Novelist Jeff Bens ’81 Discusses Curiosity, Character, and Hockey with Students

When Jeff Bens ’81 sits down to write a work of fiction, he has three things in mind: jobs, places, and wounds. The novelist and professor of English at Manhattanville College recently paid a virtual visit to campus to chat with students in the senior English elective Sports Literature, discussing his creative process, sports as a framework for meaning, and lessons learned at Rivers and beyond.
Bens was a natural fit for the class because his just-published novel, The Mighty Oak, is about an aging, Boston-born minor league hockey player facing down the missteps of his past, while struggling with substance use. Tim “Oak” O’Conner’s longtime role as a brutal “enforcer” has left him physically broken, perhaps with a traumatic brain injury. The novel has received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which calls it “blistering” and “superb.”  

It’s not a feel-good story per se; before Bens’s visit, students were assigned to read the book’s first chapter, in which Oak beats an opponent to a pulp. The violence is vividly portrayed—a loud start that stands in contrast to the quieter second chapter, which takes place at Oak’s mother’s funeral and which Bens read aloud to the class.  

After Bens finished the reading, students peppered him with questions about his work. One student wondered what led Bens—not a hockey player himself—to set his novel in the world of minor-league hockey. “I like hockey,” he said. “The hockey players I’ve met, men and women, have a spirit and character I like.” At the same time, he says, “Hockey is a game where, at the minor league level, fighting is in its way allowed, perhaps even encouraged, and that struck me as something to explore.” 

The novel is clearly not autobiographical, and the students wondered whether, in the absence of clear parallels with the author’s life, there were nonetheless connections between Bens and his characters. “Some writers do write about themselves,” said Bens, “but that’s not my way of writing. I find it useful to think about places and jobs; I try to write about places and jobs that are interesting to me. If something is interesting to me, if I work hard enough, I can get that to be of interest to someone else.” 

Writing The Mighty Oak took a great deal of research, Bens said. The book was 10 years in the making, and the background material he amassed fills three large plastic bins. But the research wasn’t drudgery, he notes: “It’s not like I was assigned to research a subject I’m not interested in.” That led him to recollect the words of legendary Rivers teacher Jack Jarzavek, who, said Bens, “told us to keep an eye on what your real interests are. It’s not that easy. Your real interests don’t always announce themselves so loudly, and they change, but that’s fine.” 

A student asked about how Bens moved the project from the research stage toward plot, events, and characters. “Think of a protagonist you like,” Bens asked of the class. “Main characters tend to be wounded to some degree, and that colors the character’s actions.” The novelist’s task, he said, is to put pressure on that wound, setting in motion a search for healing or transformation that the protagonist may not even understand or recognize as such.
Bens’s journey to novelist took a number of turns, as he majored in international relations at Brown, considered a career in law, worked as a filmmaker, and helped found the film school at the University of North Carolina; besides heading Manhattanville’s undergraduate creative writing program, he currently has a television show in development. It was Rivers, he says, that set him on a path to exploring his interests, following wherever they might lead. “Rivers was a place where curiosity was encouraged,” he said. “It wasn’t about just working hard to get As; it was about continuing to feed and fuel that curiosity. I liked that about Rivers, and I hope it’s still true.”