Charles was raised in New York State and comes from a large family. His brother Phillip was a participant on the reality show, Survivor, which in part inspired Charles to write the novel, an adventure-fueled, high-octane actioner set in the private security services industry (where there are at least a few good guys, one of them being his novel’s narrator).
Charles answered ten questions below.
Tell us about yourself! Where are you from? What informs your writing? And how long have you been writing?
Well, I grew up in a very small town in upstate New York, the eleventh of twelve children. I am a country boy at heart. I have lived in Southern California for all my adult life. I was a school teacher for twelve years, a prison counselor for seven years and a field parole agent for twelve years, so I have a good feel about the thinking and motivations of criminals, and how they conduct their business. I also have a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and a Master’s Degree in Education. I’m retired and now I am preparing to begin my doctorate studies in Education, so I guess I have had a pretty full career and a unique educational background. I do not consider myself primarily a ‘writer’ actually, but more a reader, a researcher and an intellectual scholar type. At the same time, over the years I have written lots of poetry, news articles, job related reports, and the novel The Specialist.
Do people ever call you Chuck? Or Charlie? Have you got any nicknames?
That’s an interesting question to me. My family and my friends all call me “Pete” which is my nickname. Everyone else calls me Charles. I think “Charles’ is the outer formal me and ‘Pete’ is the inner real me, if that makes sense.
Do you write every day? Tell me briefly what your process is, and what inspired you to write The Specialist, and what inspires you more generally.
I write every day, but some days more than others. My process is deliberate and very business like, in that I tend to write shorter passages, process them, then move on. Thus, I seldom write long, free form thoughts. It is hard for me just to ‘flow,’ because
|Spanish version of The Specialist
if it doesn’t sound right in my head, it is hard for me to move on until it does. I guess I edit as I write, and so the writing (I am told) is rather precise, but also easy to follow. I think I do well describing things and writing actions sequences, and that the dialogue simulates speech minimally. Generally speaking, I write to inform. My favorite writer is Ernest Hemingway: Basically, his style is simple, direct, and unadorned, perhaps even journalistic. That is how I try to write.
Many people tell that it reads that way. I research everything. I like the challenge of having a factual feel but writing it in such a way that it flows into the narrative and the dialogue. I wrote the first half of the novel in serial form over six months, presented in a blog. I wrote the second half in about a month of straight writing. Now when I read it, I can sense the two halves as being very different in flow.
There are elements of detective fiction here, with the blonde secretary, and the femme fatale seeking assistance. How conscious were you of that in the course of writing the novel? Did you consciously play within certain rules with which the reader would be familiar?
Yes very much so. The first half is very much influenced by detective fiction. The voice of the character is like the old radio detective dramas, I think. All the elements are there, as you note. Probably the biggest influence for me was the old TV dramas like Mannix and Barnaby Jones. Those guys had the trusted secretary. The femme fatale is pretty much stock detective fiction, I suppose. I also tried to incorporate the jaded observations that most genre detectives have. I guess you could say I knew what buttons to push, and did so deliberately.
Of the female characters (including Charity and Mimi) – who is your favorite in the book?
Definitely Charity. Charity Fields was based upon an administrative assistant I knew working field parole. The character is an example of one who began as merely a prop but who “stepped out’ of the cardboard and became more real as the writing went on. I didn’t want the hero to be a superman, and Charity became the means to comment on his foibles, and then a means to provide a heroic female heroine, an unexpected equal to The Specialist (rather like the TV secretary who has a particular episode dedicated to her, if you know what I mean). I wanted to hint at a semi-romantic interest as well. I see her and the Specialist as a team. I also like the character Chava Cresca, and she is based on my best friend ever; very smart, beautiful and capable but also very mysterious and secretive.
The hero Phillip cites some very rough previous experience in the same region, almost as if the backstory is part of an earlier novel. Is there an earlier novel? Even a prequel, in the pipeline?
There is no prequel, but I think it would definitely work. I actually want to write a sequel that deals with the characters Ze’ev Pinsky and Charity Fields, which I think would be very interesting! Another possibility is to write a whole new Specialist character altogether.
I note you chose first-person voice. Men like to think they could be Bond, or put on a wife-beater and wander around a skyscraper bumping off terrorists. Is there a hope that your readers can easily look to your hero Phillip and think “That could be me” (an element of wish-fulfillment-identification with the hero)?
Yes, very much so. The thing is, I wanted the main character to be capable, but also average in a way. I did not want him to be too Bond-like. It’s interesting, because there is a screenplay based on the book, and the screenwriter did just the opposite (made the Specialist much more capable and pushed more decisive action through him). It’s an obvious difference that maximizes his strengths and focalizes his abilities, which follows the typical “action hero” pattern.
What is The Specialist most like, in terms of other novels? And who is he like in terms of heroes?
The Specialist is most like a plethora of pulp detective fiction novels, the tough guy who is reluctantly drawn into more than he bargained for. As a hero, I view him mostly as a Mannix type. It follows the pattern of the show, in that oftentimes Mannix would get beat up halfway through the show, then ultimately prevail. That is basically what happens in the book.
Phillip appears to be a realist and a pragmatist, in the sense that – to cite one example – he is dismissive of the piety of prayer, but he’s not averse to using meditative techniques to reduce his exhaustion and maintain his strong frame of mind. Discuss.
The character is a thoroughly fictionalized version of my brother, Phillip Sheppard, who appeared on the Reality show Survivor, and who called himself “The Specialist” as a nickname of sorts. I attempted to “heroize’ the character, to give Survivor fans a sense that this was an actual life experience. The book is really a form of fan fiction, with specific elements designed to pinpoint the character as my brother, and to make him bigger than life for the entertainment value. I also think the character is an amalgamation of all my brothers in one form or another, with a bit of myself in there too, naturally! I definitely aimed to make him a pragmatist, with a Buddhist element, which I think made the character more like my brother and added a layer to the personality that might be further explored in a future work.