Robert Goble’s novel Across A Harvested Field (Amazon | Parables) won the Marilyn Brown unpublished novel award earlier this year. Before we get to the interview, here’s the back cover blurb so you have a sense of what the novel is about (and also note its spiffy new cover art):
“To Jordan Fairchild, the dark-haired girl renting his basement apartment seems somewhat quiet and reclusive. Just a business arrangement, he thinks, as he watches her sign the name “Nattie Hand” on the contract. Though two thousand miles away, Celeste Betancourt, an attractive Georgetown graduate student he met through a mutual friend, has captured his attention. A budding friendship with Nattie soon begins to bloom. Little does Jordan know his girl-next-door renter is none other than the world-famous pop star, a.k.a. Natalia Antonali, who recently disappeared from the public eye; little does he know how much his friendship will come to mean to her, how, for the first time a love begins to grow, untainted by “Natalia,” and how she hopes Jordan never discovers the truth.”
I think by now most of our readers have heard about how you wrote Across A Harvested Field primarily during your lunch breaks at the school you work at as well as in the evening at home. I’d like to go back further than that — when and how did you first decide to begin writing fiction? And what was the genesis for the story that became Across a Harvested Field?
I’ve always been a book lover. There were periods of time when I would devour one author’s works after another, whatever I could get my hands on. As a younger reader I tended to focus on authors like Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Tom Clancy, and Frank Herbert–King and Card being my all time favorites. I look back and picture myself the classic loner bookworm with the aversion to sports, sort of an artsy type who listened to Led Zepplin and wrote bad poetry. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I whole-heartedly discovered the meatier diets, the likes of Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Chaim Potok, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and many, many others I could go on naming.
Books didn’t always represent a simple recreational past time, but became a lifeline during some serious personal crises that took place in my early to mid-twenties. One was the steady deterioration of my father’s health until his death and the toll it took on our family; another was a traumatic divorce that left me a single father and emotionally and financially devastated, a setback that changed the direction of my life. Books provided the ability to take reality in smaller doses.
I think my love for reading naturally turned into a love for writing. Somewhere inside were stories that wanted to come out. It was during the aftermath of the divorce, a time of healing and rebuilding, that I began writing my first novel, A Winter Morning’s Sun, which was a project that lasted on and off for nearly a decade. Eventually it was sent to Jack Lyon, (author of The Moroni Code), who published it. I’d also pumped out quite a few short stories that were never published that sit in boxes and on disk. I recently resurrected several which have become an important part of the novel I’m currently working on.
I had to put aside college for many years, until I remarried and was in a better position to go back, which I did in my mid-thirties. At the University of Utah I made a decision between pursuing a degree in English and following my heart in the direction of International Studies, where I could dive into history, philosophy, politics, and a minor in Spanish. I chose the latter with no regrets. English, especially creative writing, seemed the ideal direction for an author to take, but I felt as if something was missing. To me, writing isn’t just about the language; it’s the deeper understanding about life and people that comes from experience and broad studies.
Across a Harvested Field started as a seed when I was still at the university. From time to time I would let off steam by working on my basement. On one occasion my wife came downstairs to tell me something, and an idea bloomed. It was the romantic notion of a man renting his basement to a mysterious young woman–a fugitive? A movie star, perhaps? The idea grew and I began to jot it down as the first rough fifty or so pages of the novel.
I don’t think for most novelists the process takes place in complete isolation. Perhaps the initial birth of an idea and first drafts can be very personal creative moments, but as the novel progresses, others are brought into the process at some point along the way. Writers need others to read their material in progress. A pair of critical, knowledgeable eyes can be worth gold. This is how it was for me, whether it was cornering my wife or my mother to read new chapters as they poured onto the computer screen.
One person in particular who needs a special mention is Colin Douglas. He was the editor of the Magna Times, and he pulled me in for two years as a feature writer. During that time I wrote the bulk of the novel.
You might say Colin is an underappreciated Mormon poet who’s been published in Sunstone, Dialogue, Ensign, and the Harvest Anthology. His poetry can be described in his own words as “little lyrics in a biblical Hebraic mode.” He’d worked for twenty years in the Church’s curriculum editing. He’s also currently working on an analysis of selected sections of the Doctrine and Covenants as unified poetry, making the case for Joseph Smith as a significant poet.
He’d spent hours on the manuscript with me, going over mechanics and discussing ideas. He was extremely influential in my development as a writer. Quite a few times he’d put on his Indiana Jones hat, and together we’d go down to the Quetzal restaurant on Magna Main Street and enjoy traditional Central American food and great conversation about literature and gospel themes.
Another important player in the development of this book is Beth Bentley, a published novelist and co-owner and editor for Parables Publishing. She painstakingly pointed out tiny details upon details that helped tighten the writing and smooth down the style. She helped me create a more sympathetic main character. If it wasn’t for her suggestions, and, at times, reservations, the breakthrough that changed the direction of the story–and the last one hundred or so pages–would never have happened.
I’ve linked to the novel blurb, but could you tell us a little bit more about what the novel is about and how you would describe its genre and/or style?
Initially my main character was a divorced single father, but I felt myself identifying too closely with him. Like many first drafts, the pages were a smear of emotional outpouring that needed to be put swiftly out of their misery.
A theme I wanted to explore, but stepped back from quite a bit was the alienation a divorced man felt, trying to find his place once again within the LDS culture where all his friends were happily married and he found himself reentering a dating scene with a big scarlet D slashed across his forehead. Not only were most of the eligible single women on the edge of too young, unattractive, or unsuitable, but other avenues tended to open that didn’t lead to the path of celestial marriage.
When I changed the character to a widower, I felt freer to lightly touch similar themes, but remove the personal identification enough to experiment more, create a different personality, and play with a flawed character in an unusual romantic situation.
I imagined a young man, Jordan Fairchild, stubbornly self-reliant, and reluctant to accept help from eager and loving family and friends. He finally accepts an invitation from a friend to fly out to Washington, D.C., to be set up with a beautiful, young Georgetown grad student, Celeste Betancourt, who attended his friend’s ward. While he pursues this long distance prospect, another young woman, Nattie Hand, comes along to rent the basement apartment Jordan had put up for rent. Being a lonely man, he quickly hands her a contract and the keys, all the while having no idea she’s a famous pop star, who, going through a personal crisis of her own, decided to drop out of the public eye and find a place to hide away for a period of time.
While the relationship with the grad student seems, at times, to show potential, it never catches fire, yet a very genuine friendship begins to bloom with pop star-in-disguise.
As a male reader, I was never partial to the romance genre. I tended to avoid them, so when this idea came along, I didn’t try to fit it into the traditional romance formula. I wanted this to be from the male point of view and to be as honest as possible within Jordan’s mind. I wanted to take this unlikely combination and try to answer some questions: How would this situation really turn out for this poor fellow? What would really happen upon discovering her true identity? Is it really possible for a “regular guy” to build a successful relationship with a world famous pop diva?
In my mind she would have to go through her own crisis and transformation before she could meet him on the most basic human level. She would have to find something in Jordan that she needs in her life.
A related question: how would you situate Across a Harvest Field in the world of Mormon narrative art? What approach did you take to the Mormon elements?
There’s also an awkwardness and sexual tension already involved with bringing a beautiful, mysterious stranger into his home, even if it’s a separate apartment. Not only that, but being an elder on the edge of inactivity adds a little danger, even if he has well-meaning intentions, so he has to eventually deal with appearances however they might manifest to his family and fellow ward members.
I didn’t want to approach this story as a “Mormon” story. In fact, it wasn’t even on my mind. I didn’t feel the story that way. Yet the main character is a Mormon, living within that culture, and, granted, from the Mormon reader’s point of view, inevitable questions and conflicts with ideals can’t help but arise. But I didn’t seek to answer those questions. I intended this to be something anyone could read without my trying to validate the character’s thoughts and behavior. Even categorizing this book as “Mormon Fiction” makes me uncomfortable.
What was your reaction to winning the Marilyn Brown award?
At the time I submitted my manuscript to the contest, Parables hadn’t yet decided to publish the book. It had gone through a partial editing, but until then they felt the direction of the story had too many problems. This was the moment of breakthrough I’d mentioned. I had just finished some major rewriting, when Beth e-mailed back and said she was very happy with the new version. She asked if I’d heard about the award, and I told her I hadn’t. She suggested I send it in. In fact the information I found was old. I couldn’t find anything about a 2010 contest. I had the impression there wasn’t one. Then I tracked down Marilyn Brown herself and called her, and she said there was a contest and she would be very happy if I sent it in. I had the manuscript in the mail just before the post office closed on the last day I could have possibly sent it. In fact, I didn’t think it would arrive on time. I didn’t expect anyone to even look at it.
As the months went by, I completely forgot about the contest. Parables finally agreed to publish the book, and we were in the process of the final edit when I received a call at work from Marilyn Brown. She congratulated me, told me I’d won the contest. It was a beautiful surprise and extremely encouraging. I almost felt unworthy, considering the talent who’d won the award in the past. The award has recognized very good Utah writers.
After speaking to Marilyn, I called my wife. She was as excited as I was, but like myself, she’d forgotten I’d sent in the manuscript. Marlyn had called her first to get my work number. My wife said to me afterward, “I hope I didn’t offend her.” I asked why. She said, “I thought she was a telemarketer. I think I sounded mean. I nearly hung up on her.”
What have you read/viewed/listened to lately in the world of culture — both Mormon culture and otherwise — that has had an impact on you and/or was simply very enjoyable? Or to put it another way: what are you digging right now?
I tend to avoid the products of what I see as “Mormon” culture, not because I think I have all the answers, but there’s something I’m looking for that I haven’t found there yet. I’m not saying hints of it aren’t there, but it’s elusive. I started to see it in Richard Dutcher’s work, until the path he took left me scratching my head. I sunk inside and let out a long breath of disappointment when I went to see the premier of “Evil Angel.” I could only guess at some profound, dark, mischievous angst he must have let out making that film–a thought that left me laughing in the Broadway Theatre parking lot. But this isn’t saying I’m not a fan of good horror; in my mind there’s very little of it out there.
The it I’m talking about is in the very last page of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in the song “Silent Lucidity” by Queensryche, in “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” (Spanish version) by Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez, in Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, in the poem “A Man Who Had Fallen Among Thieves” by E.E. Cummings, or in “The Last Leaf” by O. Henry. Perhaps it’s something completely subjective, but it hits me like a bolt of lightning and shakes my soul like a storm. I can only hope to capture some of it in my own writing.
What’s next for your writing? What projects are you actively working or developing?
I’m currently working on a new novel, a dark, magical fantasy/horror. The story spans from Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967 to the present, but the bulk of it takes place in Magna, Utah in 1984. A group of teenagers are pulled into a conflict that began with their parents in a Charles Manson-like commune in the sixties. Their parents had fled it, but something bad followed them, something with a deep interest in their future children. It deals with the question of what is a real wizard. Is magic just the pursuit of power one never earned? What is the price of that kind of power? Does it really exist, or is it an illusion?
I don’t want to give it away, but it will have elements of romance, bullying, comrade-in-arms, terror, eighties nostalgia, esoteric philosophy, some down right glorious fight scenes, and some freaky twists. It’s not your standard fantasy. It’s definitely not Harry Potter, but I’m confident it’s something fresh and refreshing at the same time. You might even find some Mormon characters in there.