Interview of Robert Westbrook, Author


Published Works:

JOURNEY BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN, G.P. Putnam’s, 1963

THE MAGIC GARDEN OF STANLEY SWEETHEART, Crown, 1969; Bantam paperback, 1970

THE LEFT-HANDED POLICEMAN, Crown, 1986; Warner Books paperback, 1987

NOSTALGIA KILLS, Crown, 1988

LADY LEFT, Crown, 1990

RICH KIDS, Birchlane, 1992

INTIMATE LIES, Harper Collins, 1995

Novels based on screenplays:

THE MEXICAN, Signet, 2001

INSOMNIA, Signet, 2002

Howard Moon Deer Series:

GHOST DANCER, Signet, 1998

WARRIOR CIRCLE, Signet, 1999

RED MOON, Signet, 2000

ANCIENT ENEMY, Signet, 2001

Websitehttp://www.robertwestbrook.com/pub1.html

 

Robert, I understand your book Ancient Enemy was nominated for the Shamus Award as the best private eye paperback of 2002—how exciting! Is this the first award your work has been nominated for?

Yes. I didn’t actually win the award, but it was an honor to be nominated.

I believe Ancient Enemy is the 4th in the series featuring Howard Moon Deer and ex-cop Jack Wilder. Tell us a bit about Howard Moon Deer—what tribe does he belong to and is he traditional or alienated from tribal ways? And Jack Wilder—I understand he is a blind detective? From what police force? And what is the story on his being blind?

Howie is a Lakota Sioux who received scholarships to good schools – Dartmouth and Princeton – and like all Native Americans who leave the rez, he discovered there was no going home again. As a literary device, I deliberately alienated him from his own culture to make him a sharp observer of the life around him – an outsider, a sort of visitor from outer space who sees things with a fresh eye and takes nothing for granted. As for my ex-cop Jack, he was a commander, a high official in the San Francisco Police Department before he lost he eyesight.

How did you come up with this combination of American Indian and blind detective? Are they based on anyone you’ve known?

Howie, as I’ve said, was created to be an outsider to be better able to observe the main setting of this series: the chic, arty, white émigrés who arrive in New Mexico from other places, usually in a brand new SUV, looking for the latest installment of the American Dream. With Jack, I made him blind because I thought it would be an interesting device to create more suspense – for Jack, simply crossing a busy street becomes an adventure. Also, I wanted him to solve crimes by his brain, not brawn.

Have you been associated with any American Indian tribes in any way? How do you research American Indian culture for your books?

I live in a town in New Mexico where there is a large Native American population and over the years, I have made a number of friends with the people at the Pueblo here. Also I simply read a great deal to get the information I needed to make Howie plausible. Fortunately, there are many good books on Native America.

I believe you used to write police procedurals set in California? Did you live there at the time? And what made you switch to the New Mexico setting?

I grew up in Los Angles and spent most of my adult life in Northern California, so it was natural to place my first mystery series in California – the “Left Handed Policeman” books. Ten years ago, my wife and I moved to New Mexico, and eventually I wanted to write about my new home.

What got you started writing crime fiction? Were you ever involved in this field of work?

I simply like the genre, and enjoy the fact that crime fiction is extremely story driven. I also like the fact that a detective is someone who is searching for the truth of what the world is like around him; he is, in fact, a heroic archetype, one of the “thousand faces of the hero” in the Joseph Campbell sense.

I believe you also wrote some non-fiction? On what subjects, and were they based on a particular interest of yours?

I’ve written 2 non-fiction works. My very first book, written in 1963 when I was 17 years old – “Journey Behind the Iron Curtain” – was based on a high school trip to Poland, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia at the height of the Cold War. Then in 1995, I wrote the story of my mother and F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Intimate Lies,” that was published by HarperCollins.

Your mother was involved at an early age with F. Scott Fitzgerald, wasn’t she? This sounds like it had an enormous effect on your mother. Did it also affect you? I believe she wrote a book about it called Beloved Infidel? And that you also wrote about it in Intimate Lies?

My mother was involved with Fitzgerald in Hollywood from 1937 to when he died in her apartment in 1940. It was a difficult relationship, as Scott struggled with alcoholism and his failure as a writer, and it had an enormous effect on my mother – and on me as well, indirectly. I feel that “Intimate Lies” is my best, most deeply-felt book.

Anything you want to tell us about this ghost writing you do?

I ghost-wrote 8 novels for a TV celebrity I’m not allowed to name. I think of this experience as part of my apprenticeship as a writer – I learned a great deal, and it was strangely freeing to know that someone else’s name would be on the book. Of course, there’s something depressing about it as well: we live in a brand name society where someone famous (like my TV celeb) has a much better chance of selling books than someone non-famous, like me.

And what is this bit about you taking a break to “find yourself? What kind of life did you lead then? More or less exciting than that of an author?

This was a GREAT time of my life! In my late-20s I built a cabin in a redwood forest, played guitar, studied piano, and did a number of things that had nothing to do with writing . . . but greatly enlarged me as a writer, gave me much more experience to guide me in the mid-1980s when I began publishing again.

Do you remember much about the Black List era in Hollywood? Did you know people it affected?

Yes, I remember when it was dangerous even to mention Civil Rights – someone might think you were a Communist! I knew a number of people whose lives were changed forever by this terrible time – including Budd Schulberg, who wrote “On the Waterfront,” and ended up testifying for HUAC, and the director Carl Foreman, who had to flee to England when he couldn’t work in Hollywood anymore.

How did you get into writing novels based on screenplays? Is it interesting work?

I was hired for these jobs by various movie studios to write novels based on screenplays – a marketing device, really. I did “The Mexican” and “Insomnia,” but probably won’t do any more. As a semi-struggling author, I always need work . . . but this was fairly boring, really.

I understand that you’ve traveled and lived abroad quite a lot. Which places have you enjoyed the most, and why? And have they had an influence on your work?

I love to travel and live outside the United States – we’ve spent a year in Europe, another in China, and most recently a year in Alexandria, Egypt. My wife, Gail, teaches English as a foreign language, and I simply bring my laptop along to continue writing my novels. I haven’t used these foreign settings per se, but living abroad has certainly affected my creative outlook.

I believe you’ve also taught writing workshops and have an editing service? Do you enjoy these activities as much as writing?

Yes, I love teaching! I’ve been giving workshops on writing mystery novels, as well as writing fiction – I enjoy my students, and I’ve really learned a lot, trying to put what I know about writing into words. Also, from time to time, people send me their manuscripts and I do my best to help them get their projects into shape.

Please tell us how you got involved with Addall and Lily and Hup? Was it originally through your wife, Gail? And what work do you do for or with them? And how did you and Gail meet?

Gail and Lily met on an airplane to China. Gail currently does customer service for Addall. My own part is to write a weekly column where I review books – a dream job, really, for someone like me who loves books. As for Gail and me, we’ve been together for 25 years – we met in our wild youth in the small town of Pt. Reyes Station on the northern California coast.

What made you decide to try your hand at writing originally?

Growing up with the myth of F. Scott Fitzgerald hovering over my head, writing has been in my blood since day one. In my youth, I tried a few other things, but somehow I couldn’t escape my fate. I’m a writer, through and through.

Have you always written, as while you were growing up and long before trying to get published that first time?

Yes, I began writing stories when I was about 10 years old. I knew even then that this was the life for me.

What type of worker are you when you write, i.e., do you write at certain times, or for a certain amount of hours daily, in long stretches straight through, as the spirit moves you, or?

I like to write best in the mornings, maybe 6 or 7 hours a day. The most important thing, when writing a novel, is to keep at it day after day, whether the spirit moves you or not. Eventually, the pages begin to add up to a book.

Do you conceive of an entire story or subject line to be covered in your head before starting to write, or do you get just an idea and sit down, outline it and flesh it out, or?

I usually start with an idea, a beginning – a vague feeling of how things will work out, but I don’t quite know how until I’ve stumbled through a first draft. Then I go back, look at what I have, and begin to shape the thing into a novel. It takes me a number of drafts to get it right.

Tell us how you first got published, and whether it was difficult that first time. Did you have an agent for that first published piece? Was it a book, an article, a paper, or what?

As I mentioned earlier, my first book, “Journey Behind the Iron Curtain,” was based on a student trip to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. This was a subject that sold itself. When I returned from the trip, I wrote a few newspaper articles about my experience – an editor at Putnam’s chanced to read the articles and contacted me, asking me to expand them into a book. In short, my first experience with publishing was absurdly easy – I got to experience publishing angst later in my career!

How do you feel about editors? Does it disturb you or comfort you to have someone checking your work pre-publication?

Writers NEED to have a good editor, someone who can give an objective point of view. Unfortunately, most New York editors are too busy these days in sales meetings and no longer serve this function. Luckily for me, my wife Gail is my best critic – I give all my manuscripts to her, and she helps me get them into shape.

Have you ever been on a tour with one of your books? If so, what is that like? Did you find that it helped increase sales of your book?

Yes, I’ve been on book tours. They are probably necessary, but they are hard, hard, hard. I don’t particularly enjoy selling myself. As for books sales, we are living in a very difficult publishing environment where basically 90 percent of American readers read 10 authors. Like everything else in our corporate global world, the big are getting bigger and the small are struggling. In short, this a great time to be an author if you’re Tom Clancy, but a challenge for all the rest of us.

Can you tell us a bit about the book you’re currently working on? I understand it is to be a completely different genre for you?

I’m working on two books, actually: a spy novel, and a story based loosely on my mother’s life. I’m enjoying experimenting with different sorts of writing than I’ve done before.

Any stories about the hazards of trying to make your way as a writer, particularly when starting out?

It’s extremely difficult to make a living as a writer these days, but rewarding in its own way. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it, really . . . yet personally I wouldn’t do anything else. In short, you have to be a bit crazy to give it a try. But if you just happen to be slightly mad, well – it’s splendid to make a living with your imagination.

Any advice to aspiring writers on finding an agent or contacting publishers?

It’s more difficult to find an agent these days than a publisher. Basically, a new writer needs to get a book that lists literary agents – there are several available – and send prospective agents a GREAT cover letter with maybe 10 or so sample pages of their work. It’s like fishing: you put a line in the water and wait. The main thing is, keep at it – don’t get discouraged!

Are you a reader? If so, what types of things do you enjoy reading?

I love reading. Just about anything, really – but my favorite reading is the 19th century classics. Tolstoy, Chekov, Thackery, Dickens, Jane Austin . . . I could reread these books forever.

I understand that you enjoy opera? Which are your favorites? Jazz piano? Do you play or just enjoy the music? Skiing? Downhill or cross-country? And are you good at it? What other things do you enjoy?

With opera, I’m a great Puccini fan. At one time of my life, I studied to be a jazz pianist – I still play whenever I get the chance, and my heroes of the keyboard are Fats Waller and Keith Jarrett. These days, I’m fortunate to live in a famous ski resort and I love to spend winter afternoons going downhill on the slopes. Cooking also is a hobby of mine – very relaxing to chop and stir up fantastic feasts at the end of a busy day.

Please tell us anything else about yourself you’d like us to know, either personal or professional, and thank you very much for allowing us to interview you!

I feel very fortunate to be a writer, extremely lucky. These days I am trying to use my talent in a positive way to promote peace and oppose the current military adventurism in Iraq. To be an artist is to affirm human values and oppose the dysfunctional deadness of globalism and war.

 

Interview by Shirley Bryant

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website