Daniel Ben-Horin’s editor told him people who buy books are buying the author, not the writing.
“That’s not interesting to me,” he said in a phone call from his California home last week. “And, anyway, it’s not attainable. I’m 72 and don’t have time to establish my name as a writer in that way. My interest is in what’s between the covers.”
What’s between the covers of Substantial Justice, Ben-Horin’s new novel, is a literary thriller set mostly in Northern California in 1985. It follows a former Vietnam vet who’s seeking justice after his friend, a pot dealer, is murdered.
There’s a tense, entertaining romance and quite a lot of dark humor and subtle narration, besides. Several chapters take place in Phoenix, where Ben-Horin lived and worked as one of Phoenix New Times’ first editors in the early 1970s.
“Like a lot of people, I have a love-hate relationship with Phoenix,” he admitted. “Certainly, working as a journalist let me indulge in a close examination of the city’s foibles. My book is an observation of the absurdist qualities of American life, then and now, and if you’re looking for absurdist examples, Phoenix is a treasure trove. I left in 1975, and those were seven of the best years of my life. But you have to admit, that city is kind of nuts.”
Ben-Horin was last here in January to visit his brother. “Phoenix is very slick now,” he thought. “When I lived there, it was simpler, and its cowboy-town roots were more apparent. I remember a lot of Old West motifs, simpler architecture. Now, everything is upscale. Except, I guess, the politics. I’m no expert, but I’m sure it’s still a conservative town. Hey, at least you got rid of Sheriff Joe.”
Post-journalism, Ben-Horin co-founded TechSoup, a nonprofit technical support provider. The company was inspired by the idea that people working in the technology industry in the mid-'80s were natural allies of social change activists. “It was pretty high-concept,” he confided. “But those two groups didn’t know one another, and never would. I wanted to create a mentoring relationship between them, and it really took hold.”
He worked on his novel off and on for 34 years. An early draft was set exclusively in Phoenix. “I wrote that in 1985, but I was still too close to Arizona to write about it. I shifted a lot of it to the Bay Area; the focus and the main characters changed, but the sensibility of the story stayed the same.”
Early reviews of the book have been mostly positive, but Ben-Horin said he’s frustrated about being pigeonholed. “I’m caught between genres. I have Hobson’s choice—it’s either contemporary fiction, or it’s a suspense novel.”
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People might be surprised, he thought, that his writing was most inspired by the 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope, whose Phineas Finn series depicts a young Irish member of the English Parliament. “Trollope had a unique narrative voice,” Ben-Horin said. “He owned the narration but was gentle on the omniscience. That’s the kind of writing I was after.”
He talked about being fired from his post as a reporter at the Arizona Republic in 1971. “I was the token lefty at the paper,” he remembered. “I had a lot of angst about working at a conservative daily, where I was expected to represent the alternative perspective. And they, in turn, had some concern about my left leanings.”
Ben-Horin was already moonlighting for New Times when the daily sacked him. “I reached out to the guys who were running New Times, which I had always loved. I thought it was great they wanted me, but I also think they were interested in someone who looked more respectable and had held a job at a daily.”
He’s working, he said, on a sequel to Substantial Justice. For now, though, he’s busy promoting the first book. “People keep saying things like ‘Do as many podcasts as you can!’ But what’s more important to me is the writing, and hearing from people who want to talk about the book. A writer needs some kind of affirmation from the world to know he’s doing something useful.”