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CHANNEL FEATURE: Interview

Holiday Hype? It's a dog's life!

Self-effacing, super smart, and soon-to-be stratospheric. Young North Shore writing talent Ben Sanders talks Bradley Cooper, inspiring teachers and early morning scheming, with Channel’s Heather Vermeer...

When young Ben Sanders decided to head to New York using the money he had won through the AIMES 2012 Emerging Talent Award, he made a decision that would change his life.

Bunking down at a friend’s house in the Big Apple, Ben was on a mission to secure a book deal for his upcoming novel. Having been signed to Harper Collins here in New Zealand, he had published three books and it was time to see if he could make it overseas. He said: “I managed to get myself an appointment with an editor at Macmillan in Manhattan. He literally had 15 minutes to see me, so I delivered this breathless pitch. I left my latest book with him (Only The Dead) and that was that.”

That was June 2013. Following the completion of his engineering degree, Ben was working in Takapuna as a structural engineer.
“In October or November, I was driving to work one morning and got a phone call at 7.30am from my agent. He said that Brendan at MacMillan wanted to do a series of novels set in the USA!”
This set in motion several email and phone conversations, with the result being a two book deal which Ben signed in December last year with MacMillan, one of the world’s leading publishing houses whose headquarters are on the illustrious Fifth Avenue in New York.
“The very lucky, and very exciting, part of it was that he (Brendan) runs the film division at MacMillan and his special interest is selling books to Hollywood!” Ben explains, without trying to hide his excitement in relaying this fortunate offshoot to what was already a huge success story. He continues: “I got this amazing email one Saturday morning in February saying that we’d had an offer from Warner Brothers, with Bradley Cooper attached to it, but that they were still negotiating. I didn’t get a lot of sleep that weekend - I was literally pacing the house!
“By Tuesday, I’d sent an email to find out how things were going, and got a reply saying that he’d forgotten to tell me but, yes, it had all been agreed!”
So there he is, with a two book publishing deal with one of the world’s biggest publishing houses, and a deal for an A-list Hollywood film. Bradley Cooper will play his lead character, as well as produce the movie.
“It is very much a dream come true. It’s been a bit of a breathless time! I’m still fizzing!”
American Blood was two thirds complete when I met with Ben on Takapuna Beach on a glorious March morning. He summed up the story so far.
“It’s about an ex-cop who used to live in New York and worked undercover as an informant for ‘the mob’. Everything went pear-shaped and he was put in a witness protection programme in New Mexico, out in the desert away from the city. But he’s always on the look out for trouble...”
Were there particular challenges that came with setting the book in America? “It was quite a challenge, yes. But this book is similar in tone and style to my other books so in many ways it feels quite familiar.”
It was when he was “about 13 or 14” that Ben began writing. “After a couple of years of reading obsessively, mainly crime thrillers, I tried to emulate what I was reading,” he says.
Favourite writers include Cormack McCarthy, Christopher Hitchins and James Elroy. And his ultimate favourite book? Is that question just too hard?
“Yes, that’s too hard. But if I was pushed, I guess it would be The Road by Cormack McCarthy.”
Teachers can often have a huge influence on self-belief and directions taken in life, I mention. Ben tells me he attended Long Bay Primary, then Long Bay College where he encountered two teachers of the life-changing breed. 
“My 5th Form English teacher, Miss McCormick. She really sparked my interest in writing. And Mr Jones, who taught Media Studies. Between them they covered the writing and film side of things. They made a really strong impression on me. Whatever passion I have for these subjects its really due in part to their enthusiasm for teaching these subjects.”
His parents too, have always been avid readers and lovers of language. Both work on the Shore, his mother in Takapuna as a consultant for Colmar Brunton and his father for Auckland Council.
“Yes we’re very loyal to the Shore!” Ben proudly admits, before continuing: “My parents have always been big readers and have always been very interested in English and language. I guess my interest is an extension of their constant encouragement and their interest in reading.”
Now Ben, who is the eldest of three brothers all brought up in Torbay, has to get to work to finish his Hollywood-bound novel, American Blood. “I have to get a bit of a hurry on!” He says. “They have a screenwriter engaged who will turn my book into a script. He wants to get started in April. So I need to not dilly dally!”
The novel will be published next year. He will be able to broadcast on the cover that the book is to be turned into a feature film, starring Bradley Cooper.
“As an author, that’s such a great endorsement to have for the book when it comes out.”
The film will follow and its too early to estimate a release date. But one thing is for sure, Ben will be there on the red carpet when it does.
“If that’s not part of the deal, then that’s a deal-breaker! I’m pulling the plug now!” He laughs.
Has he seen Bradley Cooper in his Oscar-nominated role in American Hustle? And would he be the leading man he would have chosen for the film adaptation?
“Yes, I saw him in American Hustle and I was hoping he’d win the Oscar. Sadly not. That was a bit inconsiderate don’t you think? It could’ve been another great plug!”
“I think he’ll be ok, he’ll do for the role, I guess,” he smiles conspiratorially, before gushing: “Yes, he’s exactly the sort of guy I want in my movie!”
Will he have much say in the film adaptation of his book?
He looks unconcerned, saying: “It’s been terrific at this stage. There have been a few emails flying around and I have definitely been included in everything, which feels great.
“I had a conference call with the producers in Hollywood the other day...” He stops himself before before breaking into a laugh. “The novelty of saying that hasn’t worn off yet!” 
“It is their prerogative to adapt it though,” he accepts. “Given that I’m brand new to the industry it doesn’t really bother me. I’ve got this far!”
It’s during his morning walks with his dog that he reflects upon and plans his writing.
“I’m a real creature of habit,” he explains.  “I get up and take my dog for a walk for an hour every day. That’s my scheming phase for the day! I think about what I’ve written and what I’m going to write next. Wanda is my partner in crime!”
I chat to Ben about the belief that some writers have in using a pen and a paper. I’ve read that Quentin Tarantino, for example, pens all his works the old-fashioned way. I wondered how and where he committed his ideas to paper?
“I have a desk in my bedroom and that’s where I write. It’s the same desk I’ve had in my room since I was a teenager. I use Microsoft word. I’d never get anywhere if I actually wrote with a pen and paper!
“I find that my writing style is quite iterative. It’s not that often that I get into the flow. Back space is still my most commonly used key!”
He has to be very disciplined, I assume?
“I write 1500 words a day and I will stay at my desk until that’s done. Sometimes it’s a 2am finish!” He tells me he writes chronologically but admits: “I don’t take a very logical approach. I plan the first part and I get a really solid foundation and once I have written everything for that opening segment, I find I have enough ideas that I can keep things rolling along and each subsequent chapter just follows on.”
Part of the deal with MacMillan is to have the second novel delivered by April 2015. By then, hopefully the first book will be close to hitting the shelves and its likely the movie will be being made. All a lot to take in for young Ben, ‘someone of simple pleasures’ who enjoys playing tennis, catching up with his mates and enjoying the natural beauty and laid back vibe of the Shore. As long as he doesn’t get too caught up in the Hollywood hype so much that he misses too many of his scheming morning walks with Wanda, this Shore boy’ll be right.

by Heather Vermeer

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