Interview with Ronald E. Yates

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Probably when I was in the sixth grade. I loved writing stories and I had a teacher (Mrs. Gooch) who encouraged me. My mother also bought me books and took me often to the library--a place that I found mystical and magnetic. She often read to me and I could "see" the story unfolding before me. When I could, I began to read everything I could get my hands on. As I used to tell my journalism students at the University of Illinois, if you want to be a good writer, be an avid reader.
Q. What was your inspiration to write the Finding Billy Battles Trilogy?
I grew up in Kansas and was always fascinated by what life was like there in the 19th Century when the state was still pretty wild. At the same time, I spent a lot of time in the Far East as a foreign correspondent and I was equally intrigued by what life must have been like in the 19th Century colonial period in places like French Indochina, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. Then one day I got the idea to blend the two using a character from 19th Century Kansas who goes to the Far East in search of himself.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a published author?
Try to write as much as you can from your own experiences. They are real and uncontrived and if you incorporate those experiences in your fiction your work will have a truthful ring to it. Beyond that, KEEP AT IT! Don't let anybody (editors, agents, etc) discourage you. At the same time, be willing to accept constructive criticism from those who have experience as authors, editors, agents, etc. Notice I said CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Some people criticize just to be criticizing--or to be malicious. You must believe in yourself, your work, your vision and your story. If you don't, who will?
What do you think makes a good story?
A good story needs a strong plot and even stronger characters. Otherwise it falls flat. The writer needs to be first and foremost, a good storyteller. If you build a good story, THEY WILL COME, to paraphrase Field of Dreams. Make readers care about your protagonist. Make readers empathize, cry and laugh with them. At the same time, keep them off balance. Don't be predictable and don't be afraid to do terrible things to your favorite characters. Have you ever known anybody who has sailed through life without some turmoil, some pain, some suffering? I haven't.
Do you have any writing projects you are currently working on?
I am currently finishing Book Two of the Finding Billy Battles trilogy. It will be ready for publication in February 2016. Then I will start on Book Three. After that, who knows. I may finally get around to writing about my own life as a war correspondent.
If your book became a movie, who would be your first choice to play the lead roles?
Clint Eastwood as the elderly Billy Battles; Clive Owen as the middle aged Billy Battles and Ashton Kutcher as the young Billy Battles. I would pick Saffron Burrows for Billy's first love, Mallie McNab and Famke Janssen for the widow Katharina Schreiber who Billy meets on the boat to the Far East. (Why these choices? They are all tall. Billy is 6'3" and Mallie is about 5'10," as is the statuesque widow Schreiber).
Do any of your characters have qualities/characteristics that are similar to yourself?
I think Billy Battles and I are a lot alike. I mean, aren't most novels a bit autobiographical? He is a restless sort, he enjoys traveling, going to new places and experiencing new things. Like Billy, I couldn't wait to get away from Kansas (though I love the place dearly). And like Billy, I am a happy wanderer. How else could I have survived and thrived as a foreign correspondent for 25 years? We are both journalists. At the same time he is a pretty dependable guy who is loyal to his friends and to those he chooses to keep close to him. Above all, Billy respects two traits in people: Honesty and Kindness. We are alike in that way.
Tell us about your next release.
The next book will be Book #2 in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy in Febrary 2016. This chapter in Billy Battles' life takes him to the Far East of the 1890s and places like French Indochina, The Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. This phase of Billy's life finds him mixed up with political opportunists, spies, revolutionaries and an assortment of malevolent and dubious characters of both sexes. In short, Book #2 in the trilogy takes Billy far away from his Kansas roots and out of his comfort zone. How will Billy handle those people and the challenges they present? It's a question that you will have to read Book #2 to find the answer to.
Do you listen to music while writing? If so what?
. Yes. I listen to Mozart, Haydn, Telemann, and Boyce when I am in a classical mood. When not, I listen to good "cool" jazz by people like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Bill Evans, etc.
How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula?
I write from the seat of my pants. I don't outline my books and I don't write down plot scenarios. I just start writing and see where the story and my characters lead me. It's a lot like life itself. We may have a goal in mind, but the route to it is often strewn with obstacles, surprises, and sometimes tragedy. I usually write 3,000 or 4,000 words a day and I edit as I go. In other words, I may write a few paragraphs and then rewrite them within a few minutes of creating them. I don't write a First Draft. For me, that seems like a waste of time. When I finish writing a book it is finished. I may make a few tweaks with the plot here and there, or alter a little dialogue, or some action by a character, but there is no second or third draft. I know some authors write a draft and put it away for weeks or months and then go back in look at it with fresh eyes--OR they send it out to be critiqued by professional "readers" or "critiquers." Those strategies may work for some people. They don't work for me. I guess it's my journalistic training: see it, report it, organize it, write it and then move on to the next story.
Say your publisher has offered to fly you anywhere in the world to do research on an upcoming book, where would you most likely want to go?
Back to Vietnam, Cambodia and The Philippines--three countries I worked in as correspondent in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and three countries where Billy Battles is going to wind up living during the 1890s. While I know a lot about those places, having lived and worked in them, I would love to dig deeper into their colonial periods and learn more about life during that era.
If you could have dinner with 1 person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Winston Churchill. He was absolutely brilliant and I would hope by the end of dinner some of that brilliance would have rubbed off on me, though I seriously doubt it.
One food you would never eat?
Monkey Brain Sushi (yes, it is a real dish in China and I won't tell you how it's prepared). It is considered a cure for impotence (what isn't?).
Another dish I will continue to eschew is Balut, which is a delicacy in The Philippines. It is fertilized chicken or duck eggs in which the developed embryo is boiled and eaten from the shell. Yum!
Which brings me to some advice an old Chicago Tribune copy editor named Spokely gave me when I was getting ready to leave Chicago for my first posting as a foreign correspondent. "You are going to places that serve strange food and you will be tempted to say 'no thank you,' when it is offered. Don't do that. It will be an insult to your host. When somebody offers you something to eat that looks or smells horrible, just remember Spokely's law: Everything tastes more or less like chicken."
What was the scariest moment of your life?
There have been several. One was during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. The last day was chaos incarnate. Russian made 122mm rockets were slamming into buildings, 130mm mortars were hitting Tan Son Nhut airport, and the U.S. Embassy was surrounded by frantic South Vietnamese desperate to get out of the country because they had worked for the American military or some U.S. agency. The city was in full panic mode. Several of us made our way to the sprawling Defense Attache Office building at Tan Son Nhut and we were finally evacuated by a U.S. Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter. It was a relief until the door gunner told me later aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa that the pilot apparently had to drop a flare to misdirect a SAM-7 (surface to air missile).
Another was during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when I and several Chinese students were pinned down near the square for 30 minutes or so by Chinese soldiers shooting in our direction. Several students near me were wounded and we were helping them get to a doctor's house nearby so he could treat them. I was convinced I was going to wind up dead in the square. Then suddenly the shooting stopped and I was able to get my Red and White Sprick bicycle that I had chained to a lamp post and peddle like crazy for the Jinghau Hotel where I was staying and from where I was filing my stories to the Tribune.
Yet another memorable moment was during the revolution in El Salvador when I and two German correspondents were stopped in our car near the town of Suchitoto by Communist guerillas. They put cloth bags put over our heads and forced us to kneel alongside the road. We were sure we were going to be executed. But suddenly the "jefe" (leader) showed up and we were set free. "Don't kill journalists--unless they are armed," he yelled at his troops. I was greatly relieved that I had left the 1911 Colt Pistol I had purchased a few days earlier back in the hotel in San Salvador. I believe it is still there.
Ahhh yes, the life of a foreign correspondent...never a dull moment. But I still believe I had the best job in the world and I wouldn't trade my career for anything.
What books have most influenced your life?
Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh; The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck; The Quiet American, Graham Greene; The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott; Kim, Rudyard Kipling; Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain); A Passage to India, E.M. Forster; Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser; The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer.
What do you do to unwind and relax?
What else? I read. I find reading a good book helps me escape from my own writing, which I need to do on occasion
Do you have a Website or Blog?
Yes, I have both. My website is http://ronaldyatesbooks and I am constantly updating it. My blog is http://ronaldyatesbooks.com/category/foreign-correspondent/ I try to post to it at least once or twice a week. I also have an Amazon Author Central page at: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001KHDVZI, and an Author's Page on Facebook called Ronald E. Yates Books. It is located at: https://www.facebook.com/Ronald-E-Yates-Books-688075584557417/
What is your favorite line from a book?
I have a couple and they are both from Evelyn Waugh: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole." It is a line from Waugh's Scoop written by nature writer William Boot for the London Daily Beast just before he is mistaken for a famous foreign correspondent and sent off to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia to cover a war.

AND from Waugh's book Vile Bodies comes this great line: “I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence.”
If it were mandatory for everyone to read three books, what books would you suggest?
Huckleberry Finn; The Grapes of Wrath; Sister Carrie. Not only are these classics, they are wonderful stories about the human spirit, its resiliency and strength, and its deficiencies and weaknesses.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Don't let anybody discourage you from pursuing this work if it is really what you want to do. Don't be discouraged by rejection. You must believe in yourself, your ideas, your stories. If you don't, who will? Certainly not that dense editor or literary agent who couldn't see your potential or grasp your book's storyline.
Is being a writer a curse or a gift?
It is a wonderful gift if you allow the process to come to you and don't force it. However, don't let anybody tell you it is not damned hard work. It is. The joy of writing for me is telling a good story. I don't care about imparting a "message." Nor do I care about creating any hidden "meanings" that some literature professor will hold forth about in a writing class when I am no longer around to rebut him/her. I just want to tell a good story. That, to me, is the ultimate gift of writing.
The curse is that writing can take over your life, isolate you from family and friends and turn you into a kind of sophistic recluse if you are not careful. Writers need to take breaks from working. If they don't I believe they run the risk of becoming stale, self-absorbed, and misanthropic.
Where do you write?
I have taken over the upstairs bonus room in our house. It is about 500 square feet. In it I have my rather prodigious library, a good sound system for playing classical music, a large screen TV for watching sports, the Discovery, History, and National Geographic channels when I need a break from writing. My window looks out onto a plant and boulder-strewn foothill that rises in front of my house. Another window looks down onto the Temecula valley some 2,000 feet below. It is quiet and soothing. Couldn't have a better place to write.
What do you typically drink while writing?
Very cold iced tea.
What challenges have you had in regards to your writing life?
When I was a working journalist for the Chicago Tribune and then a Dean and professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, I could never find large enough blocks of time to write consistently. Writing requires HUGE amounts of time and long periods of seclusion--things most of us don't have. So time to write has always been the biggest challenge. Now that I am no longer teaching or working full-time as a journalist I am blessed to have a lot more time to write than I ever thought I would have.
When did you first start and when did you finish your book?
I started the first book in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy in 2010, but I wasn't consistent in working on it. I really buckled down in the spring of 2013 and probably wrote 60% of it in about five months. I started Book #2 in the trilogy in December 2014.
What does your protagonist think of you? Would he/she want to hang out with you?
I think Billy Battles and I would be good friends. We are both journalists and we both like going to new places and experiencing new challenges. And we both enjoy a good cold beer after a long hard day.
What has been the toughest criticism so far?
None, so far. Though it is still early in the process. Someone did say they didn't like the fact that the book is part of a trilogy because now they have to wait for Book #2. I like THAT kind of criticism.
What has been the best compliment?
There have been several, but I will list just four here. You can find these and other reviews on the book's Amazon page:
"The is easily the best work of fiction I have read in some time."
"There is something about this book that is almost impossible to explain, but it takes it from being a *good* book to a GREAT one."
"Move over Elmore Leonard and Pete Dexter--there's a new deputy sheriff in town."
"Ever have a book that takes over your days and nights - that's what Finding Billy Battles did for me."
Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
That's tricky. I call my work "Faction," because it is both fact and fiction. Some of the events in the book--especially those dealing with real people, did happen. Was my character directly involved in them? No. But members of my family were native Kansans and some of the experiences I write about did happen. Of course, I have woven some of my own experiences into the story line also.
How did you come up with the title?
I had been trying to think of a title for years. I didn't like any of them. Then one day, this one just jumped out of my brain and into the computer and Finding Billy Battles was born.
Please fill in the blank: Keep Calm and___________:
Laugh--a lot! It's good for the mind and body.
Published 2015-12-17.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles
Series: Finding Billy Battles: An Account of Peril, Transgression and Redemption. Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 157,870. Language: English. Published: July 1, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Adventure » General
(5.00 from 1 review)
The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles is the second book of the Finding Billy Battles trilogy.The trilogy tells the story of a man who is born in 1860 and who dies in 1960. In between Billy lives an improbable and staggering life of adventure, peril, transgression, and redemption. Then Billy mysteriously disappears. For several decades his family has no idea where he is or what he is doing.
Finding Billy Battles: An Account of Peril, Transgression and Redemption
Series: Finding Billy Battles: An Account of Peril, Transgression and Redemption, Book I. Price: $5.99 USD. Words: 126,430. Language: American English. Published: December 26, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Historical » General, Fiction » Adventure » General
(3.00 from 1 review)
Finding Billy Battles is the saga of an extraordinary man's perilous and riveting journey from the untamed plains of 19th century Kansas to the mysterious Far East and elsewhere.