Featured Mystery Author   

A Renaissance Man

An Interview with 
Brewster Milton Robertson

 

By Joyce Dixon

 

 

I suspect that Brewster Robertson would be the first to rebuff my calling him "a renaissance man," but that is clearly what he is.  Robertson brings to mind those men who used to be numerous in the South and now are rare treasures.  Where the term today has been belittled to "Jack of all trades and master of none,"  Robertson excels at each venture and greets the morning with curiosity and the spirit of an explorer.  

Like his slightly autobiographical character Buchanan Forbes in Rainy Days and Sundays, both have backgrounds in commercial art, freelance writing, pharmaceutical sales and play guitar.   Buchanan is "a renaissance man" as he takes stock of his situation and transforms himself to reach the next level.  Brewster Robertson's other incarnations include Army Medical Service officer, marketing consultant, Marketing Director for various hospitals and related companies, teacher, photographer's model and film actor, ghost writer and consulting editor. 

Rainy Days and Sunday has been awarded the first Golden Eye Literary Prize by publisher E. Randall Floyd of Harbor House.  Floyd states, " Robertson, like McCullers, tells his stories with great artistry, sensitivity and compassion.  Not only is Rainy Days and Sundays a great 'beach read,' but the impact of the questions it asks is overpowering."  The Golden Eye Literary Prize honors the literary legacy of Georgia-born novelist Carson McCullers (Reflections in a Golden Eye) and is offered annually to the author of a novel of unusually compelling dramatic quality, social relevance, and extraordinary literary merit.  The Golden Eye recipient receives a cash prize and hardcover publication of the novel.  The novel's dust jacket is by renown illustrator Wendell Minor.

Brewster Robertson was born in Roanoke, Virginia and now makes his home in Beaufort, South Carolina.

 

Rainy Days and Sundays had several incarnations before it was published by Harbor House in 2000. With a setting of 2002, did you make changes due to current events and medical advances? Did you wish to make a statement about abortion or “big brother” agencies with your novel, or was it merely an element for the action?

The background situations are all based in fact.  The bootlegging of ethical pharmaceuticals dates back to the early 1950s and is still ongoing today.  Originally, Rainy Days and Sundays was set in1964, nine years before Roe vs. Wade—the same year that IUD’s were approved for use by the FDA.  Back then, abortion was available only through back-alley butchers. With knitting needles and coat hangers as alternatives, the advent of the IUDs as an abortion method was the abortionist’s dream come true. 

When the original version of the novel was complete, I soon became aware that there are no women of childbearing age living today who can remember when abortion was not legal and readily available in a medically safe environment.  With the ongoing controversy between the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life candidates on the eve of a hotly contested presidential election where four future seats on the Supreme Court were in the balance, it seemed obvious that the novel would have great immediacy in the near-future (2002) setting. 

Politics had little if anything to do with my motivations.  Rather than a personal statement about abortion, I hoped Rainy Days and Sundays would open the reader’s mind to the fact that abortion is as old as history.  I hope that readers might ask themselves whether the real question is about Pro-Life or is it about desperate women dying from rusty coat hangers or—as in the case of Penny—at the hands of butchers.  As for big brother agencies, one of the underlying themes in the novel is the “little man” against the system (government and big corporations).  “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a theme that shadows much of my fiction. 

With your background in pharmaceutical sales, commercial art, and freelance writing, Buchanan Forbes could be an alter ego. Was this a case of writing what you know or did the character’s background take form as it was needed in the novel?

I think it is fair to say that RDAS is strongly autobiographical.  It has amused me that some reviewers took exception to Buchanan Forbes’ background as an artist, writer and guitar player.  At least half of the men I knew in college dabbled in art, writing and played guitar. 

Rainy Days and Sundays could be a dark thriller if not for the moments of humor provided by the father/sons interaction, the old doctor and sheriff, and the events that took an average guy from the suburbs to the “sugarshack”. How is humor important in a mystery? How do you add humor without losing the intense flow?

I believe readers tire of writers who subject them to too much intensity and darkness.  Matthew Brucolli, the great Fitzgerald and O’Hara biographer wrote, “The best reason to read fiction is for pleasure.”  I like to layer my work, using a chiaroscuro of light wit against the darker themes.  I felt that using the light interplay between the old sheriff and the old doc gave a touch of balance to the unfolding of the darkness of the abortion motif without sabotaging intensity or suspense.  While I am a great admirer of Edgar Allen Poe, I have always had trouble reading Poe in sustained stretches because it is too depressing.  

The relationship between Buchanan and his four small sons was intended to underscore the fact that even though he has been driven to retaliate against corporate injustice by stealing a cool half-million dollars in expensive pharmaceuticals, he is basically a good guy.  Even in his relationships with these four strong females, he is not a seducer of women.  While Alma is a perfect bitch, there is humor in the way she pulls Buchanan’s chain and I also tried to put a touch of humor in his sexual adventures with Penny and Maggie.

The women in Rainy Days and Sundays are sexually aggressive, yet in all cases – but Maggie – are limited by appearances and traditional upbringing. How would you describe the modern southern woman?

I’m flattered that well-published author/reviewer Annie Gottlieb who writes for The Nation and Oprah says, “Brewster Milton Robertson weaves together many characters and plot lines like a dexterous juggler, but it’s his female characters who really shine…Not many male writers get women so right.”  However, I confess that when it comes to the female mystique I am as bewildered as the next guy.  I claim no special expertise, but I am convinced that one of the great myths of our time is that the male is the sexual predator—the modern male struts around totally unaware that he is a mere leaf in the sexual windstorm. It is amusing to me that a preponderance of reviewers characterize Buchanan as a womanizer and super stud.  It is not until he has been marvelously instructed by Cammie’s outburst of frustration following the Gordon Lightfoot concert that he begins to awaken and ultimately becomes the adventurer.

I think most Americans—and most particularly the women—define themselves by peer pressure…they are the labels in their clothes, the car they drive, the churches and clubs they belong to.  They can’t even go to the supermarket without consulting Cosmopolitan or Gentlemen’s Quarterly.  That Americans are products of image rather than substance and reality is another theme that shadows my fiction. 

As for the modern southern woman, I try to avoid the nagging suspicion that she is really just a post-deb “Valley Girl” who attends the Junior League.  To my mind Cammie epitomizes the emerging woman of the New South.  She is intellectual and career-oriented but hard put to find emotional and spiritual identity in a female population that still blushes at the word ORGASM on the cover of Cosmopolitan.  My impression is that the majority of southern women are still struggling to find the liberation so widely (and somewhat mythically?) attributed to their more sophisticated urban sisters. 

Your novel was published by Harbor House, a small press in Augusta, Georgia. What attention did your publisher give the novel that made it a success? What type of self-promotion did you do for your debut novel?

Harbor House was fully supportive and the timing was absolutely star-crossed.  Publisher E. Randall Floyd was looking for a breakout novel to establish the Golden Eye Literary Prize as an important movement to discover new (not necessarily southern) fiction writers.  Of course my already having a movie deal in the offing and my background as a longtime member of the Southern Book Critics Circle and freelancer for major publications such as Publishers Weekly was a great help—I (RDAS) was featured on the programs of such premier book events as the Virginia Festival of the Book 2000; BEA BookEXPO2000 (Chicago); Southeastern Booksellers Annual Meeting; The Southern Festival of the Book (Nashville); the Newberry (SC) Opera House Book Festival; the Miami Book Fair International; the Mystery Writers of America’s SleuthFest; and an encore appearance at the Virginia Festival of the Book 2001…upcoming I will be on the program of the South Carolina Book Festival (April 20-22) and the Wilmington (NC) Writers Conference (June). 

With a supreme vote of confidence for the future (mass market paperback and foreign rights), Harbor House publisher E. Randall Floyd flew movie producer Alan Brown (upcoming Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides with Brad Pitt) and the famous director Harry Thomason (Designing Women) to Sea Island, Georgia for a big media launch party at the Cloister…his cost for that alone must have been staggering. 

One advantage of having your debut with a small publisher is that small publishers are in for the long haul.  There are excellent small publishers in the South, including Harlan Publishing, Crane Hill and Pineapple to name a few.

While I have been fortunate to get great reviews like the Orlando Sentinel that went out nationally on the Knight Ridder wire, both Harbor House and I believe that with a movie upcoming and the mass market paperback rights still up for sale, the best days with this title are yet to come.

Rainy Days and Sundays has been optioned for a major feature film by producer Alan Brown (currently in pre-production of Pat Conroy’s Beach Music starring Brad Pitt). Your novel is extremely visual, but two hours causes limits in scriptwriting novels. What part/element of Rainy Days and Sundays must be captured in the film to do the novel justice?

I claim no expertise at writing for the big screen but both Alan Brown and Harry Thomason assure me that one of the big pluses for Rainy Days and Sundays is that the subplots unfold as short vignettes which will easily compress into a two-hour timeframe without sabotaging the suspense or sacrificing atmospherics or diminishing the fully-fleshed-out characters of the main plot line(s).  Harry Thomason says that when they start casting, his phone will be ringing off the hook with calls from agents of every young female actor in Hollywood wanting to play the four strong women characters in the book. 

 

Film producer Alan Brown, director Harry Thomason and author Brewster M. Robertson.

As a book reviewer for a national magazine and a member of the Southern Book Critics Circle, how important is it for writers to be well read? How are books with southern themes doing on a national market?

I’m convinced that most good writers are good readers.  There is no substitute for reading.  I am so lucky to have a day job that forces me to read over 50 of the leading novels each year. 

My aunt Blanche Brewster Pedneau founded the county library system in Roanoke, Virginia.  As a child, I read all of Tom Swift and Nancy Drew, but early on I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books and graduated to Hemingway when I was still in grammar school.  Of the early novelists, Dickens was the great storyteller.  Besides Papa Hemingway, of the pre- and post-Depression era novelists, modern writers owe a debt of gratitude to D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller.  American writers like Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and James M. Cain provide a great legacy.  Of post-World War II novelists, I think Norman Mailer and James Jones were just as important as Lawrence and Miller in breaking down censorship.  I am a great fan of the crisp prose of hardboiled suspense writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John D.- and John Ross MacDonald and the newer generation Elmore Leonard, Les Standiford and James W. Hall.  They get my juices flowing.  A new writer that I much admire is John Miller (Causes of Action).

I’m flattered to have been compared to John Grisham, Nelson DeMille and Pat Conroy…but I hope my style is completely my own.  I always thought that Robert Ruark must have hated it when critics called him the “…poor man’s Hemingway.”  Secretly, I live for the day when someone writes that some fine new novelist writes like Brewster Milton Robertson.

Unfortunately, southern voices and southern themes do not dominate the national bestseller lists.  With the publishing powerbrokers located mainly in New York and Boston, it is very difficult to find agents and editors who resonate with southern voices and themes.  Southern publishers like Algonquin and Longstreet and small independent presses like Harbor House, Hill Street and Orloff represent a great new hope for today’s southern writer.  At the moment, Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek is the only truly southern title on the bestseller list.

You teach a fiction writing workshop in various institutions in the Carolina Lowcountry. What are the most common problems for aspiring writers?

This year will mark my sixth appearance at FIU’s Conference (leem@fiu.edu) at Seaside, Florida.  I think it is important that writers attend workshops and conferences.  It is surprising how many successful writers still attend conferences.  Most beginners have difficulty understanding the fiction voice.  Fiction is told from the viewpoint of the characters—not reported like journalism.  The easiest way for beginners to grasp this is to write in the first person.  I also recommend that beginners consult a professional developmental editor.  I am fortunate to use the services of Cheryl Lopanik (clopanik@islc.net) who brings over twenty years of experience editing fiction (novels and short stories) and non-fiction (biography, memoirs, etc.).  She not only reads my work for content and structure but also edits for grammar/punctuation.  It is very important that editors and agents see only work of professional quality.  Modern day editors do not often waste time with amateurs.

 

In your novel, you give a line to a character that you original heard from Mickey Spillane – “The first line sales the book. The last line sales the next book.” What tips would you give for creating hooks?

“All morning long Norris Wrenn felt like he was being followed but it made no sense at all,” is the first line of my new novel Some Old Familiar Rain.  I always try to begin with the promise of trouble or danger…also a hint of romantic complication is good.  I believe you have to hook the reader with the first line.  For fiction as well as non-fiction, I believe that the reader owes the writer nothing beyond the first line.  The writer’s job is to seduce the reader line by line from the opening line to the final word.  And, I believe that every line should be treated as the “opening line.”  

Some memorable opening lines are: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens) and “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” (Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis). I also believe that titles should be enigmatic…rather than give the story away titles should entice the reader to take the book from the shelf and read the dust jacket synopsis.  The dust jacket copy such be well calculated to make it impossible for the reader to leave the store without buying the book.   

Tell us about your next novel.

Some Old Familiar Rain is a stand-alone novel, not a continuation of the Buchanan Forbes character.  I just completed the manuscript and publishing plans are still up in the air.  The dust jacket synopsis reads: 

            A sexy, suspenseful saga of the classic archetypal modern Southern agrarian power structure SOME OLD FAMILIAR RAIN examines the underseams of the Graham family dynasty.  Thirteen on the Fortune-100 list, Graham/unLimited is more powerful than Phillip Morris/Nabisco.  Like the turreted spire of a feudal castle, the forbidding G/uL Tower casts an ominous shadow of adultery, greed, lust for power, felony drug death, blackmail, and the threat of international political scandal over the steamy North Carolina river town of Colonial Hall.

Sexy young actress Emma Claire is found dead in a Greensboro motel and alcoholic playboy Trip Graham, the failed generation of the Graham dynasty, is having trouble remembering the events of his lost weekend in the Carolina mountains at Blowing Rock.

Both still in their thirties, Trip’s wife Marilee Bryant Graham, the famous rags-to-riches super model, and Trip’s former college roommate, charismatic wonderboy Norris Wrenn, have come to positions of power in Graham/unLimited by exercise of intellect and strength over the weakness of heir-apparent Trip Graham. 

         Amid all the awesome power, these two alone represent the only real vitality in this otherwise crumbling family system.

         On the eve of being named corporate CEO, Norris, Time Magazine’s Man of Destiny—now G/uL’s charismatic wunderkind—is being courted by the scandal-beleaguered White House.  Enamored of Marilee but shadowed by his failure to live up to his youthful ideals, Norris is struggling to rediscover that best part of himself and become his own man again. 

Marilee, Town and Country’s “Mother of the Year,” realizes she married the wrong man.  She means to have Norris for her own.

         Despite sober misgivings and firm resolve, Norris is helpless to resist Marilee’s invitation to meet in New York, away from inquiring eyes.  After one matchless night in her arms, Norris whisks her away to Sheepshead Light, his secret island hideaway off the coast of Maine. 

Meanwhile back in Colonial Hall all manner of trouble is breaking loose.  Unbeknownst to the star-crossed lovers, suddenly the whole world is trying desperately to find them.

Over the next five days—the Monday through Friday before Mother’s Day—the world will change forever for the opportunistic sensualists.  They are about to be presented the opportunity to get away with a perfect murder!  


Brewster Milton Robertson’s Official Home Page
http://www.rainysundays.com

 

Rainy Days and Sundays, Harbor House, 2000.

                     Southern Scribe Review

 

 


© 2001 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved