The Farm, set in the second global energy crisis, juxtaposes Jack’s high-flying energy career with his pursuit of an idyllic life with his new bride, Anna. Russian spies, US counterterrorism teams, moles, and turncoats put Jack and everyone he knows at risk in an international game of deception and assassination. Together with Jack’s old philosophical friend, Ben, and Ben’s wife, Rebecca, Jack and Anna explore a path to practical wisdom in the nuclear age. Jack and Ben, learning from their jobs and marriages, distill out from the noise and tumult seven essential criteria in achieving happiness and a good life, the measure of practical wisdom in all ages and cultures.
Where are you
I was born and raised in the Chicago area. For those who like historical trivia, Richard J. Daley, the future “boss” mayor of Chicago, was County Clerk and signed my birth certificate. I was destined to write about him, I guess. He’s an important character in my first book, The City. I live in Hawaii now. On Molokai, the friendly isle. I think of it as the musical isle, which suits me fine. It’s been a long and winding road, but this feels like home.
Tell us your latest news?
The number one bit of news is the full release of The Farm: On Practical Wisdom. It’s getting five-star reviews, so I’m excited about that.
The other latest bit of news is that I’ve recently reconnected with one of the folks who provided the basis of a character in The River, my second Jack Slack book. He’s a biologist working on wetland preservation and restoration. He’s incorporating The River into his syllabus!
Looking forward, I’m also excited to be moving my next book, Dialogues of the Loon: On Love, on to the copyediting process. I am targeting April 2021 for that launch. I don’t know, should I try to have it out on Valentine’s Day?
When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?
The current series of philosophical dialogues started in graduate school in 1977. From then on, I always thought of myself as a writer. In fact, when my wife and I decided to learn sign language (ASL), I chose a “g” formed and moved as a pen – G-the-writer. As I approached retirement, I found my voice – I often joke that I had a dream in which Plato and Elmore Leonard walked into a bar and the Jack Slack Dialogues were born. My first book in the series, The City, which had gone through four or five complete, and I mean complete, rewrites from the time I started writing it in 1977, finally went to print in 2016.
What inspired you to write The Farm: On Practical Wisdom?
The Jack Slack Shoebox Dialogues was conceived as a series of philosophical explorations similar to the series written by Plato, and on the topics typical of classical philosophers from then on. Practical wisdom is a core topic of most major philosophers. The farm seemed the logical place to center that topic, a classical setting, if you will. The juxtaposition of the idyllic life of the farm with truly modern topics – spies, terrorism, an energy crisis, a failed presidency – gave me the path I needed to explore modern complexities of practical wisdom in all manner of modern daily life.
Do you have a specific writing style?
Imagine I was sitting in a bar, and Plato, one of my favorite philosophers, and Elmore Leonard, one of my favorite novelists, came in arguing about their respective styles. I walked out with a style for the modern philosophical dialogue. My style is driven by my goal of rebuilding the role of dialogue in human life to improve our relationship with the natural world. The fictional aspects aim at building general reader interest and carrying a meaningful and relevant storyline. The philosophical aspects appear as conversation among a well-educated group in the style of a French salon. The real philosophical dialogue occurs in the interplay of the fictional elements with the philosophical arguments.
How did you come up with the title?
The Farm: On Practical Wisdom is the fourth book in the Jack Slack Shoebox Dialogues, so it fits in the story arc of Jack’s life. Here, Jack is trying to move away from his urban roots to try country life, life on a small organic truck farm. His wife Anna experienced farm life every summer growing up, visiting her grandmother’s place not far from the Springfield location of the farm Jack and Anna buy in this story. That’s not an accident. In this case there’s a second story line running parallel to Jack’s personal life that plays into the title. Another important character in the series, Evie, goes for training on “the farm” – the CIA training facility in the hills of Virginia. It’s a stark contrast and an important conceptual play for the overall dialectic of the book.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes, there are messages layered into the book. I’m excited to say that in several reviews, readers have picked up on more than one of them. First and foremost, take away the message of the seven aphorisms of practical wisdom in Chapter Nine: Reflection (page 277) –
Practical wisdom is, above all else, the ability to see the consequences of decisions and actions into the future, and to make those decisions and take actions to achieve a just world: help your friends and harm no one.
The book tries to show that this is a real challenge and none of the terms should be taken simply at face value. Most important, be a friend of the earth – always help that friend. I’ll leave it to each reader to find the message that is most important to them.
How much of the book is realistic?
The Farm is based on facts of the time period – 1977-1980. Most of the politicians, at least the major ones, are real. That said, their characterizations are fiction. While sweeping events, like the opening assassination of Shariati, the revolution in Iran, the SALT II talks, are all real, details, such as the movements of the spies and the counterterrorism teams are completely fabricated.
Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
All of my books are rooted in the life I have lived. It is my mechanism for verisimilitude. I support my memories with research when facts are involved. One important example is the role of the briefings and book on brittle power by Avery and Hunter Lovins. When I ran the Energy Bond Fund program and later as the director of energy programs for the State of Illinois, their lessons were never far from my mind. My wife, Pat, and I lived on the old Nelson farm, exactly as described. She makes the best wild grape jelly in the world, too.
What books have most influenced your life most?
I’ve read widely my whole life. Philosophy has always been a primary source of inspiration for me, Plato and Aristotle, Lucretius (meaning Epicurus, too), Bhagavad Gita, more recently Einstein and a host of other physicists, then the excellent collections on chaos theory and fractals, and Stephen Hawking – though that is more for his bravery, since mostly I argue alternate perspectives on his theories. Lately, I’ve been enjoying The Socrates Express by Eric Wiener. It is a clever mix of autobiography, travel log, and philosophical adventure that accomplishes the same thing I’m shooting for – getting you, the reader to think and talk about ideas.
What are your current projects?
I’m just wrapping up the fifth book in the series – it’s out for copyedit – called Dialogues of the Loon: On Love. I’m thinking it might make it out for Valentines Day, though it was originally planned for an April 2021 release. I’m a little less than a third the way through drafting the sixth book, The Wedding: On Practical Reason. I’m excited about that book for two reasons. First, it is written from the point of view of Anna, Jack’s wife, rather than Jack, though Jack remains the narrator – if you’re a writer you will want to see the gymnastics on that one. Second, it address what I believe will be the critical question of the 21st Century that only a few people are thinking about yet: how do you embed practical wisdom in an artificial intelligence. I’m hoping that will be out for the fall of 2021. Additionally, I’m working on a series of short stories that I hope become the pilots for my next adventure: Kailana’s World. This series presents a utopian future at the end of the Century – there is a trial balloon story as part of Dialogues of the Loon, so you can see it next spring.
Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
I’ll give a shout out to ScreenCraft.org. It may seem strange to some, but I’ve found more receptivity and friendlier faces in the screenwriting community than in the literary community. I guess it makes sense – my books fit more in a cinematic novel model than most other forms. Also, through ScreenCraft, I found the Jacob Krueger Studio, through which I found my actual mentor, Christian Lybrook. Who knows where it all leads, but I enjoy these folks.
Do you see writing as a career?
Writing has always been my passion, and the books that are coming out now have been in the making since my late teen years – is that a career? In the meantime, I’ve had two other careers – about ten years in government service and more than thirty years in the private sector. All of that work has been hands-on effort to reduce the human environmental footprint and improve climate sustainability. The really good news is that those two careers gave me an enormous basis of plot and character material from which to develop my books. Now, in my sixties, yes, writing is absolutely my career.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I try not to look back too much, especially to make changes in what I’ve written. Mostly I look back to make sure that there is a series continuity. I’m hopeful that one day time and money will coincide, and I’ll be able to take the ten books of the completed Jack Slack Shoebox Dialogues and work with a great editor to smooth and streamline them into a beautifully crafted set – both in writing and in print publication. I’d like to gift some leatherbound, acid-free paper sets to libraries in key locations and institutions – Library of Congress, University of Chicago, Rockford University, Elmhurst College, Archives of the State of Illinois, Hawaii State Library and its Molokai branch, Kankakee Public Library. All of that, just in case my utopian vision turns instead to a dystopian, anti-intellectual replay of the Dark Ages.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
One of the most profound philosophers of the 20th Century, Martin Heidegger, wrote a book called The End of Philosophy. I was a student in a class taught by Heidegger’s friend, Paul Ricoeur, on the day of Heidegger’s death. I love the search for wisdom – not just thinking, as Heidegger concluded it would become – and from that day forward, dedicated myself to rekindling the love of wisdom through a series of philosophical dialogues. And voila, nearly fifty years later, here we are with the fourth of ten planned dialogues out as The Farm: On Practical Wisdom.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I love to write and enjoy almost every minute of it. I don’t even mind rewriting if it needs to be. On the other hand, I tire rapidly of editing and proofing. I hire it out. I engage friends. But at some level, the author must endure the tedious process of making sure that what is going to the printer is what was intended.
Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
Travel seems to be something that is mostly in my past now. The combination of aging and the current pandemic put a stop to my bucket-list pursuits and to my plans for being a wandering bard as a form of a book launch. I can’t complain. I traveled, if anything, too much from the time I started working until I retired. I met a woman on a plane once. We were sitting in first class based on our frequent flier miles – meaning we had the callouses on our butts to have earned those seats. It was a flight from the East Coast, Florida, I think, to California. That’s a daylight trip. She said something profound to me once she learned I was a regular commuter to Hawaii: there are only so many red-eye flights in you. Then what? Then you die. I think by the time I retired, I was very near that last one.
Who designed the covers?
In all of my books, I do the concepts. Sometimes, like in The City, I do the artwork. Then I turn it all over to the professionals, graphic artists who get it right.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part of writing The Farm: On Practical Wisdom was that the first version – a complete manuscript – turned out poorly. I very nearly started over, reducing complexity, and making the story and characters more compelling. The rewriting wasn’t hard – it was fun. It was the letting go of parts I really loved, even characters I really loved, to make it a better book.
Did you learn anything from writing your book, and what was it?
The setting of the book came from my own life, but I was often surprised when I researched original source materials at how much my memories had shifted the landscape. Historical details and even major trends I thought I knew well often turned out to have other sides to them.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Research is great, important, critical – but the most energized writing is what comes from the heart, what you know, what you feel in your bones. Make sure you’ve looked at every object, event, or character through more than one lens before you choose the one to highlight and do not be afraid to write about what scares you the most… touches the part of your soul that you least want to expose.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Every chance I get, I encourage my readers to argue with the characters and discuss ideas with their friends. This is a series of books meant to get its readers thinking and talking – in dialogue. The Farm: On Practical Wisdom is not a guide to practical wisdom; it is a search for it. The reader must be involved in that search to find the truth that they, and they alone, can follow.
About George Benda
George Benda grew up in the Chicago area. Born with a passion for the natural world and improving the environment, Benda studied first science, then politics, and ultimately philosophy to answer his burning question: how do we resolve the expanding conflict between human activity and the well-being of the planet on which we live?
Book clubs? Libraries? Academics? These are forums in which that burning question can be explored, and answers formulated. Benda actively supports all of those pathways to a broader understanding. He offers free readers guides, Zoom sessions, and more. Check out some resources: https://georgebenda.com/book-club-support/
Benda started writing philosophical dialogues in 1977 while still a graduate
student at the University of Chicago. He was inspired by Plato to experiment
with dialectic styles. After multiple abandoned manuscripts, he found in Elmore
Leonard a modern-style of dialogue he could adapt to serious thinking --
propelling readers with strong storylines and action, as well. From this
synthesis came the Jack Slack Shoebox Dialogue series.
The first in the series, The City, took nearly 40 years to mature.
years were filled with an active life and events which have inspired most of
the dramatic plots of the Shoebox Dialogues -- fictionalized, of course, but a
granular look at history. The action in the dialogues provides an intimate
glimpse at the realities that lie behind the headlines and belie the history as
told by the winners.
Benda started his career in government at age 18, working in natural areas preservation. He was Director of Energy Programs for the State of Illinois at age 27. Those years -- the late 1970s through the early 1980s -- proved to be the emergent years for today’s global issues of both climate change and political turmoil fueled by an unending energy crisis.
leaving public service in 1983, Benda has been in the private sector, leading
companies in sustainability, indoor environmental quality, and energy
efficiency improvement. He has been the CEO of Chelsea Group, Ltd since 1990.
Benda’s company has won numerous awards for innovation in energy efficiency.
Often a controversial figure in his industry, Benda has never escaped the
universe of turmoil that enmeshed him in his early years.
Now residing on Molokai, a small island south and east of Honolulu, Benda still works diligently on environmental issues through his role as President of the Molokai Land Trust. Always engaged in both a life of action and a life of the mind, he continues to collect stories and plot lines, characters, and emotions that enliven his novels. Serious thinking has rarely been so much fun.