“I’d like to hear that people who read this book think it’s both challenging and weirdly fun,” says author Benjamin Warner of his new novel, Fearless, which features artist Matt Muirhead’s rendering of the Bromo Seltzer Tower on its cover. As the novel’s title suggests, the protagonist Christine Harmon has no fear. Curious about Christine’s condition, both a doctor named Blau and Christine’s boyfriend Carl put her through a series of experiments and dangerous tricks.

Fearless is published by Malarkey Press, an independent house run by Alan Good. “I was looking for a press that would take a chance on a story that was slightly stranger than what is generally considered commercial fiction,” explains Warner, who moved to Baltimore after graduating from Cornell’s MFA program and now teaches writing here himself. Like Fearless, Warner’s first novel Thirst (Bloomsbury, 2016) proceeds from an unusual and mysterious premise: a neighborhood suddenly loses its water supply, driving residents to battle for resources.

As another Baltimore writer, Rob Roensch, puts it, “Like Vonnegut, Benjamin Warner writes with his whole head and his whole heart. Fearless is funny, surprising and moving, somehow both absurd and warm, with characters who could walk off the page. It’s magic.”

We caught up with Warner by email to talk about his work.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Can you tell us about your background as a writer? 

Ben Warner: I started taking fiction seriously as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, primarily under the tutelage of a great professor named Ron Kuka. It was my first time writing stories from beginning to end, no small feat for me to this day. From there, I studied fiction writing at Cornell University, where I received a Master of Fine Arts degree. I was lucky enough to find like minded people there, who were committed to working on stories and novels, and who have continued to help me over the years. Those writers include people like Catherine Chung and Rob Roensch (another writer who took Baltimore as his subject in his collection of stories, The Wildflowers of Baltimore).  

BFB: How did you come up with Christine’s character? 

BW: I’d read something about a woman whose brain had been damaged in such a way that she couldn’t experience fear. It sounded to me like scientists were experimenting on her in a manner that was a bit ridiculous, and maybe just on the edge of what would be ethical. That got me interested in creating my own character who was both emotionally unusual, and willing to be subjected to those kinds of experiments. From there, I left the reality of what I’d read, and invented Christine to fit a narrative that was more of an absurdist conflict between a scientist and his subject.  

BFB: What inspired you to write Fearless? 

BW: I knew I wanted to create a relationship between a character who had Christine’s condition, and a scientist who, for the sake of an ongoing experiment, was willing to put her in those absurd and potentially dangerous situations. But when I thought about the characters I might actually want to write about, I didn’t believe that a scientist who cared deeply about his subject would be intentionally cruel. He would be manipulating her emotions for what he thought was a large and noble cause. In this case, it would be to better understand her condition, and more broadly, to better understand the human condition. That, to me, seemed like something worth writing about. 

BFB: Fear, along with courage plays a big role in your story. How did they become the center points of your story? 

BW: Courage without fear is just doing stuff. For Christine, being courageous is no different than me going to the grocery store. If I were terrified of cucumbers, for instance, walking down the produce aisle would be a courageous act. Christine is only brave as a result of not responding to what others would normally be afraid of. But on top of that, she’s a humble and caring person. For her it’s confusing that fear would be an impediment to acting bravely. Why would she not save people from burning buildings if they needed the help? Why wouldn’t she help Dr. Blau with his experiments, or volunteer for the most dangerous jobs? If it’s asked of her, and it’s helpful to someone else, it’s hard for Christine to see a downside.  

BFB: What was the experience like for you, writing Fearless?

BW: I really enjoyed creating these characters. Both Dr. Blau and Christine are written in ways that are outside the “realist tradition.” In other words, they only sort of act like real human beings would act. They’re part human, part exaggeration. That allowed me to have more fun with them, and stretch the realities of what they might do. But they’re also acting strangely because they’re both carrying deep wounds from their respective pasts. I liked the idea of trying to get those past experiences to lie in wait as the events in the present of the story unfold, and then have those histories intersect in meaningful ways.   

BFB: Do you have a favorite character and/or scene from your book? 

BW: There’s a lot of description of fire in the book. I lived through a house fire (no one was hurt!), and it was very scary. I can still close my eyes and feel that particular rush of adrenaline. But similar to how it’s hard to describe a sunset in ways that makes its beauty feel original or new, it’s hard to describe a fire in ways that represent its horror and danger that we, as readers, don’t already have baked into our imaginations. Toward the end of the book, there’s a memory that Christine has of her garage going up in flames that I think gets as close as I can to bringing something new to that image. I like that scene because of how memory is laced into an exigent moment where things are burning all around the main character.  

BFB: The cover art for your book is colorful and artistic. Who designed the cover? 

BW: I agree! Matt Muirhead made that image. He’s a great Baltimore artist, and I recommend everyone look up his work. The image on the cover of the book is of the Bromo Seltzer Tower, and Fearless is a Baltimore-book in a cheap disguise. The tower plays a role, but in the novel, it’s called the Beltzerseltzer Tower.  

Fearless can be purchased from the Malarkey Books website. For more information about the author, visit benjaminwarner.net.

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Tyneisha Lewis

Tyneisha Lewis's work has appeared in Baltimore Style, Baltimore Child, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere.

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