Today I'd like to welcome D. J. Mitchell, author of “Benji’s Portal” to The Thursday Interview. Before we get started, a quick intro!
I’m a wanderer. I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, and moved to Los Angeles when I was nineteen. In 1993, I volunteered in Sri Lanka and Thailand for 18 months, and made several more trips over the years. Eventually, I joined a team that worked to end the Sri Lanka civil war, and helped bring about a cease-fire there. In 2004, I settled in rural southern Utah, where I made cheese for eight years. Last year, I became a father, and there weren’t enough hours in the day for cheesemaking anymore. I’ve loved writing since I was a child. I began my first novel at age thirty, and it’s not finished yet. My first published novel, Ordinary World, came out in 2012 and received great reviews. Now that I’m otherwise unemployed, writing allows me to work while still having the flexibility to be a good father.
OK - HERE WE GO !!
No.1 Would you break the law to save a loved one? .. why?
Absolutely! Our system of government is premised on the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If the law stands in the way of saving a life, the law is mistaken. I could also argue that my religion requires me to follow God’s law and to accept the consequences of Man’s law. But the reality is, if someone I loved was in danger, I wouldn’t stop to think about philosophy or consequences, I’d just act. I once crawled into a burning house to rescue someone’s cats!
No.2 What is the difference between being alive and truly living?
I love this question because it took me years to learn that difference. I started my adult life in a corporate job, and after ten years wondered why I wasn’t happy. I was suicidally depressed, spent a month in a hospital, and lost my job, my wife, and my home. I wound up living on a sailboat in Marina Del Rey. It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds. There was barely room to move around, there was no heat, and the bathroom was up on shore. But I became happy for the first time in my life. My “crash and burn” came shortly after the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. For the first time, I saw there were many people who didn’t have access to the lifestyles and resources enjoyed by my employers and clients. A few months later, I began my volunteer work in Sri Lanka, one of the poorest countries in the world and afflicted by a decade-old war. I also worked in Thailand with a Catholic priest. This led me to Loyola Marymount University, where I majored in Theology with a minor in Peace Studies. I graduated just as the organization I worked with in Sri Lanka began to do peace work, and they asked me to join them. My work took me into a couple of war zones. I was at times terrified, and came home with terrible nightmares, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. When I’m doing something I’m passionate about, that means something to me, that’s what I call truly living. It doesn’t have to be dangerous or unusual. These days, I am truly alive when I write a novel or cut my son’s hair.
No.3 What motivates you to write?
Writing is fun for me. I love to create characters and stories. I always read them to my wife, and sometimes my son depending on the subject matter. I get such a thrill when their eyes light up and they ask for more. When I published Ordinary World, I was excited to see so many great reader reviews. I even enjoyed those offering constructive criticism. I love that people read and engaged with what I wrote. I do try to use my stories as a platform to open minds and challenge conventional points of view. Benji’s Portal is a great example. Benji’s family struggles to find appropriate measures to protect themselves from threats of violence, while on another planet, an old priest talks of transforming an entire society away from violence. In Domino Theory, my goal was to portray the main character, a drug addict, as a human being with real struggles, in contrast with a common belief that addicts are just weak-minded criminals. I never want morality to supersede the story. If the story isn’t fun to read, why write it?
No.4 Why do humans want children?
For years, I thought that people wouldn’t have children if sex wasn’t so much fun. To be honest, that’s why a lot of folks have them. Later in life, I realized that raising a child was part of the human experience, and I’d been missing it. I didn’t actually have children until my then-six-year-old stepson came into my life. He’s now eleven. It was difficult, at first, to learn to parent a child, but I love him to death and I’ve learned a lot from him.
Last year, at the tender age of 54, I became a father for the first time. Seeing my son born was one of the most emotionally moving moments of my life. It’s created some huge changes for me, making regular employment nearly impossible (and giving me chronic lack of sleep), but I’ve also learned more about love than I could have imagined. I think children help us learn to love unconditionally. We love them when they’re sick, or mean, or misbehaved, or wailing intolerably for days at a time. There aren’t many people in my life I’ve loved no matter what.
But that doesn’t really answer the question. I have to admit that my motivation to have a child of my own was not the desire to learn unconditional love. I wanted to cement the relationship with my wife, and have someone to whom I could pass on the things I’ve learned in life. I think I’m a good person, and I want to transmit that to someone else who may continue to make a difference in the world after I’m gone.
No.5 What was the biggest challenge in creating your book Benji’s Portal?
The biggest challenge was the ending, without a doubt. I came up with the idea for the story and ruminated on it for a couple of weeks. Once I started writing, the story pretty much wrote itself. But I wasn’t sure how to end it. Eventually I realized that there had to be a catastrophe, and Benji and Lisa would need to leave Earth. But how bad should it be? Should I pull a Disney and kill the parents? (My wife threatened that if I did that, she’d kill me in my sleep!) I stopped writing for several weeks while I tried to figure out where the story needed to go. When the answer finally clicked, I went back to writing and it all took care of itself.
No.6 What is the most important thing you have learned in life so far?
In 1990, a friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. She had always wanted to be an artist, and was enrolled in art school. She called me not long after her diagnosis, and said she’d realized that she didn’t need to go to art school to become an artist, all she needed to do was paint. Then she said something that changed the course of my life: “You have to follow your dreams now, because you don’t know how much time you have.”
The next week, I quit my corporate job.
I didn’t know then what my dreams were, I just knew I hated my job. I spent years trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Some people talked about “the work of your soul,” but I didn’t know what that meant for me. Or maybe I didn’t believe it was possible. I finished four years of college on the 21-year plan. Along the way, I majored in engineering, hydrology, business, and computer science. They were practical, but I didn’t like studying any of them. My experiences overseas led me to a fascination with religion and how it affects people’s behavior. At the time, I’d been studying Buddhism, and I was skeptical about attending a Catholic university. But I enrolled at Loyola Marymount, majored in Theology, and loved every minute of it. I knew it wasn’t practical, but it was my dream. When I finished, to my surprise, new doors opened. I’ve never regretted my decision to study theology. So that’s the most important thing I’ve learned, and the most important thing I can pass on:
“You have to follow your dreams now, because you don’t know how much time you have.”
No.7 How did you come up with the title "Benji’s Portal"?
I wanted a short title that would intrigue potential readers. My working title was, The Portal, but that didn’t seem interesting enough. I played around with several titles including the words “portal” and “travelers,” but none of them were quite right (and some weren’t good at all). I was brainstorming with my wife when we came up with the seemingly obvious suggestion of using the main character’s name. He is, after all, the only person who can operate the portal. So, Benji’s Portal it was.
No.8 How do you handle personal criticism?
It depends on the criticism. Criticism of me as a person I don’t take very well. Fortunately, I rarely seem to inspire people to criticize me personally. I’m much better with constructive criticism of my work. It always bothers me a little bit because I think I should have avoided it. But I do take it seriously. I published the first edition of This Thing of Darkness based on the urging of friends. But one reader wrote, “This is a story about a man who manages to do nothing other than observe a war and whimper about it long afterwards!” That stung, but it made me realize the story wasn’t complete. The second edition is a much better story.
No.9 Why should people read your book?
The best reason is, because it’s fun! Benji’s Portal is about a ten year old boy who feels like he doesn’t fit in. His family all has intuitive gifts, but he doesn’t. They’ve just moved to a new town, and the kids at school don’t like him. When he discovers a portal that allows him to travel through space, and learns that he’s the only one who can make it work, he realizes he does have a gift. But, at least in the beginning, he has to keep it a secret. He decides to trust his best friend, and then his sister, but he hides it from his parents for as long as possible. Benji makes friends on three different planets, and Lisa becomes infatuated with a boy who lives light years from Earth. And their parents don’t know. What could possibly go wrong with that? Then there’s the mystery of his family, and the old remains of a house out in the woods where the portal is located. Are they connected? How did his family come to have its gifts? And why does the oldest family in town hate them so much? Benji’s Portal is equal parts space travel, family story, and mystery. It was fun to write, and my beta-readers tell me it’s just as much fun to read.
No.10 Why is there something rather than nothing?
What an intriguing question! It could be metaphysical, as in why is there a universe, or philosophical, as in why is there a reason for life... which presumes that there is. I’m going to answer a bit more personally. In my teenage years, I was basically a nihilist. I thought life was about getting loaded and staying loaded as much of the time as possible to avoid the meaninglessness of life. I expected to die before I attained legal drinking age. But I didn’t. At age 25, I was still going, and more miserable than ever. I can’t say that I had a sudden and profound spiritual experience that changed my life. But I began a path that gradually convinced me there is a God, and I am happiest when serving Him. There is something in my life today only because life became worthwhile. It’s interesting to me that the country that is most materialistic also prescribes the most antidepressants, and has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The quest for “stuff” doesn’t make me happy, and that appears to be true for a lot of other people. On the other hand, some of the poorest countries which also happen to be very spiritual or religious are happier than some much richer countries. Money doesn’t make people happy. I’m not going to claim that God is the only way to happiness. I’ve met Buddhists who don’t believe in God whose lives were equally fulfilling. I’ve met Hindus, who believe that my God is a subset of theirs, who lived in joy. What they have in common is not their belief system, but a way of living that focuses on people rather than materialism or hedonism.
Thank you Mr Mitchell :)
For taking the time to answer my questions
& the best of luck with your new book!
Check out “Benji’s Portal” on
Benji Haight comes from a gifted family. His parents intuitively know things, and his sister Lisa can sometimes read minds. Benji doesn’t seem to have a gift. But when he discovers an ancient well near their new home, he finds it is a portal to the universe that only he can access. As Benji and Lisa begin to explore, they make friends across the galaxy. They also uncover a family mystery: Are they related to a boy that used the portal a century earlier? Was the boy’s death an accident, or the result of a family feud as old as the town they live in? As the centuries-old feud threatens tragedy once again, Benji and Lisa turn to their parents for help, and exploration becomes a family adventure.