Monday, April 7, 2014

Robert Richter - Author and Historian

My guest today is Robert Richer. His book on the Camino Real, The Search for the Camino Real, is of special interest because of its relevance to our new historical novel, The Memory Keeper. We share some similar interests. Robert is a fascinating guy, and I hope you will enjoy meeting him.

1.    Why did you become a writer? Was it a lifelong dream or did the desire to write happen later in your life?
I picked up a James Bond paperback in 1966 and decided I was going to write stories like that. I was in the first MA writing workshop at Colorado State University in 1973. I left the program in 1975 to farm and to write on my own.

2.    What was the inspiration for your latest work?

I like to write mystery/suspense novels, particularly cross-, or inter-cultural mysteries, setting questionable American attitudes and perspectives against those of lesser-known and more modest foreign cultures. The Huichol and Cora clans are two of Mexico's most ancient and unadulterated indigenous cultures in North America. Their world perspective is much different than ours, yet just as real. I am fascinated by the idea that different realities and histories can occupy the same time and space. Mexico has a unique way of conjuring that awareness.

3.    Do you base your characters on real people, or are they totally from your imagination?
Cotton Waters, the protagonist of my "Something" series of mysteries set in Mexico, is a young American expatriate hiding out on the Mexican west coast. An ex-student, ex-political activist with uncertain draft status and pending legal problems, he lives an incognito lifestyle along a tropical frontier of fishing villages and empty beaches, thriving on cantina life, beachcombing, jungle slumming, and playing second base for a local village baseball team. Known to his cantina buddies as “Algo”—Something in Spanish—and armed with a little Spanish and a passion for the Mexican coastal culture, he is a disillusioned dropout, waiting for the rest of the world to regain some sanity. I was something of a Cotton Waters in my college days, traipsing around Mexico and repudiating the American way of life during the Vietnam War. Waters is an exaggeration, of course. I was never tough or clever or cool and controlled like Cotton Waters.

Waters' Mexican sidekick, Cuate, a name that means "twin" in Spanish, is a combination of several old friends from those young cantina days. The nickname derives from a real person who was born with an extra big toe on both feet. His friends called him Twin. I kept that real name and characteristic for my character, but also made him into larger, more culturally representative attributes that serve the stories' needs.

4.    What kinds of research do you do, and where do you go to do it?

I'm a historian by nature and profession, so I've spent a lot of time in some of the great libraries of Argentina, Mexico, and the U.S.

5.    What was the most interesting research you’ve done?
I researched the development of the Camino Real in Mexico, the old colonial road that connected Spain's New World viceroys economically, politically, and socially. Then other historians in Mexico helped me explore the sierra jungles where the cobbled road ran, and we discovered parts of it still in existence three centuries and more after its creation. This was a book project both in libraries and in the field. The book about that experience and the history of an end of the Camino Real, The Search for the Camino Real, can be found on

6.    Are you currently working on any new projects?

I am currently finishing the third books in the Algo/Something series, called Something for Nothing and due out in January 2015.

7.    Do you have any writing advice for beginning writers? What about promotion?

I don’t like to give such advice. I say, don’t do it. For me, writing is some kind of a disease. I do it because I’m driven to do it. There are far easier ways of living with yourself.

8.    What is your favorite book and why? Do you have a favorite author?

My favorite book has always been The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemmingway. Most authors I enjoy are mostly dead now. Graham Greene should have won the Nobel Prize.

9.    What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading Don Segundo Sombra, a classic Argentine novel, in the original. In English, I just finished The Mapmaker’s Wife, by Whitaker, historical nonfiction.

10. Do you have a writing schedule? When do you find time to write?

Generally, I work during the winter months when I am pretty shut in on the Nebraska prairie. Only in the last couple of years has writing become more a full time occupation. I work best in the morning.

11. What was your journey to publication?

I gave up a normal life at age 26 to be a writer. I became a dryland wheat farmer so I would have my winters to write. I published my first book in 1980, a book of poetry and black and white drawings about the place I live, southwestern Nebraska. Since then, I've published regional history and novels. My first "Something" book was Something in Vallarta, in 1991. Something Like a Dream is my second "Something" mystery and my eighth book.
12. Do you have any writing idiosyncrasies? Any routines or rituals?

I work best in the morning. I also need my private space. I have my farmstead, which serves most of the year, and I have a place in Mexico I go each winter to work for a month.

13. Are your friends and family supportive of your writing? If so, how?

Few writers, even published ones, make a living at writing books. My wife is/was a high school English teacher, who also sponsored this novelist's career. I couldn't have led the life I have without her support. Farming and writing certainly didn't provide enough to live on.

14. What’s your most challenging aspect of writing?

Coming up with a compelling, realistic plot is always a challenge to me. I tend to get involved in character and place, in a travelogue sort of way, and I'd rather deliver those things, and readers enjoy character and setting more, in an exciting story.


Something Like A Dream, Oak Tree Press, 2014
Cotton Waters is a gringo expat, scrounging up a lazy village living and a little beer money from of the Puerto Vallarta tourist trade as a private hustler of a Mexican Riviera lost-and-foundhelping some people get lost and finding othersif the price is right or the client’s cause worth the time and interest. When Corina Springfield asks him to find her husband, heir to the Springfield Foundation, ex-cultural guru of the Aquarian Age, and protégé of Timothy Leary, missing and presumed dead for over three years, Vallarta’s “Something” isn’t sure he can find her husband, but he knows he wants to try—for more reasons than he’s willing to admit. His manhunt for a mad shaman takes Waters into a blind obsession and into the sierra culture of the Huichol, one of Mexico’s most mysterious indigenous peoples. On this strange pilgrimage, Waters will find a whole new perspective on reality and dream, on deceit, self-deception, and human spirituality in a miraculous healing ceremony that will change his life forever or simply end it.

Search for the Camino Real: A History of San Blas and the Road to Get There, Outskirts Press, 2011
Both historical investigation and travelogue, this documented study of the end of the Camino Real and San Blas, Mexico, is woven into the author’s personal account of the search for remnants of Mexico’s colonial road in the lowlands and sierras of modern Nayarit, aided and accompanied in his excursions by various regional historians, local guides, and curious companions. And like the old road running through the contemporary landscape, the historical narrative merges into the story of the region’s modern character and development. To explore the Nayarit's wild and gorgeous geography, trying to site the ancient Camino Real, is to stumble over another road running toward the state's future economic development as part of the Mexican Riviera. Nearly five hundred years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the history of San Blas and the road to get there is still being written. This is a contemporary narrative portrait.

About Robert Richter:
I have a relationship with west coast Mexico that goes back forty years and lived in the Nayarit coastal village culture off and on for over two years, before that region was much known beyond the limits of Puerto Vallarta. I return frequently. However, I’ve lived on the remnants of a family homestead in southwestern Nebraska for thirty-five years. I farmed once, very small-time, dryland wheat to earn my place to live. Since giving up my own farming, I've done itinerant farm labor, substitute teaching, and I conducted escorted excursions in Latin America for small groups for ten years. During that time I was also publishing: a book of poetry in 1980; a regional high plains history in 1987. I’ve written for regional and national literary magazines and quarterlies, including Prairie Schooner, Bloomsbury Review, Sport Literate, Raven Chronicles, and others. In 1991 my first Algo novel, Something in Vallarta, was published. Homefield, a novel about farm life and returning Vietnam vets trying to start life over in their small town cultural landscape, was published in 2000. That same year, I also published a biography for young readers of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of Mexico, and I was awarded the Distinguished Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council for my work in nonfiction. In 2007-2008, I was a Fulbright Research Fellow, writing and doing historical research in Buenos Aires for the year. Since then, writing has been my full time occupation, except when I’m nannying my five year old granddaughter.

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