Interview With Professor Benjamin Warner

By Holden Schmale

Prof. Benjamin Warner is the author of two speculative fiction novels, Thirst and Fearless. A lecturer at Towson, Ben teaches creative fiction writing and creative nonfiction, among other courses. Recently Warner and fellow writer and former Loyola creative writing professor Ron Tanner decided to take on a new challenge: writing a craft guide. Titled Speculative Fiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, the book is intended for college creative writing classrooms and will be released in summer 2024. I had the privilege of discussing this project with Ben, gaining insight into a process that has been unique even to an experienced author. 

This interview was conducted by Holden Schmale over a series of emails and has been edited for clarity and length.

Holden Schmale: What first led you to want to take on the challenge of making a craft book and stepping away from your niche in fiction writing?

Ben Warner: I know that when I was an undergraduate, I imagined my creative writing instructors went home from teaching their classes in Helen C. White Hall, and then wrote fiction until they fell asleep at 2 a.m. I didn’t understand just how much effort they were putting into preparing for the following class: reading student work, choosing stories to teach, thinking of ways those stories might be discussed, and creating writing exercises. There’s a lot to it, and it’s fun, and now I’ve been doing it myself for close to 20 years. So writing about that process—and hoping that it might offer other instructors and students some insight—feels both natural and rewarding.

HS: How has the writing process been compared to your regular process for fiction? Obviously, you’re reading other pieces and deciding what belongs in the book, but I had the pleasure of reading a preliminary chapter for class, and there is a great deal of writing you must do on top of choosing each piece.

BW: Yes, that’s true. This is less of a textbook than a craft guide, which is its own genre, I guess. Ron and I are putting a lot of effort into explaining concepts, annotating stories, working out exercises that build on themselves, and trying to help students see some of the ways that speculative fiction is built, one element at a time. As you know, there’s a lot that comes up in a creative writing classroom discussion that feels off-the-cuff or improvised—as students and instructor thinking out loud together. In writing this book, those ideas need to be fully and artfully articulated, so that they can be expressed clearly to our audience.

HS: What are you looking for in a piece you are going to include in your craft guide? I won’t use any specific names, in case it ultimately doesn’t end up being included, but the piece you showed me that you were considering was wacky and wonderful.

BW: Wacky and wonderful is a good start. First and foremost, Ron and I are readers, and we want to be moved by what we read. That can mean so many different things. The speculative fiction we’ve chosen to include is inventive, funny, character-driven, odd, unexpected, and comes from a diverse group of contemporary voices.

HS: What, if anything, are you going to take from this experience and apply to your own creative work?

BW: My teaching certainly impacts my creative work, and I think of this book project as an extension of my teaching. When I’m, say, 50 pages into a draft of a novel, I often stop to think: Is there a world here that my audience understands? Have I fully thought through the way that world works? Do I know these characters? Are there places where I’m falling into cliché? These sorts of self-checks come directly from my teaching, and now, hopefully, this book will help make them available to students in other classrooms.

HS: How has your creative writing benefited and/or suffered in the process of working concurrently on this craft guide? Do you find yourself just swamped with the writing load, or do you find yourself inspired from reading so much fiction at (presumably) a higher rate than usual?

BW: That’s a very astute question, Holden, because you’ve identified a problem I didn’t know existed when I started out. For so many writers I know, the hardest part of writing is making the time to write. I teach four courses each semester at TU, and I have a family who I have to make oatmeal and spaghetti for (those are separate meals… I don’t mix the spaghetti with the oatmeal), and so taking on a big project like this means I have less time for whatever narrative I’m working on. But you’re right, too, that reading a lot of contemporary speculative fiction has been inspiring and motivating, and though it might come to nothing, I have started working on a new novel at the same time as I’m working on this book.

HS: How do you find the right balance of borrowed work (short fiction pieces) and your own instruction and analysis within the craft guide? You are in a unique position writing a craft book for creative writing, as opposed to another discipline that may be less example heavy.

BW: We’re dividing the book up into two parts: a craft section in the front that talks about the nuts and bolts of writing a story and an anthology in the back. The examples we use in the craft section are often very short (anywhere from a page to five pages); these stories are small enough to take apart, like engineers cracking open the motor housing of a drill, so that we can ask: How does this thing work? In the anthology, we’re allowing for stories that demonstrate at greater length some of the lessons of character, setting, and conflict that we try to illuminate in the earlier chapters.

HS: What have you taken away from your experience writing about technique? Have you learned anything about yourself or  your own process? Do you see yourself changing anything about your technique after this experience?

BW: I think I’m always changing my technique. Like so many readers who write, I absorb the rhythms of other writers’ language, and those rhythms make their way into my writing. And when I read a story deeply, and break it apart line by line, examining each word choice with a spirit of discovery and admiration (as Ron and I do with the stories we’re using), that syntax and diction gets lodged in my brain. I can’t imagine that it doesn’t change the way I sit down to do my own work. Sometimes I write something that feels a bit too familiar—an expression or bit of dialogue—and I realize that it’s close to a line I know from another story. Those are moments that make me smile, because that bit of language has become an unconscious part of the way I see the world (though I always revise those lines).

HS: Take yourself back to when you hatched the idea to write this textbook. What did you hope to gain personally as a writer? How has reality compared to those expectations?

BW: I really wanted to help students in creative writing classrooms. When I first started writing in college, some syllabi stated explicitly: NO GENRE WRITING. I took that to be the law of the land, that is, what “serious” writers thought about speculative fiction vs. realistic fiction. But that’s not the case. In fact, most of the serious writers I know are great lovers of speculative storytelling. And yet, the fullness of that truth hadn’t made it into the classroom. It seemed like no [one] was willing to commit to the idea that genre writing is suitable for college students to read, write, and talk about. In part, that’s because no textbook about writing speculative fiction existed. So, we set out to write one.

HS: Could you see yourself writing another craft book? How has your experience been compared to the writing of a novel?

BW: I can’t imagine writing another craft book, but then again, I never imagined writing this one. I’m happiest when I’m working on a novel, and I think I’ll always be working on a novel. Even recently, as I was deep into working on this book, I felt a bit antsy that I wasn’t writing a novel (which is probably why I started writing on another novel).

HS: Last question—a broad one. When it is all said and done, what do you hope a reader of your textbook will take away from its content? Where do you expect its best uses to be? The college level? High school? Who do you see benefiting most from its content? A beginner or a more experienced writer?

BW: This is an easy one. We’re writing this book for any writer who wants to feel a bit more confident about writing a speculative story. I’ve met so many students who have told me that they’ve started a novel or a story but got stuck and stopped. Or they didn’t know “where to take it” after 100 pages. We hope that this craft book is a way to help students get un-stuck, or that it will inspire new directions for those who felt inspired enough to begin the imaginative journey in the first place. It’s a weird thing to be moved to make up problems for made up characters. But that’s what writers do. And that weirdness deserves to be helped along!


Benjamin Warner is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University’s MFA program. A lecturer at Towson University, he teaches courses in composition, environmental writing, and fiction writing. Ben is the adviser to the Towson University Urban Farm and Veg.

Holden Schmale is a junior at Towson University. He has published a short story titled ‘Acquaintances’ in Fairlight Books online portal. He currently serves as Fiction Editor on the Grub Street staff.


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