I wrote in January about how much I enjoyed Robert Whitehill’s debut novel, Deadrise. Pirates, buried treasure, stuff that goes boom – what more could a guy want? I had fully intended to feature this interview immediately after my review, but life happened (funny how it does that) and my plans fell by the wayside. Better late than never, though, right?
Mr. Whitehill grew up in the Chesapeake Bay area – where the events in Deadrise take place – and earned his B.A. in creative writing at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. He also trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City. His screenwriting has garnered him a number of film festival wins, and he has a feature script currently under option with producer Bill Jarblum (Charley Bartlett, The Little Traitor). Be sure to check out his website at www.robertblakewhitehill.com.
RW: My parents inspired me to write. My father wrote award-winning short stories for Ellery Queen and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction, as well as two novels. My mother is a wonderful poet, a keen editor, and rich correspondent. They showed me what a writer’s life looks like from day to day, morning to night. They also revealed to me the riches of close attention to the written word. They also read aloud to me, and before I could spell, I fell in love with storytelling.
TIS: One of the things I appreciate most about Deadrise is your crisp, efficient prose. Does your work as a screenwriter have anything to do with this?
RW: I am so happy you find the Deadrise writing crisp and efficient. Screenwriting certainly demands these qualities, as moviegoers will see in The Blue Rinse Killers which I co-wrote, and which shoots this September with Olympia Dukakis, Pam Grier, Tantoo Cardinal, and Dan Aykroyd. Screenwriter Shane Black makes his screenwriting tight, but also smart-alecky and fun to read, even though stage directions appear on the screen as action, and not as prose. Reading his scripts is just as much fun as watching the movies based on those scripts. Keeping things fun for the reader is important for me.
I got more help with writing lean from Steve Zorn, head writer on Discovery’s The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science. Working for Steve was a journalistic bootcamp. Writing for screens large and small definitely helps keep a novelist’s work hustling.
TIS: How did your experience as a pilot and EMT help prepare you for writing Deadrise?
RW: Working as an EMT and flying a plane help keep my writing immediate, and in the moment. As an EMT, a 911 call is life or death for another human being. As a pilot, flying is a delight, but it is also a life or death experience for me and my loved ones. Attention to detail is crucial.
These two pursuits give me a sense of when a scene will prompt an adrenal response in the reader. Editors and early draft readers (who are all saints, I think) help me stay aware of the excitement level. Isn’t that the business of a thriller author, to increase heart and respiration rates, and provoke loss of sleep in readers? Any internal thought exercises a character experiences must contribute to the reader’s an action in the given moment in which the character finds him/herself. Keep things as close to the now as possible.
TIS: What is the most important thing you learned in the process of publishing your first novel?
RW: Publishing Deadrise taught me what a pleasure it is to meet readers in person, or hear from them via email, Facebook, and Twitter. The writing process is demanding and solitary. Communicating with my audience is so gratifying. After writing Deadrise alone for so long, I almost forgot that there were actual human beings on the other side of the process. Readers are so appreciative of what writers do. They love chatting with a writer as much as I enjoy meeting them. The digital age, with social media outlets, and bloggers and reviewers truly fosters this communication. This was one of the greatest gifts of publishing Deadrise.
TIS: Most of the writers I know are also avid readers. Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would call influences?
RW: Of course my parents are top on that list. I also enjoy Jules Verne, Melville, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. These days, I keep a look-out for the new works of Lee Child, Randy Wayne White, Carl Hiaasen, Harlan Coben, Dennis Lehane, Scott Smith, James Lee Burke, and Dean Koontz, to name a few. All of these authors have had their many influences on my writing. Every book I read is an education.
TIS: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
RW: Just finish that rough draft! Do not get hung up on polishing the first chapter ad nauseum. You cannot edit what you have not written, and starting to edit before you have finished the rough draft is a great way to demolish one’s chances of getting a book to market.
Another important point, this one from my father, Joseph Whitehill, is to have the discipline to not shop or cocktail party your story idea in any way before that first draft is complete. Talking about an idea is the quickest way to vitiate the writer’s story-telling urge. I did not believe my father when he told me that. It cost me the will to write several good ideas, but I learned the lesson.
Last, I would strongly suggest getting a professional editor, as well as a proofreader on your team. No athlete works without a coach. That’s what editors are. Hiring an editor is not taking on a co-writer, or failing, or whatever. Amateurs do not have editors. Professional writers have editors!
If your readers have any other questions on writing, or anything else, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter: @rbwhitehill and on FB at https://www.facebook.com/RobertBlakeWhitehill?ref=tn_tnmn.
TIS: The ending of Deadrise is a cliffhanger, to say the least. Am I correct in assuming we haven’t seen the last of Ben Blackshaw?
RW: You are absolutely correct that Deadrise is the first book in the Ben Blackshaw series. There are two chapters of the second book in the series, Nitro Express, included at the back of every copy of Deadrise.
I just finished the rough draft of Nitro Express, and after some polish work, I will be sending it to novelist and editor Richard Marek, who edited many great works by Robert Ludlum. I am very eager to have the benefit of his insights to make Nitro Express as exciting as possible for readers.
Deadrise does come first in the story chronology, so while Nitro Express can stand alone, the enjoyment of several clues and references will be enhanced if one has already digested Deadrise. Look for Nitro Express in September of 2013.