Honestly Ben's Bill Konigsberg on writing the sequel he'd never planned
Bill Konigsberg first introduced readers to Rafe Goldberg, Ben Carver, and the rest of their Natick compatriots in Openly Straight. In his follow-up, Honestly Ben, he picks up where things left off — while also offering fans a glimpse into the mind of Ben, who serves as the protagonist of the novel.
The new book sees Ben return to Natick after his winter break, having put the events of last semester behind him. But unfortunately for Ben, his efforts to get over Rafe aren’t so simple. Not only is he dating someone else, but Ben’s met a girl, Hannah, for whom he’s slowly developing feelings. Complicating matters is the fact that Ben needs to improve his grades so he can maintain his newly-awarded scholarship and his growing frustration with his family’s reluctance to talk about their feelings.
With Honestly Ben finally hitting bookshelves and giving fans the update they’ve been waiting for, EW spoke to Konigsberg about what it was like returning to the world he’d created.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired you to write Honestly Ben? Did you just know at the end of Openly Straight that there was a second novel there?
BILL KONIGSBERG: I didn’t. With Openly Straight, I thought I had written a stand-alone book, but what happened was there was so much reaction from fans who read the book as a romance. That’s not actually how I wrote it. I wrote the book with the romance, but I wrote it as a coming-of-age story. So I thought the book had ended. But, I got so many responses, like thousands, on Twitter, and they all say the same thing: “I love you, and I hate you.” I happened to be talking to my editor, and I mentioned that. I said, “Do you want a book from Ben’s perspective that follows up?” and she just said, “Yes, that. Write me that. Now.” So, that’s what happened.
How was it coming back to these characters? Did you start writing shortly after Openly Straight came out?
It was really a little bit after because in between I wrote The Porcupine of Truth. So, I had to come back to it. I have to say, it was like coming back to old friends. Albie and Toby are just so clearly in my mind that it wasn’t even hard to figure out the kind of hijinks they would get in. It was a pleasure. The hardest thing about writing the book was writing it from Ben’s perspective, who is not very much like me, at all. I had to write a character who’s much less, “Here I am. I’m talking to you, and I’m so chatty.” Ben is not chatty.
But the benefit there is that he’s very introspective, and so while he doesn’t say much, he does have a rich internal voice.
Yes, that’s right. That did help a lot because it’s really hard for me to write characters who don’t think a lot.
Going into this book, how much of Ben’s backstory had you already fleshed out while working on Openly Straight?
I had fleshed out a pretty good amount. One way that I had a little bit of an advantage was I had based Ben’s personality, in some ways, on my husband, Chuck’s. I felt like I knew Ben pretty well, but there were things about Ben’s life that I had to find out. So, I actually had picked a place in Alton, New Hampshire, basically looking at a Google map. I had never been there, and that’s where he’s from. I had to fly across the country to Alton, NH, and go spend some time on a farm there so I could know what the heck I was writing about.
There’s also Hannah, his other love interest in the book. How did you approach crafting that? Were you anticipating people asking, “Why aren’t Ben and Rafe on their way back to each other?”
Yes. I really had to create difficulties for Ben, and I had to figure out a way to make something feel natural, which is that it had to be another choice for him. Hannah is every bit a good a choice as Rafe is, they’re just very different. In Openly Straight, Ben has a former girlfriend, and I didn’t want to use her because it was pretty clear that she wasn’t good for him. I had to come up with a different girl, so he met a new girl.
What are you most excited for readers to discover about these characters?
A lot of people seem to have Ben and Rafe withdrawals, so it’s kind of nice to be able to alleviate that. I think that people just like that world, and want to be back into it. For me, it’s a real pleasure because I know starting very soon, I’m going to start getting the feedback that people are happy again, and that’s so much better than the angry emails.
What’s the general consensus been like? People going, “Hey there’s no resolution between them”?
I would say it’s about 50-50 between people who love the book and understood why it ended the way that it did and people who said, “When I finished the last page, I turned to the next one and there was nothing.” The thing about it that if you read Openly Straight, you can’t end with them together. That’s not possible. That would be totally false. I don’t know what they wanted. Not what I gave them, I guess.
Honestly Ben is currently available for purchase. Order it here.