Since both SJ and I are writers who have some works-in-progress as well as finished books, I thought I’d take this guest blogger opportunity to talk a bit about how and why we (or at least me) write.
I started writing very young, apparently in the womb according to my mother.
But my first memory is one summer morning at age 8 when I had the irresistible urge to rise at sunrise and write a passionate essay against slavery. True, Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation over 100 years earlier. The fact that my efforts might be a tad belated did not seem to occur to me at the time. Or, just as likely, I was living in the South (east Texas), where my ancient Grandpa was still fighting the Civil War on the Confederate side. So maybe the theme was apropos. Either way, I had to lose sleep and write.
That’s sorta been the pattern ever since – especially the losing sleep part.
Seems I have to get up in the pre-dawn hours and write while it’s cold, dark and miserable, before the rest of the world has risen. Typical writer-martyr complex: we work alone, live with our own thoughts for hours, days, weeks, months on end – then we become more than a bit paranoid when the rest of the world doesn’t “understand” us immediately.
Fortunately for me, I discovered theater and girls at roughly the same time – freshman year in high school – and both are collaborative enterprises. Some more collaborative than others. Still, when you write for a group of actors, or for the love of your life, you are not alone and you are actively listening to how they respond to your words.
I’ve been extremely lucky: In my mid-20s, while working as an actor with a Chinese theater troupe at NY’s La Mama Experimental Theater Company (remember: I’m a white guy Texan), I was invited to Poland – at that time center of avant-garde theater. There I met a beautiful actress, fell madly in love, was engaged in 3 days despite not knowing one another’s language, and have been with her ever since. (Many many moons.) She has been both my inspiration for practically every female lead character I’ve created –
And the strongest editor-critic one can imagine. She should be: she used to be the creative muse for a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award-winning foreign film director.
And she liked books.
And she liked mysteries.
And she made me write SALT CITY – to teach her English and keep her interested.
She’s been very mean to me since then: four published books, two produced plays, and six produced feature-length screenplays worth of mean. (Most recent movie: PLAYER – showing at the Cannes Film Festival market this year.)
So, how do I write? Internal urge and external motivation.
Moral: Find the right muse.
Salt City, By Robert C. Fleet
The “Salt City” is Syracuse, New York. I went to Syracuse University and haven’t been back there since. But I was sitting in Krakow, Poland, trying to marry the love of my life, Alina Szpak, when I met the U.S. consul there, who had also gone to SU. So, teaching my soon-to-be wife English, I began writing a “criminalky” using rumored Syracuse scandals that the consul and I remembered. She loved Raymond Chandler – in Polish – and though I’d never read Chandler yet, I tried to fit her descriptions of what she liked. Motivation for the student, as we educators like to say. (One of my degrees is in Education). And, because Cold War politics didn’t respect love as a reason to stay in a country, there was even a plan to translate my story-for-her into a serialized Polish crime novel so that I could have a visa while waiting for the official docs allowing me to marry Alina. A great plan – until I created a Russian-speaking black detective and people thought I was being politically sarcastic and…
Flash forward a bunch of years… Three published novels and six produced screenplays later. (Wish I was rich from that, but life is sarcastic.)
Certain characters, certain moral outlooks, stay with you. After Salt City’s Mark Cornell, I created Heart of Stone’s Sam Williams. Then, sitting in a temp job in L.A., I brought Sam and Mark together in The Quiet Child, a story still unwritten, only outlined. Ten years later I found Sam lamenting Mark’s disappearance and wrote Happy New Year, adapted into a feature-that-never-happened (typical Hollywood story). Six months later I was sitting in a Carl’s Jr., saw a certain waitress delivering my fast food entree, and realized what happened to Mark and Sam in Broken Doll (also never written, but understood).
They stay with you. There is a certain worldview that likes to – or needs to – understand the Why of what people do. Mark and Sam and the people they meet, they’re not me, but they are people I saw, observed, sometimes interacted with. Good people doing bad things, bad people with decent motives, a guy you like but realize he can’t tell the truth from one person to the next, even when it’s against his own interests. Sometimes you even understand the Why, but realize that it’s an explanation, not an excuse. Where is that damn Do-Not-Cross line?!
They stay with you. Rereading Heart of Stone, Salt City and Happy New Year, like my favorite books, I still liked them. They still “mean” something in the current world. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” as the French say. Surprise to me: sad in the overview, pleasant in the “Well, did I have foresight!” ego-world. But each one stands on its own: Salt City as the first-born of them all, Heart of Stone already out there, and Happy New Year soon a-comin’. Whether the whole family will ever be born, well, we’ll see.
Buy Link: Amazon
About The Author
Robert has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Commonweal Magazine, and other venues. He has translated or adapted several plays from the Chinese, Polish, Russian and French originals. His 1994 novel, “Last Mountain” (Putnam/ Berkley), was nominated for an American Library Association award. He just released his newest novel, “Heart of Stone”, concerning a black GI’s encounter with Holocaust consequences reverberating in 1972 West Germany. His collection of poetry, “Lyrics & Lies”, has undergone a “shakedown cruise” via performance art presentations at Barnes & Noble bookstores. Robert works in all angles of the performing, literary, and multimedia arts.
Somehow, he also finds the time to chop down branches in the back yard when the tree gets too big; play with his two insanely cute and obnoxious dogs, Bertolt Brecht, and Alexander Pushkin; work on exciting new ideas with his wife, Alina Szpak; and be a really cool dad to his son, Stephan Szpak-Fleet.
In America, Robert’s NYC theater activities included directing children’s theater, Yiddish historical dramas, Irish repertory, full-fledged spectacles, and his own works.
Connect with Robert on his Website