With humor and insight, Benioff expounds on 'City of Thieves'
Multi-talented writer and producer David Benioff took time out of a very busy schedule to share some of his experiences with -- and insights about--his work and Darien Library's One Book, One Community pick "City of Thieves."
The show runner for the popular HBO series "Game of Thrones," Benioff has also scripted several popular films including "The Kite Runner" and "X-Men: Wolverine," as well as authoring the novel and screenplay "25th Hour."
"Screenplays are easier," he said. "They're quicker. ... Every single page of a novel is dense with black type, and you've got to come up with that black type.
"Every sentence is a battle because you're trying to the best of your ability to make every sentence good. ... Novels are much harder, much, much more labor-intensive, but ultimately more fulfilling.
"In terms of the pure act of writing, I don't think anything tops fiction," Benioff said.
A nearly packed room of hundreds of fans asked many questions about "City of Thieves," which was published in 2008 and is set during the occupation of Leningrad during World War II.
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"I had this idea for a story of two young men looking for a dozen eggs in a city under siege," Benioff said. "It was just this kind of strange idea ... That was it. It seemed very vague and maybe a little stupid."
Benioff drew on the personal interviews with people who were in the city at that time, including his own rabbi.
"There are people in Brooklyn who survived the siege that I found," he said. "My rabbi, the man who bar mitzvah-ed me ended up being a very big resource for this book. It was wonderful to talk to real people who were there," he said.
Benioff also relied on diaries of residents, which he said offered a remarkable mix of shocking reality and humorous spirit.
"There was this wonderful dark humor -- gallows humor -- that comes through, and even in the darkest of times, and this was an extremely dark time," he said. "Despite all of that, they retained this sense of humor and they retained this intense will, not only to survive but to maintain their culture.
"The title did not come easily, and I still don't know if it was the right title. I had a different working title, but I don't remember it. It wasn't very good."
Benioff, who was sometimes self-effacing about the scope of his work and research, originally thought of calling the book "Truth for Young Pioneers," based on the name of an old communist newspaper, but a friend told him it sounded too pretentious.
"A couple days later, I decided `City of Thieves' sounded catchier," he said. "My editor never liked it and I just had dinner with her a couple of nights ago and she was still complaining about it."
Contrary to what the novel's readers are led to believe about the story being an actual account from Benioff's grandparents, he assured them this was not the case.
"My grandfather was born on a farm in Delaware and grew up to be a furrier in Allentown, Pennsylvania," he said.
His grandmother "was the farthest thing from a sniper, (though) she did make the best crab soup in the world."
Benioff spoke of some experiences in Russia doing research, where he was struck by that country's love and reverence for literature.
"They really cherish their writers," he said. "The passion for literature there is incredibly impressive and a little bit depressing," compared to our country.
Still, Benioff was surrounded by fans afterward while he signed books.
"I'm not a huge reader, and when I read this book, I honestly couldn't put it down," said Charlie Schubert of Greenwich. "Every one of the characters is engaging."
"You become very attached to the characters," Benioff said, adding that consequently it becomes hard to have to write about the terrible things that happen to them.
Benioff said later that he was pleased to have his novel chosen for the One Book, One Community event.
"I feel really honored," he said. "So far there are two towns that have done it," the other being Amarillo, Texas.
"I don't do that many readings and things," he said, but this honor demanded his visit.
"It's just really gratifying," he said. "Deeply gratifying."
Jarret Liotta is a freelance writer.