Interview with Author Robb White

Bio: 

I live in a small Northeastern Ohio town on Lake Erie—“a Harbor rat,” as we say here. Except for my years in graduate school (Fayetteville, AR) and a brief teaching stint in West Virginia (Salem, WV), I’ve lived most of my life within sight of the house where Igrew up. I’d add a 2-week trip to China two decades ago as an exception to my basic reclusiveness.    

What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?

Being able to write at leisure without the financial burden of being unable to write. It took decades to get to this point, but being here is a joy—and a relief.

Why do you write?

It’s a hobby. But I feel terrible if I don’t write.

What is your writing process? (Any favorite places to write? Any interesting quirks, traditions, or rituals you may have? How many times might you revise something before being satisfied with it? Besides you, does anyone else edit your work? Etc.)

It’s unsophisticated, non-compulsive, and haphazard. I don’t plan much. I rarely revise short stories or novels, although I should. My satisfaction ends with the word -END-. I don’t reread anything published because I’ll see places where revisions would have improved it, which fact of laziness compounds my guilt for not revising more. I write in the afternoons because mornings are taken up by sleeping in and refusing to acknowledge the world until my caffeine addiction makes it agreeable to do so. Besides, my first    impulses are to do yard work or small repair jobs around the house, although my penchant for “MacGyvering” has been the source of many spats between my beloved frau and me. I used to write into the wee hours but that ceased with aging and the slowing down of the mental apparatus.

How did you come up with the idea for your story “Blue Genie”?

My 3-year-old granddaughter Calliope spends much time at our house with us. We love    having her around, seeing her grow up, watching her expand her vocabulary, and her knowledge of the world around  her. She likes sticker books. One my wife bought her had caricatures of different kinds of faces where she’d attach mouths, eyes, moustaches, etc.  One was a formidable-looking genie with a sneering expression she called “Blue Genie” because of his blue face. I happened to be thinking of  that genie when purchasing lotto tickets at my local supermarket—a habit before shopping. The story of a shy woman, her envious classmate whose toddler in the shopping cart thrusts a picture of a blue-faced genie at her came to me at the ticket counter. The story developed fast from that point, and I wrote it in one draft when I got home.   

What is your background in literature? How much reading do you do? How necessary do you feel it is necessary for an author to read?

I have a doctorate in contemporary literature. I once read voraciously, as does any lit major, but time and sloth undid me. I vowed to read every one of the 5-page list of titles of novels, stories, poems, and plays accumulated over the years of my career but never got around to. A particular goal was to read Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish—a favorite novel, read many times in Gregory Rabassa’s fine translation. That oath didn’t survive 20 pages. And I never got to the B’s on my list.   

Conversely (or perversely), I don’t think it’s necessary to read much. In genre fiction, I     avoid reading all but my favorite trio: Martin Cruz Smith, Thomas Harris, and David L. Lindsey. Because I can never duplicate their stylistic genius, I don’t fear being “contaminated,” and I derive as much pleasure from rereading their books as the first time.

Do you have anyone (friends, relatives, etc.) review your works before you publish them?

No. My wife refuses to read anything I write. Yet she’ll sit through multiple episodes of Hoarders, enjoying that grotesquerie  of psychological self-abuse by people who fill their houses with filth and trash. I turn my eyes just walking past the television when she’s watching. What paper being can compare to that depravity? I have one outstanding editor, Chris Black at Fahrenheit Press, who not only finds the grammar miscues I’m blind to but he slashes through my self-indulgent passages with ruthless aplomb and makes me a better writer.

Could you give us an idea of your upcoming works without spoiling anything?

I’ve produced 3 pages of notes for a third outing of my second private eye, Ray Jarvi. I have all the characters in mind, but I lack the unifying plot to put them all in the same story world cohesively.

Do you have any writing events coming up? For example: something being published/released? A reading of one of your works? Interviews? Any speeches or talks?

I have a collection of hardboiled stories featuring my first private eye, Thomas Haftmann, which is in the queue at the publisher’s: The Dearborn Terrorist Plot & 4 Stories.

I’ve given exactly one talk about my works, that being the first collection of stories, Out   of Breath. That was in Cleveland while I was still teaching. I’ve been asked by my local libraries to give talks, and a literature professor at one of the SUNY schools in New York has asked me to be a guest lecturer. He’s been using one of my stories collected in a Bouchercon anthology. Regrettably, I’ve declined. Despite the fact I’ve spent the majority of my working life yapping to thousands of  docile students as a professor and grad student lecturer, I’m prone to anxiety attacks nowadays when it comes to speaking in public. I blame my pathologically introverted mother for that—and varicose  veins.    

What do you hope to achieve as a writer?

Nothing. I’m pleased to say I have nothing to gain or lose.

What do you think of bad reviews? Are they helpful or harmful to you?

Negative reviews amuse me. I wonder if some of these people are well in their minds. None (yet) have been helpful, and they all lack the capacity to harm. Perhaps that sounds like a boastful writer’s bravado or sheer insouciance. I don’t mean it to be. I’m too old to care what others think. Bad reviews have no effect. (For one thing, I don’t believe them—other than the typos I had failed to fix, which I do deplore as a failure.)

What advice do you have for novice writers?

I almost skipped this question, but it’s too tempting. Two bits of advice: don’t self-reject. I had a crime story rejected 9 times, according to my tracking records. It was selected by no less than Otto Penzler for his annual collection Best American Mystery Stories in 2019. Made me a nice bit of cash, too. The other bit of cheap advice is to ignore another writer’s advice.

What do you feel are the most important resources a writer can use?

For me, it’s a rapid Google search—as fast as I can harvest the information I need at the time of composing. I get in, get out, and get back to the story I’m working on.

Where can people find out more about you and your writing? (websites, social media, etc.)

My website Robb T. White <tomhaftmann.wixsite.com/robbtwhite>. I also have a Twitter account in my private eye’s name: @tomhaftmann. Thank you for asking.

I took a look at your Amazon site and see that you are quite a prolific author. I could spend all day asking questions about your work One book that intrigues me though is Waiting on a Bridge of Maggots, which is set on Chaco Canyon Mesa (also the premise is very interesting). As part of my regular job, from October to December 2018, I worked in Chaco Canyon and lived in park housing.  I used to hike around there, and I know a couple of the mesas and most of the greathouses. Some of your other works seem to be set in Cleveland. How did you come to set a story in such an out-of-the-way place as Chaco Canyon?

You chose my best novel, one I put more of myself, psychologically speaking, than into anything else I’ve written. The title, by the way, is based on a Japanese myth of the Star Lovers involving a “bridge of magpies.”

The Chaco Canyon Mesa was pure serendipity as a setting. I had been reading about the early indigenous peoples in that region. I found it fascinating, and the sheer beauty—I’ll use the misapplied slang of a teenager— the awesomeness of the terrain grabbed my attention. Before I had the plot or the characters, I had the setting. But I have never seen that magnificent land with my own eyes.

Cleveland (and sometimes Youngstown) are vastly bigger cities than my little burg, which I generically call “Northtown” in the recent novels and stories. I stupidly took the advice of a New York literary agent who argued for big cities “for a wider readership.” I couldn’t tone down the violence sufficiently, so she dropped me. My revenge, however, was a novella I’d previously sent her, knocked off in 5 weeks, which she ignored. That novel has 100 reviews on Amazon—and some highly negative ones, by the way. But it led me to Fahrenheit Press and its Managing Editor, Chris Black, who fortunately for me doesn’t mind the fact that readers “either love me or hate me.”     

You seem to focus on the hard-boiled detective (e.g., Thomas Haftmann) stories and neo-noir. What attracts you to that genre?

An addiction to Raymond Chandler. My mother had always been an avid reader of mysteries, mainly cozies with a rare excursion into a Highsmith novel. I never read mysteries growing up other than an occasional Conan Doyle story. Agatha Christie bores me to tears. I discovered Chandler as a graduate student and never looked back. His style, those delightful similes, mesmerized me. I was hooked but never able to write for reasons of small mountains of freshman essays needing to be graded all weekend, tenure to be earned, and many other tasks I blame myself now for taking so seriously.

How did you find out about The Chamber Magazine?

I was browsing online mystery sites for places to submit one day just prior to submitting “Blue Genie.” I was immediately attracted to the gorgeous artwork of both the site and the covers. Intrigued, I lingered and was encouraged by the editorial text to submit. I’ve found that sometimes what a site says it wants and will accept is not always the case; for example, I had a story rejected recently by two online sites that purport to be hardboiled but both deemed that story “too extreme.” I won’t always submit where I see a   possibility. The Chamber Magazine gave me a good vibe.

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

A smidgeon of an older man’s philosophy of life vis-à-vis his writing genre fiction for the past couple of decades and that is this: the world, our portion of it, is a dark, violent, and scary place just beneath the shimmering surface of a society where people are overfed and overpaid and where too little is required for “success.” Morons abound in every profession, often sadly in the so-called educated ones. It takes a little effort to notice, but it’s there all the same. As a teenager, I sailed on the Great Lakes as a deckhand. I met a variety of men on the three ore boats where I had a berth. Most were normal, one or two             good or bad as human beings go. One watchman I sailed with talked about his Navy experiences in the Arctic or Antarctic. He told me about a sailor who wandered onto the ice. The sailor looked down through the crystalline ice, noticed a small, dark speck growing larger. By the time, he realized this rotating, black-and-white object exploded through the ice, it was too late—a killer whale hunting seals.  A likely “fish story” from a blowhard in my youth, but it serves as an analogy for surviving the monsters out there,   mostly human. Reading darker kinds of fiction is a protection and a pleasure; it’s a way to enjoy life and a way to endure it both.(I’m stealing from Dr. Johnson here, I believe.) After all, what is Crime and Punishment fundamentally but a crackling good detective story.

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