Benjamin Stevenson- Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone | Sydney Writers’ Festival 2023

interview by Anandi Ganguly

Browsing through the plethora of acclaimed books being celebrated at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year, I stumbled upon the gem peculiarly titled ‘Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone’ by Benjamin Stevenson, an award-winning stand-up comedian and author. Benjamin has sold out live shows from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival all the way to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has appeared on ABC TV, Channel 10 and The Comedy Channel. Named as one of The Sunday Times’ best crime novels in 2022, his third novel has so far been sold in 26 territories around the world. It will also soon be adapted into a major HBO TV series.

Ahead of the festival, I got the opportunity to have a conversation with him about his inspiration behind the book, life as a Comedian vs author, the process of creating this book, a surprise cameo from his twin brother James and much more.

Date- May 19, 2023

Location- Phone Call

A: Hello? Am I speaking to Mr. Benjamin Stevenson?

B: Yes, yeah.

A: Hi, I'm Anandi Ganguly. How are you doing today?


B: Yes, good. You?


A: Really good, yeah. Okay, so I'll introduce myself. I'm Anandi. I'm from Blitz, which is a student-run publication at UNSW. I just want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview with me.

B: Sure, that's fine.

A: I read your book, ‘Everyone in my family has killed someone’. Firstly, congratulations on all the widespread success. I absolutely loved the book. I recently finished it. It's been kind of my reintroduction to the crime genre. And it's done a brilliant job.


B: Oh, thank you. That's very kind.


A: So my first question to you is that crime novels tend to fall into two categories. The first is the modern age, psychological thrillers. And then you have the old school, classical who-dun-it, where people are trapped in one location, and no one can leave until the mystery is solved. This felt like it falls under the second category, but still has a lot of modern elements. What was the inspiration behind this book? How do you How did you conceptualize it?


B: Yeah, so I wanted to do one of those classic mysteries. Because I felt like modern mysteries, they're often a lot darker. So you know, the serial killers and the violence is a little bit higher than the most classic mystery. I was writing this during the first COVID lockdown. So I just wanted it to be lighter and a little bit more fun. And so I sort of looked back to those classic Golden Age mysteries. And then the thing I stumbled upon was the set of rules at the front of the book, which was written by Roland Knox. And those are his 10 commandments on how to write detective fiction in the golden age.

And what I noticed was that every single one of those rules is broken by modern psychological fiction. Now, that's from a crime of those books, because, you know, he's only saying how to write a very specific set of books. But then I thought, well, you know, how can I write something that strictly adheres to those rules, and yet has a modern sort of freshness and sensibility about it?

So that was really where the inspiration came from. And then the other side of it was I just had this title just popped into my head. ‘Everyone in my family has killed someone’. And I knew structurally what I could do with that as a novel, and that I could have sort of eight murder mysteries going at the same time. And I knew that that could be really, really exciting and fun. So I wanted to explore that. And the two of them sort of clash together in the inspiration in my brain and as such, the book was born.


A: It was certainly exciting. And I loved that it stays true to the title of the book, where everyone indeed, in a sense, had killed someone. Because I was wondering, like, there might be some loopholes. But it was pretty, it was pretty accurate.


B: I do love the loopholes. And you know, it's very deliberately titled, killed and not murdered. But the title is part of the story, you know, I wanted to start telling the story in the title. So I'm already telling the truth.

A: Yes, about the truth. I have a question about that. One of my favourite quotes in the book is when Ernest (protagonist) says “I am both Watson and detective in this book”. And he goes on to prove multiple times that he is indeed as you call it, a reliable narrator. And we work with him to sleuth out the mystery, and you make it a point not to lie to the reader. Was that particularly important to you to make sure that Ernie is completely honest?


B: Yes, and one of the rules that I felt that modern psychological thrillers break is the unreliable narrator or reliable narrative. So when I created Ern, I absolutely wanted him to be the antithesis of the gone girl, the unreliable narrator, what they say can't be trusted, and so on. So it was always my intent earnest that he tells the truth at all stages. And I wanted to do that because I didn't think the readers would believe that it would be true. I don't think you can pick up the phone normally the first person narrator these days, and fully believe that they're going to tell you the truth. So when I said outright that I'm going to do it, I want to sort of play with the readers' expectation that maybe they don't believe that I will. And so that was a challenge for me to always make sure that he is honest with the reader.


A: You're obviously a very accomplished stand-up comedian as well. And I was wondering if your process for writing comedy for your sets is different than how you write comedy for books, in particular this novel. And do you have a preference?


B: The process is very different. When I wrote stand-up comedy, I often make it too dark. And then I have to lighten it up. And then when I write books often make them too jokey. And then my editor helpfully reminds me that, hey, you've just killed someone you should really, you know, you should really have them reflect on that for five minutes or something. So, yeah, the process is very different. Also, I have my identical twin brother who does stand-up comedy with me. So, he comes in and adds a couple of dick jokes every now and then just to help with the comedy. And there's less of those in the book, I would say. Yeah, he is definitely sitting next to me-


James: That's very unfair. I'm a very good comedy writer, thank you very much.


A: As an aspiring writer, myself, I was wondering if I could pick your brain. Personally, I find comedy, the hardest genre to pull off, especially dark comedy. And what this book does so brilliantly, in my opinion, is balanced the darkness with the humour. So how do you walk that fine line and make sure that the comedy isn't overshadowing the suspense? Or vice versa?


B: It's a really difficult line to walk, and you have to be very aware of it. Because if you use too much comedy, particularly in crime and mystery, it immediately turns into Fosse. So one of the things I did in this book is make sure that all of the comedy comes from Ernest, and his perspective, and none of the comedy comes from the plot. So the people are allowed to be funny, but the plot is not because otherwise, you descend into farce. So once I had that, then then I was pretty confident in walking the line. But generally, comedy is really difficult to ride because it's all about word economy, and making sure that you're using- you've only got very limited space on stage when you're telling a joke, and often have sort of a five-minute or a 10-minute set- so being really good at using the words precisely, to get the maximum laugh and to get your meaning is really important. And that's really hard and writing a novel because comic writing takes a long time because you can't write 1000 words of comedy, and not whittle it down to 100 words if you want it to be good, whereas you can write 1000 words of description and just leave it in the book. So it takes a long time because you've got to whittle it down so much.


A: Yeah. Okay, that makes sense, thank you. My next question is that usually in crime novels, the detective or the protagonist is the smartest person in the room, but you kind of betray that stereotype. Because while Ernest is smart, we constantly see instances where Sophia and even Erin are outsmarting him. Sophia in particular is the one giving the main character revelation monologues, except for the last one. Why did you choose to do this?

B: Well, I wanted him to sort of feel a bit every man like I mean, of course, he has to do that. (In regards to other characters having their moment to shine) In any situation like this, you know, everybody would be talking about it, you know, everybody would have their own opinions, their thoughts, and some of them would be wrong, and some of them would be right. So that's sort of how I came to sort of share it around in my next book. There are five detectives, or five people who think they're detectives all trying to solve the crime at the same time. So Ernest is sort of his ego is a little bit here, because he's like, Oh, well, I thought I was the genius detective. And he's actually not so I like, I like not having him be the invincible know-it-all crime solver until, of course, the book requires it. And he has to go into the library and reveal to everyone what he knows.


A: yes. And oh, while reading the book, it almost seems like Ernest is anticipating the reader's thoughts. It's very interactive in that way. Like, for example, when you reintroduce Lucy by saying “in case you have forgotten”, I had truthfully forgotten because you get introduced to a lot of this family at once. So I think that was really clever. And, you keep giving spoilers of where certain deaths would take place. Were you confident that people would actually stay for the journey and not just skim through to the juicy bits?


B: Well, I didn't, you know, that's a totally valid way to read the book. And I sort of expected more people to do it, but I just wanted to have a go and see, you know, see if people would interact with the page or not. I hoped they would so that it would build suspense by playing on their expectations. But yeah, I had no idea if people want to read it by flicking forward, or if people wanted to solve the anagrams in the book by writing them all out, then, you know, that's their prerogative. And everybody gets to enjoy a book differently. So that's where I was coming out.


A: That's lovely to hear. Speaking of the pages- the page numbers, that must have been incredibly difficult to actually get them to actually line up with the different editions because I believe you also have an audiobook version of this book, right?

B: Yeah. So I rewrote everything for audio and ebook. So that it would work in all the formats. So that everybody would get the full experience. And we went through the page numbers, many, many times, I would say, dozens, myself and my typesetter, to make sure that they were watertight.

A: Yeah, thanks for doing that. Because it just makes the experience really, really, very tightly knit. You also write the Cunninghams with a lot of heart. Even though they're all killers, you still care about them. In each and every chapter, a member of the family kind of gets to tell their story, or you kind of get to understand their side of the story. It's really even difficult to kind of strongly hate Erin for her infidelity, once you hear her story. Did you do this to make it particularly harder for the readers to suspect anymore, and almost feel bad for suspecting someone because generally, in these kinds of novels, you have a few people that you can immediately suspect? Even though they’re generally not the killers, you still have those strong suspicions. Whereas, three-fourths into the novel, I didn't know who to suspect.

B: Yeah, I mean, I think that's part of sort of making suspects work is that they have to be fully believable. And, by making them sort of real and human, and then flawed, then you create a cast of people that you can suspect, but also people that you care about. So but you know, if their lives are in jeopardy, then then you sort of got the stakes properly.


A: Yeah. And there seems to be a kind of resurgence of Golden Age mysteries being re-popularized keeping Gen Z in mind. ‘Knives Out’ most recently comes to mind in that genre. And this book is kind of like remodelling the genre to make it more trendy and digestible. Because it's widely known that this generation has very little attention span, even though you tell them that a big thing is coming, or when the big thing will happen, it's so compelling that they want to just wait it out. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you were writing this book?


B: No, I didn't. I just want people who sort of, were willing to go into it and have fun with it. And sort of, you know, because it's sort of light and fun and knocked out does this very well. But there are a lot of literary devices at play, but you don't want to come across too seriously. So my audience in mind was really me, I just wanted to write something that I would like to read. And I think I like stuff that's a little bit bold, a little bit subversive, a little bit fun. So that's what I tried to do.


A: That is actually very sweet. And you've written crime and thriller novels in the past with ‘Green light’ on ‘Either Side of Midnight’. And I was wondering if you did any additional research into this particular one. Because Ern seems so knowledgeable about the genre, he himself is a how-to-write crime novel author. So was there any extra research that you had to do for this one?

B: Yeah, I mean, I looked into the sort of Golden Age stuff and I also thought about the, you know, the writers at the time, and I was quite interested less and less in their actual books and more in their sort of their writing community. So that's where the detection club and the group of Agatha Christie and GK Chesterton sort of come in. So I looked into that a lot. I also did some research on the black tongue and its Persian torture technique. I enjoyed doing that.


A: Yeah, that seemed very interesting. I had to look that up to see if that was real. And it is very real.


B: Yeah, I mean, I've modernized it.


A: Of course. Um, and I guess my last question to you is, what can we expect from your next we know that you have a sequel for this book coming out later this year itself. And there's also a TV show adaptation in the works. Could you tell us more about that?


B: Yes. So we're making it a show with HBO, which should be a lot of fun. It's quite early days, so I don't really have anything to say about that. But the next book is very exciting. It is with the surviving characters. Ernest has written a book, the book that is ‘Everyone in my family has killed someone’. And he's been invited to a Writer's Festival with six other crime writers, but one of them is killed. All of them think that they have the skills to solve the murder mystery. So they all sort of have a go. But between them, if they all have the skills to solve one, then they certainly all have the skills to commit one. So how do you find a killer and a bunch of people who spend their whole days figuring out and plotting how to murder? So, that is the next one (‘Everyone On This Train is a Suspect’) and it is lots of fun and that is out in October.


A: Ah, sounds very interesting. I'll be looking forward to that. Thank you so much for speaking with me. I will be attending your panels at the Sydney Writers’ Festival coming up later this month as well. So very excited about that. Thank you so much for taking the time out for this.

B: Yeah, thanks. No worries. Make sure you come and say hi at the Writers Festival.

A: Yes, of course. Thank You. Hope you have a lovely day.

B: Okay. All right. Bye.

Blitz Editor

Anandi Ganguly

More Interviews!

Sam Cooney | Sydney Writers' Festival

We chatted to Sam Cooney, the publisher behind the independent Australian book press Brow Books and quarterly non-profit literary magazine The Lifted Brow.

Read More

Ronny Chieng

Albert Lin recently sat down with international comedian, Ronny Chieng to talk politics, racism, and comedy. Fun.

Read More

Stella Donnelly

This Perth native isn't afraid to advocate for what she believes in. She spoke with Georgia about her new album, her Welsh heritage, and the music industry’s gender issues.

Read More

Read More