When I first started writing I never dreamed I would have to talk in front of people. Well, that isn’t exactly true, I figured my book would go straight to the NY Times best selling list and I would be eloquent and savvy, and I could fly on my private jet, and people would come to hear my witty ….
“I was born to speak in front of people.” This is what I tell myself as I prepare my speeches before any and every public appearance. But I believe I suck at it. Then once I get up in front of everyone and throw out a terrible joke I spent hours hacking together for the event, it all unfolds before me and becomes memorable.
I remember in college, as a liberal arts college student, I had to take a public speaking class. Why? I had no idea. My father told me that liberal arts make you a well-rounded individual. Take Spanish class, please. I had a great Spanish teacher who graded us on our own progress because he knew we were only taking language to fulfill the required course load.
Public Speaking, on the other hand, may sound like an asinine way to waste forty-five minutes every week to a college kid, but twenty years later, I began to see the reasoning behind it. The same applies to typing classes in junior high. The course wasn’t hard, I just made it that way. I remember the first time I had to speak in front of the class, I was so not nervous – scared stiff that I drank almost an entire bottle of gin. Somehow I made it to the class and through the speech. I must have made quite an impression because I got a B for the job. Turns out, the teacher felt the same about her class as my Spanish teacher did. Or she felt sorry for me.
Now, instead of getting drunk, I write lousy jokes to “engage the audience”. Not everyone makes it out of my mouth. Like Ole Honest Abe, sometimes I just leave it out.
YA – I’d have to say, Tolkien. I have read him at least a dozen times. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I could live in that world. It is perfection.
SR – How important is research to you when writing a book?
YA – The first thing that will turn off a reader is inaccuracy. If the plot smells of untruths, or obvious misrepresentation, or makes no sense, the reader will lose interest quickly. It’s like watching a film about the Vikings and seeing a car drive by in the distant background, you know the director didn’t do his job. Especially today with Google maps and the vast world at our fingertips, it takes a little effort to bring up enough information to give a sense of truth to the story.
SR – Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?
YA – I can’t get enough reading. If a writer is suffering from writer’s block, he isn’t reading enough. You aren’t reading to find your voice, but to fill your brain with perspective. I love Kurt Vonnegut. I love Cormac McCarthy, Bernard Cornwell, Martin Cruz Smith, AA Milne, John LeCarré, Michael Crichton, Mary Renault, and not least of all, JRR Tolkien.
SR – What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?
YA – So I’m browsing a bookstore looking for something to read with no clear idea who or what I want to read. Sometimes I can’t remember his or her name, or I really don’t have anyone in mind. The color of the book certainly stands out. But it’s the image on the cover, or quite possibly the design, that makes me pick it up. Then I want to know about the book, and the title should do that. James Patterson is possibly the most well-known thriller writer today. I might pick him up but the title tells me what it’s about; Take Honeymoon. Well, Patterson is not going to write about romance, is he?
SR – Any advice you would like to give to your younger self?
YA – Stop screwing around with dead-end jobs and booze and keep writing. When I had my heartbroken, I started writing, poetry mostly but a few short stories. I liked what I wrote and decided to submit one of the stories to an agent. I can’t even remember how I picked this one agent out, (well before computers) but he actually replied with a personal note telling me that though not bad it needs a bit of work to make it worth publishing. I put it aside and never wrote another word for 30 years. That is the biggest mistake of my entire life.
SR – Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
YA – Well, as a matter of fact, I am writing the third Harry Thursday novel about stolen Nazi art. These stories take place in the late ’70s and Harry, an archaeologist, returns home to the States after his only living relative, his rich uncle, dies. When he finds out what he has been up to Harry’s world takes on a dangerous turn of events.
SR – Must all writers have had their hearts broken at some point in time, does that remain true for you as well?
YA – Not necessarily. But in my case, it sparked an attempt at poetry, and short stories. Melancholy tends to force one to look inward. That is where you can find stories waiting to come out like magma out of the Earth.
SR – Poets and writers in general, have a reputation for committing suicide; in your opinion, why is that the case?
YA – Yeah, I don’t know first-hand. We tend to look at ourselves too closely, and it can be ugly.
SR – Is it true that authors write word-perfect first drafts?
YA – Only in the movies. Oh hell no. I never worry about perfection until around the third draft. And then I defer to my editor.
SR – Which of your books took you the most time to write?
YA – I am willing to guess that it is the same with most authors. My first book, Fatal Snow, took 3 years to write, and only because I had to find the time to sit down and do it.
SR – How did it feel when your first book got published?
YA – I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it but I was so busy writing the 2nd and 3rd novel at the same time I pretty much forgot about it for a while until I actually had a copy in my hands.
SR – Which book would you want to be adapted for the silver screen?
YA – Definitely Fatal Snow. I could see Quentin Tarantino making a bloody mess of Wyoming. My unfinished novel, The Gods Among Us, science-fiction would be a real doozy of a movie.
SR – Did you ever have a rough patch in writing, where nothing in the story seemed to fit or make sense?
YA – All the time. I don’t write with an outline. I just free-for-all it. If that does happen I usually realize something is wrong a few chapters later and go back to fix it or throw it out; I’ve done that before.
SR – Do you often meet with younger writers and discuss their ideas to help polish them?
YA – Not unless I’m asked. I wouldn’t like their work anyway. One, because if it were any good, I’d be jealous and hate it, and if it were terrible, I’d hate it for being that. I used to go to a monthly group of writers who meet to critique one another’s work. Very often new aspiring writers come along. Those that stick it out usually produce something.
SR – Do you prefer being intoxicated to write? Or would you rather write sober?
YA – Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Works for me.
SR-A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?
YA – I have always had a hard time mixing with people I don’t know. Over the years I’ve taught myself to walk up and talk to a complete stranger. Easy enough, but once in a while some butt-head looks at me like, “Who the hell are you?” Which sends me into a fetal position in a corner somewhere to rock and suck my thumb.
SR – Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?
YA – Yes, I have a science fiction, The Gods Among Us, the first I have ever written, sitting in 300 pages of a nightmare. My first published novel took a backhand to that one for a while until I realized that “The Gods” needed to ferment.
SR – Do you have a daily habit of writing?
YA – At my best, I set aside time to write. I used to pump out 20 pages every morning at 6 AM, but things have changed and right now it’s approaching midnight.
SR – Have you ever taken any help from other writers?
YA – Critiquing is vital to a well-rounded book. I may not like what they say, and it helps sometimes to realize they don’t know what they are talking about. But very often there are good bits of advice. Sometimes we can’t see our biggest mistakes, and another set of eyes will point out those mistakes.
SR – Are you “there” where you wanted to be?
YA – Not yet. Not by a long shot.
SR – If you were given the opportunity to form a book club with your favorite authors of all time, which legends or contemporary writers would you want to become a part of the club?
YA – Hemingway, Twain, Vonnegut, Steinbeck. Oh, yes, Edward E Cummings, Alan Moorehead, and Will Shakespeare. Oh let’s go back a few years, how about Herodotus and Plato. And for a living author, Martin Cruz Smith, Bernard Cornwell, and Cormac McCarthy. I could go on but I think they might be a bit too busy.
SR – What are the non-fiction genres you enjoy reading?
YA – I love history. I read the entire 11 volume set of Will and Ariel Durant’s History of the World. Biographies are fascinating as well. Barbara Tuchman wrote about the Middle Ages in a great book titled A Distant Mirror.
“Those who do not learn from history, are destined to repeat it.”
I’m the nervous sort. Put it down to ADHD – Attention Deficit, Hyperactive –something or other. The more scientific acronym is NEAWINI; Not Enough Alcohol When I Need It. To that issue, my doctor suggested I cut down on sugar, so I am excluding all sweets and only drinking whiskey for dessert.
Where was I, oh yes, I am the nervous sort, always moving my hands, fidgeting, can’t sit still, it’s impossible to pay attention. If you tell me your name, I forget it almost before it fully comes out of your mouth. I am easily distracted and have severe abandonment issues. Yet despite those mild handicaps, I manage to produce novels.
I even gave a speech on it recently at the State Library to some very attentive and patient folks. It went something like this.
Hemingway, when asked what it takes to be a writer, answered – “A lousy childhood.” Well, I’m not so sure I had a lousy childhood, but if that is all it takes to be a novelist, I reserve a collective review of my work to determine how lousy it was.
It takes imagination at least, and a lot of hard work. Writers are like gods – though we never associate the term hard work with them – we have to make rock out of loam, diamonds out of decomposed organisms. With our hands sticking out of the clouds on our worlds, we get to determine who wins and who doesn’t.
Before I was published, I reached out to over 30 agents and publishers before landing one and that was by chance. And persistence. When I was single, I would always go after the very beautiful women. My friends would always tell me that I was out of my league. To which I said, “It’s a numbers game,” and sooner or later I scored and the payoff was monumental.
The same persistence applies to any sort of sales, and yes, writers are in the sales business.br> Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Ø Henry Ford went bankrupt 5 times before making it.
Ø Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he lacked imagination and good ideas, and he went bankrupt before hitting on the Mouse.
Ø Churchill failed the 6th grade and was 61 when he became Prime Minister.
Ø Colonel Sanders went belly up multiple times before KFC came to him in his 50’s.
Ø Van Gogh sold only 1 painting in his lifetime – to a friend.
Ø Charles Schultz was rejected by Walt Disney.
Ø Stephen King had 30 rejections and threw his manuscript in the can when his wife fished it out and urged him to go on.
Ø This last one makes me feel anything is possible if you put your mind to it – Jack London had 600 rejections.
Persistence pays off. What all these people had in common was what Joe Campbell called “Following your bliss.” Joseph Campbell was an American philosopher, Mythologist, writer and lecturer best known for his work in comparativemythology and religion. His work covers many aspects of human behavior besides mythology.
“Myth,” he writes, “is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestation…”
Studying this man has opened my eyes to a brave new world.
His best quote stands to this day as a bastion of truth over adversity. “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
There is a pattern, he writes, hidden in every story ever told,” and he called it, “The hero’s journey.”
So that we should be able to find this journey he challenges us to “Follow our Bliss.”
Every story had this theme. The hero, for whatever reason, is faced with a challenge he must complete, or die trying. In fiction, the hero never dies. Well, almost never.
The difference between life and fiction is fiction has to make sense. In fiction, the hero takes the challenge so that we have a story. Think of Star Wars, the classic battle between good and evil. Better yet, think of Tolkien’s Trilogy, “The Lord of The Rings.”
What Campbell found was that we all have within us this challenge. He uses the Dragon. In Frodo’s case – Mount Doom. He climbs mountains, must choose the correct path, and avoid temptation, in order to fulfill his challenge. Frodo taught us that if we persevere, if we fight our way to the end, to stand in front of the dragon, the fiery pit of DOOM, Joseph Campbell assures us that we will find not the dragon, or Sauron, but ourselves.
Frodo taught us that if we persevere, if we fight our way to the end, to stand in front of the dragon, the fiery pit of DOOM, Joseph Campbell assures us that we will find not the dragon, or Sauron, but ourselves.
All Frodo had to do was throw the ring into the fire of Mordor, and he’d be free of his burden, free to go home to the Shire and live his life as before. But it was HIS evil that kept him from doing this, his personal dragon – Sméagol. Sméagol had to die so that Frodo could triumph. So he could have the life that was waiting for him. And be sure it was not the life he left behind.
We face no dragon, no external force, but only ourselves. Sméagol was Frodo’s inner dragon.
Albert Camus in The Stranger, speaks to the absurdity of life. His character suffers from ennui, and mindlessly murders a man on a hot Algerian beach, and faces his consequences. Camus called it, “The nakedness of a man faced with the absurd.”
I would rather have my characters face what I call, “An ordinary man thrust into extraordinary situations.”
In the end, Frodo found what all heroes find, that it is not the dragon, the Mordor that fights us and keeps us from our life that is meant for us, but our own feelings of insecurity, doubt, failing. And once we overcome those feelings, once we allow our Sméagol to fall into his own fearful self, then and only then can we find the Bliss.
“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”