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Simply Un-Putdownable: Benjamin Stevenson talks about writing his debut thriller Greenlight

September 11, 2018

About the author:

Benjamin Stevenson is an award-winning stand-up comedian and author. He has sold out shows from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival all the way to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has appeared on ABCTV, Channel 10, and The Comedy Channel. Off-stage, Benjamin has worked for publishing houses and literary agencies in Australia and the USA. He currently works with some of Australia’s best-loved authors at Curtis Brown Australia. Greenlight is his first novel.

Purchase a copy of Greenlight here 

Read our review of Greenlight here 

Greenlight is a really unique thriller. Can you tell us a bit about the story?

Greenlight is about a true-crime documentary filmmaker, Jack, who is working on series that shows a convicted murderer, Curtis, is an innocent man. When the documentary is a huge smash hit, Jack discovers a piece of evidence that may prove his subject guilty after all. Fearful it would ruin his show, Jack hides the evidence and delivers the series unedited. When this leads to an appeal and Curtis’s release, Jack tries to ignore the guilt inside him.

And then they find the first new victim…

Greenlight deals with a variety of ethical and moral dilemmas. What kind of research did you do for these plotlines? Does the kind of evidence tampering that happens in the book happen in real life?

 I’m not an incredibly technical researcher, but I did undertake a lot of ‘awareness research’ when I was writing Greenlight. I think it’s more interesting to find real human stories that convey character rather than reciting facts. So that’s what I was after while developing the moral ambiguity of certain key players. I had to research Jack’s illness, as well as some technical aspects of wine-making (it is set on a winery in the Hunter Valley).

Of course, though, the legal and film-making element is a huge part of the book, and that did require me to go a little bit deeper. I read a lot from both sides of the guilty/innocent debate on series such as Making A Murderer and Serial to get a feel for the way the public consumes these series. I also looked at the court transcripts for the Steven Avery case. I don’t necessarily think that evidence tampering like what happens in the book is rife in cases, I really don’t, but what I do believe is that people are making entertainment. So they’re trying to make the audience feel something. And that means that if a certain piece of evidence doesn’t fit the narrative, it’s cut out. I adamantly don’t know whether or not Steven Avery is guilty. But I do know that I haven’t seen the whole picture. I’m not vilifying the filmmakers here: if I read the arguments of the prosecution, I know they’re only telling me half the story too. The events in the book are me taking this manipulation of the truth to its extreme – how far would (or could) these documentaries go? What is the truth, when we’re basing our sense of justice on a television show?

I will say that I kept it out of the courtroom as much as possible. This isn’t a legal thriller, it’s one that uses this a launching pad into a larger story. Some might say that’s because I’m lazy and didn’t want to do a whole lot of courtroom research…

 This is your first book. You’re also an award-winning stand-up comedian. What inspired the move from comedy to crime writing? 

Crime writing and comedy are basically the same thing, if you think about it. Both trade on two key themes: suspense and surprise. You want to set up an audiences expectations and twist them on it – and the end result can either be laughter (comedy) or gasps (crime… or bad comedy).

Comedy also uses many of the same structures as crime. There’s the old ‘gun on the mantel’ dramatic rule, which states that if there’s a gun in Act 1 it must be fired in Act 3. In comedy we call that a call-back – where you return to a previous idea for a larger pay-off.

Here’s a joke (not a good one). “I was suspended from school for bullying other students. Too bad I’m the teacher.” This is what we call a “pull-back-and-reveal”. The laugh comes from the surprise at inverting expectations, when we realise the school bully is not a student but the teacher. A crime novel is just a bigger version of a “pull-back-and-reveal”.

Subverting expectations is a comedian’s bread and butter, and it is also what makes a great thriller. So it was natural fit for me to flex the muscle in a different format.

Why do you think people are drawn to crime? Is it similar to why people enjoy comedy maybe – for the thrill of the punchline, or in the case of crime fiction, the thrill of the twists and revelations?

I think escapism in entertainment is underrated. You’re right that the reason people enjoy crime and comedy are similar – they have an expected reaction to the material. They go in wanting to laugh, or to be surprised and thrilled. It’s an unwritten contract between writer and author that if you pick up a crime novel you will be curious, surprised, and satisfied. It may sound like I’m trashing the genre by saying it plays to an expected set of rules, but I think that’s a good thing. Besides, once you pull people into the book you can do anything… Greenlight gets pretty crazy!

On a literary level I think crime allows us to look really deep into a person, because people are laid bare at their worst, so readers get a lot from character. I also think people enjoy the intellectual challenge of piecing things together. It’s like a giant sudoku. People love to be challenged. There’s a feeling of pride in piecing together a mystery, accompanied by the feeling of “oh sh*t!” joy when the rug is pulled out from under you. That’s why I love crime, and why I tried my best to give you several big twists in Greenlight that will drop your jaw. 

And finally, can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m very excited to be writing another two books for Penguin Random House. So there’ll be a book from me the next two years I think is the plan. I’ll also be writing and touring a new comedy show in 2019. I hope I don’t get the crime-writing and the comedy-show mixed up otherwise I’ll have some very confused audience members…

A little teaser for the next book: it’s about the power of language. What if your words could kill someone? That’s all I’ll say (because even I don’t really know how it’s going to turn out!)


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