Author Interviews

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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Author interview with Robert Sheppard (revisited)

Back in February 2013, I interviewed author Robert Sheppard for my interview-only WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...
Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction, science-fiction and fantasy author and poet Robert Sheppard. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Robert. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer. What inspired you to write your first book?
Robert SheppardRobert: Writing has always been my personal calling. I have done many other things such as law, business, teaching and political activism, but I have usually regarded them as secondary to my primary mission in life of writing and being a citizen of the republic of letters. I began by reading the great authors, secondarily in terms of academic study, but primarily in terms of personal communion with the great minds of our human civilization. The inspiration for writing Spiritus Mundi was threefold: First, the culmination of a lifetime of reading and self-exploration; Second, a desire to make a contribution to World Literature in an era of literary and social globalization by sharing beauty and my personal vision and insight with others; Third, Spiritus Mundi was written with the practical goal of popularizing a specific global social reform, the furtherance of global democracy through the creation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a movement I had been involved with for the last ten years.
Morgen: Given the introduction, you write so many genres. Is there one that you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Robert: I began writing poetry that was my first and longest involvement in writing. Spiritus Mundi, my modern epic novel contains a large body of embedded poetry, as in many books such as Dr. Zhivago. I have also written short stories and taken a stab at a screenplay. I enjoy the broad canvas of the novel, and it has been the dominant genre of out times for reaching the broader public as well as the community of letters, particularly when adapted to film. I aim aspects of my novels at both audiences, the illiterati as well as the literati!
Morgen: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Robert: A great novel is never reducible to a paraphraseable message. The ultimate "message" is to enjoy the energy and beauty of life, including its enhancement through art and the engaged experience of reading. That said, however, my novel encourages the reader's development as a whole person, rational and irrational, by bringing to life myth, spirituality and cultural tradition. Spiritus Mundi, nonetheless, is a peculiar book in having a particular social message and program for our era of globalization, namely overcoming our "clash of civilizations" by actively collaborating in the construction of a common world culture, including a newly emerging World Literature to complement national literatures, and the further democratic evolution of our system of global governance through the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a kind of globalized advisory version of the EU European Parliament. But a novel should be first and foremost a work of art and beauty, and only secondarily a medium for the transmission of extrinsic messages, ideological or otherwise.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date?
Spiritus Mundi Book Cover Draft 5 ThumbnailRobert: I have published dozens of professional works as a professor of International Law and of World and Comparative Literature, as well as dozens of poems. Spiritus Mundi, which is actually two books, Book One, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, and Book Two, Spiritus Mundi, the Romance, with a greater tendency towards myth, fantasy, science-fiction and so-called "Magical Realism" is my first great prose effort.
Morgen: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Robert: I would advise writers generally to engage deeply with life and explore its problems, joys, beauties, conundrums, humor and pains in their works. Shakespeare's advice, "To thine own self be true" is ever a good starting point, but "Which One?" and "For What and For Whom?" remain part of the question. I would advise those who aspire to great art to engage with their own literary tradition, hopefully without drowning in it, and in this era of globalization to take a wider perspective engaging with the multiple traditions of our wider world. This may even be good marketing advice, in addition to being good humanist and artistic advice, in the emerging era of the globally marketable e-Book and film.
Morgen: Why should a reader buy your book?
Robert: For the sheer pleasure of it!------first and foremost for the enjoyment of reading it. Second, hopefully for some insight into life and the world that may make your life richer and fuller. Also to understand the forces shaping the modern world and how we may work together to make it better and avoid catastrophe.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Robert: Far too much! I would really rather be writing works of importance, but without the marketing machine of a major publisher or established reputation behind me I am doomed to try to become known and appreciated by my own efforts and promotion. For a lesser-known writer this seems to be a necessary evil. Though writing is a solitary profession, we are still nonetheless social animals and we writers need to be known in order to be read and appreciated. "Work without Hope" of any recognition or appreciation quickly turns to despair. The new writer has to bear this doleful burden until one has a readership.
Morgen: Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Robert: Not yet. Prizes and awards are definitely valuable in gaining reputation and readership and may well make a writer's career in the narrow sense. At the same time it would be healthy to realize that many of the prizes, including the Nobel, are highly imperfect and are distorted by political, commercial and reputational interests, or other arbitrary factors not related to intrinsic literary or artistic excellence.
Morgen: Is there a special place that you prefer when you write?
Robert: I write mostly at home in a peaceful room alone, preferably with a couch on which to lie while giving my imagination free run when away from the keyboard. Once I am into a work I am mostly oblivious to my surroundings and just need to be left alone.
Morgen: Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Robert: I never used one. I think my egotism draws me in the direction of seeking reknown and recognition in my own self. A Mark Twain or George Eliot may do me better by creating a public persona in their real life as well as on paper.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Robert: Not at present. They can be very useful by freeing the writer from the business and promotional end of publishing and letting him write. Too often they are just another gatekeeper looking to collect his toll fee by reason of selling access to the traditional publisher who absurdly will not deal with the author directly in the closed system that has existed. The e-Book Revolution is breaking down these dominant positions of control and requiring greater actual service and added-value.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Robert: I have a sequel to Spiritus Mundi underway taking many of the old characters in new directions.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day?
Robert: Normally, if extrinsic work or travel doesn't take all my time or energy away. Some days you reach a stopping place and do something else, like reading or other work instead. I don't need to force it, but it will come around if I set myself down to try.
Morgen: What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Robert: It has not been a major problem for me since I have had ongoing projects underway. If it comes up you just recharge your batteries and try again later. As a deeper psychological problem it hasn't hit me seriously yet.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and off you are with it?
Robert: Usually I don't begin with a master plot but start with a general idea or improvisation. Then as things develop I may come up with a strategic plan to move thing forward.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Robert: Anything and everything. I don't have any one method----sometimes the inspirational seeds for the characters are based on personal friends or acquaintances, sometimes on public figures in the news, sometimes drawn from the great classical works of fiction or out of thin air. Then the characters evolve and take life under your pen as the plot and situations evolve.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Robert: My first readers would normally be literary friends. Normally I don't share or discuss the work while it is in progress as I keep my energy flowing onto the page and feel I would lose it if diverted into explaining the work to others. When the work is relatively complete I will value the impressions of persons of good and cultivated judgment.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Robert: I do a lot of editing and rewriting, or writing over. Often the first attempt is crude and needs to be refined and reshaped. Also, one's ideas will evolve as one writes, requiring reformulation and re-editing of what went before. New things are constantly added to the old.
Morgen: Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Robert: Nowadays, of course all writing must be digital in preparation for publication. When I first started writing I disliked typewriters and computers, preferred to write poems in longhand and prose in notebooks. Now, of practical necessity I write and compose all prose on the computer. I still write almost all poems by hand, however, and even many prose passages will begin as longhand entries in notebooks when the moment of inspiration hits me, later to be transcribed and revised on the computer.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Robert: Third Person, omniscient or restricted is, of course the natural first recourse. In Spiritus Mundi I used all of the points of view by interspersing third person narrative with extensive "Blog Journals" in which multiple characters told the story in their own voice and person, recorded in their blogs.
In Spiritus Mundi's Chapter 28, The Volcano's Underworld (Mexico City)--Theatro Magico (The Magic Theater) I experimented with telling the story in the Second Person, addressed to the reader, where the protagonist Sartorius undergoes three mescaline-inducedd hallucinatory experiences in a "Magic Theater" and in which I wanted to impel the reader into undergoing the immediacy of direct and uncanny surreal experience.
Morgen: What do you like to read?
Robert: Anything and everything good. I spent most of my life reading the great classics of world literature---Tolstoy, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Yeats, Eliot, Homer, he Bible, Dante, etc. As a Professor of Comparative and World Literature I also read the non-Western classics, the Ramayana, Tale of Genji, Dream of the Red Chamber, Thousand and One Nights, etc. More recently I have tried to become more contemporary, current and popular in my reading, trying to read bestsellers as well as "the Greats," Jodi Picoult as well as Pushkin!
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Robert: Of course when I am not writing I do an almost equal amount of reading, and of course the necessity of working, which as a professor takes you back again to reading and writing, as well as speaking. I have travelled all over the world, another escape that leads back to writing. For health I do a lot of swimming, weight lifting and some tennis. I love music, films and the theater. And of course friendship, family, love and, yes, sex.
Morgen:  Where can we find out about you and your work?
Robert: You can follow these links to the Spiritus Mundi websites and blogs:
Morgen:  Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Robert: I would also encourage everyone to support the effort to create a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a globalized version of the EU European Parliament formed as a new elected organ of the UN to supplement the existing Security Council and General Assembly. This will serve to bring the democratic process to global governance and international affairs. See:
Morgen: Thank you, Robert.
I then invited Robert to include an extract of his writing and this is from ‘Publication With Interview’…
After an hour, Terry invited Sartorius to the “Green Room” backstage, a kind of private room where the performers, their boyfriends and girlfriends, the musicians, groupies and hangers on would get together, talk, laugh and entertain themselves away from the public eye. They rambled on, talking at random and becoming better friends, and Teresa introduced him to many of the other performers, with whom they joked and shared Tequila, Mescal and the occasional snort of cocaine or drag of marijuana. Terry leafed from time to time through the pages of an old French quarto, the title of which Sartorius leaned over to take in: “La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Chevalier d'Eon.” Then they were joined by Oskarnello, the midget drummer, who sat across from them and lit up a hand-rolled brownish cigarillo, inhaling and exhaling, his face soon shrouded in an unmistakable cloud of misty hashish.
“Your piece was fabulous! Really magic!” blurted Sartorius to Tiresias, everyone bubbling over with narcotic giggles.
“You don’t know the half of it!” pronounced Oskarnello from within his cloud of mist, “……………Terry and I also do a magic act together, laced with gender-bender levitations and transformations behind black velvet!”
“Really?..........I really must see it!” effused Sartorius.
“Watch this,” intoned Tiresias as he held up his crystal glass of wine over the table, “Oskar….you’re on!” Then Oskar let out a high shriek that whined into the inaudible register and the glass began to vibrate, then shake, and finally burst and shattered, showering its contents across the table.
“Bravo!” shouted everyone, along with Sartorius, who added “……….when can we see the act?”
“Well, we really haven’t done it for a couple of years---maybe we’ll do a revival, eh Oskarovich?…….” he replied.
“The sots don’t really appreciate us, you see………..”  explained Oskarnello,  “…………..those who sneer at us, and sneer at themselves, for paying to let us fool them, what they never see is the yearning. If it were a religious yearning, a yearning after God, a higher prestidigitation in a sacred place----well no one would dream of disrespecting that.  But us, no---our kind of a show, our show is a yearning-----Yes!-----a yearning of the same deepest stuff----- Yes!........but they see it as only after a miracle, only to contradict the given world—that, they hold it in contempt……..they are looking just for the trick you see, and are sure they will find it just beyond their fingertips……… if we angle for awe--------for the true miracle we live in-------- they refuse us……...worth a horselaugh…….. followed by a sneer---------a sneer in the mirror, put paid with the price of a ticket.”
“Yes, tragically all too true…..”  lamented Tiresias, “…………..we are to our own chagrin disciples, incarnations if you will, of the Greatest Magician…………………now when He created the universe he didn’t say ‘Now for my first trick I’m gonna make light’…………..He said ‘Let there be light!’ and the Big Bang unleashed itself, allowed light into what had been Nothing and Nothingness, and the light congealed itself into matter and anti-matter, infinite hadrons, and leptons and quarks and worlds---suns and galaxies effusing out into a Virgin Time rushing forward to inflate a timeless void. But when we minor Magicians try to bring our bit of the miracle back into that Something, that Everything He created—renewing contact with its original stuff,  we get the sneers and not awe. You notice that in the act we work in the dark, and under a spotlight, and we only allow the light, like the sun on the earth, to light up one hemisphere of the real at a time, either the male or the female remains in the dark.  And it is only at the dénouement, the orgasmo-climax, that the flash-bulb of apocalypse and revelation uncovers that they are the two halves are of the one sphere.  Like God, you always have to work with the light----make it do only what you want it to do………It’s all about the light-----you control the light and you control the effect----a magician’s perfect mirror must send everything back to the eye, and a magician’s perfect black velvet must send nothing back----the big bang of revelation set off against the black hole of mystery.”
Then they rambled on in this vein, more and more incoherent as the evening dragged onwards, talking at random and halting to introduce new friends as they incessantly came and left, making their entrances and exits, and with whom they joked and shared additional Tequila, Mescal and the occasional snort of cocaine or drag of marijuana. Then they made their way back to the open dance floor and enjoyed themselves.
Towards four in the morning, Sartorius was oozing Mescal and alcohol from every pore and had danced with Maria and Teresa alternately for hours. Teresa pressed her body close to his and stroked his ear, whispering into it: “Roberto!----I think you are ready for something special! I don’t take everybody there---it is a special place only for special people. You have to be the right kind of person at the right time------and be ready for something new---it is a private club and you need a pass to be admitted. Here----this is your pass---I have signed you in as my special guest---let’s get Maria and Oskar and grab a taxi.” –He handed Sartorius a card with the drawing of a magician in top-hat and tails levitating a beautiful girl over whom he passed a hoop, upon it. The name of the club was printed on the top: Teatro Magico: For Madmen Only!----(Private Club: Admission by Membership or Personal Invitation Only).
And a synopsis from… Spiritus Mundi, consisting of Spiritus Mundi, the Novel—Book I, and Spiritus Mundi, the Romance—Book II.
Book I’s espionage-terror-political-religious thriller-action criss-crosses the globe from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action, deep and realistic characters and surreal adventures, while Book II dialates the setting and scope into a fantasy (though still rooted in the real) adventure where the protagonists embark on a quest to the realms of Middle Earth and its Crystal Bead Game and through a wormhole to the Council of the Immortals in the Amphitheater in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy in search of the crucial Silmaril Crystal, and to plead for the continuance of the human race in the face of threatened extinction from a nuclear World War III, all followed by a triple-somersault thriller ending in which a common garden-variety terrorist attack is first uncovered by MI6 and the CIA as the opening gambit a Greatpower Game of States threatening World War III and then, incredibly, as the nexus of a Time Travel conspiracy involving an attempt by fascist forces of the 23rd Century to alter a benign World History by a time-travelling raid on their past and our present to provoke that World War III, foiled by the heroic efforts of the democratic 23rd Century world government, the Senate of the United States of Earth, to hunt down the fascist interlopers before their history is irrevocably altered for evil.
When activist Robert Sartorius, leading a global campaign to create a European Parliament-style world-wide United Nations Parliamentary Assembly presses the proposal in New York on his old friend the UN Secretary-General and is rebuffed due to the hostile pressure of the conservative American administration, his Committee resolves to fight back by launching a celebrity-driven Bono-Geldof-Band Aid/Live 8-style “People Power” media campaign and telethon spearheaded by rock superstars Isis and Osiris and former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to mobilize global public support and pressure in alliance with the Occupy Wall Street Movements worldwide. The Blogs of Sartorius, activist Eva Strong and Committee Chairman Andreas Sarkozy reveal the campaign’s working struggle, their tangled love affairs, a loss of faith, attempted suicide, reconciliation of father and son after divorce, and recovery of personal love and faith.
Things fall apart as the idealists’ global crusade is infiltrated by a cell of jihadist terrorists using it as a cover, then counter-infiltrated by CIA agent Jack McKinsey and British MI6 agent Etienne Dearlove. A cat-and-mouse game of espionage and intrigue ensues pitting them against the Chinese MSS espionage network allied with the Iranian Quds Force crossing Beijing, London, Moscow, Washington and Jerusalem unleashing an uncontrollable series of events which sees the American Olympic Track and Field Team bombed on an airplane in London, uncovers a secret conspiracy of China, Russia and Iran to jointly seize the oil reserves of the Middle-East, and witnesses Presidents Clinton and Carter taken hostage with Sartorius, McKinsey, Eva and other activists at a Jerusalem telethon rally cut short by the explosion of a concealed atomic device in a loaned Chinese Terracotta Warrior, then flown by capturing terrorists to Qom, Iran as “human shields” to deter a retaliatory nuclear attack.
In Book II, Spiritus Mundi, the Romance they encounter Iran’s Supreme Leader in Qom as the world teeters on the brink of nuclear confrontation and World War III, while mysterious events unfold leading Sartorius and McKinsey from their captivity in the underground nuclear facilities of Qom into a hidden neo-mythic dimension that takes them to a vast ocean and land at the center of the world, Middle Earth, Inner Shambhala, and to involvement in a mysterious Castalian “Crystal Bead Game” linked to the destiny of the human race on earth. They then embark on a quest for the Silmaril, or Missing Seed Crystal to the central island of Omphalos in the Great Central Sea in the middle of the globe, aided by Goethe, the Chinese Monkey King, Captain Nemo, the African God-Hero Ogun, and a Sufi mystic they traverse a ‘wormhole’ at the center of the earth guarded by ‘The Mothers’ and the fallen angel tribe of the Grigori (Genesis 6:1-4) which leads the way to critical meeting of the “Council of the Immortals” at the Black Hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy to determine the final fate of the human species. The heroes battle and overcome the treacherous opposition of Mephisto and his satanic subaltern Mundus through their Underworld and Otherworld adventures and successfully plead the cause of the continuation of the human species before the Immortals, returning with the critical Silmaril Crystal. resolving the Crystal Bead Game and thereby inspiring through the Archangel Gabriel a dream in the mind of Iran’s Supreme Leader which brings a new Revelation causing him to release the hostages and an end the crisis. China and Russia stand down from aiding Iran in seizing the Mid-East oil reserves, but in a treacherous blow the Chinese instead utilize their forward-positioned armies to attack their former ally Russia and seize Siberia with its large oil and gas reserves instead. President Barret Osama, America’s newly-elected first black President then invites Russia, Japan and South Korea to join NATO and together they succeed in expelling the Chinese from Siberia and usher in a new Eurasian and global balance of power and a New World Order.
Rock Superstar Osiris meanwhile, after undertaking a narcissistic Messianic mission in the wake of the Jerusalem atomic blast is dramatically assassinated on live world-wide television on Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa by a disillusioned follower. His wife and rock-star partner Isis then leads a spiritual movement to reconcile and unite the clashing religions and catalyze a common global spiritual Renaissance through a Global Progressive Spiritual Alliance which seeks to construct an Inter-faith Temple on the ruins of the atomic blast in Jerusalem. In counter-reaction to the cataclysmic events the world finally implements Sartorius’ crusade for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, but not before Sartorius has himself has died, Moses-like of a heart attack while helping to foil a metaconspiracy mediated by Time Travel in which a fascist agent from the 23rd Century who has time-transited back to our time to alter a benign history by causing WWIII and thus preventing the evolution of a democratic world government, the United States of Earth, which follows him through time and nabs him just in the “nick of time” to prevent Armageddon. The book ends with the opening ceremony of the UN Parliamentary Assembly which is attended in Sartorius’ name by his widow Eva Strong, whom Sartorius had fallen in love with and married in the course of the novel, and by their son Euphy, newborn after Sartorius’ death. They are joined in cinematic climax at the ceremony by newly chosen UN Secretary-General Clinton, President Osama and UN Parliamentary Assembly Committee Chairman Andreas Sarkozy who have just received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in creation of the world’s first world parliamentary assembly within the United Nations, bringing together the representative voices of the peoples of the world in face-to-face assembly and dialogue for the first time in world history.
Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi,in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious thriller-action criss-crossing the globe involving MI6. the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorporates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Book II, Spiritus Mundi the Romance, dilates the setting, scope and continuing action as a Romance of fantasy adventure where the protagonists, still following the original action of Book I, embark on a quest to the realms of Middle Earth and its Crystal Bead Game in search of the Silmaril Missing Seed Crystal and thence through a wormhole to a "Council of the Immortals" in an Amphitheater in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy to plead for the continuance of the human race in the face of threatened extinction from a nuclear World War III involving the confrontation and military showdown between NATO, China, Russia and Iran unfolded from the espionage events of Book I. The contemporary epic culminates with the first convening of the United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a world-scale version of the European Parliament installed as a new organ of the United Nations.
Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.) Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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