Neal Roberts knows history, but he’s taking a turn with his new science fiction action-adventure series that kicks off with Goddess From the Lost Planet. Available now, this historically inspired tale weaves ancient lore into the modern day.
To commemorate the new series, which has two more books coming out over the next two months, Neal Roberts offers some insightful commentary on his own literary history.
Read on in our latest 20 Questions with… Neal Roberts!
1. What’s your best virtue as an author?
I write cinematically. Not so that my books will be made into movies, but so the reader can use his or her own imagination to fully experience the story. I never ask my reader to read anything until it’s as interesting, as clearly expressed, and as lifelike as I can make it. That means that, before I even take a first try at writing a scene, I’ve fully imagined it — from the necessary action to the characters, their dialogue, the setting, and everything else of importance.
2. What’s your most quirky author habit?
Every story I’ve written has (at least) one romance “front and center” that progresses along with the main plot.
3. What’s your favorite quality in a protagonist.
Once my protagonist realizes which goal he or she ought to pursue, he doggedly pursues it — even at the expense of keeping others in the dark about his true intentions.
4. What’s your favorite quality in an antagonist?
A convincing antagonist must be three-dimensional, with thoughts and feelings of his own – and even a (warped) code governing his own conduct. By contrast, an antagonist whose sole purpose is to serve as a foil to the protagonist is two-dimensional and boring.
5. If you could ask any other author, past or present, a question who would it be and what would you ask?
The works of H.G. Wells were among my earliest forays into reading literature. Two of his best and most popular works were The Time Machine, in which an inventor develops a machine by which he may travel through time, and War of the Worlds, in which Earth is invaded by Martians who can wipe out the human race but are fatally unready to face the ubiquitous pathogens in Earth’s atmosphere. Now, as someone always on the prowl for terrific premises, I can attest that those are two terrific premises, and, what’s more, they were new at the time.
The question I’d ask Wells is: We have you to refer to in developing science fiction ideas. Who did you have to look to (other than your competitor Jules Verne)?
6. When you aren’t writing, you are …?
Adrift, looking for something interesting enough to justify the effort of a new novel.
7. What was your easiest book to write?
Goddess From the Lost Planet, which is the first book of the new space trilogy. By the time I sat down to write it, I’d studied numerous books on the Sumerian gods and I knew how my main characters were going to fit into the story. Although the main characters are all serious people accustomed to coming fully prepared to every new situation, the return of the Sumerian gods is not something they could have prepared for and, after the first few scenes, they realize with horror that they’ve been caught unawares and will remain amidst the crisis until it’s resolved. It was fun to watch them improvise while perpetually off-balance.
I don’t know if readers will feel the same way, but to me it feels like the main characters are plummeting down a very long hill on greased skids.
8. What was your hardest book to write?
I wrote a five-book series called In the Den of the English Lion about a secretly Jewish barrister during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The last book of that series, entitled Shakespeare’s Treason, was the most difficult book I’ve ever written. Although the previous book, All the Men as Mad as He, had painstakingly recounted the historical events of the Essex Rebellion, on an emotional level that was child’s play by comparison to writing Shakespeare’s Treason, in which Noah Ames must say goodbye to his beloved patron, the dying Queen Elizabeth.
Why was that so hard for me? Perhaps it will be enough for me to reveal that my own mother was dying as I wrote it. Like Queen Elizabeth, Mom was an old gray Briton whose hair had once been a striking red.
9. What’s your ideal writing place?
Anywhere my laptop and I are most unlikely to be disturbed. Right now, that’s in the small bedroom I took over when COVID hit.
We had an edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that I found fascinating, as it hadn’t been bowdlerized. It contained unexpurgated tales of murder and terror, and the death of innocent (even happy) people by sickness and old age. The stories even countenanced the possibility of female rivalry and wickedness (a possibility that by then had fallen heavily into disfavor in children’s stories). I liked having access to an unexpurgated set of old stories; it was my secret connection to the darker side of the world.
On a side note, I wondered where the weirdness of those tales came from until reading Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment many years later, which pointed out that each of the tales had surely arisen out of the suggestions of the very children supposedly “hearing” the tales. (Bettelheim’s readers at that time had no inkling of matters for which he has been much criticized since.)
11. What is the book you’ve reread the most?
12. Who’s your favorite hero from literature.
Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. Out of respect for the magnificent achievement of that book (and to avoid destroying my fond memory of Atticus), I have thus far avoided reading Go Set a Watchman. I cringe at the prospect.
13. Who’s your favorite villain from literature?
Shakespeare’s Richard III (originally Gloucester), who was the first (but one) stage villain who gleefully enlisted the audience in his every wicked act and extolled his own villainy. At the end of the play preceding that bearing his name, Richard (then Gloucester) said to the audience:
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.
The only previous stage villain (of which I’m aware) who repeatedly exulted in his own wickedness for the audience’s entertainment and possible commiseration was the Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe.
14. What will be the name of your autobiography?
To protect the innocent and guilty alike, I’ll never write one.
15. What’s your favorite comfort food?
As a long-time dietary vegan, I deny myself access to many truly unhealthy comfort foods, but I will admit to occasionally succumbing to the siren song of McDonald’s fries (fried in vegetable oil only).
16. What’s the first thing you do when you finish writing a novel?
Start rewriting it.
17. What’s a secret talent you have?
Along with my long-time musician friend Danny, I’ve written country songs and recorded some at Sony Tree studios in Nashville, Tennessee.
18. Where have you always wanted to travel?
Great Britain, France, and the Holy Land. Of those, so far I’ve only managed a visit to Britain, which was magical.
19. What’s one tip for aspiring authors?
Don’t destroy your creative work, even if you decide to abandon it. Leave it someplace on your backed-up computer where you can easily find it again. You never know when you might choose to come back to it, and in this day of nearly unlimited computer memory and backups, it’s of marginal utility to free up the minuscule resources needed to save old work — even if you never come back to it.
20. Puppies or kittens?
They’re both fun and adorable, of course, but to decide which is more worthy of one’s efforts, I think you have to focus on what each of them will be like when it grows into adulthood.
As far as I can tell, a cat’s loyalty and affection are wholly dependent on your ability and willingness to feed and house it. A dog’s loyalty and affection, on the other hand, are as real and unselfish as can be. If something happens that upsets you, your dog will be upset for you — not just because your predicament may interfere with the dog’s needs and expectations.
While others will surely feel differently, I prefer the company of dogs.
About Neal Roberts:
Neal Roberts and his wife live on Long Island, New York, where they have two grown children. Neal is a practicing attorney and adjunct law professor, and spends as much time as possible researching his next novel while enhancing his lawyer’s pallor. When he’s not writing Elizabethan politico-legal novels, practicing law, or teaching, he’s an editor of an international peer-reviewed publication in the field of intellectual property law. Neal is also an avid student of Elizabethan literature and politics, which subjects form the basis of his first novel, A Second Daniel. His analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121 has been extensively cited by some of the most important authorities seeking to identify the true author of the poems and plays attributed to William Shakespeare.
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