An interview with author Paula Benson . . .

Paula Gail Benson

A legislative attorney and former law librarian, Paula Gail Benson has authored over 30 short stories, which appear online and in anthologies including: A Shaker of Margaritas: That Mysterious Woman; Fish or Cut Bait: a Guppy Anthology; Killer Nashville Noir: Cold Blooded; Heartbreaks and Half-truths; Once Upon a Time; My Robot and Me; Malice Domestic’s Mystery Most Diabolical, the Bethlehem Writers Group’s An Element of Mystery, and Dragon Soul Press’ A Death in the Night.

She belongs to the S.C. Writers Association and Bethlehem Writers Group; she blogs with partners at the Stiletto Gang and Writers Who Kill; and serves on boards of two chapters of Sisters in Crime.

Interview by BWG member Carol L. Wright

Bethlehem Writers Group: Paula, you and I first met online since we’re in Pennsylvania and you are in South Carolina. You submitted a short story to Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, where I was an editor. We loved your work immediately, and offered you publication. We have continued a mutually beneficial relationship with you and have published your work several times. In fact, you have also been prominent among our annual Short Story Award winners over the years, taking third place one year and second place in another. We’re so happy to have you among our favorite authors.

Paula Benson: Thank you for your very kind words. It’s a true honor for me to be included in the BWG. “Nectar of the Gods” was my first published story. Not only did it give me a wonderful new association, but also it boosted my confidence that I could craft a short story people would enjoy reading. I’m grateful to the Group for its encouragement and fellowship.

BWG: You also appear in our anthology Let It Snow, published in 2015. But Bethlehem Writers Roundtable is hardly your main outlet. I’ve seen your stories published in numerous anthologies—sometimes with a distinctive Southern voice. How much does your South Carolina background affect your writing?

PB: Due to my father being in the military, I was born in Georgia and have lived most of my life in South Carolina, where he retired. Neither of my parents were from this state and our relatives lived elsewhere.

Sometimes I think I resemble a story I heard about a man who arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, when he was two years old. He contributed mightily to the community and continued to live there until he passed away at age ninety-eight. I’ve heard the inscription on his tombstone is: “He was a stranger among us, but we grew to love him.”

I’ve come to respect and admire South Carolina’s people and lifestyle. By working with legal research and legislation, I’ve had the opportunity to see how history has affected and shaped this state. Understanding the passions behind the decision-making process is always insightful for any author.

A charming aspect about the South is that among its traditions is extending hospitality, and from that flows a true love of hearing and telling stories. Years of listening has helped me hone my own storytelling abilities.

BWG: This year, we are finally together in a non-BWG anthology, Dark of the Day: Eclipse Stories, edited by Kaye George and published by Down and Out Books. The book came out just before the total solar eclipse passed across the U.S. on April 8, 2024. Was it hard to come up with an eclipse story?

PB: I read with interest Kaye’s first eclipse anthology, Day of the Dark: Eclipse Stories, published by Wildside Press just before the 2017 solar eclipse (with your “Dark Side of the Light” being its first story). Last year, I had submitted a story to Kaye for another anthology, when I heard Dark of the Day was in the works. I asked if she might still be accepting submissions, and she told me she had a few spaces.

The first thing I did was to research the April 8, 2024, solar eclipse’s path, which did not include South Carolina. I learned it would be visible in Burlington, Vermont, where I once attended a conference. Lake Champlain was so beautiful. I placed my characters on a boat during the eclipse. Then, it occurred to me to verify the facts. I messaged the staff of the Spirit of Ethan Allen and quickly learned that, due to lingering ice, the lake did not open for boat traffic until May. Quick rewrite. Later, I read the Spirit of Ethan Allen had an eclipse cruise. I like to think my question might have inspired the event!

While I was writing, I came across a poem that had the most evocative line: “Only Absent for a Time.” I thought it was the perfect title for an eclipse story and emailed the poet to ask if I could use it. He delightedly agreed. I credited both the poet and the Spirit of Ethan Allen in my bio.

A great joy of having a story in Dark of the Day has been working with Kaye George, a consummate short story author and editor. In addition, it was a thrill to find myself in an anthology with you and John M. Floyd. A truly fabulous experience.

BWG: I first met you in real life at a Malice Domestic mystery writers conference, but you write much more than mysteries. You’ve written science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, romance, and are even included in a cookbook! And, as a lawyer and research librarian for a law school, you also wrote a book that is still used to teach legal research. Is there a genre you find more satisfying to write than others?

PB: No. I find the story that captivates me and proceed from there. I’ve discovered terrific enjoyment writing mysteries, histories, romance, and science fiction and fantasy.

Different genres are wonderful in helping a writer experience new plotting conventions and techniques. Mysteries allow me to use some of the puzzle-solving skills I’ve learned in research. Some of my stories written for the BWG take on magical realism, which is another genre that intrigues me. Then, as a great fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, I must tell a few science fiction and fantasy tales!

When I first started serious writing, a friend took me to a meeting of the Lowcountry Romance Writers (LRWA). At that time, it was one of the few local active groups where you could learn about craft. I’ve continued to remain a member.

In the last few years, LRWA has initiated its own anthologies to help members earn writing credits and develop marketing strategies. To have a story included, you agree to be a beta reader, as well as participate in creating social media advertising. Not only has this given me the chance to try my hand at time travel tales, but I’ve learned so much about writing romance. It’s been a real gift.

BWG: You have also written several plays and musicals that have been produced. What an amazing range you have! Is it a very different experience than writing stories for publication when the actors, directors, and others have their own influences on how your writing is eventually presented?

PB: Yes, and you must accept being collaborative as part of the process. It’s empowering to watch how a cast and crew build upon the basis you set.

My first goal, as a preschooler, was to be a “cartoon artist.” I think that meant involvement in creating the story, not just the drawings. Then, at age ten, I decided to be an actress. In high school, I had a wonderful drama teacher, Lowry Marshall, who became a professor at Brown University, where she taught John Krasinski. (Her son Logan Marshall-Green is an actor and director.)

I received an acting scholarship that paid for my first year in college. Later, I decided to pursue law and librarianship, but I never lost my love of theater. My earliest experience onstage was for a church production of The Mikado. Our assistant pastor and his wife made sure I remained involved in dramatic projects.

My church continues to support my efforts and encourage me. I love writing and directing plays and musicals. Kaye George, a gifted musician, wrote a prelude for a Sherlock Holmes story I dramatized. I thank you, Carol, for allowing me to convert your story “The Man from Hooverville” into a one-act musical.

The actors and production staff always surprise me by what they see in the script and characters. Once, I had an actress tell me the whole backstory she had imagined for her role. The life she described was not what I had considered, but it fit perfectly for the part. Truly, the theatrical experience gives a writer the most immediate kind of feedback concerning a work, often offered by the persons “living” though it.

BWG: As if all that weren’t enough, you are also a regular blogger as part of The Stiletto Gang and Writers Who Kill. And you’re currently a full-time legislative attorney for the South Carolina legislature. How do you find the time to write?

PB: It’s very difficult. I carry notebooks with me everywhere so I can scribble something down if I have a moment or an idea comes to me. I’m grateful for supportive groups that keep asking what I’ve been writing lately. They help to keep me focused and productive.

BWG: You have participated on panels at several writers conferences, including twice on a panel on courtroom procedure at Killer Nashville. Do you think your legal training and experience make for a good background for writing—perhaps especially for writing mysteries?

PB: Truly it’s helped me. In the law, you encounter so many subject matters, and wondering “what if” naturally leads to potential storytelling.

BWG: We’re so happy that virtual meetings have made it possible for you to join the Bethlehem Writers Group. Now you’re a regular in our anthologies. Looking back to that first publication, how has your perspective on writing changed?

PB: I am so glad to be part of a writing community. I appreciate the authors I know, not just for their skill, but for their friendship. I understand to achieve, one must be serious and structured in approach, yet finding the joy is what brings a story alive for both writer and reader.

BWG: Do you have some words of wisdom to share for emerging writers?

PB: Opportunities for writing come from many forums. Find those that nurture you, even if they are unexpected. They may not be a direct path to your goals, but you may be surprised at the opportunities they open for you.

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