I've been lucky enough to chat a bit with Robert Fate via e-mail. He has a special place in my heart, because although I only met him briefly at Bouchercon, he was the last person I saw when I drove away on the last day, and he raised a hand to wave at me. Since he looks a bit like a prophet, and his name is Fate, this seemed like very good juju.
Here I ask Robert about himself and about his book, Baby Shark.
Fate is actually your middle name. Why did your parents choose it? Were they fans of mythology? Or did they just like the concept?
Well, Julia – my mother had a brother named Fate. My Uncle Fate had an Uncle Fate, and the way I understand it, somewhere way back there the name was related to the Marquis de Lafayette. That always made my father laugh. He claimed the only thread of truth in that story was that no one on my mother’s side of the family could spell Lafayette. I’m sure you didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject, but there you are.
Your book, Baby Shark, has garnered many positive reviews, has an interesting premise, and a great title. What did you think of first—the title, or the plot?
Actually, the character came first. The idea of a young woman shooting pool appealed to me. And, if she were say a smart, well-read young woman who through circumstance finds herself in and out of west Texas pool halls for a year or two while traveling with her father, a pool hustler – hmmm. A situation like that would keep it from being an occupation forced on a young woman in the 1950s. Further, I thought it was kind of cool. Maybe she would be an interesting character full of contrasts. Maybe a character that readers hadn’t met before.
The plot came next, but it depended on the character. I kept visualizing a Greyhound bus pulling away leaving a cloud of dust and grit through which we begin to see a figure emerging—walking toward us—telephoto, slow motion—a young woman in boots, tight blue jeans, a short Levi’s jacket, sunglasses—a loner, confident, sexy—carrying a pool case—crossing the highway—a dry, west Texas afternoon. The filling station behind her becomes visible as the dust settles—some men watch her—the cars in the station are 1950 models. The story needed to be set in a time before cell phones, before CSI, before the issues that define present day crime fiction. Her “things” were going to be a pool cue and a pistol.
After that, it was the plot—what were women’s worst nightmares? The title is Kristin’s nickname and simply seemed logical as some point.
Your protagonist, Kristin Van Dijk, is only seventeen; she survives a brutal attack, vows to hunt down the men who killed her father, and teams up with Henry, a Chinese American who is also out for revenge.
First, how did you happen to create such an authentic voice for Kristin? Do you have a daughter, perhaps, who inspired some of her behaviors?
Kristin’s voice was not easy and still requires vigilance to keep her honest. I do, in fact, have a daughter who turns eighteen next month. And I’m sure that helped—certainly in establishing some habits and responses. But not so much voice. Remember, the time is 1952 through 1954. Kristin is nineteen and a half at the end of Baby Shark—but she burns a lot of life in those two years. The language was different, the slang, the regional dialects—that all continues to be a consideration.
Second, what steps did you take to keep Henry from becoming a stereotype? (Which I think you succeeded in doing).
Here’s the thing, Julia. I want readers to lose themselves in the story, and I feel obligated to not shock them with false-sounding dialogue or references that are not authentic. That’s where candid critique comes in handy. I’m fortunate to have some friends who keep me honest.
Henry Chin – Hank, as Otis calls him, is pure imagination in one respect, but in another, a combination of people I have known who didn’t start their lives in the U.S. Henry is the guy next door who came from somewhere else and is much smarter than most give him credit for being. He learned English late and will forever speak it with an accent. But how he speaks is not who he is. His unselfish love for Kristin. His heroism and loyalty. I think those attributes and others give him dimension and distance him from stereotype. He is a character necessary to the story first and a Chinese/American second.
Your prose is stark, yet suggests great depth. Has this always been your writing style, or is it just the style you wanted for this novel?
The writing style evolved from a desire to make the story and characters paramount. I wanted the writer to disappear. Especially since Kristin is telling the story. She’s well read and had a literate father who influenced her. She could use “high falutin’ talk,” as Otis would say. But she chooses not to. And she isn’t critical of how others speak. Her father taught her to be observant. Harlan, the grifter, Sarge and Albert, her teachers, added to that talent of watching and listening. It was borne out of necessity—her desire to survive, but it molded her persona, too. The writing style in Baby Shark is an attempt to be true to Kristin. It’s her story.
The title has more than one meaning. Which is the dominant meaning for you? The pool shark, or the baby with lethal teeth?
You’re a lot of fun, Julia. Well, let’s see. It was important to Kristin to earn a nickname in the male-dominated pool halls of Texas in the 1950s. She looks like an angel, shoots like the devil, and they call her Baby Shark. But, you’re right—like she says to herself when she stands up to Otis early in their relationship. “I haven’t spent the past year and a half learning to take crap off people.” She knows that to be taken seriously she must now and then show her teeth. So, to answer your question—I never want readers to forget that Kristin shoots pool, but it’s that pistol in her back pocket that makes her dangerous.
Well, thanks for calling me fun. I like to think so. :)
Have you been a writer all your life?
Pretty much. Poetry, short stories, stage plays, magazine articles, journals, screenplays, TV scripts, and finally, the novel. I sincerely believe that the crime novel was where I should have always been—but whacha gonna do? I just got here. I’m really liking it. And I’m sticking around.
Kristin has three basic “teachers” after her attack, all of them men. Was it important to put this girl in a world of men so that they were her victimizers AND her helpers? Or was it just more realistic that everyone around her was a man because she chose a male-dominated lifestyle?
The strongest consideration in reference to Kristin’s transformation from victim to trained killer was that it be believable. She is given a year and a half to make the transition, which is realistic if the student is motivated. Baby Shark’s dedication to study was predicated upon her desire to never be afraid again. But even so, her first attempt at revenge with Scarecrow turns into a fiasco. Again, the aim was for realism. The transition is rocky. It ain’t magic and it doesn’t happen over night. Her teachers are men because realistically, especially in the 1950s, they were the teachers available. A WWII vet, a Korean vet, older professional men. Without a hairdresser, a café owner, and an occasional waitress Kristin would have been hard pressed to have had any women in her world.
Your book is set in 1953. Why did you choose this time period?
The 1950s were a transitional period for women. The era if often played for its innocence, though it was anything but that. Rosie the Riveter had just shown American women that they could do the same work as men and—here’s a concept—earn the same money. So, when women were asked to go home after WWII, many simply didn’t want to. The prevailing attitudes toward women in the 1950s were influenced by late nineteenth and early twentieth century thought. Men came to their feet when a woman entered the room. They opened doors for them, removed their hats. Lots of ritual, but it was a double standard and women knew it. There was an unspoken tension in society that gave an edge to the ‘50s that I wanted to explore. Daddy’s little girl could also be a hell-raiser, but not many wanted to admit it. And, most importantly for Baby Shark, it was a time when women were blamed if they were raped. It was their fault. What were they doing there? Why were they dressed like that? They were just asking for it. Women know what I’m saying is true.
What sorts of things have you done to promote Baby Shark? Do you feel your PR is bearing fruit? And by fruit I mean money? :)
The usual, I think. Book conferences to meet other writers and fans. Bookstore signings. Magazine ads. Lots of Internet—which is more amorphous than the other avenues, but might be the most important. Bearing fruit – ah, yes. Well, I have been fortunate in one particular direction. The readers at DorothyL have been kind to Baby Shark. That is to say, they began telling each other to give it a try. It’s a gritty story, and not everyone’s cuppa, but DLers give a book a fair chance. So their promotion has been good for sales. And 4MA, too, has given the book a critical opportunity. The reviews, the interviews have helped. Hell, I don’t know, Julia. Baby Shark has been around twenty minutes, really. It was only published in September, but it has gotten some buzz so something is working. Are you as confused by what I am saying as I am? Aren’t you glad you asked that question?
Yup, still glad. And it sounds like you're on your way to great success with the book.
You’ve lived all sorts of places. What’s the most beautiful place in the world?
You’re right. I have traveled, and that provides memories. Most beautiful? There was a stand of autumn birch I recall on the way up Mount Olympus—perhaps that qualifies. But was it more beautiful than a stone garden I visited in Kyoto? An early winter morning in the Luxembourg Gardens with the light just right, or an evening on the beach in Zihuatanejo? I quit. It has to be more about who you are with, doesn’t it? That’s what makes a place beautiful. So I’ll think on that, Julia.
You mention on your website that you were once a fashion model. Well, naturally your picture explains why a handsome man like you would get the job, but why fashion? Was it to pay bills, or did you enjoy the fashion scene?
I moved to NYC. I was writing a musical comedy with a friend. I needed to earn a living. A girlfriend of mine was a model. She introduced me to some photographers. I put together a book, made the rounds, began working. I earned my living as a fashion model for three and a half years. Finished the musical comedy. Couldn’t sell it. Moved back to LA. My biggest success as a model was when I landed the cover of the NY Times Menswear Magazine. “Look,” I told my painter friend Robin Bright. “There are thousands of me all over the city today.” “Uh huh,” he said. “And tomorrow we’ll go over to Fulton Street and watch ‘em wrap fish in you.” That’s what true friends are for.
You were also once a chef. Do you cook for your wife?
My wife didn’t cook, so yes I cooked for the first twenty-five years of our marriage. Then, without preamble, she said she was going to do the cooking from then on. Just got tired of fried okra was my guess. So, she took over the kitchen some five or six years ago and I have to tell you, she’s a great cook!
What are you writing now?
I’m about four chapters into the third installment of another Baby Shark story. Book two, Baby Shark’s Beaumont Blues, will be in bookstores May 2007. Book three, if the crick don’t rise, will be in bookstores November 2007—the title is Baby Shark’s Panhandle Caravan—kinda rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
It really does!
Whose writing do you admire?
Joe R. Lansdale. How could anyone improve on the opening of “Sunset and Sawdust?”
If Baby Shark were set in the present instead of the 1950's, what would be different?
Well, today and the 1950s differ in every way you can imagine in reference to “things.” But Kristin would still be confronted with the same emotional and physical challenges, wouldn’t she? I’m not sure I can picture that precisely—she is such a child of postwar America, just a step ahead of the Baby Boomers, charging headlong into the sixties.
How can people find out more about you and your writing?
At http://www.robertfate.com/ there is a lot of stuff about Baby Shark and some stuff about me. And an email address that I always respond to. I like hearing from readers.
Thanks so much, Robert.
No—thank you, Julia. Loved your questions.