An Interview with Craig Bennett Hallenstein
When did you first start writing?
I grew up in a family of journalists—my father, the day news editor for the Chicago Tribune, my mother, the managing editor of a suburban weekly. Growing up with writers, I always wrote. My first serious effort was a novel at 13. I was discouraged, however, by my mother’s reaction to the lovemaking scene in chapter 16.
What’s the story behind your book?
I was scanning the radio nine years ago when I suddenly heard: “We should burn them all in ovens and send them to hell!” I thought: Whoa, who could they be talking about? When I realized it was sex offenders, it dawned on me that sex offenders are so reviled in our culture that radio personalities could disparage them using the language of Nazi Germany and get away with it without fear of reprisal. I thought there could be a story in that. That launched a multi-year study of sex offender-related issues. What I learned was: 18-year-olds having consensual sex with 17-year-old girlfriends/boyfriends are being forced into a one-size-fits-all sex offender registry that fails to distinguish them from violent sexual predators. The more I uncovered, the more I realized that sex offender registration is the most egregious civil rights violation of our generation. Then I knew I had a story.
Why did you set your book in New Orleans?
For the same reason so many movies and TV shows are set there. It’s an incredibly fascinating city which I’ve come to know and love. Also, it’s a very sexy city, with relaxed mores and plentiful sex. I wanted to explore the contrast between sex viewed by most New Orlineans as a thing of joy, and sex looked upon by offenders as a scarlet letter emblazoned on their chests.
What is your writing process?
I try always to stay attuned to the voices in my head, telling me what’s inside that wants to be expressed next. Maybe it’s a political insight, a teaching, or a rant. What it’s not is a story. Ideas arise; stories have to be built. It’s only in the telling of a story, that ideas are illuminated. THE DOLPHIN isn’t a book about sex offenders or sex offender registration. It’s a story about a man who . . .
When the next thing that wants to be expressed is clear, I rough out a story. The “hero” has a desire, but obstacles stand in the way. Typically, each morning, I spend a half hour in the shower, plotting action and characters and deciding where today’s chapter will end. Then I sit in front of the computer and the chapter writes itself. Anne Rice calls it channeling. I don’t know how it works, but it always does, in a wonderful, magical, mystical sort of way. I follow Stephen King’s prescription and write a thousand words a day. At the end of 90 days, I have a 90,000-word book.
Next, I throw the manuscript to my readers to rip apart. Advisers say: “Never have family or friends read your work.” Nonsense! That’s where I begin the second phase of my books. I’ve even asked my kids to ask their high school and college friends to read my work. Before they start, I inform them that they’re my “partners” in crafting a book, and that it does “us” no good when they’re complimentary. Instead, I tell them, they need to be ruthless. And guess what? They always are. I’ve been skewered many times by a room full of high school kids, ripping apart every word I write. Further…they’re always right! There’s a kernel of truth in every one of their criticisms—something that didn’t work, something that bothered them. Their comments cause me to go back and re-craft, ever seeking a better result.
Following my trouncing by my many beloved readers, I move on to professional editors who, without instruction, are ruthless by nature. I figure they’re either born that way or are the product of poor child-rearing practices.
Months and years follow. Many people say: “Stop. Your book is good enough. Quit editing. Quit re-reading. You can read it a thousand more times and you’ll always find things you’ll want to change.” Fortunately, my stubbornness always wins out. I decided early on I’d be done with a book when I could read straight through and not change a thing. So I wait and go at it again and again. On my last and final read-through of THE DOLPHIN, I was down to a mere handful of nits. Finally, I was satisfied. Finally, I was ready.
What is the joy for you in writing?
Crafting a single sentence in which every word works that illuminates an idea, causing readers to pause and reflect. Every so often the stars align. Whenever it happens, it’s a magical moment. The other great joy occurs when I laugh out loud, re-reading a humorous passage I wrote months before. Even though I know the funny part’s coming, I laugh because the set-up works and the craft is solid.
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
When a writer “runs dry,” it’s a signal: Close the machine and experience more life. Run away, travel, seek adventures, face dangers, dive into loneliness, and revel in profound pleasure. In the process, you fill yourself up. Once replenished, take pen in hand and watch the world pour forth. I’ve already done a whole lot of living. There’s far more for me to write about than I’ll ever have time to create the record.
Who is your favorite writer?
John Irving. I love his layering. The depth and complexity of his characters is amazing. He always surprises me and I love to be surprised.
What are you working on next?
I have other stories in mind and a couple to return to. Knowing it takes years to craft a good book, I choose my projects carefully. Of course, I don’t really choose them. They choose me.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
The chance to be creative and to engage with the people I love. Running sexual energy is also a terrific motivator. Read my most frequently shared blog: “Running Sexual Energy is an Essential Part of Your Job Description.”
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
Hanging with kids and grandkids, managing my business, entertaining, and restoring old homes in New Orleans and Chicago.
What do you want readers to walk away with after reading THE DOLPHIN?
The thrill of having been immersed in a really good story. The joy of meeting fresh characters in a whole new world. The surprise at discovering an empathy for dolphins, realizing some sex offenders are innocent and struggling for their lives.