For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed novelist-screenwriter Robert Blake Whitehill. In his Ben Blackshaw Series thrillers, Smith Island native, and Former U.S. Navy SEAL Ben Blackshaw is forced out of a quiet retirement to take on covert missions to defend his nation, his home and the love of his life from invasion, destruction and slaughter, usually on the same day. To learn more about Robert and the series click here.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
It’s a very exciting time for my Ben Blackshaw thriller book series. It used to be that work meant just me in a room, alone, tapping away on my laptop on the next title. I can’t believe it, but there are actually four books out now and a short story, including Deadrise, Nitro Express, Tap Rack Bang and Geronimo Hotshot.
In stark contrast to earlier times, today, it’s the laptop and me, as ever, but it also includes four film producers, three from HatLine Productions (Stephanie Bell, Tamra Teig and Michael Lipoma), and Liza Moore Ledford from Northstar. The HatLine team resonated with the action, as well as the constellation of powerful female characters throughout the books. Ledford loved the concept of the freelance citizen soldier defending his family and home. Finding these allies for the franchise in the last year is just wonderful.
So, remember when I said it was just myself, a laptop and an idea? Now there is an entire cohort. And the nucleic moment that really pushed this brand forward came in a chat with Joanne Zippel. She’s the one who suggested that I probably already know or am one introduction away from the people who could help me take the Blackshaw series to the next level. And by damn she was right! Exploratory conversations even led to my working with Richard Marek, discoverer and editor of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series and Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. What wonderful companions on this journey and I think it’s only just beginning.
I’ve completed adapting the first book Deadrise into a screenplay. I’m working on adapting the other three books as well.
The current docket also includes developing an app called Blackshaw Country, created in response to many inquiries from readers who want to travel to beautiful Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay to experience where Blackshaw is from, cram down the delicious food and take in the fresh air, kayaking, birding and fishing, among many other activities. We should be in beta with the app in July.
The Blackshaw books themselves are also being published in German by LUZIFER-Verlag, which purchased all four existing titles at once a year ago. Deadrise Gnadenlose Jagd is already published and is in the Top 100 in Kindle’s Kriminalthriller and Suspense categories on Amazon.de. The plan is to release an additional title every six months or so. We are in negotiation on a translation into Turkish, not to mention that we are in very early talks on graphic novels for the series. It’s been a hell of a year, but it makes me very happy to see Blackshaw move beyond the English language, even if I cannot understand a word of the new editions. That process has been an exercise in letting go of control, and implicitly trusting in the talents and hard work of strangers. Of course, taking early steps toward the screen version has me over the moon. Verbum caro factum est. “The word is made flesh.”
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
I love writing screenplays and scripting for TV but I was hounded into writing the first Blackshaw thriller by a dear friend and longtime screenwriting partner Matthew Bialer, who was convinced I’d do justice to the genre. I thought about the Deadrise plot for years, then wrote it and brought it out to great reviews by critics, bloggers and readers alike. Even before Deadrise was published, I already sensed Blackshaw was the kind of character who could anchor a full-on series. He’s a guy who shouldn’t be allowed to disappear after one outing. Within a few months, I was writing the second Blackshaw book Nitro Express. Until recently when the film activity ramped up, I’ve diligently produced one book per year for four years straight. So far this year, screen adaptations and other related writing have pulled me off of drafting the next book even though it’s all sketched out.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
My first artistic inspirations are my parents. My mom’s a poet. Dad was an award-winning short story author and novelist. They showed me what a writer looks like doing the actual unglamorous 95% of the job every day. As for subsequent writer touchstones, Jules Verne, James Lee Burke, Scott Smith, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Carl Hiaasen and Randy Wayne White are tremendous storytellers I admire.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
I get wonderful motivation from the Blackshaw readers themselves. I keep going back to that lonely phase of solitary writing. All that labor became worth it when I shook the hands of readers who love the work. They encourage me. They let me know they’re eagerly waiting for news on the next book, or sharing their travels to Smith Island. It’s an exchange I encourage. I’m accessible to readers through social media (@rbwhitehill on Twitter, and Robert Blake Whitehill on Facebook, and by email email@example.com), so I hear from them every day asking who will play Blackshaw, Ellis, LuAnna, and Chalk in the movie adaptation (still no final word on that question, I’m afraid.) Everybody wants to know if Maynard Chalk is well and truly dead (I cannot confirm or deny—) I wrote that first thriller Deadrise on pure chutzpah. Every word since has been in service of the incredibly learned, appreciative, vocal Blackshaw readers who are ever enthusiastic for more.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
I am working on several other screenplays that are not part of the Blackshaw world. Working on those make a healthy break from Blackshaw because whenever I return to the Smith Island characters, I’m completely refreshed and ready to explore and write more.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
I used to ask media personality (and massive Blackshaw fan) Cyrus Webb when he found time to sleep because he is always so incredibly busy doing interviews. Now I know the answer. He doesn’t. I’ve been up and working since 4:30 a.m. Putting this kind of effort into my work is energizing, not taxing. If I were not living my vision, I couldn’t put in the hours I do.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
I think a lot about forming a charitable foundation and the kinds of work it would undertake. There would be funding of addiction treatment at a grass roots level, as well as lobbying for policy change on treatments and sentencing laws on a national level. For now, since I’m Quaker, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as Project Censored, all do an excellent job taking on human rights, nuclear proliferation, campaign finance reform, exposing underreported government and corporate improprieties, and taking down hate groups in the courts.
The biggest barrier to digging in on these issues, as you might have guessed, is time. To a certain extent, I can be an activist in the writing. My feature screenplay UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) deals with the scourge of land mines left behind killing civilians throughout the world long after conflicts are supposedly over. Joanne Zippel helped position that script so that it earned a win at the Hamptons International Film Festival, as well as garnering a fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Deadrise has an environmental sub-theme. Nitro Express deals with the collusion of corporate media and government to manipulate public opinion. Tap Rack Bang addresses the horrors of human trafficking, and thanks to Joanne Zippel’s activism, it even touches on the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, which is likely one of the few times that’s ever addressed in the context of popular fiction. Geronimo Hotshot shines a light on racism in America today, from lynching at a local level, to xenophobia as it’s inculcated into our national immigration policy. Blackshaw is a former Navy SEAL, who deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so I take an interest in veterans affairs, and support Homes For Our Troops, as well as Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
I might not have created my own foundation yet but thanks to inspiring activists like Joanne, I can send Blackshaw into the ring as a crusader on our behalf and, if the reviews are to be believed, still tell a damn exciting yarn in the process.
Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
My biggest obstacle to achieving my vision is patience, more specifically, knowing with confidence that my vision is being realized step by step, even if certain milestones and goals have not yet been achieved. The process that was set in motion years ago really is working. The distance my team has covered in the last four years is great. The accomplishments reached in the last year are simply phenomenal. It’s all happening. But I want more for Blackshaw. I want to be sure the dreams are all going to pan out big and wide and fun. The only way I know it will do that, is if they already have happened. Crazy, right? So sometimes I lose touch with the amazing accomplishments already on the scoreboard and skulk around in that gap between where the brand is today and where I know it can ultimately be. This is not so much an obstacle as it is a perception issue.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
I am always connected to my creative self. I study innovations in the entertainment market. I go to movies like it’s a second job. I am a TV addict. I macerate potential Blackshaw plots and characters all the time. My wife catches my attention at the dinner table and sometimes has to reel me in from a million miles away. My creative engine is always running.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
While I’m breathing, there isn’t a damn thing holding me back. I just want to go faster!
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
I want to climb into George Inness landscapes in the Montclair Art Museum collection. I want to Thomas Crown those babies. Seriously, no other work has made me contemplate art theft like his work does. At home, I’ve acquired several pieces by Native American artist Buffalo Gouge. His larger painting My Son smashed me right between the eyes on a visit to the annual show at the Institute of American Indian Arts some years ago. I moved heaven and earth to get hold of it. Gouge and I stayed in touch, and he did me the great honor of creating art for the cover of the latest Blackshaw book Geronimo Hotshot. The man’s a genius.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
I admire too many writers and filmmakers to list. The one person I truly admire is my bride Mary. My creativity pales in comparison to hers. She is the hardest working person I know in any context, in any industry. She is raising our son Beau with a loving and ferocious élan. She runs her own advertising company Womanhattan, maintaining and expanding it with an uncompromising attention to every detail of service for her clients. Her privately published illustrated writings for children are mind-bogglingly brilliant. She is completely hilarious, sweet and ,God knows, the most patient person I’ve ever met. I toppled in love with her instantly. I knew I wanted to be her husband less than a week after we first met. I waited two weeks to propose so she wouldn’t think I was completely insane. When she said yes right away it confirmed she was absolutely my kind of crazy. To say I admire Mary doesn’t do justice to the depth of my feelings for this amazing human being. No one else even comes close in my book.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
After being known in smaller circles as a good husband, father and friend – the usual things that get hacked into tombstones because they are the most important – I want to be known for always doing great work. Readers are precious to me. They invest about 15 non-refundable hours of their lives into reading each Blackshaw book. I want them to close every Blackshaw mission and say something like, “Holy crap! What a ride!” because I busted my ass to give them my very best. It’s my personal covenant with Blackshaw readers. So far, the Blackshaw books have been rated straight-A in the Reader Impact Percentages. I never want to slip below that standard. I never want to phone it in. I’ve seen authors capitulate to ennui and keep writing for the buck when they could have taken a rest or packed it in and left a real legacy, not just a list of titles. Great work. That’s something to be celebrated for.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
There’s no way I could answer that without impeaching my modesty, so I asked my son, Beau, aged 7. He answered, “Daddy.” I’m good with that.
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
Guilt is just self-criticism. That’s it. Nothing more. No mystical evil power burdening me forever or until I’ve bought some therapist a Mercedes. It’s totally optional. So, if something pleases me, it pleases me, no guilt. Except maybe the french toast at Raymond’s in Montclair. Sometimes I think I should be eating it alone, in private, because it’s so tongue-gasmically good, I do feel kinda dirty and wrong afterward.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
Q: Where would you most like to live?
I can live anywhere with my wife and son. Travel is my goal. The Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, and the Amalfi Coast of Italy are on the list. And Scotland. Scotland any time.
Q: What is your idea of success?
My idea of success is setting the bar so low that flossing is a win!
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
I’m happy right now with this life. I could be richer but not happier.
Q: Final Thoughts?
My final thoughts will likely be, “I DON’T WANNA D—”
In all seriousness, I want to close here by thanking Joanne Zippel and all the wonderful Blackshaw readers who love this character, his world and his missions. If you haven’t joined the fun, I invite you to pick up the Ben Blackshaw box set, which is an eBook with the first three stories published all together. It’s a great way to immerse oneself in the Blackshaw world. Paperbacks of the individual books are also available at your local bookseller or online, where you can also find individual eBooks in all formats. Then, I suggest paying a visit to Smith Island and seeing for yourself the amazing people and the beautiful place that inspires the Blackshaw Series.