Photography By: Michael C. Wooton
Bookpleasures.com is pleased to welcome as our guest Robert Blake Whitehill. Robert is a classically trained actor, a critically acclaimed novelist, and an award-winning screenwriter. He has earned film festival wins at the Hudson Valley Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival, and has written many highly rated episodes of the Discovery-Times Channel’s The New Detectives, Daring Capers and The Bureau.
He is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant winner for his feature film script U.X.O. (Unexploded Ordinance), and he served as the vice president of independent film acquisitions for the groundbreaking Centerseat.com, developing and managing their independent film channel.
His first thriller in the Ben Blackshaw series, Deadrise, was named by Cyrus Webb to the Conversations Book Club Top 100 Books of 2012. His second book in the series, Nitro Express, was named to the Conversations Book Club Top 50 Books of Fiction of 2013.
Movie studio HatLine Productions is optioning the first two books, as well as the third title in the series, Tap Rack Bang, for development into feature films.
He lives in Montclair, N.J., with his wife and son, and when not cruising on the Chesapeake, or knocking around the sky over Tangier Island in a Cessna 152, Whitehill blogs and posts on Twitter about his home waters, and has crafted a number of articles for Chesapeake Bay Magazine.
Norm: Good day Robert and thanks for participating in our interview.
Hi Norm. It’s great to visit with you and your readers. An honor, really.
How did you get started in writing and what keeps you going?
Robert: Writing, for me, was an accident of birth in a way. I was privileged that my parents were both writers. My mother, Cecily, is a poet, as well as a great editor. My father, Joseph, was an award-winning short story writer and novelist. They both taught me a great deal about writing. That was the start for me. Then came writing various true crime and forensics shows for Discovery, and the feature film scripts.
What keeps me going is The Ben Blackshaw Series readers. I barely have one book out in print before they’re asking me about when the next one is coming. I’m very lucky.
Norm: Has being a classically trained actor and film script writer influenced your writing as a novelist in any way? If so, please explain.
Robert: Acting and writing screenplays are crucial to my novel writing. Studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater filled me with the best dramatic writing in the English language. The power, the rhythms just stuck with me. I got in the habit of performing my dialog, my whole book really, out loud. I can hear if it’s working, if it has punch. If it’s just lying there like a lox, I can fix it. But the sizzle, the crackle and the duds are all hidden from me until I speak the words. My wife thinks I am nuts, particularly when I’m refining my bad guys. She wonders who she’s living with.
Writing screenplays also
helps me with novels enormously because I tend to keep a very
break-neck pace going in the Blackshaw books as I try to do in
screenplays. That translates into shorter chapters. Showing the
results of Blackshaw’s decisions outwardly in the actions he takes.
That leads to lots of events that twist the action and propel the plot in surprising directions that even I can’t anticipate when I sit down to write every morning. I just keep throwing obstacles at Blackshaw as fast as I can think them up, and seeing what he decides to do. I hope that makes for an exciting read for Blackshaw’s fans.
Norm: What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
Robert: The first stories
I wrote outside of school assignments were actually one- or
two-minute audition monologs that I’d custom-write for other
actors. I’d interview each client for two, and often three hours,
with set questions, and lots of spontaneous follow-up questions, too.
Anytime I saw the client’s eyes light up with excitement in our
conversation, I would note the topic, the feelings.
Then I would pick the subject that stimulated the actor the most during our chat, and that would be the subject of the monolog, tapping into that actor’s most dynamic reservoir of emotional truth. Even though the monologs were not mini-biographies per se, that extra zing of excitement really helped reveal to the casting director what that actor was like deep inside. I did that for a couple of years, paid some bills, and by all reports, helped some talented performers get gigs they really wanted.
Norm: What's your average working day like? Do you have any unusual habits/rituals?
Robert: Unusual habits and
rituals---hmmm. Well, there’s no sacrificing of goats on an altar
or anything weird. No special undergarments worn, or relics or
talismans rubbed a certain number of times. Okay, there absolutely
must be a certain high level of caffeine on board, I’ll cop to
that. But at the risk of sounding dull, Norm, I get my butt in the
chair in front of the computer right after my morning shower and
breakfast, and pretty much stay put until I have five pages in. I do
that five days a week.
Sometimes it takes a regular work day to achieve five pages. Sometimes I’m at it for much, much longer. But that’s my goal. Writing is an occupation, a full-time job, and if I was off doing other things waiting for inspiration, or a visit from the Muse, or waiting for creative lightning to strike, I’d never get anything done.
Norm: Do you write your stories to express something you believe or are they just for entertainment?
Robert: What a great question! Yes, my first commitment is to entertain my readers. Proust I am not. That being said, I cannot write about a subject unless it’s important to me, or excites me. Deadrise, the first book in The Ben Blackshaw Series, is about modern-day piracy, corrupt government, and lost family returning home, but I also worked in a bit about the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Nitro Express deals with a hunt for an international sniper. It also deals with corporate media being manipulated by certain black-ops interests. I hope I’m never preachy, but if I can work my passions and my concerns into an excellent entertainment, I’ll do it.
Norm: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Robert: Wow! Seriously,
I’ve never been asked that before. Okay, here goes. The biggest
mistake I made as a writer was made ten times worse because my dad
warned me not to do it, and I ignored his advice. He told me never
to talk about an idea with anybody before it was all down on paper.
So of course, I chatted about a few ideas at some parties to sound
all creative and interesting, and discovered the next day that I had
zero desire to write the story at all. I had exorcised the idea.
Sometimes I even forgot what the brilliant idea was in the first place. It was simply gone. It was that bad. I was beginning to think I was a poser who couldn’t finish anything. Then I remembered what Dad said, and I shut up. It’s very difficult, because the story-telling urge rages inside me. But ever since I finally took my father’s advice, things have worked out.
Norm: Which one of your fictional characters would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Robert: If I could be assured he was fully compliant with his anti-psychotic meds, I would want to sit down and talk to Maynard Chalk, Ben Blackshaw’s nemesis in the first book. Of course, getting into Ben Blackshaw’s own head would be cool, too, but I’m getting to know him better with each book.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Robert: To any writer I would say, keep at it. If you don’t think you’re good enough right now, you can get better and better with study and practice. If you are moved to set your ideas down on paper, or in a computer file, then they have value, and with further development, with more and more drafts, that value will only deepen. Don’t despair if the first draft is not perfect. Writing is editing. Finish your first draft, and then make it better. The life of the mind as reflected in writing must never be suppressed.
Norm: Could you tell our readers a little about our latest book Tap Rack Bang?
Robert: Tap Rack Bang is in its essence a rescue mission, but it brings up the scourge of human trafficking. Blackshaw is drawn into helping a young woman rescue victims of a human trafficking ring that has gathered hostages for slaughter on a live, real-time gore site for depraved mega-rich viewers around the world. It’s like a descent into pure hell for Blackshaw.
Norm: After your success as an author and , what, if anything, remains "undone" for you? What is the one thing you haven't done, that you are still "itching" to accomplish?"
Robert: I love that question, Norm. Right now, I’m adapting the first book, Deadrise, into a screenplay for HatLine Productions. I have to say, seeing a Ben Blackshaw story realized on the big screen will be a profound moment of arrival for me. After that, I sincerely hope the Deadrise movie would be successful enough to merit making Nitro Express, Tap Rack Bang, and the other Blackshaw books in the works into movies as well. I love movies, and closely participating in that process, and knowing I have helped bring about work opportunities for a great team of film makers at every level of the process would be a wonderful life accomplishment that I could always reflect upon with pride.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Robert: Thank you for asking about that. Readers are always welcome to get in touch with me about writing generally, about Blackshaw specifically, or any errors or suggestions. I can be reached at email@example.com. I always answer emails personally. For general information, and updates, or blog posts, I also recommend visiting my WEBSITE, and perhaps signing up for occasional newsletters. For other snippets, folks can follow me on Twitter at @rbwhitehill. And I have an author page on Facebook that I often update which is simply titled Robert Blake Whitehill.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
That’s probably the toughest question to answer, Norm, because all
your inquiries have made for a pretty well-rounded interview. If you
force my hand, I’d like to tell you more about how important
readers are to me. This goes beyond sales, beyond reviews on Amazon,
which I do truly value.
Writing, especially writing a first book, is
a solitary grind, and a writer must be a decent cheerleader for him-
or herself. But when Deadrise came out, shaking hands with
appreciative readers was such an incredible thrill! Suddenly, I was
writing for a real flesh-and-blood audience. Suddenly, I was
accountable not just to myself, and whatever standard for my craft
that I want to maintain, but I now answer to real people who dig Ben
Blackshaw, who understand the effort that goes into writing his
missions, folks who are tremendously encouraging, and want to know
what’s going to happen next.
Readers really keep me writing. They trade about fifty thousand heartbeats to read every Blackshaw book. I take that responsibility very seriously. Readers always make me want to write better. They deserve my best.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you, Norm. I wish you every success with Bookpleasures.com, and I want to sincerely thank you for all your support and encouragement.