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Wednesday, June 17, 2009
An Interview with Author Robert Fate
A huge welcome to one of my favorite authors. Mr. Robert Fate, besides being the author of the hugely popular Baby Shark series, is, I believe, the person the term "Renaissance Man" was coined for. He is also one of the original nice guys and has graciously agreed to an interview here at Meanderings and Muses.
So. Everyone. Meet and make welcome, please - -
Mr. Robert Fate - - -
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, a sales executive, 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. Around the age of 70, he tried his hand at writing crime fiction, which resulted in the Baby Shark series, told in the voice of a young woman named Kristin. The series has gotten good reviews and award nominations. (Baby Shark and Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues, the first two books in the series, are Anthony Award finalists. Book three, Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption, earned a starred Kirkus review, and the first book in the series has been optioned by Hollywood.)
Bob lives in Los Angeles with his wife Fern, a ceramic artist. Their daughter Jenny is a senior at USC. The family has a dog, four cats, and a turtle named Pharrell.
1. Bob, I've mentioned this to you a few times - every single interview I've read that you've done just fascinates me because I ALWAYS learn something new. You continue to surprise me. But with all the surprises and all the things I now know about you and about Kristin, I haven't learned anything much about Otis. People ask how much of you might be in the character of Kristin, I'd like to know how much of you might be Otis Millett? What's your relationship with Otis? Is he someone (or perhaps a lot of someones) you know or knew in your past? Where did he come from––did he just knock on the door to your mind while you were writing and say "Hey - Kristin needs me. YOU need me - let me in!"
Otis is a creation, a character that was needed to fill out a portrait of the time and place, but he is very real in the sense that I grew up around guys like him––bigger than life with a wobbly moral compass, polite to women and old folks and an adversary’s worst nightmare. He isn’t book smart, but he’s street savvy, crafty, dogged, and brutal when he needs to be in the pursuit of justice.
There was a big guy, a bootlegger, who lived down the block and around the corner from my house––this was in the forties in Oklahoma City, after the war. I was ten or eleven or so. He would occasionally pay me and other kids to unload boxes of whiskey from his pickup and carry them into his garage. We all knew what he did for a living and that it was illegal (and the neighborhood knew, too, one assumes), but he provided ice cream money and a smidgeon of excitement when he allowed us to share in his criminal activity, so I never discussed his business with anyone.
Well, late one evening, some buddies of mine and I saw a couple of guys breaking into his garage. We immediately told the bootlegger and then got to see him hand out some justice. After he beat them silly, he and one of the would-be thieves each took a hand and dragged the unconscious one out to the street and put him in their car and they drove away. There we were, the grinning neighborhood kids, all keeping our traps shut and just following the action as if we were at the circus. After the whuppin’, the big bootlegger pulled out some change and gave us all a reward for fast action. The truth was, we would’ve paid him for the entertainment. So, maybe Otis is a little bit of that guy, except bigger and meaner, but definitely full of the same kinds of contrasts.
Kristin’s father was a WWII veteran who read existentialists, lived in his car, and hustled pool for a living. If she were to model all men after her father, she would have long ago had to accept oxymoronic behavior. So, Otis with his contrasts wasn’t so hard for her to understand. If Henry Chin became a father figure to Kristin after her own father was murdered, Otis became the loving older brother who would hold her feet to the fire and tell it to her straight.
And, finally, what would a crime story be without a hard-living, take-no-prisoners, grizzled ex-police detective private eye with a surly attitude, a sketchy history, and a shabby office with poor lighting?
2. And I really need to know what gave you the idea of choosing a Chinese-American for Kristin's best ever buddy? This man who saved Kristin's life. I love him. To my thinking, he would at first seem a bit out of the mainstream, but am I right in remembering that there was in fact a fairly large Chinese-American population in the 1950s in Texas? I'm thinking you must have done a good bit of research to get Henry Chin so "right." Am I right, or way off base with this? And while we're chatting about Henry - what on earth is going on with the man's accent? And have you noticed that his English does seem to improve with each book? Do you have anything to do with that or has Henry taken on a life of his own without you?
Henry Chin is a furniture maker, a woodworker, a craftsman. He’s a bright guy who owns a successful cabinetry business. He buried a young wife and then put their only son through college, a son he saw murdered by the same gang that killed Kristin’s father. As you pointed out, he saved Kristin’s life and gave her a home.
The reason Henry’s accent improves from book to book is because he never quits adding to his vocabulary, never quits acquiring idioms, and never loses his curiosity about language in general. At his age, and for the number of years he has lived in America, he is the first to admit that his rusty Chinese is really not much better than his English.
Henry’s most salient features are his humanity and his sense of humor, though his unselfishness and bravery would have to be noted, too. He has lived with bigotry and dismissive rudeness all his adult life and has never let it change him. “I keep eye on donut,” Henry tells us. “Not concerned with hole.”
“Is that a variation on Confucius?” Kristin asks him.
“Variation on fortune cookie,” Henry tells her, and slaps his knee.
Why did Henry Chin take up lodging in the Baby Shark series? Because a cast of outcasts were needed, characters with history, characters who had secrets and knew how to keep them. Outsiders working from within––this was the environment Kristin needed––not black and white, pure gray. Kind-hearted grifters. War hero killers. Good people, who weren’t above working in the shadows if the purpose was honorable, people willing to bear the burden of conscience when the stakes began to rise.
Or, maybe I just like mixing things up. It could be that, too.
3. You know, women in the 1950s were a whole lot different than they are today in a whole lot of ways (was that an understatement?). Back then, a young woman in her early 20s would most likely be married and a "stay at home mom." Kristin is a far cry from that stereotype. Even knowing the brutality that is part of what makes Baby who she is, you really don't explain why she seems determined to stay single. The love between her and her adoring Lee seems strong enough to warrant a commitment in the way of marriage. Will we be learning more about this inability to commit on Kristin's part as the series goes on?
I’m glad you asked about this. I have never wanted any aspect of Kristin’s existence to seem to be a literary device, not her personal life, the incidents of family life she remembers before the deaths of her mother and father, nor her friendships and infatuations, and especially not her love life. I have never felt an inclination to overly expose her private life and have tried to handle those matters in a realistic but considerate way. On the one hand, I think the reader has a right to know, but Kristin has her right to privacy, as well.
Kristin had as normal a childhood as was possible with her father “off at war” the better part of her early years, and then “off shooting pool” after he came back from the Pacific. She was allowed to love him in spite of his truancy, because her mother did. She never heard him condemned for not coming home to stay after the war, but rather they read his letters together that told of his adventures on the road, as they had read his letters from the South Seas. He explained himself to his daughter in the first book as she was deciding whether to go with him, and her response showed the hard-nosed, clear-eyed view of life and compromise that has come to define her as the self-contained warrior we know.
Kristin dropped out of high school and went on the road with her father after her mother died. This was her choice. She was sixteen, resilient, and willing to live out of the backseat of her dad’s Cadillac just to be with him. Then, at age seventeen, after witnessing her father’s murder, she was brutally raped by three men, beaten senseless, and left for dead in a burning building. So, I ask you sincerely, how in the world could anybody expect her to have a normal, loving relationship with anyone after that? Especially a suitor. She needed time to heal.
Indeed, she is nineteen before she can bring herself to even chance a relationship and that ends badly before it can get properly started. So, having been set back again, she kisses a few frogs along the way, but has no success in finding love until she is twenty-one and meets Lee Pierson, the romantic detective. This is in Beaumont Blues. There are complications; it is not easy, but they want it to work, so it does and she ends the book with a boyfriend.
All right, Kaye––I am finally to your question. In High Plains Redemption Kristin discusses with Henry what it is that is keeping her relationship with Lee from becoming more serious. Lee is a police detective and in her pursuit of justice she sometimes finds herself on the other side of the law. If she is truthful with him about some of the things she and Otis have done, she is presenting him with a moral dilemma, as well as putting herself, Otis, and even Henry in danger of arrest. Plus, she sees it as unfair to ask Lee to make choices between the oath he has taken as a police officer to uphold the law, and the temptation of letting her slide on acts for which he would ordinarily arrest people. It’s not easy. She loves Lee, but she can’t be truthful with him. He’s no dummy. He gets it and doesn’t try to press her, because he doesn’t want to lose her. So book three ends with them ignoring the elephant in the room, and not trying too hard to resolve the issues that have them stalemated.
In Jugglers at the Border, book four, you will find Kristin and Lee more relaxed in their roles and a hint––but only a hint––of how they might solve their impasse.
4. One of the things I like SO much about your series is the attention you pay to your peripheral characters. Especially the women. This is a little unusual in a fast paced crime novel, I think. Do you? You do it so beautifully that I find myself wondering what's going on with these characters when they're not "on stage." One is Madam Li, and another is Ivy, the hairdresser. Can you tell us what these "bit players" mean to you that you are able to flesh them out so well? Some of them are truly scene-stealers, even though they may only appear ever so briefly.
There are several reasons I pay the attention I do to peripheral characters. First of all, thumbnails are fun to do. They’re challenging. Many contemporary mystery writers do them well, none any better than Joe Lansdale, though Bruce Cook gets damn close in his latest work. Also, bit players fill out the community that is constructed around the main players, people with everyday cares, and lives more like our own. None of us live in a vacuum. To give Madame Li a dentist cousin who is having a collection problem that Otis is asked to look into makes them all more human. They serve a purpose, too, in giving a first person character someone without an agenda with whom to share thoughts or to fill out background. For instance in a paragraph or two in High Plains Redemption, we get to know Dolores, the owner of the El Coyote Motel in Amarillo, when she tells the story of her ex-husband doing mischief with Sam Two Bears. But along with getting to know her we learn about a younger Kristin, her father, and her friend and pool coach, Harlan. And then, there is always the possibility that Kristin or Otis will need a favor or assistance from one of these bit players somewhere up the line. If the reader has a little history, they join the story more readily––or at least I think so. That’s the reason Mae Haversen is introduced in such detail in Jugglers. She is just the girl behind the counter at the firing range, but after meeting her you would have to agree that she could easily be a part of some future shenanigans with Kristin and Otis, especially since she and Otis show they are romantically interested in one another.
And then, and maybe most importantly, like the people we meet in passing, never to see again, but never to forget, they make our lives richer. That’s my real goal––I want the stew to have many subtle flavors.
5. The question all your readers are dying to hear an answer to - what is happening with the movie?
Ah, the movie. To say that it was thrilling to hear of Hollywood’s interest in book one of my series would fall short of the excitement my family and I felt. There was no reason for us to think we would be so lucky so early in my novel-writing career, and so it came as a surprise––a welcome surprise––but definitely out of left field.
My publisher, Capital Crime Press, called from Colorado (I live in Los Angeles) and said that a producer was interested in discussing the possibility of BABY SHARK becoming a movie. Would I drive over to Beverly Hills, meet with him, and see what was shaking? My publisher said the producer liked the book and thought it would make a good movie. I’d had reviewers say that, Lesa Holstine and Barb Radmore come to mind as early cheerleaders for the Hollywood connection, but this was the producer of MONSTER, starring Academy Award winner Charlize Theron.
As the Talking Heads said, “This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”
Well, the producer turned out to be a good guy and perfect for the project. I left that first meeting with him feeling delighted in his interest and lucky he was the experienced and talented Hollywood guy who spoke up. Before I could get to where I’d parked my car, my phone rang. It was my publisher. We had a deal.
Okay. Let me give you an idea of how quickly things moved along. Publishers Weekly reported in December 2007 (the month of the meeting in Beverly Hills) that Brad Wyman at Junction Films, producer of Monster, had optioned Robert Fate’s BABY SHARK. The fact was, the negotiation to obtain an option began in December and was finalized in May 2008. It was a pleasant negotiation and actually moved quickly considering the number of lawyers involved. So, in May 2008, the development process began and BABY SHARK was put on the production schedule at Junction Films with expectations that the film would be shot in 2009.
Then, in June 2008, the Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood Producers began a squabble over the renewal of their labor agreement, which hasn’t been settled yet––it is now June 2009. Their squabble has created a work stoppage in Hollywood that has cost the motion picture industry and the city of Los Angeles billions of dollars in lost revenues––and way down the line of casualties has been the production of Baby Shark, the movie. But here is the good news, the squabble is near an end, and the word just last week from Brad Wyman is that “things are close.” I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’m being hopeful that Baby Shark might actually get made in 2009 after all.
So, that is what is happening with the movie. Thanks for asking.
6. This is all very exciting!
We will check in with you from time to time to see what the latest word is on the movie, while we continue to enjoy your wonderful Baby Shark novels.
Thank you, Bob, very much for agreeing to this interview. It's been fun!
Now, would you like to leave us with a little bit of your poetry?
Excuse me. My wife is nodding out. I need to catch her before she falls off the couch. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Kaye.