purpose. Before turning to writing speculative fiction, Gary worked in a variety of Silicon Valley tech companies. He was eBay’s Chief Financial Officer and led the company’s initial and secondary public offerings. Gary has an MBA from Harvard Business School, and an MA in philosophy from San Francisco State University. Today, he and his family live in San Francisco.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Remember “42” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? That is the answer to the question about the so-called Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (posed by aliens who created a supercomputer, that churned for 10 million years). Yes, it is a cornball joke. But I’ve been fascinated by the big questions. That is why after a full career focused on daily living, I went back to earn a master’s in philosophy. (Spoiler alert — that may be why my main character, Joe, is a “Level 42.”) We want to answer those big questions, to find meaning and purpose in our lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
My business career, focused on high tech in Silicon Valley, exposed me to many cutting-edge technologies, which gave me ideas to imagine this near-future world. Of the several startups, eBay was the most fascinating. I was CFO, leading the IPO (and the 1.4 billion dollars secondary offering) and then working to build the company in the early, hair’s-on-fire years. I’m proud of what we built then, that included creating a million jobs for average folks who could make a living off a small business run out of their living rooms. But the experience also showed how fast our lives can become, running from one new shiny thing and idea to another. That’s one take-away for us all. Let’s also figure out how to slow down, and to actually live.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge was to learn the craft of good fiction writing. I had written my entire life, but much was practical, business writing, with a dollop of creative writing on the side as an avocation. I collected over 100 craft books to study while toying with story elements. I found some wonderful, talented writers and editors to lend advice. I attended writer’s conferences over three years, picking up important tips at each. The most effective technique for me was to read from the masters (there are loads of good books about the writing craft), then attempt to apply that advice to my particular themes, story, and characters.
Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
You are not a writer until you actually write. Like exercise, writing is often more enjoyable in the abstract. The secret really is “bump in the seat.” As an old financial guy, I know that “what gets measured gets managed,” and each writer should find a comfortable method to measure their writing progress. I like to plan, so I outlined the novel — only a skeleton at first, then with more detail as the story became clearer to me. Then I roughed out the scenes. Then I set weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals for scene writing. The progress against those concrete numbers was motivating. I liked to watch my number of words grow and the number of unwritten scenes diminish. Along the way, my characters began to wake me up at night, to whisper in my ear (“No, I won’t do that…”). That’s when the writing truly became a lot of fun.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The format of a novel is different than real life in several ways, and one is that while life can be random (the world really is non-linear), a novel cannot be. There must be a logical reason, presented to the reader, for everything that happens. That logical closure is critical to a pleasant reading experience. When I first imagined certain scenes, I was not aware of this “rule.” Later as I began writing those scenes, I was stopped by the ludicrousness of the initial idea. I’m embarrassed to ever reveal some of the crazy ideas that were in the first outlines. Those will be burned. 😉 Well . . . okay. There is not a rusty, old, analog Chevy in the Empty Zone as a getaway car.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Besides the time demands on me of writing and now launching Unfettered Journey, my wife and I like to focus our non-profit activities around helping underserved young people find their own success. We do that through direct scholarships and by working through a number of other great non-profit organizations. That has been a major focus for the past two decades. With the pandemic, there has been more need around basics needs, for food and to help organizations forced to shut their doors until it is safe to reopen.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
One of the more important stories in this many-layered novel focuses on social justice. Imagined 141 years in the future, I ask: What social equity issues are least likely to have been solved? What new problems will our technology create, and how will we address them? If we have the conversation now, perhaps we can better anticipate, and mitigate, the worst scenarios. Let me say that I’m sure my readers will love the heroine of that story theme.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
No matter what life throws at you, there is always a reason to move forward. Do that with resilience, with fortitude, and don’t resign. That is a hopeful message for these pandemic times, and for all times.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
Well, time will tell how well-known Unfettered Journey will be. But I’m proud of the book and think readers will love the themes, story, and characters. My advice is:
- Solicit advice from everyone writerly that you can.
- Plan your story well, so that it begins with a focused structure. You need to know where you are going to ever get anywhere. Your readers will then be comfortable having you as their leader on that journey.
- Write. Measure. Write.
- Editing should take five times more time than you ever imagined. Trust me, you will look back on your first “perfect” draft to say “The horror! The horror!”
- It’s your story. You own it. Don’t let anyone have the final say on your story.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
That one habit is the perseverance to write on some schedule, that measurably will move you along to completing your book in a reasonable time. Life will interfere, and it is easy to be knocked off that route before the goal line.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I’m still a fan of the classic canon, even with the obvious faults (from our retrospective view) in many of those books — writers like Faulkner, Hemingway, and Flaubert with Madame Bovary. The science fiction classics inspired me from a young age, including everything from Asimov, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Herbert’s Dune. Besides having thought-provoking themes, these books are great stories. Great stories are memorable.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Social inequalities that limit who can fully participate in our society crush creative spirit and limit what we can collectively do to advance humankind. We are all limited by not having the full engagement of everyone in our economy and in our culture. As one of my characters says, “Everyone should begin life with the freedom to excel.” The conversation driven by the Black Lives Matter movement must be followed with steps to implement real change. That conversation needs to continue beyond, as there is so much work to do to reach the equality promised in the U.S. founding documents. That is a movement to be in front of, helping to bend the arc of history toward justice.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m delighted to have your readers follow me and the launch of Unfettered Journey on Labor Day, and they can especially find the latest at https://garyfbengier.com.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Gary-F.-Bengier/e/B089NGFKGT