Q Robert, where do you live ?
A Near Sedona, Arizona. My livingroom windows look out on red sandstone cliffs. At 4500 feet, the air is so clear, it is like looking through a telescope when I study the indentations and spires along the front face of those cliffs. At night, the stars seem close enough to touch.
Q Have you always lived in Arizona?
A No. I was born near San Diego, and went to college in California. My wife and I moved to Arizona when I became a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I have always lived, except for brief periods, either in California or Arizona. I am a true westerner.
Q What college did you attend?
A Three: Pomona College, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley. I have degrees from all three.
Q Doesn’t sound like your degrees were in Creative Writing.
A I have none in Creative Writing. My degrees are in physics and electrical engineering.
Q If you like writing so much, why did you study physics and engineering?
A Because I also loved those subjects and I was good at them. And let’s face it. My first career was as a Professor of Electrical Engineering paid a lot better than that of a struggling writer.
Q So writing is your second career?
A Yes. I didn’t start writing young adult (YA) novels until I retired from the University. By that time, I’d gotten to know how my students thought and the language they used. They have been a great source of ideas for my stories, and models for my dialogue.
Q Why did you choose writing fiction?
A I’ve always had ideas for stories, but as a professor, no time to write them. When I retired my wife and I invited our grandchildren to spend a week with us in Sedona. They were wild kids, ages 8 – 12. They all had to sleep in the same room and I sensed chaos. I wrote a story to read to them hoping to settle them down. Needless to say, that didn’t work—they were throwing pillows at each other by the time I got to the end of page 1. But what it didn’t do for them, it did for me. I found I loved the writing process, and I’ve been writing ever since.
Q Describe what you mean.
A I found writing was something I loved to do. Now I write every day. I go to a coffee house every morning, get a flask of coffee, and spend two hours with my characters. I do that six days a week. Never on Sunday.
Q Aren’t the other customers a distraction?
A No. There are regulars there like me. We chat when I first come in. But they know why I’m there, and after we’ve discussed the latest sports issues, they leave me alone. I can’t say why this environment works, but it does. I have a hard time writing at home. Maybe it’s because there are too many jobs that need doing. They call out to me: I’m a leaky toilet. Please come fix me. I need to escape those plaintive little voices.
Q What do you write with?
A A laptop with a word processor. But hey, a pencil and a pad of paper will work just as well. That’s what John Steinbeck used.
Q What inspires you to write?
A I don’t wait for inspiration, nor should any writer. You sit down and you write. It’s your job.
Q If not inspiration, then what motivates you to write?
A Writing fiction is something I have to do. Like hunger motivates me to eat. The opportunity to spend a couple of hours every day with my characters, Chris and Nick and Donny, is all the motivation I need. They are such interesting people. For me, the key to writing a story is to have such a clear picture of the characters that I can see them in my mind and know exactly what each would do in any situation and what each would say. Then they become full of surprises like they often tell me where my story should go next.
Q In the absence of your characters telling you the story, where else do you get your ideas?
A As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for something that might be turned into a story. When I witness an incident that intrigues me, I make a written note of it .For example, as I was leaving a Denny’s restaurant, I saw a young woman talking earnestly to an older Dennys employee. I had no idea what she was really saying, but I imagined that she was inquiring about her job application. I called her Diana, and invented her chauvinist boyfriend, Mario, who says he could never work for a woman boss, because women are too indecisive. By getting those two characters clearly in my head, the rest of the story flowed out: Diana gets the job as assistant manager, the boyfriend gets fired from his job at a home improvement store, then hires on at Dennys. When he messes up, guess what? Diana fires him.
Q How do you pick up a story the next morning at the coffee house?
A When I leave the coffee house I try to end a scene at an exciting point. Then it’s easy to pick it up the story the next day.