Interview With: Ben Levin, Author of "In The Hole" | Teen Ink

Interview With: Ben Levin, Author of "In The Hole" MAG

July 27, 2021
By Bridget-G-E-L SILVER, Short Hills, New Jersey
Bridget-G-E-L SILVER, Short Hills, New Jersey
8 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
“You aren’t depressed just because people aren’t responding to your texts. You aren’t bipolar because a movie is making you happy and sad at the same time. You don’t have an anxiety disorder because you have stage fright.”

1.) So, how would you describe yourself, just as a starter question?

"Well, obviously I'm creative, I try to be a good person, [and I’m] kind of on the sensitive side. I’m autistic, which I wouldn’t mind being asked about, and sometimes I get overstimulated — but I’m working on it."

2.) Cool! What do you mean by “overstimulated?

"Sometimes things feel more intense for me than, for lack of better word, a “normal,” non-autistic person. So, sometimes I do things like hit a table or occasionally scream, but I’m working on it."

3.) Progress is always possible, right? What kind of student are you?

Probably big into the arts — specifically writing? "Yes, obviously, yes. I’m really good at English — I tend to give it my best effort. I struggle sometimes with my other classes, especially science. I’m not that great at taking notes (which I’m also working on) and tend to be a daydreamer. I tend to get mostly B’s, sometimes A’s, and occasionally a C.'”

4.) Is there a teacher who has had a particularly strong influence on your life? Tell me about them, if so.

"I’ve had a lot of teachers with strong influences in my life, but one which has made a huge impact is this teacher at a writing organization whom I had for three years. Her name is Donna. She’s helped me believe in myself and encouraged and pushed me. She showed a lot of care during my time there, which really helped me."

5.) Tell me about how you got into your line of work so soon. You are a teen author, and In The Hole isn’t even the first book you’ve authored. How?!

"Honestly, it took me a while to learn that it’s not normal to, I guess, start as young as possible. In eighth grade, after doing a lot of producing and writing stories in seventh grade, eighth grade felt like the ideal year to go into publishing. So, I self-published my book Ghost Wars on Amazon in April of 2018. Then, I started preparing some of my other books for publishing, too. Along the way, I got an agent who helped me get more comfortable with editing my own work, since sometimes I have a hard time killing my darlings — if you know what I’m saying. And my agent and editor helped me find Jumpmaster Press, the publishing company where In The Hole was published."

6.) Was there a specific type of music that you listened to when writing In The Hole? I’m personally interested because I do love music, and some authors from interviews I’ve seen before mention it. Did you jam out to any music in particular? Or do you listen to nothing, white noise?

"I listen to music sometimes when I write, but I didn’t when I was working on In The Hole, because, for me, In The Hole was something I used to study. I used 'In The Hole' as a way to improve my vocabulary for English tests — that’s why there are so many big words."

7.) I did read the acknowledgments, and you mention your grandfather, Professor Herman Shwartz. How did he in particular affect your creative process?

"My grandfather was the chairman of the National Homelessness Law Center for six years, and connected me with a lot of the people I did interviews with to help make it possible for me to find in the back of the book and on the website. He’s also been fighting for social justice and rights — not just homeless rights, but prisoners’ rights, and the situation with our country and Israel along with other critical, liberal causes. Grandpa was also a fact-checking source for the legal struggles of David (a character in the book), and someone who I could always talk about my anger with when I discovered something shocking about the homelessness crisis."

8.) Do you think that his work has inspired In the Hole, or the basis — the foundation — where a family is taken from their place of stability and then made homeless before rising up again?

"That is a great question. While Grandpa and I have had talks about it, he wasn’t my specific inspiration. That came to me at religious school when my Rabbi showed me a video about homeless children in Florida. I envisioned David and thought, “Maybe, if I write about homelessness, I can help raise awareness.” But, yes, Grandpa has been a good help with In The Hole."

9.) Would you like to tell the readers a brief summary of the plot? Brief — we don't need a million spoilers.

"Okay! After his father loses his job, a boy named David and his family become homeless very quickly, and they struggle — not just I discovered something shocking about the homelessness crisiswith poverty. David specifically struggles with hunger and bullying and his father’s addiction, but he tries to stay strong."

10.) That’s an excellent plot. It’s about perseverance, a lot of it, and David doesn’t lose hope — which is a question coming up later, but not quite yet! I want to know what character you most relate to and why? You mentioned David. Is he that person for you or somebody else? There are quite a lot of cast members; Gloria, the girl from camp; there’s the father who struggles with alcoholism; there’s the best friend, Justin, who’s just what anybody needs during a rough patch... so, who do you most relate to, if anyone?

"I personally have to go with David, because we’re both on the short side; and while I probably don’t love basketball as much as he does, I also enjoy sports and writing about them. He has a little interest in writing, and I personally think we think alike."

11.) And what was the hardest scene for you to write, because there are a lot of rough places. There is bullying, a girl literally fainting from hunger ... how do you write [something so difficult]?

"I guess I envisioned it; and I think I was sheltered in a way, because I was also doing this for vocab, which does make it a little easier. It was painful, though. Chapter 8, in particular, was hard to write because of the bullying."

12.) For those who were wondering, Chapter 8 is called “Bully Problems.” I was definitely reading it and thinking, “Wow, this is poignant.” Most people wouldn’t try to go there, but you did. And speaking of hard topics, you added a pandemic-centered epilogue. What’s the significance of that?

 "The significance is that David continues to get involved with fighting for the homeless, even after escaping the crisis himself. Exploring his activism, this part of the story shows that anyone can make a difference."

13.) Speaking of endings, would you consider In The Hole’s ending happy, hopeful ... something else?

"I consider the [ending] something of a message. We can and must make a difference for the homeless community. In The Hole’s ending, David's activism and speech about how we’re all in it together reinforces the idea that we can all get more active in the fight against homelessness."

14.) So, the cover art features a boy’s silhouette walking in a field. How do you think this image relates to the book?

"The field implies a way that David is still like everyone else with his love of baseball, and the silhouette implies the dark times of his story. I also like how they showed the silhouette instead of David’s specific physical features, because even though those are described in the book, simply showing a black shadow makes everyone be able to see themselves in David."

15.) Some places in the book David looks to God for answers to his questions. It helps him find inner strength. What role do you think faith plays in hope?

"I think believing in a higher power, feeling like you have somewhere to go, helps reinforce the feeling that things will be okay for you. Faith offers both. I wanted to explore something a little different when choosing David’s faith, especially since I’m personally Jewish — as you can probably tell from my last name.

16.) Back to homelessness, the Kimballs – the main family in the book – sleep in the forest, a friend’s car, an inn, and more, but remain together. To you, is there a difference between a “house” and a “home?”

"That’s a great question that I’m actually still figuring out myself. The mistake a lot of people make — including me, as evidenced in In The Hole — is acting as though a “house” and a “home” are the same thing. My personal opinion is that a home is somewhere where you live, a steady residency, like your house or your apartment; but there’s also such a thing as an inner home, which is where you feel you belong and where your family is. But there are limits with that when people are actually starving or can’t find warmth or protection during the summers or cold winters. From what I can tell, the perspective of what a “home” is tends to differ from person to person.

17.) How do people stop stigmatizing those less privileged than they are, homeless or otherwise? That’s a big topic in your book; some characters have diverse backgrounds. David’s even bullied because he’s short! If we can’t agree on height, how can we respect people that have such drastic socioeconomic differences?

"During an interview, one person told me that the fact that someone is homeless is the least interesting thing about people facing homelessness. They have a powerful point. People tend to focus on how we are all different rather than how we’re all alike — I’m guilty of this, too — but if we focus more on what we have in common, welfare-wise, I think it will help us learn how to stop stigmatizing.

18.) Why should people make efforts to fight homelessness?

"We should make efforts to fight it because it’s the right thing to do! People are suffering now, including kids! They are struggling with hunger, struggling with living off the street, struggling without necessities others take for granted! As long as that is a fact, we all have to keep fighting to end homelessness."

19.) What are the consequences if they don’t? What happens if people leave the homeless to themselves, continue shunning them on street corners because of all the stigma that surrounds them?

"Then they continue to suffer and not get what they need. I mean, as you mentioned, Julia (a character in the book) fainted and nearly died! I’m not saying that’s the normal situation, but if people keep There’s such a thing as an inner home, which is where you feel you belongleaving the homeless to themselves, it will have a serious affect on their health, making more of them lose their lives.

20.) Do you have any favorite charities, organizations, or other help groups? For those who have yet to read the book, Ben lists a comprehensive list of charities to help with things from alcoholism to homelessness, of course. You’ve interviewed people for that, correct?

"Yes. One that’s really important is Covenant House, which has their main station in New Jersey, but they have places all over the country. They help shelter trafficked and homeless youth. I’m actually working with them this Fall — October 21st, 2021 — to host a homelessness awareness night for youth that will be held over Zoom. We’ll have a national homelessness expert and a sleep-out where kids can spend the night outside to try and understand what it’s like for homeless kids. The money from this event will go to Covenant House New Jersey, and anyone who wants information can sign up at my site,"

21.) In The Hole especially emphasizes community support. On that topic, who has been kindest to you in your life?

"That is a triple tie between my family (including my grandparents), a couple of extra-special friends I have, and any friends I’ve made during writing classes. Those are the people whose kindness has really helped me get through hard times.

22.) What wonderful shout-outs! Friends and family always have your back! You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that you do have autism. How does this condition affect your writing?

"Autism helps me tune out which helps me stay concentrated on my work, and it also helps me — my brain, which is also affected by it — come up with all these different storylines and keep them in my mind."

23.) So you’re saying that autism helps you maintain organization? Is that right?

"I mean, it helps me hang onto the different plotlines. This is something important for me to bring up because I’ve struggled a lot with it. Especially because I went through a period of time where I thought I recovered from it, even though, thankfully, I learned that all the program I recovered from did was lower my needs. I realized that, while I was hiding it, I’d been trying to remove it because I was insecure about it. No one, autistic or otherwise, should be insecure about who they are, and I want to help other people — especially those on the spectrum — learn how to embrace themselves."

24.) How has your life been different from what you’d imagined? Did you think you’d be the youngest astronaut ever? The youngest cowboy? Oldest person wearing diapers?

"I don’t think I ever expected to go a specific way, other than just hoping to do well with my writing. I’m hoping that my future includes a college education, perhaps a home in the woods, time with friends, and lots of published books.

25.) What do you want the main takeaways of In The Hole to be for anybody who reads it?

"Homelessness can happen to literally any person, including any child. We must fight to raise awareness about homelessness and end it together.

26.) Do you have any advice for young authors? Helpful snacks? Best times of morning (or night) to write? Maybe, “Don’t write in pajamas because that makes you less focused.” That would probably apply to me, but what would you like people to know?

"I’d like to recommend — because this is what helps me get my inspiration — reading a lot of books, watching a lot of movies and television, and living a lot of life. I also want other authors to know that they can fight for their beliefs and causes that are important to them. They just have to be up for the research and fact-checking.

27.) A lot of the arts are social commentaries. Especially books like In The Hole. It’s a great way to express yourself and almost indoctrinate your audience, so they’ll learn a little bit about how you think. Probably, if you as the author are thinking about it, then other people are, too. About what you said with experiences, one of my teachers said that, “You write what you know.” And even if you’re writing fantasy and your protagonist is a blob monster, you can still put some human beliefs in there, and people will know what you’re getting at; that’s where symbolism gets its power. That’s all I have for now, but is there anything else you’d like me to ask?

"I think you did great and completely covered it. Thank you so much for interviewing me, Bridget."

28.) Thank you! In that case, I appreciate your time, Ben. If you want to read In The Hole for yourself, it’s available on Amazon in digital and print versions. Once again, I encourage you to sign up for the homelessness awareness night that’s partnered with Ben on October 20th, 2021 from 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM. You can participate from the comfort of your own yard! If not, do as he suggests and help the homeless. The world owes it to them.

The author's comments:

Ben's Website:

Ben's Instagram: @benlevinauthor

Read In The Hole:

Sleep Out for Covenant House NJ:

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