April’s Somerville Arts Council’s Artist of the Month isn’t a painter or an illustrator or any other type of artist that may come to mind when many people hear that word. Ben Brooks is an author who has written more than 80 short stories, a novel and been published in several prestigious literary journals. He’s also called Somerville home for the last 20 years.
Brooks didn’t always know he wanted to be a writer and as a kid, he excelled in all subjects in school. That success led him to study at Harvard University as an undergraduate, where he abandoned his chemistry major for an English degree.
After college, he and his soon-to-be wife headed west with many others in the early 1970s. Brooks got married and he and his wife had a baby. His writing took a backseat until he decided it was now or never to pursue it as a career.
“If I’m gonna get serious about writing, this is the time to do it,” he thought then. So he applied and was accepted to the University of Iowa’s creative writing graduate program. There Brooks met John Irving, who was working on The World According to Garp at the time, and short story writer Ray Carver, who both became mentors to him.
“They influenced my work and career path,” Brooks said. Carver turned him on to literary journals, saying “send your work to these magazines. This is where people start, where real literary work is done.”
After Brooks’ time at the University of Iowa was up, he and his family moved to Provincetown where he received a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center. It didn’t pay much, but he was able to write, his wife was able to paint and their family grew to include a second child.
“We lived in a barn with three rooms,” Brooks said. “We loved it.”
Then Brooks’ wife decided she wanted to pursue a Master’s in Fine Arts at the University of Arizona, so the family packed up and moved west. They had never been to the area before and it was quite a change from what they were used to in the Northeast.
Brooks first went to Arizona in July to look for a house and of that first visit he said, “the tarmac was like metled. It was 105 degrees.” A year later, the family was driving near the Grand Canyon when they came upon a forest and Brooks realized it was the first time they had seen real trees in 12 months.
While living in Arizona, Brooks worked for an architecture firm as a communications coordinator. He was able to take yearly month-long sabbaticals from his job to attend artist residencies in California, Washington state and Wyoming.
Brooks usually rises early to write and likes to take walks or do other outdoor activities in the afternoon. During his stay in Wyoming, he took a mountain bike ride one day through a nearby field only to discover it was completely full of rattlesnakes. He escaped unscathed after lifting his feet off the pedals and coasting away from them.
It’s clear from talking to Brooks that his travels and time living in a very different part of the country have influenced him personally and professionally.
“Almost 20 years after leaving Arizona, I still set stories there,” Brooks said. “It’s meeting and observing really different kinds of people. I really liked Tucson, it’s very culturally diverse. I think it’s a good thing for people to live in different places.”
But as much as Brooks enjoyed his time in Arizona, he and his family always longed to come back to the East Coast. So they packed up again and moved to Somerville in 1994. They’ve been here ever since.
“I’ve spent 30 years in the Boston area and I’ve always lived on this side of the river. I’ve always liked Somerville,” Brooks said of choosing it as his home.
When he moved back, Brooks took a job at the Museum of Science, but eventually traded it in for a teaching position at Emerson College, which is where he spends many of his days now as a senior writer-in-residence. Brooks teaches one literature course every fall and then focuses on fiction workshops and thesis advising.
Brooks’ job at Emerson gives him ample time to do his own writing and keeps him connected to young writers, which he appreciates. As someone who was once an aspiring writer himself, Brooks counsels his students on what to expect as they forge a career in a tough industry.
“If they really want to be writers, they need to be true to their own instincts and interests and not worry about what other people think,” Brooks said. He also advises them to not take rejection personally by developing a thick skin.
Brooks knows that the writing life isn’t an easy one, but he wouldn’t choose any other. He’s had his work published in prestigious literary journals and won several writing awards. And he’s currently at work on a new novel.
“I love writing. I’d be crazy to do it if I didn’t,” Brooks said.
P.S. I’ve been writing about each Artist of the Month this year and you can read about all of them here.
Images courtesy of the Somerville Arts Council.