Curiouser & Curiouser: We’re from the same hometown, which makes me think we’re already best friends, which makes you my newest Internet crush – strange, considering I usually stick to crushes named Craig. What’re the chances of us getting married?
Benjamin Whitmer: Well, back ‘atcha. Though I would say the odds are low on marriage, but it’s certainly not personal. I have done marriage, and have come to think of it the way I think of a new Wally Lamb book. Meaning, I’m very happy that it makes so many other people happy, but I can’t figure out any of the characters, and if you come too near me with it I’ll run away and hide under a bucket.
But I love that we’re from that same town. It’s one of those places that you never expect to meet anybody from. I actually lived in town, Jackson, for the first year or two of my life, and then my mother and I moved with some other folks onto a farm in the hills. On top of a hill actually, which I remember distinctly, because there were a lot of nights we had to park our broke-down car at the bottom and walk the dirt driveway up it. We had forty acres with a barn, a cabin, and a little white house down in a gully. My mother and I lived in all three at one point or another. I liked the little white house the best, I think, because it had a black snake in the walls that would eat the mice and you could hear it moving around.
There was no electricity and no running water, but we had lots of freedom and books. And my mother, bless her soul, kept me out of school until third grade. That was very important to my development, being kept out of school. It’s the one thing I wish I could give my children. I think the kids of this country would be better off with a lot less school.
C&C: I agree with you about school. There’s a lot of paperwork going on, but not exactly a lot of learning… How do you think starting late in school, and being a little wild as a young one, set you up for parenting? I mean, a lot of parents with any kind colorful pasts are just as likely to go full-on opposite “I will not let my children repeat my mistakes, they shall succeed,” as they are “It’s just school. They get more state and federal money if you fill in the right circles, just join the circus or something, there’s a lot of life out there.” This question is kind of all over the place. But, kids. And dreaming and the circus and success…
B: I’m a little of both, I guess. I don’t care about grades, and I’m of the opinion school has a lot more to do with teaching them how to be productive members of society – meaning, preparing them for a lifetime of keeping their ass in a seat and doing stupid, repetitive work – than it has to do with education. And I’m always furious about the amount of useless busywork they come home with. And all the nonsense testing. There’s no way I’d have survived if I had to do it in this day and age, and I’m not real good at hiding my opinion from them.
But at the same time, I dropped out of high school, and it made life a lot harder. So they know that too. My philosophy on it is, yeah, most of it may be junk, but it can make your life a lot easier if you can put up with it. I’m probably not gonna win any father-of-the-year awards with that attitude, but I have trouble coming up with another. To the colorful past thing, mainly it’s just important for me that they know there are no mistakes they can make that I haven’t already made. Whatever they’re struggling with, I’ve probably screwed it up royally in my life. That’s the one parenting lesson that I hope really sticks with them. Not as an excuse for them to do every dumbass thing I did, but so they can talk to me about anything. (Sorry to be corny.)
C&C: What are your plans for Halloween?
B: I think my kids are with their mother this Halloween, so probably not much. I’m pretty fucking lame on that holiday, to be honest. There’s usually an invitation to some party that I ignore because I’m too lazy to figure out a costume. When I have the kids, I always have big plans for costumes, but we never get ‘em done, because at the end of the day the kids want to be in something storebought. Which I don’t blame them for. Besides which, I’m not the most crafty individual on earth. I’ve been boycotting Hobby Lobby long before it was cool. My entire life, in fact.
There’s a zombie walk here in Denver and last year I wanted to buy gas masks and go as those creepy kids from “The Empty Child” episode of Doctor Who. But I think the kids realized I really just wanted an excuse to buy us all gas masks, so they nixed it. And then I thought it would be fun to dress my son up as Maxwell Silverhammer and I could go as the judge with my brains hanging out. Also nixed, for a cool ninja costume. And then one year I thought it would be cool for all of us to go as Black Bloc anarchists, and I even told them they could smash all the Starbucks’ windows they wanted – not for any political reasons, just that Moby Dick is my favorite book – but they started complaining about getting arrested and etc.
C&C: Can you make a bump key, or could you at any point, and realistically is that even a useful skill anymore considering the way security systems and locks are set up, now?
B: Oh, hell no. When I was a kid I thought I was pretty good at breaking and entering, but it was more just the side window or the unlocked garage door. It was just that I lived in a small town in southern Ohio where there was a private university. It was a target rich environment. Lots of folks with lots of good alcohol and drugs, and, as a townie, I didn’t have any good alcohol or drugs. So I felt within my rights to liberate some of theirs. It was the kind of stupid teenage shit which’d probably get you shot or put in jail for life these days.
Now I kind of want to learn how to file down a bump key, though. You may have solved my Halloween plans.
C&C: Who was the first person you ever showed a story you’d written?
B: I think it was a young lady named Laurie. I was stone in love with her. She was one of the coolest people I’d ever met, and she was always blowing me away when she talked about books. It was a small town and I wasn’t much of a fighter, or smart in school, or any kind of good looking, so I figured I’d better pick up something artistic to impress young women. And since I couldn’t draw and had no musical ability, I chose writing. Everybody’s impressed with writers, right? And it’s easy – it’s just words, after all.
Jesus, did I miscalculate that one. From every single angle.
I still count Laurie as one of my best friends, though. And she seemed to like the story well enough. Enough that I wrote another. And another. And then decided, fuck it, I’ll do this for life, whether or not it ever impresses women. So I’m happy with the results.
C&C:Did you celebrate Christmas as a kid?
B: Absolutely. I’m a sucker for Christmas. When I was a kid we never had any money, so it was never about gifts, but the adults always did these amazing things. I remember one year we came down and the entire Christmas tree was lit up with candles, each of which they’d placed into a bird’s nest and clothespinned to a branch. It was beautiful. Other times I remember going out in a real sleigh, with bells and everything, singing Christmas carols on our way to cut down our own tree.
I’m still goofy for it with my kids. We have a little more money, so there are more gifts, probably, but I try to keep everything aimed at the corny stuff. They make it easy by being great kids.
C&C: What do you have in your pockets right now? Or another way people like to approach this one if I catch them in their pajamas is to list their “every day carry.”
B: Well, besides keys, I have my Phat Bob folding knife. It’s the best knife I’ve ever had. It’s tough and big, and easy to open one-handed. You can use it to pop Mexican cokes, peel an apple or baton kindling. I’ll be heartbroken when it breaks, because I think they’re discontinued. I also have a brass Zippo. I quit smoking cigarettes, but I keep it because, y’know, fire. And my stupid cellphone. Which, for my purposes, is only really an e-reader. (Right now loaded up with PERFIDIA.) And my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Time wallet that my son gave me for father’s day. And if I’m carrying, there will also be a 3” limited edition Ruger .357 revolver and an extra speedloader of ammunition. I don’t carry so much anymore, though.
C&C: If I went to the vehicle you’re driving and turned on the radio, what would come out? What do you listen to when driving?
B: I usually listen to audio books. Any way that I can sneak a little extra book time, I’ll take. I’m pretty boring on that front. I try to keep the radio off for the same reason I don’t have cable and never hooked an antenna up to my television. I’m inundated with enough shit from the internet, I don’t need any more. My brain functions better when I know exactly what’s going into it, and I don’t end up being surprised by any unforeseen celebrity news.
C&C: Can you swim?
B: Nope. I could probably keep from drowning for twenty minutes. Maybe. And sometimes I can move in the direction I’m trying to for a few feet, but that’s about it. Luckily I live in Colorado, where it’s not exactly a necessary skill.
C&C: Do you have any irrational fears or phobias? Like not logical “I think I have bad breath” or “I heard a chainsaw, there’s probably a chainsaw out there” fears, but more like, well, cockatoos can steal your soul and Jack-in-the-boxes are evil. Those last two things are true, by the way. Anything get to you like that?
B: Chickens! I loathe and fear chickens. We had them growing up and they were the only thing we killed that bothered me. The way they keep flopping around headless, evil fuckers. Pigs don’t do that. You stun a pig by shooting it in the head and then cut its throat, and it doesn’t jump up and start trying to chase you. That’s chicken behavior. Anything that can do that is pure malevolence. And they’re disgusting. Bonedeep stupid, filthy animals. I have recurring nightmares about being caged in with them.
I eat chicken out of spite. I hate-eat the motherfuckers.