Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Author Robert Spiller discusses Radical Equations

Robert Spiller Five Scribe Readers, I’m often humbled and intimidated when I read fellow authors.  Let me say, that Robert Spiller is no exception.  RADICAL EQUATIONS is a fun, educational mystery.  But, I’ll have my revenge on Mr. Spiller for making me feel inadequate.  I’m about to ask how he does it.  Please welcome my friend and major talent, Robert Spiller to The Five Scribes.

D.B.:  Hi, Bob:  I hate having to keep interviews short. So let’s get started.  Radical Equations surrounds the irrepressible Bonnie Pinkwater.  Bonnie is, in her mind, and in the minds of the town of East Plains, Colorado, I might add, the world's greatest math teacher.   Now, maybe it’s because I write mystery that I can surmise, but you’re a retired math teacher, and Bonnie’s currently employed as a math teacher.  How much is Missus Pinkwater like Mister Robert Spiller?

R.S.:  Bonnie Pinkwater was supposed to be a clone of a good friend of mine, one Susan Smith, perhaps the finest teacher of Mathematics I have ever shared a school building with.  Sue has many of the qualities that I have infused into Bonnie:  She has a fantastic memory (which can be a real pain in the rear end); she loves teenagers; she owns a number of dogs and cats; she lives in Black Forest; she taught out on the plains of Colorado.  

Unfortunately, Susan herself had one flaw.  She was too nice.  Bonnie Pinkwater was forced to become a blend of Susan and another truly gifted math teacher…myself.  And I'm not nearly as nice.  It turns out this worked out wonderfully.  Bonnie can in turns be a saint, and then be someone you don't want to mess with.  Since I'm a mathematician, let's quantize this question.  I think Bonnie is 41% me and 51% Sue, and 8% pure invention.

D.B.:  Always boils down to math for you, doesn't it, Bob? ;) A female protagonist.  You’ve been with this woman through three novels now; is that correct?  What drove you to want to write from a woman’s POV for not only one book, but for an entire series?  Tell us how Bonnie came to be?

R.S.:  Four novels and five is in the hopper.  I only intended to write one Bonnie Pinkwater mystery and that just for a lark.  As I mentioned above, I found the character of my friend Susan Smith ideal for a sleuth, so she became one.  But before I knew it, I had written not one, but two East Plains mysteries: A Calculated Demise and The Witch of Agnesi.  By then it was too late.  I had fallen in love with Bonnie Pinkwater (considering she is part me, this revelation was a bit disturbing).  I am currently working on the fifth Bonnie Pinkwater mystery Napier's Bones. If the universe is kind and permits me, I will write about East Plains High School until I sport that most attractive of male features, clumps of old man ear hair.  

 D.B.:  Have you ever written a novel from a man’s POV, and why is Missus Pinkwater not a Mister Pinkwater?  And while I’m on this subject, I’ve noticed that several of the Colorado Springs’ authors use missus instead of Mrs.  Explain that for my personal curiosity, please.

R.S.: I have written two YA historical mysteries from a teenage male perspective, a Sci-fi YA with a male protagonist, and a Sci-fi with double perspective, male and female.  Truth is I puttered around for a short time with a male teacher but Bonnie wouldn't hear of it.  She demanded to walk onto center stage and shout her lines out loud.  Looking back, I wouldn't have it any other way.  As for Missus vs. Mrs., I learned that particular chop from one Jimmie Butler, the founder of the Pikes Peak Writers conference.  He and I were in a critique group together.  He believed Mrs. was fine for narrative but when spoken in dialogue it had a more pleasing presence on the page if written out as Missus.  Thus, whenever anyone addresses Bonnie it is always "Missus P."

D.B.:  Secondary characters.  Your cast of characters is well drawn I can picture them even now. Rhiannon Griffith, Bonnie PInkwater’s closest friend, is a Wiccan.  Deputy Byron Hickman is the law enforcement officer in charge in East Plains and who also happens to be Bonnie Pinkwater’s former student.  Then, of course, there’s the school’s administrators, one of whom is Superintendent Xavier Divine, who Bonnie labels the Divine pain in the ***, a woman pastor and her son, and a myriad cast that play critical roles in this novel. 
You aren’t afraid to add quite a list to your mystery.  How do you keep track of everyone?  Have they been with you so long you know them well; do you use charts?

Talk to us about your secondary characters and their importance to a mystery?  Also, they are each unique, how do you manage such great character traits?  Any tips for writers?

R.S.I don't keep a chart (It's an ego thing.  As I get older I won't admit that I don't have the mind and memory I once had, but I pretend I do).  I do however labor over the choice of names.  I'm a big believer in the impact of names and their sound on the reader's inner ear.  As for the secondary characters themselves, they are often asked to carry the burden of subplots.   They need to be interesting and often go through major changes in the re-writes.  On occasion, these characters are loosely based on folks I knew (and I do mean loosely).  I had a Wiccan friend out in Ellicott.  I taught her daughter and she in turn taught me a little about the Wiccan religion.  I love having Rhiannon in a scene because she brings back to my mind this wonderful woman who unfortunately died a few years back.  

TIPS FOR WRITERS:  You're going to have secondary characters.  It's unavoidable.  Consider what they can add to a scene other than mere sounding boards for your protagonist or antagonist.  Live with them as well as your main character.

D.B.:  The plot.  In my opinion your plot, is ingenious.  Without giving too much away, politics are afoot, and the story opens the day after the vice principal has gotten himself into hot water.  Bonnie and Rhiannon are on a hike, and a storm sets in.  The two friends stumble into a cave and lo and behold, they spy the vice principal, Clarence, who is very dead.  Bonnie and Rhiannon, know better than to interfere with a crime scene and they hightail it away, and barely escape a storm.  Deputy Hickman appears and takes over, Bonnie returns to the high school, and gets trapped when a tornado passes through the town.  

I have to mention here, readers, that if you ever want to read about weather being an antagonist, you must read this book.  Robert Spiller wrote one of the best tornado scenes, I have ever read.

Have I got it fairly right so far, Bob? How much fun was it to write that nature scene and what gave you the idea?

R.S.: First of all, the tornado.  In 2001, Ellicott Jr/Sr high school (the model for East Plains High) was destroyed by a monster tornado, and I mean totaled.  A beloved teacher had died of cancer and her Wake was held that night in Colorado Springs.  All school activities were cancelled, so folks could attend and therefore no one was in the building when the twister slammed into it.  

I'd always wondered what it would have been like to be in the middle of that bad boy, soooooo I did the next best thing.  I put Bonnie in there.  I loved having her, first of all tossed around by this killer storm then emerging into the devastation.  All in all it was fun as heck to write.  As an aside, I had resigned from Ellicott six hours prior to the tornado to accept a teaching position in Monument.

D.B.:  Then of course after the tornado has annihilated the East Plain school system, and Bonnie survives, while surveying the destruction, she discovers the most incredible find.  The body she and Rhiannon discovered in the cave is sitting behind a desk amid the rubble and chaos.  Great hooks by the way and so much fun to read.  This was so well plotted, which leads me to ask:  Are you a plotter, a panster or somewhere in between?

R.S.: I'm no Jeffrey Deaver, who I'm told, outlines and plots his books extensively before he ever sits down to write.  That said, I love to know some basic things: who dies?, who did it?, who will be red herrings?, and how will I kill some of them? (I know this sounds morbid but it makes me happy), what distractions and mis-directions can I add that will make my reader smile at the end of the book?  

And then something that is unique to my books, what historic mathematician will strut his or her stuff across the pages of my story, and how can these dead geniuses aid Bonnie in the solving of a series of murders?  Once again, let me quantize this answer.  I probably outline about 45% of the scenes (a writer friend of mine, Cindi Madsen calls this the spine).  That means 55% or more than half will emerge and demand to be written so the story holds together and is fun to read.

 D.B.:  Robert Spiller does internal narrative just about better than any author I’ve ever read.  You are so in Bonnie’s head.  You have one POV throughout the book, which is highly effective.  Was this a conscious choice; did you try multiple point of views?

R.S.: The one POV is a definite choice as is the internal dialogue.  I noticed early on in my teaching career certain teachers could smile at demanding parents and disrespectful students and even say pleasant things.  Later when I would talk to them I'd find out that behind this façade, they were thinking how nice it would be to drag these unreasonable people behind a horse.  

This constant reminder of what Bonnie is thinking (which sometimes is the opposite of what she is saying) is my way of having my cake and eating it too.  I get to be in third person but by staying deep in Bonnie's thoughts I get to have the flavor of first person.  It works for me.  As for multiple points of view, I do use it in sparingly as in the rare moments when the reader gets to peek in at the villain.  That doesn't happen in Radical Equations but it does in other pieces I've written.

D.B.:  Since the school is in turmoil, Superintendent Divine farms Bonnie out to a middle school? Holmes in Colorado Springs, I believe.  Such fun reading about our stomping grounds, but what was even more fun was watching Bonnie in action with these students, one in particular, a boy named Isaac who was injured and sentenced to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  As one, who doesn’t understand math, I found myself wishing I had a teacher like Bonnie PInkwater.  Was this your objective all along to show how math can be fun and to pique readers’ interest?

R.S.: Having taught Mathematics for 35 years, I was fortunate in that early on I discovered several important truths.  Math can be deadly dull.  I was in control of the environment of my classroom more than anyone else.  That teenagers will only be unruly if they aren't being engaged.  And lastly, if you can get people (and contrary to popular belief, teenagers are people) to laugh, you can get them to find value in what you're trying to teach.  Bonnie and I share one important trait.  We are stupidly fond of the younger members of our species.  Bonnie loves her students with a fierce and terrible love.  She will stand between them and harm's way.  And gosh darn it, she thoroughly believes that math is definitely fun.  But then again, I'm sure everyone believes that.  Don't they?
D.B.:  I believe it would be if we'd had Missus Pinkwater or Robert Spiller.  Character drives this book.  The plot is great, but you are definitely character driven.  Who inspired you to write?

R.S.: If we're talking about writers who inspired me, the list is long: Orson Scott Card, George R R Martin, Tolkien, Terry Brooks.  All these Fantasy and Sci-fi authors have characters that breathe on the page.  A lot of their characters come alive even in their short stories (Song for Lya by Martin I've read a half dozen times).  In mystery and suspense there's the famous Donnell Bell, but that goes without saying.  Other mystery authors who used extremely textured characters are Jeffrey Deaver, Michael Connelly, Lee Child.  I know their protagonists inside and out because these authors are so good at drawing them.  Truth is, I listen to books in my car, and often as I'm driving, I'll hear some word the author puts in their hero's mouth and think, "Brilliant!  In a few words you captured the essence of this person's character.  I think I'll steal that."

D.B.:  (Thanks for the compliment, Mr. Spiller.) You had two other books in this series with Medallion.  Now you’re with Courtney Literary.  Please tell us about this transition, and the pros and cons of continuing a series with a different publisher.
R.S.:  Actually, Donnell, I had three with Medallion: The Witch of Agnesi, A Calculated Demise, and Irrational Numbers.  In 2008 we parted company and as far as I was concerned the TRANSITION sucked.  I went on to write other things, but I had what I considered the tastiest Bonnie Pinkwater mystery ever on tap but couldn't find a home for this infant of mine.  Nobody it seemed wanted to take on the risk of the fourth book in a series.  Then I had lunch with Deb Courtney, of Courtney Literary.  We discussed managed self-publishing and I haven't looked back.  In the past months I have chosen a cover, created a trailer, intelligently self-promoted, and watched in delight when in December, Radical Equations came out in e-book format (print version in March).  I am jazzed every day in a way I wasn't when someone else was making all the decisions.
D.B.:  Five Scribes is geared toward writers.  You are seeing massive changes in the industry.  What advice would you give to writers who are seeking publication today?

R.S.:  First and foremost remember this.  There are tons of lawyers, doctors, and policemen who want to be writers.  I've never heard of a writer saying, "Doggonnit!  I want to be a lawyer."  We are, all of us writers, in the best field of endeavor in the world. 
Now on to practical advice.  You must above all create something that you are proud of.  READ, READ, READ your genre.  Be entertained by those that are already traveling the path you want to be on.  Learn from them.

Next, join a critique group.  Put other authors eyes on your work.  Gather with other authors at conferences and workshops.  Here you will learn that others are struggling with issues that you thought were yours alone. Be bold!  After making the best piece of art you can create, send it out to agents and publishers (I know I didn't do this with Radical Equations but sue me.  Get professional eyes on your work).

D.B.:  Mr. Spiller, it’s been a pleasure.  Not only did I learn a lot about school politics, I learned a tremendous amount about a teacher’s passion.  Will you be giving a book give away today?  Are you doing any signings soon?  Tell us what comes next for Robert Spiller and the world’s greatest math teacher, Missus Bonnie Pinkwater?

R.S.: I would love to give away a copy of the new book, Radical Equations. As for what I'm up to now, as I said I'm back in East Plains in Napier's Bones as Bonnie discovers a thirty-year-old corpse and is forced to re-visit a murder from her past.

Did you hear that, readers?  Robert Spiller is giving away a copy of RADICAL EQUATIONS.  We'll be drawing the winner on March 17th.  So now's your chance to win a great who-dunit.
To learn more about RADICAL EQUATIONS check out the trailer!!!   http://animoto.com/play/fETinOY3ShTnRWZyKjelBA

Website:  www.rspiller.com               

Blog:  Spillerwriters.blogspot.com 

Also, please visit Robert Spiller's Facebook page where once a week he provides a math puzzle.


Personality Development Courses said...
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Donnell said...

Good morning, Bob, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed Radical Equations. An excellent read.

Cindi Madsen said...

Both of you are lovely. Best of luck :)

Leslie Ann aka LA said...

What a fun interview and I can't wait to read Robert's work.

I'd love to hear more on his road as a managed Indie published writer, and I may just have to interview him about that.

Hugs to both of you