Welcome, Robert. Tell us about your latest book, The Dead Don’t Forget.
The Dead Don’t Forget, from Oak Tree Press, is the second in a crime fiction series featuring screenwriter-sleuth Billy Winnetka. The books are set in Los Angeles in the 1990s. In this installment, Billy meets a screen legend—a now 80-something woman who was a huge star in the silent film age. Gwendolyn Barlow is living in her deteriorating mansion in Hancock Park, largely forgotten. But someone remembers her, because she has been getting disturbing phone calls, threatening her with death. Or so she says—no one really believes her at first. But things turn uglier when someone actually makes an attempt on her life. Billy is soon mired in an investigation that suggests more than one person may have a reason to want Gwendolyn dead. Meanwhile, Billy is spending his days on the movie set where his screenplay, Perchance to Dream, is being filmed. It is not going well. A hothead novice director is wreaking havoc, and, being Hollywood, innocent heads will roll. Billy’s only solace is a new romance—with Gwendolyn’s attorney, Kate Hennessey. But in Billy’s world, nothing, especially not love, is without complications.
A forgotten screen legend, a screenwriter sleuth, and a touch of romance. Sounds unique and intriguing. When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
That is such an interesting question. I don’t think non-writers often realize that characters do take on a life of their own and sometimes take the lead in what happens to them in a novel. And when they intersect with another character who has a mind of his or her own, that’s when things can get really complicated! Of course, as the writer, I have the responsibility of not letting things get out of hand—but, really, sometimes characters just do what they want to do and you are pretty powerless in keeping them from doing it.
I love that answer! I often think of my days teaching with my characters as my students and me doing my best to keep them in control. As with teaching, I’m not always successful. Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?
I have a professional background as a book publicist, so the promotion side of things comes pretty naturally to me after years of publicizing other people’s books. Having said that, I was raised not to be self-aggrandizing, so it is far harder for me to hawk my own wares than someone else’s. And book promotion, like all of publishing, has changed so much, for better and worse, since I started working thirty-some years ago. Certainly the explosion of social media and web-based book sites (like this blog!) have made it easier to reach an audience all over the world quickly and cheaply, but advances in technology also means that there are far more writers and books out there vying for the attention of a relatively fixed audience. I like to keep promotion on a grass-roots level, connecting with readers as directly as possible, and I hope that those readers will like my work and spread the word. I don’t hate promoting—but it certainly is time-consuming and steals time from writing. That’s a reality writers of an earlier time didn’t have to deal with as much.
Book promotion has changed in so many ways since I started writing and I consider myself something of a rookie having only been writing (seriously) for a handful of years. How long have you been writing?
Well, I started writing in junior high, and published things in high school and college literary magazines. But I was forty before my first book was published—the literary cookbook, A Taste of Murder—and my first novel didn’t appear until six years after that.
I live in southern California, and that locale has certainly played a significant role in my two mystery novels, which are set in Los Angeles inside the film industry. I’m not a native Californian, but came here of my own volition almost thirty years ago. L.A. gets a bum rap, but there is so much about the city to recommend it—not just the weather—if you really get to know it. That’s the key: I think you really need to live here to understand this sprawling landscape. A tourist visit can’t capture its charms, many of which are hidden. Readers have told me that the books do convey those charms, as well as the quirks, of Los Angeles. I am always pleased to get that feedback, because I think of the books as love letters to the city—imperfect as that love may be.
I always enjoy a book more if the author takes the time to include the location as part of the story as if it’s another character. What are major themes or motifs in your work? Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?
Hm. If I think about it, I guess that all of my work, or at least my best work, is built on the belief that our expectations and plans in life do not always play out as we intend. Not regret, exactly, but the bittersweet realization that life is defined by compromises and decisions that we don’t—indeed, can’t—foresee when we are younger. It is always thrilling when a reader identifies something in a story that you didn’t realize was there. When they do, it underscores how much good writing is built on unconscious intentions and subtle execution rather than calculated or dictatorial narrative. A good writer shouldn’t tell a reader what to think.
What is your strongest and/or your weakest area in the creative process?
My greatest weakness, I think, is that I am easily distracted. I am curious about many things and always have more than one project on the back burners. Sometimes it is hard for me to focus and finish one. It seems I am often more interested in working on whatever book or story or play I am not working on at the time. Admittedly, it is a fractured approach. Not one I would recommend to aspiring writers.
Oh, I can relate. Distraction is my biggest weakness also and one I wish I could learn to control. What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?
It is sage advice. One can only write well about what one knows. Of course, you can increase the parameters of what you know not only by living life to the fullest, but also by reading and researching. I think a good writer learns how to take what he or she “knows” as raw material and transform it into something larger. My novels, for instance, are set in Hollywood and certainly draw on my own experiences working in the film business, but they are not reportage. That would be too dull. I hope I have been able to use the essential truth of my own experience and knowledge to create something more interesting than what might actually have happened.
What is your VERB? (This is a big poster at a local mall) If you had to choose ONE verb that describes you and you behavior or attitude, what would it be?
I don’t have a verb, but I do have a motto, spotted once on a bumper sticker, which is “Don’t Die Wondering.” I don’t want to go to my grave wondering what might have been. I think we should try things that interest us, even if we are afraid we might fail. And we might. But we don’t know until we try.
Another great answer and I love your motto! Any family influences? Memoirs in the making?
My father died very recently after a long illness and for some time I have toyed with the idea of writing about my experiences as a son wrestling with illness and loss. Right now, the emotions are still a little too raw, and, going back to what I said about writing what you know, I’m not sure that I would be able to turn my experience into anything worthwhile that others might want to read. But it is certainly on one of those aforementioned back burners.
After writing two books with my sister about a family member I can tell you it’s an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Have you bought an e-reader? What is your overall impression of electronic publishing?
I do use a Kindle, but still prefer the old-fashioned bound book. But, that’s just personal preference. E-books are books. Mainstream publishers took a long time to embrace electronic publishing, but have finally come to the realization that many readers came to first: that it is just another means of conveying or delivering information. As a writer I just want people to read. I don’t care how they choose to do it.
As a writer and a teacher, I agree wholeheartedly with your answer—it doesn’t matter how they read, only that they are reading. How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
Well, I’ve told this story many times. My protagonist, Billy Winnetka, was born while I was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles and passed the exit for Winnetka Blvd. His name flashed through my head and right then and there I decided it was the name of a fictional detective. By the time I had driven the rest of the way home I had created the rough outline for the first book, The Wicked and the Dead. None of my characters is based directly on anyone I’ve known, but some of them certainly have characteristics of people I have known. I would say that many of them are composites, borrowing attributes from many people, but in the end fictional.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Robert! Readers, to learn more about Robert and his books, visit the following links:
Oak Tree Press blog: http://otpblog.blogspot.com/
Read my monthly book review column, “Well Read,” at www.BookPage.com