Novelist discusses new book ‘Benchere in Wonderland’

Steven Gillis spoke to students about his writing methods and what fiction should accomplish for the readers.

By Kaleigh Jerzykowski

Dressed in jeans, a plaid shirt, and a baseball cap with a frayed bill, novelist and publisher Steven Gillis shifted his weight at the podium in Gold Room A of the Oakland Center.

“I lean when I read,” Gillis said as he cleared his throat, and he dove into the prologue of his newest novel, “Benchere in Wonderland,” which he completed this September.

On Wednesday Oct. 22, Gillis performed a book reading and question-answer session with interested members of the Oakland community, providing insight on his creative process.

“Fiction should ask questions,” Gillis said, emphasizing that all of his works set out to ask something.

Gillis said that “Benchere in Wonderland” explores questions like “What is the role of art?”, “Can you make art for art’s sake?” and “If you don’t have an audience, is it art?”

Gillis read the prologue of “Benchere in Wonderland,” followed by a portion of the first chapter, which told the story of a middle-aged sculptor who loses his wife to cancer.

“I’ve never written a novel where the protagonist was close to my age,” Gillis said, adding the detail that his wife fought and won her own battle with cancer years ago.

“I’m asking a bigger question that’s also more personal,” Gillis said regarding the similarities between the struggles Benchere goes through in relation to his own life.

After captivating the audience with the reading of his excerpt, Gillis facilitated an open forum-style conversation in which he discussed his process as a writer and invited questions from those in attendance.

Gillis asked the audience, “Why do you write?” to which many responded in unison, “Because I have to.”

Gillis, who is no stranger to the burning need to create and express one’s self through artistic and literary means, said he understood.

“I’m a firm believer in following your gut,” Gillis said. “The more you write, the more you learn to follow your gut. And if you’re resisting the story, you’re not following your gut.”

One student asked Gillis how he knew when a work was completed or not. Gillis chuckled.

“It comes from experience,” he said. “You’ve just got to know — you’ll know.”

Another student asked Gillis about what it’s like for him to write anything in general.

“I’m a complete loner,” Gillis said. “I work in isolation until the very end and then I let my editor see it.”

“I didn’t even take writing classes,” he said. “Except for some poetry classes at U of M.”

“Every word’s got to matter,” Gillis said. “And you’ve got to know that … very aspect of it is important, because you’re creating art.”

The crowd was immersed in the informative and down-to-earth nature of Gillis’ advice, which allowed for several questions to be asked which yielded meaningful answers for all in attendance.

“[Gillis] is a very big presence in Southeastern Michigan,” said Annie Gilson, associate professor of English and director of creative writing. “I admire his work and his generosity and his energy, which have made him a shaping force to the literary community here.”