‘Build that empathy muscle’

Chris Benjamin’s latest book was almost two decades in the making.

Boy with a Problem is a collection of 12 short stories that focus on love, loss, acceptance, and failure.

In 2003, Benjamin wrote the first story during his 1.5-hour subway commute to and from work while living in Toronto. Since then, many of his stories have been published, and he felt confident that he had enough to tie all of them into the collection. But a challenge emerged during the process. How could he link the short stories into a common theme, and which stories should he send to his publisher?

“I found that hard; the best I could come up with was a lot of stories about underdogs and outsiders,” he recalls. “Eventually, I explained my problem to a writer friend of mine…she suggested loneliness as a theme… because some of these characters are privileged, middle class, and doing well in life. However, they are still feeling isolated, lonely for some reason, or just disconnected.”

One of the short stories in the collection that resonated with Benjamin is called “Mulch Glue.” It’s a story about a girl growing up in a small town and the mill’s environmental impact on her. The girl’s parents recall how people used to swim in the waters but not anymore. Already an outcast, she decides to take a stand against most people who had connections to the mill.

“I enjoyed that conundrum of trying to be an activist: you are taking a stand on what you feel is right, but you are going against everyone else around you,” Benjamin explains. “As young people often go through that in small towns, they develop a certain sensibility or belief about the world. I felt that a lot in suburban Nova Scotia outside of Halifax, feeling like I had values and principles that others either weren’t thinking about, or they didn’t care about them.”

As a writer, Benjamin avoids tidy stories with neat conclusions. “In real life, resolutions in our relationships are compromised, or I think of times where there was conflict with people, and it’s often a matter of ‘OK, I’ll try to do this differently,'” he says. “We grow, but we don’t always grow as much as we want to or as much as other people want us to; the resolutions from my characters are often learning to deal with a problem more so than solving it.”

While Benjamin did not plan it, the collection’s relevancy comes amid a pandemic, and Black Lives Matter and many other movements. Benjamin says some of these issues have always existed; more people are paying attention, and the spotlight is shining more so on TV with sports not being broadcasted.

“It’s interesting because no matter what your social background class, standing, or level of privilege, we all have to deal with it to some extent. Then suddenly going out into the world was a very scary concept, so we had to deal with isolation and facing loneliness,” Benjamin adds. “It was the isolation that forced us to pay attention to something bigger.”

Not immune to the pandemic, the publishing industry is facing challenges with book releases and promotion.

Benjamin and other authors rely on book launches to gain momentum and jump-start their sales. It’s forced them to find innovative and creative ways to create some buzz. There hasn’t been an official launch of Boy with a Problem, but Benjamin did get to participate in the Lunenburg Lit Fest before the book’s launch. He also did a Facebook co-interview with another writer and sold books through an email campaign.

As the second wave of the pandemic rolls over Nova Scotia, Benjamin hopes people take away crucial things from his short story collection.

“It’s an interesting companion by your bedside during this time as we worry about a possibility of another lockdown,” Benjamin says. “I hope they are entertained by it for a couple of hours, want them to be moved by the characters…and become affectionate for a character. A writer tries to see the world through someone else’s eyes and then show it to their readers. I am trying to show different perspectives on things and build that empathy muscle.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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