Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Robert Fate has served in the Marine Corps, studied at the Sorbonne, and worked as an oilfield roughneck, a TV cameraman, a fashion model, a chef in a Los Angeles restaurant, a sales executive in Las Vegas, a fabric painter for the garment industry, a scriptwriter for the soap Search for Tomorrow, an independent film producer, and an Academy Award-winning special effects technician. Somewhere around the age of 70, he decided to try writing crime fiction, and the result was the Baby Shark series, told in the voice of a girl named Kristin, which has won rave reviews, award nominations, and a devoted following. (The second in the series, Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues, has just been nominated for an Anthony Award.)
Bob lives in L.A. with his wife, Fern (pictured with him at the launch of his third novel, Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption), their college-age daughter, a dog, four cats, and a turtle named Pharrell. Visit his web site at www.robertfate.com.
Q. Kristin Van Dijk, aka Baby Shark, isn’t the kind of protagonist readers might expect from an older male writer. Where did this remarkable girl come from, and how did you end up writing in her voice?
A. Kristin Van Dijk was the key element in the story I wanted to tell, a story of love and revenge set in a time in our history before technology played such an extraordinary role in our lives.
I’ve had a computer from the beginning. I carry a cell phone. My college-age daughter carries an i-Phone and casually chats with friends worldwide. I am okay with technology (like anyone would care if I were not). But I wanted to set my story in a time thought by many to be more innocent. However, those of us who remember the ’50s know the truth of that.
I wanted to tell about a young woman whose father was absent most of her life and then brutally snatched from her when she finally had him to herself, a young woman who experiences unspeakable violence at the hands of vicious thugs, a young woman who survives. I wanted a protagonist with the strength and resolve to come back from the worst that could be thrown at her, to rise from the ashes, to seek revenge, and exact it without remorse. And, I wanted this without creating a cartoon figure. I wanted the kind of reality that some readers would turn away from, but others would grasp as necessary to the tale.
I had no choice. I needed the strength only women have. Only a woman could be the kind of protagonist I needed, a woman in a time in our history when females were beginning to assert themselves, beginning to see that anything was possible. I wanted a female protagonist loose in a man’s world, in a hostile western environment where no matter her age she would be considered a “girl.” Well, okay, I wanted a girl who looked to the future with a gun in her hand and the will to follow through, a girl who wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. That was how Baby Shark was born.
Q. Your books are set in the 1950s, and they would fit right in with the noir fiction published back then. Are those books favorites of yours, and did they influence your writing?
A. I enjoyed the paperbacks from that time, and remember so clearly the “sexy” covers. But I favored movies over books during the late forties and early fifties, the double features that my older sister would take me to. We would see two movies in one theater, go across the street, and see two more. Watching four movies was a perfect way to spend our Saturday afternoons.
I became a reader on my own, but not until I was nineteen, in Korea, and found the base library. Through my twenties I read everything, all the books of many writers. My adoration of the crime genre came even later than that.
Q. Was Baby Shark the first novel you had ever written? Was mystery writing a long-time ambition, or a more recent interest?
A. Yes, Baby Shark was my first novel. Over the years I have written in a number of forms, but the novel always seemed out of reach. I’m not certain why that was so. Without hesitation, I wrote stage plays, screenplays, TV episodes, magazine articles, poetry—oh oh, my wife just fell asleep. The mere mention of my poetry puts her in the arms of Morpheus. So, no, I had no burning desire to write a novel. I thought I could not, so why even consider it?
Then, Bruce Cook, a friend and filmmaking associate, told me he had joined a mystery writing group and was working on a novel. He asked if I would like to join the group and try my hand at a mystery. Honestly? Since I had always written alone, it seemed like a bizarre thing to do. I said no. But, later, after meeting the writers in the group and realizing they were serious about getting published, I joined and started working in a form I had always thought I could not master. The candid give and take between honest and intelligent writers that has continued for four years now has resulted in all of us finishing novels and being published. It has been a terrific experience, one that I would encourage any aspiring writer to try.
Q. What has been the greatest challenge for you in writing at novel length? Is there any single aspect of craft that you’ve worked hard to master? What comes most easily to you?
A. Once I’d settled on a style of writing that felt natural, the challenge was to stick with it. My writing feels best to me when it races forward without adjectives and passive voice. I want to give my reader the opportunity of filling in what I am certain she or he sees and hears and understands without a lot of deadly description. And, I especially like first person. The idea that Kristin and the reader learn things at the same time, get the same information at the same time, and examine it together appeals to me. It seems like a forthright involvement to have with a reader.
Craft – well, rather than an outline, I try to “see” the story, think it through in visual terms, and then write it from beginning to end, paying particular attention to the action scenes. It’s strange about the dialogue, but the conversations seem to take care of themselves. My stories can be violent, but I see no need to offend readers with overly graphic description. In fact, I look for graceful ways to speak of criminal acts—which ain’t easy, but worth the effort. I go back to change things here and there, but normally I just write the book in one draft. Dialogue keeps a story moving, and conflict, too, of course. Funny how no one wants to get along.
Q. You had many different jobs before becoming a mystery writer. Is there a common thread among them, something that attracted your interest, or were you just restless? Do you plan to stick with mystery writing for a while?
A. Looking back, I think it was fear of commitment that kept me on the move. I think my fears were based in not wanting to look up one day and realize that I had not hitch-hiked through western Europe, been in Nice for Mardi Gras, had not gotten a tan in Ibiza or walked the streets of Paris and Heidelberg and, across the world, Hong Kong. I was entitled to a G.I. Bill after I served my time in the USMC and used every penny of it attending universities in the US and Europe, never to attain a degree, but rather to study the subjects that interested me. The different jobs paid the rent and taught me something new. I’m afraid I’ve been a worthless character most of my life, but well traveled.
Writing crime – I must say that writing the Baby Shark series is the most satisfying work I have ever done. Nothing that I have written before, no employment that I have had comes close to bringing me the joy I feel when I am with Kristin, Henry, Otis, and Jim. I am thankful there are readers for these stories. That makes it better. But be assured, I would write about these folks even if there were no readers.
Q. What’s the best part of being a published novelist? What’s the worst?
A. Actually having a story that spills from my head turn into a book that I can hold in my hand is the best part. When I realized that one hundred copies of Baby Shark had been sold shortly after it was published, I said to my wife, “I don’t know a hundred people. Who’s buying these books?” And she said, “Readers. And with a daughter in college who intends to be a doctor, you better meet a lot more of them.” There’s no rest for the wicked, I think the saying goes.
Q. How do you balance the demands of your new career—long hours of writing, book signings, traveling to conferences—with family life at an age when most people are content to take it easy?
A. I have never seen the upside of taking it easy. I guess it’s there, but keeping busy has always been more enjoyable to me. Not that a warm afternoon in a hammock with a new Joe Lansdale is something to sneer at, but that comes after a morning of writing. It’s the having your cake and eating it, too, thingy.
Q. You give away a lot of copies of your books. Is that part of a marketing plan, or simply something you enjoy doing? What are your ambitions as a writer?
A. Giving away books is a pleasure as well as a way to establish a readership. I am a brand-new-to-the-industry writer. The first book in my crime series, Baby Shark, was published in September 2006, the second, Baby Shark’s Beaumont Blues, in March 2007, and the third, Baby Shark’s High Plains Redemption, in May 2008. I have been around twenty minutes. Readers must meet Kristin or what the heck am I doing? So, my “marketing plan”—in the broadest sense—is to find and engage readers of mystery. I cannot say enough to thank the members of 4MA and DorothyL for their gracious response to my efforts at establishing an audience. They don’t pander, these tough-minded-but-fair mystery lovers. If they like, they say so. If they don’t like, they say so. But, what has been important to me is they have given me a chance in what everybody agrees is a tough market.
Q. Tell us about the movie version of Baby Shark. Is it moving forward? Who will direct? Who will play Kristin? I heard that you turned down the chance to write the screenplay. Why?
A. Thanks for asking that question, Sandy. I appreciate the opportunity to clear this one up. I am hopeful that Baby Shark will be a movie. The steps to get that done are being taken. Hollywood Producer Brad Wyman, well known for producing Monster, starring Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, spoke to my publisher and then to me about his interest in adapting the novel to the screen. I liked how he saw the story and felt comfortable with him. We are now settling the option agreement, and with luck a film version of Baby Shark could get into production later this year or early next.
The subject of who might play Kristin is fast to surface when movie talk starts. Casting will be the job of Brad Wyman, of course, and because so much rests on Kristin being able to carry the story, I must trust that the actress will be carefully chosen. Remember, he didn’t do badly when he cast Monster.
Yes, the question was asked in my meeting with the producer if I wanted to write the screenplay. I replied that I did not. I want a “screenwriter” to write the movie—a working screenwriter. Someone the producer knows and trusts to do a good job of cutting a 270 page novel down to a 120 page screenplay. I write a visual novel and I think that helps, but my books are not screenplays. The last thing I want to do is get in the way of the production. They didn’t bug me when I was writing the book—fair’s fair.
I think it’s a mistake for a novelist to think of a movie as his or hers. A feature film is the product of a group of skilled and talented motion picture specialists that work together to accomplish the director’s vision. I provide an original story, hand it to the producer, and stand back. If I am asked questions, I will help where I can, and stand back again. That’s how I see my involvement.
Am I excited by the possibility of a Baby Shark movie? You bet I am. Just like everyone else, I can hardly wait to find out who will play Kristin.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Baby Shark’s Jugglers at the Border is coming along nicely. The publication date will be the spring of 2009. It is number four in the series and may have a little violence in it. I can’t promise, of course, but I think there may be a killing or two. You know, just another Robert Fate cozy with a few brutal murders. It can’t be helped. Kristin lives at a violent time in our country’s history, a time not unlike the present, when much is settled through gunplay.
Q. Do you have any advice for writers who are still struggling to break into print?
A. Marry wisely, someone smart and strong who keeps you honest, and never let a day go by without writing.
Congratulations to Paul, who won a set of Ian Fleming's James Bond books last week! Thanks to everyone for your comments.