Benji Carr was a teenager when he started working as a stringer for The News (a former Gannett weekly) in 1993. Since then, his writing has been published in The Guardian and ArtsATL, and presented onstage at the Center for Puppetry Arts and the Alliance Theatre.
According to Carr, who cofounded the online literary magazine Gutwrench Journal in 2015, being a journalist taught him how to write direct, blunt sentences and honed his instincts for using solid quotes to provide color and energy in every story. Being a playwright, on the other hand, taught him to trust his audience. “You can throw a character smack-dab in the middle of a nightmare in the first scene,” says Carr. “Your audience will figure out what they need to know, about who’s connected to who and what their history is, as they go. You don’t need to spoon-feed them proper context before the story starts. When the lights come up onstage, you begin the ride.”
Carr put a career’s worth of knowledge to the test in his debut novel, Impacted (The Story Plant, 256 pages). The story begins with a bang and keeps readers engaged — if clinging to the plot for dear life — thanks to its furious pace, laugh-out-loud breaks in tension and an ensemble of deeply flawed yet recognizable characters.
For all his fearlessness as a storyteller, Carr admits being terrified now that his book is out in the world. He shared with ArtsATL his thoughts about the genesis of his sense of humor, the burden of keeping secrets and what he hopes young people, especially, might gain from Impacted.
ArtsATL: Your bio says that “as a child growing up in the South with cerebral palsy, Benji Carr developed an eye for the bizarre and quirky.” Can you share a specific example of that?
Benji Carr: From the time that I was super little, there were strange circumstances in my life that my parents treated with a sense of humor. When I walked with a limp, my mother just told me that I had “wobbly legs” and said that my condition was like that Disney scene where Bambi navigated the frozen pond. When I was 3, I had surgery that required a double-leg cast with a bar placed in between my legs for six weeks. I looked like a giant letter A, and my parents just trucked me around in a red wagon to doctor’s appointments. Whatever things were frustrating or painful, they were offset by cheeriness and jokes. One time with the cast, my dad carried me by the bar upside down around the house like a suitcase. It was fun.
Somewhere along the way, I guess I just always treated incredibly dark or weird circumstances like they were funny. Growing up in Buford, I also learned how to spot the disconnect between difficult situations that were going on and the way that nice, genteel Southern ladies and gentlemen behaved. I cannot tell you how many times I heard “Bless your heart” as a limping child. It took me forever to realize that those words aren’t nice.
ArtsATL: Wade Harrell is a deeply sympathetic protagonist whose life is a hot mess. What compelled you to consider life from the perspective of a gay, closeted, 17-year-old single dad living in his mother’s basement with his newborn daughter and girlfriend?
Carr: Regarding lives that are hot messes, I’m just writing what I know. And I have been a gay, closeted 17-year-old before. And I am an abuse survivor. And, growing up, I knew teen moms and dads who had to move into their parents’ finished basement with a new baby.
The weird thing with Impacted was that it was never supposed to be a book. It was just supposed to be some short, pulpy murder story about a woman who cheats on her husband with a dentist. But that isn’t a circumstance I know enough to be able to write well. And other people have written that before, I think.
I know what it’s like to be a kid weighed down by too many secrets, unsure of how to tell anyone about them or how to survive. So Wade became this disaster of a person when I realized that it was possible, if nightmarish, to be all of the things that he is — gay teen dad/murderer — at once. Wade is in so many messes, even before the book starts. But his intentions were generally good, even when his actions were idiotic. And he feels so responsible and guilty for every situation he’s in, even regarding stuff that isn’t his fault.
ArtsATL: Readers will have to decide whether Celeste is a hero or villain in Wade’s narrative, but you shed some light on her childhood fascination with cop shows, murder mysteries and Lifetime movies in the following excerpt: “Celeste didn’t think there was any danger in stories warping her any more than the world itself would, same as it does to everyone. But mama didn’t want to hear any arguments. She would just fret that her daughter wasn’t ‘normal.’ Mama spent her nights reading Harlequin romance novels filled with happy endings and great kisses, Celeste thought, but those books never taught her mother how to pick a good man. So there.” Why did you want the reader to have this understanding of Celeste’s makeup?
Carr: Murder stories usually have a detective, like Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s the hero of the story, but he’s also a smart-mouthed opportunist who’s primarily looking out for himself. He solves crimes as a way to raise money, but he usually ends up dodging bullets and is under suspicion himself at some point in the book.
I didn’t want to have a detective in my book. I wanted to avoid writing about cops. But I wanted there to be an old-fashioned noir edge to the story I was telling, like Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson would write.
If Wade is the floozy hot mess of my story, Celeste is the reluctant detective. She’s the one in the story who knows the big secrets, protects herself first and then comes to question her choices. She’s playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers, and I reveal her backstory at a point where her endgame is revealed.
ArtsATL: With the exception of Wade’s lover, Dr. Max Emmett — a master manipulator — none of your characters are purely sinner or saint. In your mind, does Emmett have any redeeming characteristics?
Carr: Nah. Max is pretty much the worst. I didn’t know, as I was writing it, that he exactly deserved everything that happened to him. I didn’t write this with an outline. But as the book went along, Max just kept being horrible. He isn’t even a very good dentist.
ArtsATL: Last month, you posted the following message on Instagram: “It terrifies me a little that there are copies of Impacted out in the world, hopefully making a good impression on new readers. Oh man, what will they say?” Is there a reader response, question or observation that stands out in your mind today?
Carr: This book is a bit of a Trojan horse, beginning like a noir story but with deeper things going on beneath the surface, and I’m terrified that — once the big picture is revealed — a lot of people aren’t going to like what that picture is. I’m afraid of some readers bringing torches and pitchforks to chase me down. While I was writing the book, I kept what I was doing a secret from most friends, and I would only let the readers I sent chapters tell me to keep going, instead of offering me feedback on what I was giving them.
There are a lot of twists in this book and aspects of its tone that might bug people, but the topics are important and should be discussed without stigma. Somewhere right now, there are young people weighed down by secrets, wondering how to survive, and I want them to read my book and feel less alone. And that will happen. God, I hope that happens.
ArtsATL: What did you find out about yourself as a result of writing Impacted?
Carr: There are a couple of discussions among characters that happen near the end. Those were very cathartic to write. They dealt with sex, homosexuality, abuse and manipulation. And in those talks, characters made healthier choices about dealing with trauma than I ever have.
ArtsATL: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Carr: Topher Payne designed my book cover. Because there is nothing that man cannot do.
Carr will be in virtual conversation with author Brian Panowich to celebrate the launch of Impacted at the Georgia Center for the Book at 7:30 p.m. July 6. Free. Register here.
June book picks
(Each month, we feature new reading suggestions from book lovers across Atlanta’s arts and culture landscape.)
“We don’t know how we will grieve until we grieve,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in Notes on Grief (Knopf, 80 pages). In this simple statement, she invites readers to grieve the death of her father with her. In the details of his life (file cabinets filled with his children’s school records, his love of Sudoku puzzles), of her own reaction to the phone call delivering the news (Adichie’s 4-year-old daughter mimics her by screaming and pounding the floor) we see ourselves in her grief.
In this glittering teardrop of a book, Adichie does the hardest work a writer can do. She looks grief in the eye, pins it to the page and asks us to look, too.
— Jessica Handler is the award-winning author of the novel The Magnetic Girl, the memoir Invisible Sisters and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. She teaches creative writing at Oglethorpe University and lectures internationally on writing about trauma.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (37 Ink, 368 pages) by Dawnie Walton is an impressive debut, one of those wonderfully ambitious novels that proves hard to summarize. An interracial musical duo from the ’70s is at the center of the story, and Walton writes well about music, the music industry and the way both have evolved over the past four decades. The story of Opal and Nev, though, is used to examine other complicated issues, including race in America, the commercialization of art and how we are shaped by families — those we are born into and those we form on our own. The novel also has an interesting, hybrid structure, mixing long stretches of oral histories with sections written in the first person by the journalist compiling the history, a woman with a powerful story of her own.
That may sound like too much for one book, but the characters that Walton creates are so fully realized, and the world they inhabit so believable, that everything coheres. The result is an engaging and entertaining look at the way music and race have shaped each other, and America, the past 50 years or so.
— Peter McDade teaches at Clark Atlanta University and was the drummer for the band Uncle Green. He’s written the novels The Weight of Sound (2017) and Songs By Honeybird (due in March 2022).
In Stephen Rowley’s The Guncle (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 336 pages), we meet Patrick O’Hara, a former sitcom star living a reclusive life in the Palm Springs desert. When his sister-in-law and best friend dies after a long battle with cancer, he flies home to Connecticut to grieve with his family, especially niece and nephew Maisie and Grant. While there, his brother reveals he too needs medical treatment and Patrick, or GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick) will need to be the children’s guardian for the summer.
Patrick takes the children back to Palm Springs with him, and quickly learns that caregiving is more complicated than witty banter and life lessons doled out over brunch. He learns to trust himself to love again, and realizes he needs Maisie and Grant to heal just as much as they need him.
The Guncle is the perfect summer read filled with lovable and hysterically funny characters and an endearing and heartwarming story. This is the kind of book that leaves you smiling long after the last page is read.
— Kate Whitman is the former vice president of Author Programs and Community Engagement for the Atlanta History Center, where she curated the popular Author Talks series for more than 13 years. She’s now a sales manager for Penguin Random House. When not planning her family’s next Disney vacation you can find her with her nose in a book.
One of the more affecting novels I’ve read this spring was The Parted Earth (Hub City Press, 272 pages) by Anjali Enjeti. The novel takes us back to 1947 India under British occupation, where we’re immersed in the rich sights, sounds and culture of New Delhi streets: the rickshaw drivers napping with their “arms slung over their eyes like blindfolds,” the white mynah birds dipping their beaks in the birdbaths, the buses with “riders clinging to the outside of the doors,” the “donkeys poking their muzzles into heaps of trash,” the sweet shops that smell of coconut and sugar.
The story is about partition on many levels: partition of country, partition of culture, partition of lovers, partition of families and partition of individuals from their ancestral pasts. Events rip the characters away from one another, and the novel is driven forward by their urgent need to be rejoined at every level: personal, cultural and ancestral.
But the aspect of the novel that haunted me most was the long shadow of future history. The events turn on national identity and tribalism, and I couldn’t read it without thinking about our own culture wars, without wondering: what would it take for my own neighbors, who have political beliefs different from my own, to want to shut me out, to want to drive me from my home, to want to take up arms against me?
— Julia Franks is the founder of Loose Canon, a Goodreads-style social media site for schools. Her debut novel, Over the Plain Houses, was named an NPR 2016 Best Book and winner of the 2018 Townsend Prize for Best Georgia Fiction.