On Writing: A Q & A with Ron Yates

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Probably when I was in the sixth grade. I loved writing stories, and I had a teacher (Mrs. Gooch) who encouraged me. My mother also bought me books and took me often to the library–a place that I found magical and magnetic. She often read to me, and I could “see” the story unfolding before me. When I could read myself, I began to devour everything I could get my hands on. Reading took me places I could not, as a boy, otherwise go. As I used to tell my journalism students at the University of Illinois, if you want to write well, read well.

What was your inspiration to write the Finding Billy Battles trilogy?

I grew up in Kansas, and I was always fascinated by what life was like there in the 19th Century when the state was still quite wild. At the same time, I spent a lot of time in the Far East as a foreign correspondent, and I was equally intrigued by what life must have been like in the 19th Century colonial period in places like French Indochina, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. Then one day I got the idea to blend the two using a character from 19th Century Kansas, who goes to the Far East in search of himself.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a published author?

Try to write as much as you can from your experiences. They are real and uncontrived, and if you incorporate those experiences in your fiction, your work will have a truthful ring to it. Beyond that, KEEP AT IT! Don’t let anybody (editors, agents, etc.) discourage you. At the same time, be willing to accept constructive criticism from those who have experience as authors, editors, agents, etc. Notice I said CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Some people criticize just to be criticizing–or to be malicious. You must believe in yourself, your work, your vision, and your story. If you don’t, who will?

What do you think makes a good story?

A good story needs a strong plot and even stronger characters. Otherwise, it falls flat. The writer needs to be above all, a good storyteller. If you build a good story, THEY WILL COME, to paraphrase “Field of Dreams.” Make readers care about your protagonist. Make readers empathize, cry, and laugh with them. At the same time, keep them off balance. Don’t be predictable and don’t be afraid to do terrible things to your favorite characters. Have you ever known anybody who has sailed through life without some turmoil, some pain, some suffering? I haven’t.

Do you have any writing projects you are currently working on?

I have just begun working on Book #3 of the Finding Billy Battles trilogy. It will be ready for publication in April 2017. After that, who knows? I may finally get around to writing about my life as a war correspondent.

If your trilogy became a movie, who would be your first choice to play the lead roles?

Clint Eastwood as the old Billy Battles; Clive Owen as the middle-aged Billy Battles and Ashton Kutcher as the young Billy Battles. I would pick Saffron Burrows for Billy’s first love, Mallie McNab and Famke Janssen for the widow Katharina Schreiber, who Billy meets on the boat to the Far East. (Why these choices? These folks are all tall, like me. Billy is 6’3″ and Mallie is about 5’10,” as is the beautiful widow Schreiber).

Do any of your characters have qualities/characteristics that are similar to yourself?

I think Billy Battles and I are a lot alike. I mean, aren’t most novels a bit autobiographical? He is a restless sort. He enjoys traveling, going to new places and experiencing new things. Like Billy, I couldn’t wait to get away from Kansas (though I love the place dearly). And, like Billy, I am a happy wanderer. How else could I have survived and thrived as a foreign correspondent for 25 years? We are both journalists. At the same time, he is a dependable guy who is loyal to his friends and to those he chooses to keep close to him. Above all, Billy respects two traits in people: Honesty and Kindness. We are alike in that way.

Tell us about your latest release.

Book #2 in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy was released June 2016. This chapter in Billy Battles’ life takes him to the Far East of the 1890s and places like French Indochina, The Philippines, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Billy finds himself mixed up with political opportunists, spies, revolutionaries and an assortment of evil and dubious characters of both sexes. In short, Book #2 in the trilogy takes Billy far away from his Kansas roots and out of his comfort zone. How will Billy handle those people and the challenges they present? You will have to read Book #2 to find out.

How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula?

I write from the seat of my pants. I don’t outline my books, and I don’t write down plot scenarios. I just start writing and see where the story and my characters lead me. It’s a lot like life itself. We may have a goal in mind, but the route to it is often strewn with obstacles, surprises, and sometimes tragedy. I usually write 3,000 or 4,000 words a day, and I edit as I go. In other words, I may write a few paragraphs and then rewrite them within a few minutes of creating them. I don’t write what I would call a “First Draft.” When I finish writing a book it is finished. I may go back and make a few tweaks with the plot here and there, or alter a little dialogue or some action by a character, but there is no second or third draft.

I know some authors who will write a first draft and put it away for weeks or months and then go back and look at it with fresh eyes. Alternatively, they may send it out to professional “beta readers” or “critiquers.” Those strategies may work for some people. They don’t work for me. I guess it’s my journalistic training: see it, report it, organize it, write it and then move on to the next story.

If your publisher offered to fly you anywhere in the world to do research on an upcoming book, where would you most likely want to go?

Back to Vietnam, Cambodia, and The Philippines–three countries I worked in as correspondent in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and three countries where Billy Battles is going to wind up living during the 1890s. While I know a lot about those places, having lived and worked in them, I would love to dig deeper into their colonial periods and learn more about life during that era.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? 

Don’t let anybody discourage you from pursuing this work if it is truly what you want to do. Don’t be discouraged by rejection. You must believe in yourself, your ideas, and your stories. If you don’t, who will? Certainly not that dense editor or literary agent who couldn’t see your potential or grasp your book’s storyline.

Is being a writer a curse or a gift?

It is a wonderful gift if you allow the process to come to you and don’t force it. However, don’t let anybody tell you it is not damned hard work. It is. The joy of writing for me is telling a good story. I don’t care about imparting a “message.” Nor do I care about creating any hidden “meanings” that some literature professor will hold forth about in a writing class when I am no longer around to rebut him/her. I just want to tell a good story. That, to me, is the ultimate goal of writing.

The curse is that writing can take over your life, isolate you from family and friends, and turn you into a kind of sophistic recluse if you are not careful. Writers need to take breaks from working. If they don’t, I believe they run the risk of becoming stale, self-absorbed, and misanthropic.

Where do you write?

I have taken over the upstairs bonus room in our house. It is about 500 square feet. In it, I have my rather prodigious library, a good sound system for playing classical music, a large screen TV for watching sports, the Discovery, History, and National Geographic channels when I need a break from writing. My window looks out onto a plant and boulder-strewn foothill that rises in front of my house. Another window looks down onto the Temecula Valley some 2,000 feet below. It is quiet and soothing. Couldn’t have a better place to write.

Do you prefer silence or some noise while you write?

I like to listen to music when I write. Most often, I listen to Mozart, Haydn, Telemann, William Boyce, and Beethoven. Classical music, played softly, is inspirational and helps me think. However, I also like the jazz of Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, The Modern Jazz Quartet, George Shearing, etc. and I will on occasion switch from classical to that.

What do you typically drink while writing?

Very cold iced tea.

What challenges have you had in regards to your writing life?

When I was a working journalist for the Chicago Tribune and then a Dean and Professor of Journalism at the University of Illinois, I could never find large enough blocks of time to write consistently. Writing requires massive amounts of time and long periods of seclusion–things most of us don’t have. Therefore, time to write was always my greatest challenge. Now that I am no longer administering a college, teaching or working full-time as a journalist I am blessed to have a lot more time to write than I ever thought I would have.

When did you first start and when did you finish your book?

I started the first book in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy in 2010, but I wasn’t consistent in working on it. I buckled down in the spring of 2013 and probably wrote 60% of it in about five months. I started Book #2 in the trilogy in December 2014.

What does your protagonist think of you? Would he/she want to hang out with you?

I think Billy Battles and I would be good friends. We are both journalists, and we both like going to new places and experiencing new challenges. Also, we both enjoy a good cold beer after a long hard day.

How do you market your book? What avenues work best?

I am still learning how to use the vast universe of social media to market my book. In addition to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course, my book is on Goodreads, Smashwords, Google Books, Createspace, NetGalley, Independent Book Publishers Association, as well as the Historical Novel Society, my blog, my author page on Facebook and the book’s website, ronaldyatesbooks.com http://www.ronaldyatesbooks.com/

What has been the toughest criticism of your book so far?

Most of the critical comments have been minor. A few people found the 19th Century Kansas vernacular my characters use in Book #1 an annoyance. Book #2 has very little of that because Billy Battles is now in Asia and Europe. A handful of people said they didn’t like the fact that the book is part of a trilogy because they had to wait for Book #2 and now they will have to wait for Book #3. I like THAT kind of criticism.

 What has been the best compliment?

There have been several, but I will list just four here. You can find these and other reviews and comments on the Amazon pages of both books.

“This is easily the best work of fiction I have read in some time.” 

“There is something about this book that is almost impossible to explain, but it takes it from being a *good* book to a GREAT one.”

Yates is a wonderful storyteller and to me, that’s what a good book should do—tell a great story.

“Ever have a book that takes over your days and nights – that’s what Finding Billy Battles did for me.” 

Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?

That’s tricky. I call my work “Faction,” because it is both fact and fiction. Some of the events in the book–especially those dealing with real people, did happen. Was my character directly involved in them? No. However, members of my family were native Kansans and some of the experiences I write about did happen. Of course, I have woven some of my experiences into the story line also.

How did you come up with the title?

I had been trying to think of a title for years. I didn’t like any of them. Then one day, this one just jumped out of my brain and into the computer and Finding Billy Battles was born.

Will there be a sequel?

Improbable Journeys is the second book in a trilogy of books that deal with Billy Battles life story. Book #1 is centered in Kansas, Colorado and other places in the American West. Book Two takes Billy to the Far East–French Indochina, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.–places I spent a lot of my life. Book #3 will find Billy in Central and South America–all places where I have lived and worked.

What project are you working on now?

I have started Book #3 in the Finding Billy Battles series. It should be available on Amazon in April-May 2017. I am also pulling together reams of notes for when I finally decide to write about own life as a war correspondent.

Please fill in the blank: Keep Calm and___________:

Laugh–a lot! It’s good for the mind and body.

 If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Winston Churchill. He was brilliant, and I would hope that by the end of dinner some of that brilliance would have rubbed off on me, though I sincerely doubt it.

What is one food you would never eat?

Monkey Brain Sushi (yes, it is a real dish in China, and I won’t tell you how it’s prepared). It is considered a cure for impotence (what isn’t?).

Another dish I will continue to eschew is Balut, which is a delicacy in The Philippines. It is fertilized chicken or duck eggs in which the developed embryo is boiled and eaten from the shell. Yum!

Which brings me to some advice an old Chicago Tribune copy editor named Spokely gave me when I was getting ready to leave Chicago for my first posting as a foreign correspondent. “You are going to places that serve strange food, and you will be tempted to say ‘no thank you,’ when it is offered. Don’t do that. It will be an insult to your host. When somebody offers you something to eat that looks or smells horrible, just remember Spokely’s Law: Everything tastes more or less like chicken.”

What was the last couple of movies you watched?

Testament of Youth, with Alicia Vikander and Kit Harrington; A Little Chaos, with Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts; and No Escape, with Owen Wilson & Claire Geare; 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. (FYI: Every American should see that movie!)

What was the scariest moment of your life?

There have been several. One was during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. The last day was chaos incarnate. Russian made 122mm rockets were slamming into buildings, 130mm mortars were hitting Tan Son Nhut airport, and the U.S. Embassy was surrounded by frantic South  Vietnamese desperate to get out of the country because they had worked for the American military or some U.S. agency. The city was in full panic mode. Several of us made our way to the sprawling Defense Attaché Office building at Tan Son Nhut, and we were finally evacuated by a U.S. Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter. It was a relief until the door gunner told me later aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa that the pilot apparently had to drop a flare to misdirect a SAM-7 (surface to air missile).

Another was during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when several Chinese students and I were pinned down near the square for 30 minutes or so by Chinese soldiers shooting in our direction. Several students near me were wounded, and we were helping them get to a doctor’s house nearby so he could treat them. I was convinced I was going to wind up dead in the square. Then suddenly the shooting stopped, and I was able to get my Red and White bicycle that I had chained to a lamppost and peddle like crazy for the Jinhua Hotel where I was staying and from where I was filing my stories to the Tribune.

Another memorable moment was during the revolution in El Salvador when two German correspondents and I were stopped in our car near the town of Suchitoto by Communist guerillas. They put cloth bags put over our heads and forced us to kneel alongside the road. We were sure we were going to be executed. However, suddenly the “jefe” (leader) showed up and set us free. “Don’t kill journalists–unless they are armed,” he yelled at his troops. I was greatly relieved that I had left the Model 1911 Colt.45 pistol I had purchased a few days earlier back in the hotel in San Salvador. I believe it is still there.

Ahhh yes, the life of a foreign correspondent…never a dull moment. Nevertheless, I still believe I had the best job in the world, and I wouldn’t trade my career for anything.

What books have most influenced your life?

Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh; The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck; The Quiet American, Graham Greene; The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott; Kim, Rudyard Kipling; Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain); A Passage to India, E.M. Forster; Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser; The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer.

What do you do to unwind and relax?

What else? I read. I find a good book helps me escape from my writing, which I need to do on occasion.

Do you have a Website or Blog?

Yes, I have both. My website is http://ronaldyatesbooks and I am constantly updating it. My blog is http://ronaldyatesbooks.com/category/foreign-correspondent/ I try to post to it at least once or twice a week. I also have an Amazon Author Central page at http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001KHDVZI, and an Author’s Page on Facebook called Ronald E. Yates Books. It is located at https://www.facebook.com/Ronald-E-Yates-Books-688075584557417/  

What is your favorite line from a book?

I have a couple, and they are both from Evelyn Waugh: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.” It is a line from Waugh’s book Scoop written by nature writer William Boot for the London Daily Beast just before he is mistaken for a famous foreign correspondent and sent off to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia to cover a war.

AND from Waugh’s book, Vile Bodies comes this great line: “I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence.”
If it were mandatory for everyone to read three books, what books would you suggest?

Huckleberry Finn; Grapes of Wrath; Sister Carrie. Not only are these classics, but they are also wonderful stories about the human spirit, its resiliency and strength, and its deficiencies and weaknesse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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