Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Author Interview: Robert Blake Whitehill

Today I would like to welcome Robert Blake Whitehill, author of Deadrise. I am currently reading this and will have a review soon, but so far I am finding it to be an excellent thriller and difficult to put down.

About Deadrise:
Diving the frigid Chesapeake Bay for oysters soon after a late season hurricane, former Navy SEAL Ben Blackshaw discovers the fresh wreck of a speedboat mired on the bottom. It is jammed to the gunwales with crates of gold bullion worth millions. Blackshaw opens one last box from the wreck and finds a nuclear dirty bomb, its timer racing down toward zero just twenty-four hours away. If this were not enough, the final shock of the day comes when he recognizes the corpse bobbing at the helm of the wreck; a man who has been missing for fifteen years. Blackshaw’s father.

Piecing the shreds of evidence together, Blackshaw reckons that his irascible old man intercepted and stole both the gold and the nuke from an Iran-Contra style government black-ops deal brokered between two Islamist extremist cells by a corrupt U.S. Government cabal. Maynard Chalk was the agent who let the transaction go south in a moment of unforgiveable distraction. He’s got to recover the cargo as soon as possible, but to finish the job, he must temporarily throw in with one of the terrorist crews from the deal gone wrong; it’s the only way he can conceal his failure from a vengeful boss and save his own skin. Chalk and his jackal henchmen descend on the quiet, god-fearing people of Blackshaw’s isolated Smith Island home, determined to take back what’s theirs no matter what the cost in innocent blood.

Blackshaw and his wily Smith Island neighbors must set aside a growing mistrust of each other in order to survive and repel Chalk’s invasion. Green-eyed suspicion naturally follows an influx of untold wealth and ultimate power; this might play into Chalk’s hands, inciting murder and mutiny within Blackshaw’s ranks.

After a rocky start, Blackshaw finally persuades a small cadre of neighbors that their recent hardscrabble times could be set right if they manage to keep this orphaned gold for themselves, and somehow stop that nuclear bomb before it blows them out of the Chesapeake.

To accomplish all this, they reluctantly tap into Smith Island’s darker heritage from the distant past as home to marauding pirates in the Chesapeake. Hundreds of years before they became good Methodists, the Smith Islanders emigrated from Cornwall, England. There, more than a few of their ancestors earned their keep by pillaging what they needed from merchant ships unlucky enough to sail without armed escort. Regrettably, the practice lasted long after settling Smith Island. The present dire circumstances set these good people at odds with their newfound and deeply held religious teachings; they must connect with their inner brigand or die.

Mortally outgunned, and not seventy miles from Washington, D.C., Blackshaw and his cohort are pitted in a desperate last stand against Chalk and his bloodthirsty goons. If Blackshaw fails, his gamble will go down in history as the opening skirmish of World War III.

The Questions:

Describe your ideal writing space. How does it compare to reality?
The ideal writing space would be an office in my home, itself an ideally spacious house.  I like working at home, or perhaps in a nearby carriage house.  Then I can easily visit with my wife and 3-year-old son on breaks, and for lunch just as I looked in on  my novelist father, Joseph Whitehill, when I was a boy.  He wrote in two successive basements, and then in a small carriage house made of railroad ties.  
My ideal writing space would boast an expansive picture window with a mountain-and-valley view, with both conifers and maples outside.  The maples would look beautiful in the fall, and the pines would be gorgeous in a snowstorm.  In my mind’s eye, there are several bird-feeders outside the window frequented by blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, wrens, and titmice.  There would be a few hedges that the birds could use for cover and nesting between snacks.  
Inside this ideal space, the lighting is warm and low on the wood paneling, beams, and built-in bookshelves.  The carpeting is thick and eats sound except for the crackling of the Franklin stove in the cool months.  The chair and desk offer classic comfort and mass without being baroque or baronial.  There is a leather chaise in there, too, for power naps.  This writing place would be so stunning and so arresting that I would require at least two years of occupancy before I got a lick of work done.
In reality, because space is at a premium at our condo, and because I test all my dialogue out loud, sometimes quite out loud, my wife invited me to take an office in town.  Now I work in a rented space at Above & Beyond in Montclair, New Jersey.  Instead of mountains, the view out my window includes the roof of a bar, but even that looks lovely under a blanket of snow.  Through my office door I can see a wonderful pool of cheerful, energetic, and whip-smart administrative and accounting teammates who could not be more helpful when I’m in a jam.  They are there, along with a coterie of diverse and bright fellow-renters from an eclectic sifting of professions, and all beavering away at interesting pursuits that seem to make them happy.  And I’m happy, too.

What is the first story you remember writing and what was it about?
My first story, penciled around age seven, was a frontier adventure inspired by Fess Parker’s 1960s television show, Daniel Boone.  Daniel, and his boy, Israel, (played by child actor Darby Hinton) seemed to have an exciting time getting into and out of scrapes together.  My story involved a hastily put-together Indian/Settler coalition that had to rescue my plucky young protagonist from the scythe-like claws of a dastardly bear.  
The full force of Life’s irony was brought home later, decades later, when I briefly dated a woman who informed me she was Darby Hinton’s ex-wife.

Name a memorable book from your childhood. Why is it memorable?
My parents read many books aloud to me, especially right before naps and bedtime.  Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White made quite a powerful impact.  This was one of the first stories I can remember where a writer led me to care deeply about characters, particularly Wilbur and Charlotte, characters whom he then placed in mortal jeopardy.  After story-time, I would lie helplessly awake waiting for sleep, or the next chapter, whichever came first.  Thank goodness E.B. White resolved the jeopardies, which turned out simply to be Life itself, gently, and to my great satisfaction.  Wilbur was spared, and a sanguine Charlotte met her natural end without becoming morose, living on through her children.

If you could ask any writer (living or dead) a question, who would it be and what would you ask?
I would have to speak with Jules Verne.  In as much as I would be grateful to ask him directly about his inspirations and training as a writer, I would also have to heap praise on him for his prescient concepts about submarines, the undersea world, and space travel.  I would want him to know what an inspiration he was, not just to storytellers, but to the visionaries of government, and engineering who wrote the narrative of the 20th Century.  Verbum chalybs factum est.  Verne’s brilliant words were made steel.  Fiction leads us to dream as a species, and to explore beyond our dry terrestrial boundaries to better understand the universe and our place in it.

If you could pick any of the worlds or characters you have created, which would you want to visit or spend a day with?
I would like to visit the world of my feature film script U.X.O. (UNEXPLODED ORDNANCE) in which a troubled civilian demolition expert, Rick Doyle, returns to Laos to help clear cluster bombs that he (and his fellow airmen) dropped there from B-52s during the Vietnam War.  Having studied the subject, I would like to learn with Doyle how to stop the ongoing carnage of a war that ended decades ago.  Children love to play with those cluster bombs when they find one.  The outcomes are so tragic.  As a father, this hits home for me.  
Entering this world with my protagonist, Rick Doyle, and witnessing his dawning awareness of the terrible costs of war would be very powerful.  Watching him then fall in love with a woman who grew up scarred by the munitions he is trying to defuse would be a holy kind of redemption.  This script got an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation award.  I want to see U.X.O. (UNEXPLODED ORDNANCE) on the screen.

What is one thing you like to do when you are not reading or writing?
I love flying.  As a private pilot, the freedom of taking off, the focused attention needed to navigate, and the whole-body concentration required to transition a machine of the air into a machine of the earth once again, this really helps clear out the cobwebs.

What are you currently working on?
I have just completed a rewrite on a feature film script called The Blue Rinse Killers with co-writer Andrea Shane, who happens to be an ex-girlfriend.  I asked her to write the script with me while we were still dating.  I’ve wondered if we should have planted a garden instead.  In The Blue Rinse Killers, three older women accidentally run over and kill the enemy of the town mobster.  When the innovative mafia don realizes that older women are invisible in America, he blackmails the trio into being his new hit team.  Olympia Dukakis is attached to star in this movie, which makes me really happy.
I am also working very hard on the next thriller in the Ben Blackshaw Series.  I am content with the first book, Deadrise.  In fact, Deadrise was just included in Cyrus Webb’s Conversations Book Club Top 100 Books of 2012.  So there is even more pressure, self-imposed I admit, to make the next novel, Nitro Express, something very special.  Let me admit right here that I am absolutely terrified of the Sophomore Slump Syndrome that some writers experience.  Any advice, friends?

(Feel free to leave a message in the comments!)

Robert Blake Whitehill was born into a Quaker family in Mardela Springs, just outside Salisbury on Maryland’s Eastern Shore peninsula. The family home lay next to the pond that powered a colonial-era relic, the Barren Creek Mill. He grew up sailing the Chesapeake Bay, and one of her most beautiful tributaries, the Chester River.
After graduating from Westtown School Whitehill stayed in Pennsylvania to earn his B.A. in creative writing at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. Later he trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City. As with David Mamet, exhaustive studies of the best English language drama for the stage and screen transformed an aspiring actor into a passionate writer.
An early focus on feature screenwriting earned Whitehill film festival wins at the Hudson Valley Film Festival, and the Hamptons International Film Festival where he also received an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship for his script U.X.O. (Unexploded Ordnance). His feature script Blue Rinse, co-written with Andrea Shane is currently under option with producer Bill Jarblum (Charley Bartlett, The Little Traitor, Cloudburst), with Olympia Dukakis to star.
While writing many highly rated episodes of Discovery/Times Channel’s The New Detectives, Daring Capers, and The Bureau, he served as the Vice President of Independent Film Acquisitions for the groundbreaking Centerseat.com, developing and managing their Independent Film Channel.
Whitehill settled in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife and son. For a number of years, he has worked with the Montclair Ambulance Unit as an emergency medical technician.
When not sailing, or knocking around the sky in a Cessna 152, Whitehill published several articles about his home waters in Chesapeake Bay Magazine.
Deadrise is Robert Blake Whitehill’s first novel.

Where to find him online:
Robert Blake Whitehill


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