Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A few questions for Robert W. Walker

Success!!!  Finally!!!!  After two weeks of fighting with this blog I believe I am finally able to do the blog interview with Robert W. Walker.

For those of you who follow me on Facebook you know both Robert and myself.  Not surprisingly, you know the two of us have some strong opinions over a wide range of subjects.  Which is good, mind you.  I like strong-willed people.  I may not agree with them all the time.  But I appreciate their strength and their abilities to voice them in a convincing manner.

What you may not know is Robert is an accomplished writer. He delves into creepy whodunits, action-adventure, and historical novels.  All the genres I love to read.  What's more, the guy is a writing machine.  I think somewhere in this interview he says he's written something like 50 books.  And counting.

Someone who is this prolific, and has been as successful in the crazy world of a writer, has to have something interesting to say.  So I thought I'd interview him.  Kinda pick his brains some.  It turned out to be a good idea.  I think you'll find the interview quite interesting.

1. I see you grew up in Chicago and witnessed Chicago crime up close and personal. How did these experiences wind up affecting you and your writing?

Profoundly, actually.  As a replanted ‘seed’ from rural Mississippi to Chicago, how can this not affect a child, and so my three brothers and sisters, wound up taking care of one another a great deal as both parents had traveled to Chicago after WWII, dad being a vet, in search of work. We were destined to be apartment dwellers with the rent coming due every month, and we kids were very aware of the money problems. Many other families who’d moved into the cities during this huge influx did not stay, returning to their roots, but not us. A sense of rootlessness and separation from the larger family, and of course the country as opposed to the city was fostered. As there was often a lot of trauma at home, I found school a safe haven and learned to love learning for its own sake, particularly reading and writing at a young age. In fact, I can recall as early as 4th grade wanting to know all I could about a certain topic I found fascinating in our history book, a mere footnote a teacher told me that was unimportant to our history as a people. I instinctively knew better, that the incident in Colonial America known as the Salem Witchcraft episode said a great deal about us. Today my book Children of Salem certainly is about the American character and forms of government and social ties.

2. Writing seems to be as important to you as breathing. When did the mild interest in the written word become an addiction? And do you remember the very first story you ever wrote and thought worthy enough of publication?

I was fascinated first as a reader. Read every story I could get hold of and was in the library all the time. I was always fascinated too with TV dramas at the time and in particular anything in the realm of the bizarre and unusual such as One Step Beyond, Science Fiction Theatre, and later on The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, etc., but history also fascinated me. The colorful images in our textbooks sent my imagination on so many magic carpet rides, and we had an anthology of Magic Stories for English class in fifth or sixth grade that caught my imagination, and in Chicago each spring, we got to go on field trips to the Brookfield Zoo and the grandest museums Chicago had to offer.  I took full advantage and as an adult have returned to these places many times over.  I began writing in earnest around 7th grade when a teacher had us all write a fictional story, and I had let it go and it was due the next day. I was watching a TV drama and decided to cheat by writing out the very story I had just watched. This would have been early 50s black and white story opening with a chase scene. I used the plot and gave the characters names and wrote it all in one sitting, no rewrite, no slaving over the thing. The response I got was so powerful from the teacher, who read it word for word to the class while I turned red, said to me that I had the gift to MOVE people with words.  I never looked back. Instead, arrogant as I was, I went on to write the Sequel to Huckleberry Finn which I could not find in any library as Twain had not written it!

3. You turned out fifty books. That's a lot in anyone's career. What's the secret, the writing technique, which makes you so prolific (I'm REALLY curious to hear this answer since I might abscond with your method and use it myself).

I began to get into high numbers of books by writing series characters, which in essence makes the sequels so much faster and easier to produce since you already truly KNOW your main character and any tangential ones that hang on for the ride. Think of it in Star Trek terms, as we know WHO James T. Kirk is by end of first episode, so the following episode challenges Kirk on his principles, his bedrock character. If he acts before he thinks, then we write a story to show how deadly that kind of behavior can be; if he puts himself in peril ahead of his crew, this says something about him we challenge in a follow-up episode. Serial novels are episodic. Once I truly know who Inspector Alastair Ransom is by end of City for Ransom, I know where I want to take him in Shadows in the White City and then in City of the Absent. Same is true with Dr. Jessica Coran in the twelve books spawned on the back of the first, Killer Instinct. By now I have some kind of record as I have 8, count ‘em 8 Series Characters…characters who carry the weight of more than one book on their shoulders. I am ahead of most writers in this regard.

So if there is a key to writing more books in a shorter time period, in my view, it is in working with the same ensemble of characters and your main character returning, and you just have to come up with a worse to worst case scenario and a worse villain than the one who came before to challenge your medical examiner star or your vampire slayer like my Dr. Abe Stroud in my horror series called Bloodscreams or Det. Lucas Stonecoat in my Edge Series, or Rae Murphy Hiyakawa in my PSI Series.

Finally, I can recall (not the exact date) a time when I felt I had turned a corner in my skills as a writer, that nothing could distract me when focused and I could almost ‘channel’ the characters I was creating. This ‘channeling’ feeling comes of having fully realized characters. Almost ten years after the last Ransom title, I sat down and did Titanci 2012 – Curse of RMS Titanic and made Ransom the star hero in the 1912 storyline, and the 2012 hero I had never known before. With Ransom it was like riding a bike….and I did not even have to re-read my Ransom titles to know him intimately. Readers have said that I nailed him as if the books had simply followed in time behind one another.

4. Your favorite genre is . . . ? The one you find the most difficult to write? The one you've seen the most success in?

This is a tough question, like trying to answer, ‘Which of all your books is your favorite?’ They all are….like your children.  However, I had a passion as a young author for historical both as a reader and a writer, and I have more recently returned to writing historical thrillers like Bismarck 2012 – Hitler’s Curse as a result of getting back to who I am – after having written both in horror and in mystery/suspense genres and a long stint with the medical examiner mystery category which I was doing BEFORE Silence of the Lambs and before Tess Gerritsen and before Patricia Cornwell, but I get a lot of flack for ‘ripping off’ Silence of the Lambs in particular….Anyhow with that aside, my favorite is historical thriller with occult or horrific twists.  Children of Salem has been a life’s work, both Titanic and Bismarck have been a blast as well. I love taken an unanswerable question of history—what or who truly brought down the Bismarck, the Titanic, the Witches of Salem—and come up with what I call a Robert Bloch conclusion. Bloch is one of my writer heroes, a spiritual mentor alongside Mark Twain. Envision a scary Mark Twain as Bloch is best known for the film version of his Psycho, but he was a great writer of other tales as well.

5. Now a college professor teaching (surprise, surprise!) about writing, what is the one positive and the one negative factor you see in aspiring college students wanting to write the Next Great American Novel?

The positive is the energy and unique vision they can bring along with the passion for writing, typically having been borne of being great readers of fiction, typically.  The negatives are not so apparent in great readers, despite their grades, but in those who actually don’t read or dislike it even, and/or find it a chore as they will likely have serious problems in writing clearly. Stephen King has a great line: “If you can’t make it sing, at least make it CLEAR.” I have far, far too  many students who can do neither and feel they need no training in writing as if they were born with the right to inflict their bad writing on others.  I see students who can be nothing other than a writer, can see the words fluttering inside their heads and hearts trying to get out, and I see students who think ‘How cool it’d be to be a writer’ and these fellows will very likely not ever publish anything of note or worth. One once told me anything can be a POEM….the word IT alone can be a poem; one once told me he only writes literature, while another of this ilk told me, his teacher, that he didn’t read and history had nothing to do with him. That is when the Jeopardy bell of shame rings in back of my head.

Another thing about the Great American Novel is the section in Jerome Stern’s book Making Shapely Fiction that discusses ‘No new story under the sun’ wherein he points out that every form of story is like a plug in the wall in any room – you disregard it and do not use it to your disadvantage or you plug into a genre to your great advantage.

6. Which trait, in your opinion, is the one factor that must be present in a writer if they are to be successful . . .Talent or Perseverance?

By all  means Perseverance which in time can lead to talent.  Talent – even if there was such a thing as being born with a silver pen or tongue does not necessarily get you to persevere or to get off the beam, to not procrastinate; whereas perseverance  (which there may well be a gene for) can lead to growth as a writer or in other words talent.  Talent is a dicey word. People use it too freely. Talent truly come of when persevering people have worked on their craft for years so that when ideas and sparks and opportunities arise, talent then may be applied since experience has been afoot for years. Every great overnight success or ‘talent’ has made it happen via years of working at his craft be it the flute, football, or writing. 

7. What are you writing on now? And when will we see it out on the market?

I just finished Bismarck 2013 – Hitler’s Curse, and I placed it direct to Kindle books on my now crowded Kindle shelf. It can be had via Kindle and the free kindle app which allows almost any device with a screen on it to get the book.  It is a companion piece but not a direct sequel to Titanic 2012 – Curse of RMS Titanic.  It asks the question ‘What terrifies Adolf Hitler?’ and hopefully answers the question to the satisfaction of readers. Early readers have loved it, and I am hoping more will review it soon.  Just previous to this I did a strictly horror monster mash called Bayou Wulf as the 4th in my Dr. Abraham Stroud, vampire-slayer ala archeologist series which I dubbed BloodScreams. This is urban fantasy horror, a wild and fun romp.  I like doing these as working with monsters is fun and a lot less stressful than working with serial killers or people in general for that matter!  HA!  Between books now and catching my breath, but I know many people want me to do a 13th Instinct Series title to bring back Dr. Jessica Coran, and I am ‘percolating’ a challenge for her once more but have to pull her out of retirement kicking and screaming first.

8. Finally, a kid comes up to you and says s/het wants to be a writer. What sagacious words of wisdom do you give to the youthful wanna-be?

Hone your craft. Take a four-year degree in letters at a university or college if you can afford a writer’s program, and if not create your own four-year work program like I did. Get yourself to a time and place where you CAN just write for four years as if in a degree program and by writing that much for that long, you will have found your game and pace and you will hit the ground running when you do your next writing project. Those you discard early on, you will find yourself going back to after having become as skilled as you have after having persevered as long as you have. Another thing, every young writer should read Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, read David Morrell’s how-to on demystifying fiction writing, read Robyn Carr’s Tips for Writing Popular Fiction, and perhaps my own how-to to die for called DEAD on WRITING. And if you do, do the finger exercises in the book, the hands-on stuff straight out of my classroom.

Now I want to say thanks to my host for having me here, and more on me at my Amazon author’s page as well as my website at www.robertwalkerbooks.com

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, guys. So much good advice in such a small space.