Meet the Author: Ben Downing
By Li Stebner
From Harvard University to Columbia to an apartment in New York City and now to Hathaway Brown School, this Halloween, Ben Downing visited HB to talk about his writing experiences. Downing is a well-known travel writer and has published various articles, biographies, and books about other famous travel writers such as Robert Louise Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, G. K. Chesterton, author of the Everlasting Man, and Peter Fleming, creator of “Bond…James Bond.” Downing writes about nineteenth- and twentieth-century British social life and literature. His most recent book, Queen Bee of Tuscany, was published this year. The Retrospect spoke with Downing about his work and experiences:
Q: Your writing has a common theme of being about 19th and 20th century travel writers, which is a remotely unusual topic. What interested you to write about this subject?
A: To begin with, I love to travel, and when I can’t actually get myself out on the road I like to experience other places vicariously through travel writers. I also appreciate the way that travel writing can function as sort of a platform genre—one can pile memoir, history, anthropology, nature writing, and so forth on top of it, without sacrificing its essential character. Finally, I think that some really great writers have worked in the genre, such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom I’m tempted to describe as the Shakespeare of travel writing.
Q: Most of the individuals you write about are British; why is that?
A: What can I say – I’m a rabid Anglophile! Though I’ve never lived in Britain (nor do I especially wish to), I find myself drawn, like so many others, to the British sense of humor and penchant for understatement. I also admire the richness of their history, and am fascinated by the way that everyone in the intelligentsia and upper classes seems to know everyone else, whether as a friend, cousin, colleague, or enemy. Both for better and for worse, it’s a very tight-knit place.
Q: Are you British, or did you grow up in a British family?
A: Nope, I’m just a plain old American.
Q: Your book, Queen Bee of Tuscany, was published this past year in 2013. This appears as one of your only complete novels and one of the only ones about a woman. What made you want to write a complete novel on a woman when the vast majority of your previous works have been about men?
A: Actually, Queen Bee of Tuscany is a biography, not a novel—there’s nothing fictional about it. As for why I ended up writing about a woman, I didn’t really set out to do so. Rather, I found myself drawn to Janet Ross’s pungent character and colorful life. The fact that she’s a woman is neither here nor there for me, though of course I tried, when writing the book, to be alert to the ways in which her gender shaped her life.
Q: Is it more difficult to publish a book than to publish an essay or a poem?
A: Alas, yes. It’s very tricky to get a book published, especially by a good, reputable publisher. These days, you have to have an agent, and before the agent can sell your book you have to put together an extensive proposal. But it’s all worth it in the end.
Q: You write for multiple literary magazines and a few newspapers; what do you primarily write for them?
A: I write essays, articles, and book reviews.
Q: One of these literary magazines is for Yale, yet you attended Harvard and Columbia. Do you write for the other two colleges as well?
A: I can’t say that I feel any particular allegiance to Harvard or Columbia just because I went there; I guess I tend to be pretty unsentimental where education is concerned. The Yale Review (which actually has little connection to the university) happens to be an excellent publication, so I’m happy to write for it. Harvard and Columbia have nothing equivalent.
Q: When you were younger was it your dream to become a writer?
A: I’m not sure it was ever my dream, exactly, but I began to feel an interest in writing when I was in high school. That interest grew stronger over my college years, and by the time I graduated I felt ready to start writing for publication. But my ambitions are modest; though I like what I write, I have no illusions about it being anywhere close to great or important. I feel lucky to be able to earn a modest living by writing things that interest me.
Q: You have a group that meets in your New York City apartment, and with them you teach foreign speakers how to develop an extensive American vocabulary; what made you decide to start this?
A: For the past few years I’ve been working hard on my Italian, often by hanging out with Italians and speaking to them half in their own language and half in my own. In the process, I’ve learned to enjoy teaching foreigners the finer points of English, and I thought it would be fun (and somewhat profitable) to establish a class for this purpose.
Q: Do you enjoy the people you meet at this group?
A: By all means!
Q: Do you have any plans for upcoming stories?
A: Yes, I’m currently writing an article about the above-mentioned Patrick Leigh Fermor, specifically about his experience as a British commando on the island of Crete during World War II. Since I don’t usually write on military subjects I feel a bit out of my depth, but it’s a stimulating challenge.