Welcome to the six hundred and seventy-first of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with autobiographer Robert Lewis. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Robert. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Robert: I’m based just outside of Los Angeles in Southern California, USA. Upon assignment to my first Special Forces team, I was told by a teammate to “start a journal, as my life was about to get very interesting.” I heeded his advice, and after I left the Army and married my wife I had so many people telling me that I had to get my story out there that I finally decided to put pen to paper.
Morgen: I think the same thing happens with policemen (I met two former detectives at a crime writing weekend who are now crime novelists). Presumably you have so much content to choose from, how do you decide what to write about?
Robert: This first book, “Love Me When I’m Gone” is the story of my time in Special Forces, fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa, all the while trying to keep my love alive with my then girlfriend, now wife and mother of our children, actress Cindy Chiu. I have a dozen fiction books outlined to follow this one, but had to get our true story out there first!
Morgen: You’ll have to come back for an author spotlight when your fiction comes out. 🙂 You’ve self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Robert: There are many charity organizations for veterans and their families to which I intend on donating part of the profits from this work; having a business degree before entering the military, I knew that I could do this on my own, and use the percentages that would have gone to a publisher and agent for people who needed it much more.
Morgen: That’s a very sensible (and generous) idea. Is your book available as an eBook? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Robert: Yes and yes! This book is available in paper, Kindle, and audiobook (narrated by yours truly!) on Amazon, Barnes and Noble.com, BooksaMillion.com or iTunes. The audiobook is being put up for a Grammy, so I’m really excited that it’s been so highly received!
Morgen: Wow wee! How fantastic is that. I’m going to have to listen to that (audiobook is my favourite format). 🙂 Did you choose the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Robert: Yes, that’s the beauty of self-publishing; the title is an interesting story. My wife and I attended a ‘3 Doors Down’ concert on a short trip back to see her, and at the end of the concert they played the song “When I’m Gone” and dedicated it to all military and their families, and dropped an enormous flag and set off fireworks.
I left to go back to my station in Germany the next day, and was in Iraq within the month. That was the last time we saw each other for quite some time, and as soon as I decided to write the book, I knew what the title had to be. That one performance kept us, and our relationship, alive, and I have to (and have) give the band much thanks for that.
Morgen: What a great story… pardon the pun. You mentioned “a dozen fiction books”, what are you working on at the moment / next?
Robert: I have several fiction series which I am working on to follow, much in the style of Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn. At the end of “Love Me When I’m Gone” I was presented with a choice; I took one choice, and have the world’s most amazing wife and two greatest children as a result. These fiction stories follow the other path.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Robert: I have so many notes and outlines for future works that I could write non-stop for the next twenty years and keep going! Due to so many friends in my old profession, I have a non-stop barrage of ideas from them on what I should write about next!
Morgen: <laughs> I have characters in my head that do that! Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Robert: I put my head down and write, write, write until it’s fully finished, then edit after. “Love Me When I’m Gone” was originally 250,000+ words, and after I made a few passes to take out all of the classified info, then “questionable” situations, then started working with my editor / writing coach to get it down to a more manageable word count.
Morgen: That’s a tome and a half – perhaps three tomes… Do you have to do much research?
Robert: Not much; I write (even my fiction) based on personal experiences, so a little here and there, but not much.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Robert: That’s the beauty of self-publishing; I write what I have the passion for, and then send it to friends and family to see if there’s hope for it. As long as I know my audience will want it, I’ll put it out there.
Morgen: I like to think there’s an audience for everything (so I self-publish too). Do you ever pitch for submissions and have had commissions to write?
Robert: I live in Los Angeles and have done some military consulting, and am helping develop another internet TV show as we speak, but I’m not really in the market for trying to sell myself to agents and publishers, only to my audience!
Morgen: 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Robert: When I started this project four years ago I did shop it around a bit, in its extremely rough state, just to get some vindication on whether I should continue as an author. I was turned off quickly by the submission process, and decided to go with Beta readers instead to see what real people thought. I received glowing accolades, and charged on ahead!
Morgen: Feedback’s always so important (and why I set up https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/feedback and https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/online-writing-groups). Do you enter any non-fiction competitions?
Robert: I did enter a few for NPR (National Public Radio), but as this book has been my passion for the past four years, it’s taken all of my writing attention.
Morgen: NPR’s great. I listen to some of their podcasts. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Robert: No, and not anymore. While a great agent can do quite a lot for you, it is so time consuming to find the right fit and sell yourself to them that I feel that time would be much better spent what we do best; writing and selling ourselves to our audience! If an agent does their due diligence and has a passion for my work, I’m willing to entertain an offer, but it’s not my focus at this point.
Morgen: I’d never say never either. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Robert: I have a PR agent, The Garis PR and Media Group, but work on advertising and marketing on my own as well. My business degree is in Marketing, so I’m constantly thinking of ideas to get my work out to a larger audience.
Morgen: That’s really handy. Maybe you could write a guest blog for me with some marketing tips. 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Robert: It is very time intensive and extremely difficult to get a hard, honest truth out of those who you trust most to read your work before it’s truly protected! That being said, the therapeutic effect that I’ve had from writing this is priceless, as it helped me to get a lot of painful memories out.
Morgen: I have a novel that I wrote as ‘therapy’ but then I ended up loving it so am going to have to change some of the names, which is a real shame because they’re perfect! What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Robert: Write first, then edit. Find a group who you trust completely, convince them to give you the brutal, honest truth, and let it flow. Write about your passion; as they say, if you love your job, you’ll love your work.
Morgen: ‘job’? ‘work’? Is that what this is? I thought I was having far too much fun for it to be that. 🙂 If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Robert: I absolutely love cooking, so that part is easy; it was a toss-up between business school or culinary school when I was younger, and my dad told me to just go to business school, make a lot of money then open my own restaurant later down the road!
Reading “Love Me When I’m Gone,” you’ll soon learn that I lost my mom very early in my childhood. I’d do anything for just another minute with her, so of course she would be my first choice. As a Green Beret, Col. Aaron Bank, the father of American Special Forces, would be my second choice, and I hate to be cheesy but as an American and Green Beret, I would be remiss if The Duke, John Wayne, wasn’t on there!
I was raised in Texas, so BBQ, although not considered high cuisine, would be my best! I love slow roasting brisket, spent all day in the smoker and so tender that it falls apart on your plate. I’m just a good old southern boy at heart, and I think my guests would enjoy it!
Morgen: My father (who died September 2001) would be one of my three. If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Robert: My wedding; again, reading “Love Me When I’m Gone,” the final chapter is a re-telling of my wedding, with my dad and teammates by my side and as sword bearers, and the love of my life across from me swearing to have and hold me for the rest of her life. If I could choose three days I’d include the births of my son and daughter, but without that one, the other two wouldn’t have happened. It was the best day of my life.
Morgen: I’ll let you have three days, it’s only fair. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Robert: I’m a huge fan of quotes, but if I’m limited to one, it has to be “know thyself.” If you don’t know yourself, you don’t know anything.
Morgen: You mentioned earlier that you’re also writing fiction – are there any differences or similarities between writing non-fiction and fiction?
Robert: With fiction you’re not limited by reality! Non-fiction for me was very laborious in the editing, as I had so much to write but was limited by how much I could put out there; fiction I feel is easier to fit into a certain sized container.
Morgen: That’s probably why I love it. Do you have a favourite of your stories or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Robert: I was raised to be modest, but as I’m the lead of my autobiography, I’ve got to go with me as a favorite (I remain as the lead in my fiction as well, as there is a lucid, direct tie in to those).
Living in Los Angeles, with an actress wife, there have been many discussions about who would play me; my main concern is that I would like the same character to play me in the dozen or so movies to follow, so it has to be someone in their early / mid-twenties… possibly an undiscovered action star!
If I had to go with someone on the big screen now, the names Eric Bana and Channing Tatum have been thrown around a lot.
Morgen: Great choices. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Robert: For the autobiography I created the table of contents first, outlining my career and relationship, and decided what was most important to fit a lucid timeline into the set amount of space. I have a progression which I’d like my fiction to follow, so I do the same for those.
Morgen: It’s a good idea to have a method that works for you. I don’t plan but came a little unstuck with my last novel, the first in a crime series so I’m going to plan it retrospectively, along with the rest of the series. I think it’ll help. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Robert: They are all based in my reality; some have been changed to protect their true identity, but most, even my fiction, are based in reality.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Robert: I actually started “Love Me When I’m Gone” as a screenplay, but found I was writing five pages of direction for every page of dialogue, as I still remember the smell of the dirt from most of these experiences.
I started writing in third person after being told to put it into a book, as it was difficult for me to write about myself, but my first Beta reader convinced me that it absolutely had to be first person, and it truly did make all the difference.
Morgen: I’d probably agree as it’s your story. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Robert: I help some friends in the movie / TV industry with military / Special Operations consulting, and am writing another internet TV show with my brother in law. I also recorded my first podcast this weekend, and it looks like we’ll be doing it every week. It’s on my new website, http://FarFromCentered.com (the name of the podcast). It’s available on iTunes for free.
Morgen: How exciting. I love doing new projects and podcasts are hard work but fun. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Robert: I spend every second away from work with my wife and children; they are the best thing that ever happened to me, and I don’t want to miss a second!
Morgen: Ahh… Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Robert: Ah, yes, I’m on all of the LinkedIn writing groups (where I found you!), Facebook, and Twitter. I find LinkedIn to be the most valuable for myself as a writer, and Facebook is of great value for marketing. Twitter is just fun!
Morgen: LinkedIn’s great. Apart from some great advice (to and fro), I put a shout-out for authors when I was getting low and had hundreds of enquiries, enough to keep me going for months. It’s great knowing that there are so many authors out there that want a platform like mine to be heard from. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Robert: Where there is a will, there is a way; as long as you have a passion for it, the self-publishing industry has made it extremely easy to get your work out there, as long as you have enough drive and passion to market and advertise.
Morgen: Passion’s my middle name. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Robert: The Face Book page, www.Facebook.com/LoveMeWhenImGoneBook is great for extra pictures and fun stuff, and my website www.LoveMeWhenImGone.com is great for extra detail that didn’t make it into the book (bios on the guys, info on the missions, pictures, links to charities, etc).
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Robert: “Love Me When I’m Gone” is available via www.LoveMeWhenImGone.com or any English-language Amazon site! Please mention the USA Cares veteran’s charity, which I am a national spokesman for and is very near and dear to my heart. They help military veterans and active-duty soldiers who are in dire need of financial assistance, spend $0.88 of every dollar on the actual soldier or vet (which is very good for charities today which usually spend much of the money on admin and advertising), and get them help within 48 hours of their request. www.usacares.org
Morgen: My pleasure. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Robert: Everything above! What brought you into writing, and offering this priceless opportunity to other authors?
Morgen: Everything above? I did interview myself (https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/blog-interview-no-100-with-me-myself-and-i-multi-genre-writer-morgen-bailey) back in August 2011. A strange experience.
As for why I do this, the short answer is that I’d heard blogging was the “thing to do” for authors so I started on late March 2011 and was already interviewing authors for my podcast, so in audio format, which took up to a day for each one so I could only do one or two a month (because I had a day job back then). A couple of months after I started the blog, I was invited to do a text / email interview and immediately saw the benefits of it. I’ve been running 1-3 a day ever since (as well as spotlights, guest blogs etc) and have met some fantastic people. Thank you, Robert for asking, and for joining me today.
I then invited Robert to include an extract of his writing…
They say that your chances of surviving a dismounted near-ambush are less than 2%, and with those odds I’m not quite sure how I’m here writing this today. The terms “soldier” and “warrior” tend to get thrown around very loosely these days by rappers and athletes who get paid millions of dollars to play a game or sing a song, and I’d love to see how they would react when it’s time to stop talking the talk and actually walk a mile in the shoes of a soldier who barely gets paid minimum wage to go to war.
I knew it was coming when the hairs on my arm and the back of my neck began to stand up. We knew that we were going into the lion’s den, but were so full of blood lust and revenge for the death of our brother Pat that we welcomed it; as soon as the eye in the sky told us that forty to sixty fighters were massing not two kilometers away from us we headed right for it, knowing that we were outgunned several times over and our backup would take at least ten minutes to get there. Being a Green Beret means you win at all costs, against all odds, and with whatever you’ve got, so the idea of sitting around and waiting for the rest of the company to mass never even crossed out minds.
I heard the call of “Allah Akbar” as we began to cross a courtyard in the middle of the village, and I saw the heavy machine gun open up before I heard it, if that makes any sense. As I saw the foliage in front of their position start to be chopped away by the hundreds of rounds aimed right for us along with the smoke shooting from the end of the barrel, the relentless training which had been seared into my muscle memory for the past four years kicked in.
And a synopsis…
Love Me When I’m Gone is a tale for the ages, the perfect blend of action, romance, heroes, villains, patriotism and valor. What holds this story above all others? This one is true.
Rob had a pretty rough childhood: given up for adoption as an infant, brought into a family of highly decorated military men, suffering the loss of his mother to cancer, and his rebellion which landed him in military school. When he finally returns home he meets Cindy, who becomes his best friend. After graduation the two go off to college at opposite ends of Texas, and their paths separate.
Eight years later, when Rob is completing his two years of training in the Special Forces Qualification Course, he wakes up one morning to discover that Cindy has contacted him. The two reunite to spend his month of leave together, both knowing at the end he will be leaving for the illustrious 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), the elite Battalion of Green Berets stationed in Germany for quick-reaction missions around the globe.
Love Me When I’m Gone takes you on the whirlwind that is life as a Green Beret fighting the Global War On Terror; his first trip to Iraq, in which he encounters three distinct situations which will haunt him for the rest of his life; Africa, where Rob learns many valuable lessons about life, Afghanistan, where Rob and his team are tested in many life-or-death situations, and his final trip to Iraq.
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