Ben H. Winters holds his to-do list up to the camera. Typed and printed, it’s organized into professional and personal daily tasks, and fills the page. “I used to get very fussy and focused on time,” he says. “Like, write from 8:20 to 10:45, five-minute break, write from 10:50 to noon.” Clearly, those days are long gone.
Winters, a remarkably boyish 44, walks me through what he hopes to accomplish today: work on chapter four of Big Time, the novel he just sold to Mulholland, which he calls “a corporate espionage thriller with science fiction elements”; research futures trading and elementary physics for the same book; work on three short stories; check in with the writers room of a TV series he’s involved in; tend to his children when they are released from the digital purgatory known these days as “school.”
With his laptop in the shop, Winters is chatting via Zoom on the family computer today, in the light-filled study he shares with his wife, three children, and “classic pandemic pup” Archie. He points to a particular task on his list. “Do publicity stuff for The Quiet Boy,” he says. And here we are, right on time.
At first glance, The Quiet Boy (Mulholland, May) seems more rooted in the real world than most of Winters’s books. Set near his home in West Los Angeles in two discrete time lines, the book is structured like DNA: a double helix. The 2009 strand is a gripping legal thriller inspired by Scott Turrow, with nuts-and-bolts stuff like discovery, expert witnesses, depositions, and a trial. The 2019 strand is a mystery involving a murder in a budget motel.
Winters’s fans may wonder whether the author, known for bestselling mash-ups like his 2009 debut, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, has abandoned the world of asteroids, androids, and insects from hell. But then the oddities begin to appear, and readers realize that yes, they are very much in the world of Winters. “This is my first book since Bedbugs,” he says, referring to his third novel, published in 2011, “that sets its narrative against our world and a weirdness intrudes—as opposed to being a weird world, the extent of which is slowly revealed.”
The real world of The Quiet Boy begins at the end of 2008 in attorney Jay Shenk’s office above a donut shop in a strip mall between two freeways. Winters calls Shenk “a durable kind of American hero: the noble scumbag.” Shenk, a widower raising his adopted son with more love than sense, has taken on a “humdinger” of a malpractice case: after a routine operation, teenager Wesley Keener has been walking endless circles. He never eats, sleeps, or speaks. He neither gains nor loses weight. He is a medical anomaly.
Winters knows the mechanics of suspense well enough to introduce the uncanny within the context of the mundane: head trauma and hospitals. “From the moment the Keener boy shows up,” Winters says, “I’m playing with the question, is he medically screwed up or is he interdimensionally screwed up?”
Shenk is the sort of wildly confident middle-aged man to whom the thought of losing never occurs. Like many confident men, he proceeds with more bluster than care, and within a year the humdinger looks more like a speeding train about to derail. “Shenk wants the best for everybody,” Winters says. “He moves through the world just loving. But he’s a destroyer, too, because he’s heedless and doesn’t care about the rules.”
The other strand of the double helix picks up 10 years on, in the wreckage of that derailed train. Shenk is a diminished man, his bluster all gone. Keener, now almost 30, hasn’t stopped walking for a minute. But even more puzzling is Shenk’s new legal case: defending Keener’s father, who’s been charged with murder.
“I’m a big one for braiding different genre things together and seeing how they look when you’re done,” Winters says. To anyone who’s been following him since his debut, this statement will not surprise. Though he made a conscious decision to be more than “a mash-up guy” after his second novel, Android Karenina, he never stopped tinkering with convention. If modern biologists are gene splicers, Winters is a genre splicer, taking what he likes from every kind of book and braiding it all together to create his own species of fiction.
Case in point: after Bedbugs, about an infestation requiring more of an exorcist than an exterminator, Winters wanted to write “the kind of detective story we’ve never seen before,” he says, and came up with a beauty of a hook: a detective story set at the end of world. While writing that book, The Last Policeman, what he’d first thought of as a “lark” became a contemplation of mortality. “Spoiler alert!” Winters says, startling Archie the dog, who’d been sleeping on the sofa behind him. “We’re all going to die one day. What does that mean about our obligations to each other, and to our work?”
Once Winters realized that he wanted to write “veiled efforts to understand things that might be more meaningful,” there was no turning back. And why would he? The Last Policeman won him an Edgar Award, spawned two sequels, and was optioned for television series development.
“If I have a kind of banner under which I work,” Winters says, “it’s taking the deep stuff, but writing it in such a way that it doesn’t feel deep, or laborious, or grave. The work is joyful. The work is rock-n-roll!”
Winters has an infectious exuberance, is easily excited, quick to move, and prone to gestures. He’s had something in his hand since the interview started. “I can’t stop playing with it,” he says, waving a small piece of plastic. Brown, translucent, and hinged, it’s his daughter’s hair clip.
For a man who often traffics in the unsettling, Winters is a real softy. More than once, emotion threatens to intrude in our narrative. “You don’t realize how affected you’re going to be by having kids,” he says. “They’re always on my mind, you’re always navigating how to get your work done, but also take care of them, and not feel like you’re failing at either thing.”
For all its strangeness and suspense, The Quiet Boy is really about the relationship between parent and child. Writing the book made Winters examine what it means to love someone so much “that there’s fear in it,” in his words. “A sense, every day, of ‘what if something happens?’ It’s not a dark thought, but it’s an intense thought.” In his hands, of course, the intense braids with the strange.
“The brain is a giant mystery,” Winters says, excited again. “Even the act of contemplating the mystery is occurring in this squishy mass of flesh that’s inside this thin membrane, inside this ceramic of the skull.” He shakes his head. “Our reality, everything that you experience as real and as consciousness and as you the person is dependent on the continued physical existence of this very fragile thing. That alone is a mystery beyond mysteries! We think of ourselves as being a person with consciousness and memory and perception, and unique, with all of these ancestors.” He shakes his head and the astonishment falls away. He opens a hand, index finger trapped once again by his daughter’s small plastic clip. “But really you’re just a glob of dirt!” He laughs and Archie rises, ready for his walk.
The time set aside for “publicity stuff” has ended. Another task can be checked done. It’s still early in L.A.; Winters has already run five miles, made coffee, and promoted his latest book, but in a few hours his children will look up from their screens wondering what happens next, and until that moment, there’s still so much left to do.
Mike Harvkey is the author of In the Course of Human Events and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book All-American Murder.