freight road

Q&A with former trucker turned author

April 3, 2018
"On Route 117, what doesn't kill you just gets another chance." -- Trucker Ben Jones in The Never-Open Desert Diner

The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson featuring truck driver Ben Jones is a publishing phenomenon. It was rejected by scores of large publishing houses, but and was finally picked up a by a small publisher willing to take a chance. Once the book was discovered by reviewers and the public, offers then rolled in from large publishers (it was published by Broadway books in 2016) that now saw a wide potential audience.

Anderson's second book, Lullaby Road, was published in January. It has the same main character who hauls a 28-ft. trailer back and forth on Route 117 in a Utah desert community. The author, who was once a trucker, spoke to us by phone. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

The Never-Open Desert Diner is a difficult book to pigeonhole. That's something that scared large publishers away.  

"That goes straight to the heart of why every publisher originally turned it down, because yeah, it's a mystery, but it's also kind of a meditation on the road. There's a romance at the center of it, and it's also a character study. It's a whole bunch of little things, and it's not really a whodunit by the numbers kind of mystery, because Ben is actually a participant. He gets swept up in it, and it's a mystery that started at that isolated diner forty years before when there was a horrible crime. I'm not so much interested in crime as I am in how there's never just one victim, and how the tragedy spreads over generations. It's like a stain that touches so many people, even people who weren't alive at the time."

Why did you choose a truck driver as your main character?

"A friend of mine was addicted to heroin, and he said he was sober, so I invited him to live in my house. He stole everything from me, including 400 pages of a different novel. I didn't have any money, and I was trying to get him clean and also hide him from all the drug dealers who were looking for him. We drove around the southwest staying at cheap hotels while he barfed his brains out, crapped his pants, and all that other stuff. I began writing, just writing descriptions and so on, and then I decided that if this was going to be a novel, I needed something to hold it together. I needed somebody that drove these sort of desert highways, and I thought 'He's a truck driver' but not an OTR guy. Ben Jones is a local driver [he is an O-O contracted with FedEx, UPS and others] who drives one-hundred miles through nothing to a little dying coal mining town, and then one-hundred miles back every day, places where there are no addresses, and he delivers things to people who choose to live out there."

What else about truck drivers made you choose that profession for your protagonist?

"Truck drivers are connected to their customers. Even if it's a freight terminal you see the same guys. But they're also apart. They're sort of detached. There's that sense of 'How you doing? Good. All right. Are we set? All right. Bye.' So you do have a connection, but you're also detached, and that's also the nature of Ben Jones. He is an orphan, and as far as he knows, he's Native American and Jewish. He was abandoned on the Warm Springs Reservation. Ben is detached, and he would never say it, but his customers are like his family."

Being a truck driver gives Ben a reason for being, and it gives him a reason for driving."

What has been the response from truck drivers who have read your book?

"All of the response has been a big surprise to me. I've heard from so many people, and some reviewers have actually said 'After reading this book, I think about truck drivers and what they do in an entirely different way.'''

I've had drivers write to me and say 'Did you drive a truck? 'Cause man, you really get it.' I talk about things like the traffic and the geology. You're thinking about grades coming up and grades going down, road work, and the weather. There's all kinds of stuff that you have to be concerned about including that little jerk in a Mini Cooper who's sneaking up on your blind side."

Tell me more about Ben.

"I liked creating Ben because he has to use his damn head. He's out there in the middle of nowhere, and so there's no safety net. He doesn't carry a cell phone because where he drives you may get reception but you may not. You can't depend on it. He does have a fairly new truck that's got a Bose sound system that he has never once used.

Ben has a twist on the old saying: 'What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.' Ben says: 'On Route 117, what doesn't kill you just gets another chance.'"

You seem to have a good grasp of how people feel about truck drivers, but also you have a great respect for what they do. Where does that come from?

I did drive, and if you drive a truck, even a medium duty like me, you know how people weave in and out of you. They cut you off. They pull up on your blind side. They flash their lights at you. It's like you are just one major problem for them. They never seem to think that the truck is bringing you your produce. That truck is bringing you your piece of gym equipment, your book or medicine or other things that you need. If it wasn't for them, you'd be screwed.  Truck driving doesn't pay a bunch of money, has long hours, and it's dangerous. It's made more dangerous because people have no respect or common courtesy a lot of times, and having been out there and driving, I've seen how people react."

I think there's a lack of common courtesy that's been growing in this country. Take just take a moment and think about it. This is a guy who's trying to do his damn job of which you are the beneficiary."

What's next for Ben?

"I don't want to write a series for the rest of my life, the same character. I don't want to do that. The publisher is only interested in another Ben Jones, and that's fine, because I'm not done with him yet. I promised to write a trilogy which I prefer to think of as a triptych, sections of a painting that you can appreciate just one section, but when you put them together, you have an entire panorama."

About the Author

Larry Kahaner

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