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Bestselling Author Richard Steinberg – A Deep Blue Interview

New York Times & International Best Selling author of The Four Phase Man – soon to be a Warner Brothers miniseries Nobody’s Safe – soon to be a major motion picture from the Producer of X-Men The Gemini Man – winner of 21 literary awards around the world . . . is published in 32 countries on every continent around the globe. He has been many things, fought many wars – personal, public, for God and Country, and for sanity’s sake. Some have been acknowledged; others covert, hidden . . . denied.

He has been a counter-terrorist for a private corporation . . . with the United States government as its only client.

He has been a high priced bodyguard in the land of swimming pools and palm trees . . . where threats sometimes come clothed in $5,000 suits or the finest diamonds.

He has dug ditches, sold women’s shoes, managed Rock bands, worked as a small business consultant, and casino parking lot attendant. . . been a hero and a victim.

But he has never stopped believing in the dream . . . of an America as honorable, as caring, as committed to liberty and democracy and true soul greatness as its people.

Read the rest of his biography over at www.storytellersunplugged.com – where he is a regular columnist

I had the intriguing and entertaining opportunity to present Rick with five questions, assembled with the help of his buddies Janet Berliner and my own agent, Robert L. Fleck. What came of all this is an incredible interview – much more than I expected, as I suspect you will find the man to be, as well. Without Further ado I will turn this over to Richard Steinberg. For you Live Journal users I have used LJ Cuts to clip a lot of the text, as this is one LONG interview.

RS: Dave, let me preface these answers with a brief anecdote.

I was in Scottsdale at a convention of College Newspaper Editors a few years back, and I agreed to do a series of interviews with about eight or nine of them in one afternoon. So I’m sitting in my suite and every twenty minutes or so they come in, one or two at a time. The questions ranged from the absurd (“do you prefer suites with living rooms to suites with sitting rooms”) to the exquisite (“to what extent does a writer have to be self indulgent in order to survive the process”) with most in-between. But my favorite moment was when one of the editors referred to their notes and asked: “why should our readers want to read about you?”

Well, let’s see if I can answer that question while answering your others, shall we? Bearing in mind, of course, Lillian Hellman’s warning:

“They're fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.”

1) Most writers are obsessive about their craft in one way or another, but there are levels, as in all things. I’m told that you would fall under the “writing is life” umbrella. Can you put in words what writing means to you in terms of life, love, dreams and sanity? (How’s that for a first question?)

A question only a writer would ask and then only a writer who understands writing as something other than a thing one does.

I think, at least on the surface, we all (meaning all who take writing seriously) write for the same reason. A desire – whether conscious or not – to be heard; to have our voice rise above the noise, to contribute our thoughts, emotions, insights, fears, insecurities, doubts, and dreams to the group consciousness. And in that, I’m no different.

But at the heart of what I do, is something else.

Karl Wallenda put it best: “To be on the wire is life. Everything else is just waiting.” How well I understand that. When I’m writing my heart beats, my lungs inflate, blood flows, synapses fire, and the taste of living is in the air around me. When I’m writing: life has purpose, humanity has a chance, love is possible (both globally and personally) and there’s a reason to get out of bed each day. When I’m not writing, well . . . let’s not go there.

My closest friends all say they can tell when I haven’t been writing for a few days; that I become sullen, morose, withdrawn, negative. That I lack energy and spirit. And I suppose that’s more or less true.

I’m a good writer. Technique, creativity, spirit all come very naturally to me. And I suppose that whatever one is good at, one wants to spend a great deal of time doing. But it’s more than that, really. Writing allows me to define myself – a thing few of us in the world today ever get the chance to do. Writing allows me to explore myself – a thing few of us in the world today are willing to do. Writing allows me to ask great questions, confront great evil, challenge even greater hypocrisy, and delve (wonderful word) into the more forgotten recesses of the human spirit.

Now you know and I know that the above paragraph is – while completely true – also completely irrelevant. One size fits all for most serious writers.

Perhaps the real truth lies in a lyric from Harry Chapin:

“Good dreams don’t come cheap; you have to pay for them.
If you just dream when you’re asleep, there is no way for them to come alive.
To survive.”

I write because I have to; because there is a demon that perches on my shoulder, digs its claws deep into me (leaving scars no plastic surgeon could ever address) whispering into my ear: “give me voice.” I write because deep within me there is a dark, gooey place (that I would deny existence to if I had half a brain) that demands expression. I write because when I write (whether or not I am read) I am not invisible, I am not purposeless, I am not meaningless.

I write because when I write I am strong, I am potent, I am sane; I’m doing something to change the world from dark to light, I’m contributing instead of taking. I write, because when I write, I see myself as a person worth loving, worth being, worth continuing on.

I write – simply and completely – because I no longer know how to live without writing . . . which is a simultaneously pathetic and blessed state of existence.

“To be on the wire is life. Everything else is just waiting.”

Of course Karl Wallenda plunged forty stories to his death while “living on the wire.”

Hmm . . .

2) Collaboration is a rough road for any author, and can lead to any number of outcomes and revelations. I understand that you and your mother collaborated on a project, and that the two of you had a uniquely positive and close relationship. Can you tell us about this collaboration, and how she has affected / infected / altered and/or enriched your creative process?

It’s ironic that this question comes up now, the day after what would have been her 76th birthday. She died in August of last year, quite unexpectedly, and some eight months later I am still stunned by the even more unexpected void left by her absence. She was my greatest booster, my harshest critic, at times the only one who believed in me as a writer (or as a person) and someone to whom I could turn when all seemed lost, who would clinically and accurately dissect the crisis at hand – be it creative or personal – and set me back on the path again.

Although Gloria wrote community theater in the Sixties, she never considered herself a writer until years later. At the end of a string of personal failures, I suffered two fairly massive strokes in eight hours which left me in a semi-fugue state, with difficulty thinking or articulating my thoughts. And while others saw to my physical recovery, Gloria took charge of my mental rehab.

By forcing me to write.

Writing was always my first love, but at the time of my strokes I had abandoned that love with the sensitivity of a high school sweetheart leaving his “great love” that had put him through med school, for a tighter ass on an adoring younger face. Without any idea what I was giving up.

But Gloria knew, and so she decided that I would learn to think and express again, and I would do it through writing.

It was a tough gig . . . imagine the synaptic nuances necessary for the sentence: See Jane run! And the work, at first, made little sense to anyone but me . . . imagine reading William Vollman while stoned and juggling. But slowly, sentience and sentences began to return; and in addition to relearning how to think and express those thoughts, my love of writing returned as well.

It was then that Gloria – God bless her – decided it was time to take the next step: write a novel . . . which I was in no way up to by myself, so she volunteered to coauthor the piece.

In any collaboration there needs to be ground rules agreed on in advance; particularly in our case since we were mother and son, living together, with all the baggage and other stuff that is attached to such.

  • We would relate to each other as co-authors, and not as child and parent; starting with a level of respect for each other, but with future respect (relating to the collaboration) bound to the work each produced.

  • We would not be hesitant to express doubts, ask questions, or seek advice from each other throughout.

  • We would not judge one another, but only one another’s work as it applied to making the novel a success creatively.

  • When one of us fell, the other would be there to catch them.

That last may sound like an obvious note of collaboration, but I have seen so many collaborations – including some I have been part of – collapse for the lack of that.

Knowing very little about how to write a novel, we outlined, we log-lined, did character studies, used everything from 3x5 cards to wall charts. And we began to work.

Without ever making black and white decisions, we discovered that we each had a particular affinity for given characters, and so we decided that sequences dominated by those characters would determine who would write them. In the end, when the first draft was completed, we decided there would be two complete rewrites: the first by her, the last by me . . . since my mind was starting to return and I was marginally the more complete writer. This allowed us to remove the rough spots, and better configure the book into a single “voice” for the reader.

The result was: Requiescat . . . a novel in the tradition of Clive Cussler and Helen MacInnes (my favorite writer at the time, and hers) that did reasonably well; although we never did get an honest accounting of it from the nefarious plug nasties who published it.

Do I sound bitter?

We wrote a second book together – Soul Tailors – and then Gloria decided it was time for me to do it on my own. And thanks in no small part to her belief and dedicated energy I recently completed my 18th novel, am published in 19 languages in 32 countries, have film, TV, and stage projects all pending, and live a life (if you can call this living) in the arts, as a fictioneer.

What a gift.

In the last few years, Gloria began writing on her own, with our roles reversed: me as the mentoring, nurturing, guiding, and energizing force, her in search of her voice and vision. It was a glorious thing to watch, to see this woman in her seventies begin to find things in herself – through her writing – that she’d always suspected (but denied) were there. Her favorite thing to say was: “You have to read this new sequence! If my grandmother was alive, this would kill her!”

She completed two novels before she died last summer: Progeny and Blood Truth. Both horror novels, both using allegory brilliantly; each markedly better than the last.

And now, eight months after she died, I find myself in collaboration with her once again. She had completed the first draft of Blood Truth about six weeks before her death, and following my tradition, decided to step away from it for a time before returning to it with clean eyes for the rewrite process. A process that I am now beginning in her stead. But I am continuing to follow the rules:

  • I will not tamper with her vision, only her execution of it

  • I will respect her moral and value judgments (where different from mine) and seek only to delineate them in a more clear manner

  • I will play with structure and construction only where I believe they fall short of a professional standard

  • I will let her characters live and breathe as she intended, because she knew what she wanted, so I will only debride the dead or scar tissue so that the living brilliance beneath can shine through.

  • And most importantly of all in any collaboration, I will talk with her constantly.

I’m lucky, I was there throughout her process of writing this novel; we talked about it often – as writers, not as mother and son – so I think I know what she wanted the finished product to look like. And I am resolved to getting it there.

In part, you asked: how she has affected / infected / altered and/or enriched your creative process?

And there is no simple answer to that, except this:

She believed in me wholly and without exception . . .

She never thought that a work was great just because I wrote it, but instead insisted that I work to the highest possible standards attainable . . .

She never really liked my books – we had different tastes in fiction – but was extraordinarily proud of them, and I guess of me for writing them . . .

She insisted that my fictions – however bizarre – make sense, have meaning, have within them something that a reader could see in themselves . . .

She criticized with love not harshness, praised with reality not blindness, motivated with a look, reproved with a sigh, never judged.

Without her . . . there would be no me; in any sense.

But particularly as a writer.

3) Since I work in a sensitive position myself, I will understand if you can’t elaborate on details, but I understand you have worked in the field of anti-terrorism. This is a very important subject in the minds of today’s readers – is there anything you’ve learned from that experience that can be passed on, and how has that time in your life informed and molded your writing, if at all?

First, let’s define our terms.

I worked in Counter-terrorism which can best be defined as the art of preventing terrorist attacks. Anti-terrorism is the business of responding to attacks that were not prevented. We had a motto in the office: If nothing happened, it was a good day!

Is there anything I learned from that experience? Hmm . . . Let me think for a moment . . .

Don’t stand in front of something that is labeled: FRONT TOWARD ENEMY . . .

When exiting a helicopter, don’t try to reach up and touch the spinning rotor blades . . .

When jumping out of a fixed wing aircraft, either be on the ground or wear a functional parachute . . .

If someone points a gun at you, don’t assume it’s a practical joke done with a wry sense of humor . . .

Don’t lose your humanity or your recognition of the other guy’s humanity.

This last is perhaps the most important lesson learned. Although that thing about not standing in front of anti-personnel devices is a close second.

There’s a tendency in our society to want to understand our enemies in terms that are familiar to us. But when an enemy arises, as has happened in Southwest Asia, that isn’t at all familiar (in their motivations or thought processes) we tend to two-dimensionalize them. Particularly so when it comes to terrorism.

If there is a recurring theme in my books, it’s that none of us are wholly good, or wholly evil. We are the sum of who we have been, who we have been around, what we have seen, tasted, been told – and that’s critical as relates to terrorism. And while there does exist inalterable good and implacable evil in the world, neither seldom really manifests itself in any given individual.

Remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Revolution is always right and holy in the first person – our revolution – and always wrong and evil in the third person, their revolution.”

If somebody exists to destroy what I have, then that makes them my enemy . . . but I’ve learned that it does not make them evil. As a writer, I try to make this point wherever and however I can. Terrorism – whether by individuals, groups or governments – is an inappropriate reaction to a set of stimuli, which may or may not have any truth attached. And therefore the terrorist is often as much victim as those he victimizes.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I believe the use of force to win essentially a political argument is anathema to being called human. The taking of lives, the destruction of property, kidnappings, torture, all diminishes all of us. They are plagues and MUST, somehow, by some miracle, be banished for all time!

But while they are still a part of the fabric of our lives, it remains for those of us in the arts to try and depict them, and depict them honestly. The strength of The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck wasn’t that it depicted the Nazi menace as implacable super-monsters, but rather as men who betrayed their very humanity or had it betrayed by their governments in the indoctrination of them.

You can’t defeat implacable monsters . . . but you can defeat men.

My most successful novels have been painted on the military/intelligence canvas that I know well. A world where men get hair transplants on their crotches to continue to look virile (and therefore in control) in the showers. A world where men and women routinely make the ultimate sacrifice of their mortality to save strangers in a world that will never know or recognize that act of sacrifice. A world of incredible contradictions and paradoxes that even the most experienced veterans never fully understand. A world filled with heroes and villains . . . often within the same skin.

But while the canvas may be of that world, the stories never are. The stories are about self determination, about strength of will, about the efficacy of ideals, about whether or not our paths are predetermined at birth or can we step off that path . . . and about whether or not – if we can – that would be an act of courage or cowardice.

My time in the community taught me that black and white doesn’t ever really exist, except – and this important – when it comes to inalterable goods and implacable evils. But it also taught me that those goods and evils are, essentially, judgment calls by each individual concerned.

I have – through my life experience, religious training such as it is, moral outlook, and interactions with differing cultures – made those judgments for myself. And articulated many of those judgments through the lead characters in my novels. But I have also been careful to apply the same understanding to the motivations and actions of my supporting and anti-lead characters; so that the reader might come away influenced (hopefully for the good, or at least my perception of good) by three dimensional characters whose actions make sense in a three dimensional world.

A world where no one is born a terrorist or a counter-terrorist.

A world where intra-species violence is a divine rarity . . . except among humans.

A world where well intended actions often have unintended bad reactions.

A world where terrorists genuinely see themselves as freedom fighters that are destined for heaven and paradise.

A world where I do not see them such.

4) There are a lot of things that people collect, such as books, beanie babies, paintings, etc. You collect things with sharp edges – or so I have been informed. Is there a particular reason for this fascination? What have you got stored in that collection, and are there stories behind each?

The phrase: Collateral Damage is a US military term, first used in 1965, for unintended or incidental damage during a military operation. The term started as a euphemism during the Vietnam War, and can refer to friendly fire or the destruction of civilians and their property.

The operative words therein being: unintended or incidental.

Drop a bomb, shoot a gun, and there’s a pretty good chance someone or something other than your intended target is going to be damaged.

Swing a sword, cut with a knife and there’s probably not going to be a great deal of collateral damage. Bad karma, sure. But little chance of unintended or incidental damage. This – combined with being trained as an edged weapons specialist – is what led me to begin collecting knives and swords. But I’m not especially interested in the beauty or craftsmanship of them, as much as I am their history and significance.

When the Japanese occupied Manchuria, they forbade the Emperor’s Court from carrying the swords that their honor and tradition demanded they carry to protect the Emperor. So they devised elaborate swords, disguised as canes so that they might fulfill their duty and not piss off their occupiers.

I have one of these.

In 550 BC, Medean bandits terrorized the mountainsides of Greece. The great City-states of Sparta and Athens were unaffected directly but still sent a small force with specially engraved bronze swords to – successfully – rid the mountains of these early terrorists.

I have one of those.

I have a Toledo Cimmetara from around 1400 AD from the Iberian Peninsula with engravings that place it in the hands of the Caballeros Caídos . . . a Christian templar-like organization that protected Jews from the violence that was much of the church at the time.

I have a Hotamitanu knife; carried by Native American Warriors, who would plant a spear in the ground, lash their ankle to that spear and not move from the spot – no matter what happened – until the battle (always a defensive one in protection of village and culture) was over.

I have katanas, wakizashis, Chinese Lantern daggers, a Scottish Claymore, and a few others. All collected not for their monetary value – the truth is they have only minimal dollar value – but for their point of view. To me, they represent a time of greater personal honor and responsibility, a moment of warfare among warriors, as opposed to the collateral damage referred to earlier. They are, taken as a whole within the specificity of my collection, symbols of honor and grace and craftsmanship and personal courage.

What courage does it take to turn a key and press a button and kill a quarter of a million people thousands of miles away?

What courage does it take to carry an 18 inch blade that weighs over fifteen pounds – and nothing else – into battle against similarly armed, similarly purposed individuals?

I’ll take the edged weapons over the nukes any day.

I also collect dragon sculptures and dust, but those are other stories for another time.

5) My one semi-standard question: You have one day to come up with the idea for your next big book. You have your choice of a deserted, quiet island with a computer and an endless supply of CDs of your choice – a car with a driver to take you anywhere you want to go, the rear seat sealed off and quiet – or a library with a Star Trekian ability to produce any and all books you require. Which do you choose for inspiration, and why?

One day . . . I’m screwed!

Forgetting, for the moment, the fact that since I work without an outline, notes of any kind, or even a vague idea of where I’m going, and therefore have no idea what any book I’m working on is about until I’m well into it . . .

Forgetting, for the moment, that all of the above options remove me from humanity – and therefore truth . . .

I don’t know if my process is particularly unique or not, and I learned a long time ago not to question its intricacies too closely, but here is that process, such as it is:

I get up each day around noon – no, I am not a lay-about, all will be explained – and work during the day on business, business correspondence, rewrites and non-original writing, and what social life I have. I take the early evening off for TV or a movie or going out. But then every night, usually around eleven, I begin my writing . . . the new stuff, new sequences, new books, plays, movies, whatever. The night is reserved for the new and the original, and I usually work until four or five in the morning. Usually on more than one project at a time.

How do I choose my subjects? I don’t really have a clue. Inevitably I begin with more of a theme than a subject, sometimes a character or a locale; sometimes a quote or something I saw in the world will kick me off. There’s really no telling. And without an outline – which I learned when I co-wrote my first book, I don’t respond well to – or character notes or anything much, I begin:

Richard Steinberg

Sometimes I never do find that seminal idea or central story that makes a novel. Sometimes I’m as many as three or four chapters into the piece before I recognize that. But it’s okay, everything gets saved, everything gets used eventually. The central character of The Four Phase Man was written into and then edited out of The Gemini Man and then Nobody’s Safe before he found a home in 4Phase. Locales or research from abandoned novels always somehow find their way into a finished work at some point.

Working without an outline, notes, or character sketches is, at least for me, exhilarating beyond description. It makes each novel the ultimate interactive game and adventure where I fight to get to the point where I am no longer writing the novel, but simply bearing witness to it and writing down what I see. There’s a terrible downside as well, though. At some point in every book, the story stops.


And without outline or notes or whatever, it can be a struggle and a half to get it going again. And without outlines or notes, I don’t always know where the story will end, necessitating my first rewrite being the one where I cut most of the excess length.

But one of your offered options does, to a very large extent, affect what I do.


I can not write in silence – don’t know that I can live in silence either, for that matter – and everything I write has its own, unique score attached to it.

The Gemini Man was written primarily to the music of Meat Loaf. Nobody’s Safe primarily to Bob Seger. The Four Phase Man to Betty Buckley. The Believer to the music of my friends (and many of my friends are musicians or singers) Susannah McCorkle, and Amanda McBroom.

Garage Rock, Concert Rock, Show tunes, Cabaret, Standards, Brazilian Pop, it all factors in. Each book has its own sound. This is not to say that the type of music being listened to directly correlates to the story at hand. It’s far more mystical than that.

There’s a definable tone and passion and flirtatiousness and hope in Amanda McBroom’s voice.

A power and conflict between dark and light in the music of Meat Loaf.

BB King strikes to the soul . . . Tower Of Power is liquid energy . . . Ruth Brown ennobling pain . . . Earthy truth from Julie Christenson . . . Purity of Spirit from Ann Hampton Callaway.

And while I suspect many of the composers or singers or musicians might not care for some of the stories that their art has helped bring to life, it is the life force within their music – recognizable and true – that helps vivify much of my work.

And I am grateful for it.

So, there you have it! Five overlong answers to five interesting questions. All of which combine to prove out Robert Heinlein’s First Principle Of Writing:

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”


Richard’s novels are readily available at Amazon.com .. click the below cover art to check them out!




Sep. 9th, 2006 01:23 pm (UTC)
Re: 6th time reading "Gemini Man"
I'll pass this to Rick.