The Writing Life is pleased to welcome Neal Roberts, author of the historical novel, A Second Daniel.
Neal Roberts and his wife live on Long Island, New York, where they have two grown children. Neal is a practicing attorney and adjunct law professor, and spends as much time as possible researching his next novel while enhancing his lawyer’s pallor. When he’s not writing Elizabethan politico-legal novels, practicing law, or teaching, he’s an editor of an international peer-reviewed publication in the field of intellectual property law. Neal is also an avid student of Elizabethan literature and politics, which subjects form the basis of his first novel, A Second Daniel. His analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121 has been extensively cited by some of the most important authorities seeking to identify the true author of the poems and plays attributed to William Shakespeare.
What is your book’s genre/category?
Neal, please describe what ‘A Second Daniel’ is about.
It’s about Noah Ames, an orphan who came to England from a foreign land and was given every advantage the Crown could bestow. When he becomes a barrister, he’s appointed to defend Queen Elizabeth’s Jewish physician against false accusations of attempting to poison her. (This was a real case.) In the course of the prosecution, Noah’s adversary threatens to expose Noah himself as a secret Jew, which could destroy his career and cost him his life.
How did you come up with the title?
“A Second Daniel” is a line from the famous courtroom scene in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (where the phrase “a pound of flesh” comes from). “A second Daniel” is shouted by each side of the dispute to laud the judge when she makes an observation helpful to that side’s cause. It’s especially pertinent to my story because the central figure in both my book and Shakespeare’s play (as well as its courtroom scene) is a Jew making his way in Christendom.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve always wanted to write, but I felt I just didn’t know enough about life and work to have an adult story to tell. After I began practicing law, I fidgeted with fiction writing for years. I even wrote a couple of novels that wound up in a shoebox, because I thought they weren’t good enough to go out in the world to represent me. As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that I’ve earned the experience necessary to create characters in full, whether young or old, and I’ve honed the skills to express myself fully. The death of my father gave writing a new urgency.
What is your favorite part of writing?
Most of all, I enjoy getting to know my characters so well that I can put them into any situation and know in advance how each of them will react, and what they’ll say.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing?
To me, the most challenging part of writing is distinguishing between what the reader can be expected to know and what he/she needs (or wants) to be told. Is an arched eyebrow enough, or does the reader need (or want) a full explanation of the character’s mental process? What I’ve found is that readers are very individual, and differ so much from each other that the author never gets a really good fix on it, and so must rely on his or her own sense of empathy with the reader, which is not always a perfect guide. Still, it’s the best we’ve got.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Charles Dickens, C.J. Sansom, Stephen King, Umberto Eco, Ken Follett, William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, and William Shakespeare. (That wasn’t the playwright’s real name, by the way. The real Shakespeare is in my book, A Second Daniel, and he’s not whom you might expect.
What authors or person(s) have influenced you?
I think if I were 20 years old that would be a fairly easy question to answer. But I’m considerably older than that, and have wide experience in fields as diverse as law, politics, law school teaching, and popular music. In terms of books, I’d have to place J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in the top tier, as they speak of the human condition in terms everyone can relate to. That’s a great talent, and something to aspire to. I’d include Eco in that tier, as well, as he not only explores elevated ideas in the context of narrative stories, but also recognizes their limitations and invites us to laugh along at them.
Do you have a favorite place to write?
Anywhere quiet. The important thing is that I’m undisturbed for 5-6 hours at a stretch. The plot ideas may come quickly, but the character’s feelings develop in real time, and they can’t be skipped or rushed. They’re central to verisimilitude and reader enjoyment.
Tell us something personal people may be surprised to know?
I met Robert Ludlum once at a party. He’d just written The Bourne Identity, and it was a huge hit. When I shook his hand, he told me he’d heard all about me, and never knew that I wanted to be, as he put it, a “scribbler.” He was as gracious as they come, and evidently had been hearing about me from my uncle for years. I was speechless and, as my friends can tell you, that’s rare. It took me another 30 years, but I finally have a book out!
What surprises or learning experiences did you have during the publishing process?
It’s a huge revelation when someone working on your book tells you something about one of your characters that you yourself didn’t realize. Since each of your characters is a facet of your own personality, they’re actually telling you about yourself, which is sometimes dismaying and sometimes hilarious. It also shows that you’ve revealed more about yourself in your writing than you thought, and that’s spooky.
The actual process of publishing a book requires the efforts of so many talented, dedicated people that it’s awe-inspiring. At the same time as it’s incredibly flattering that all these talented people would deem your book worthy of such effort, it also places a lot of pressure on the author to make the whole enterprise succeed. And the author must stay involved from the editing process, through cover art and even typography, if the result is going to reflect the story the author was trying to tell in the first place.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you with this book?
I took a great deal of good advice, some express and some implied. As for taking express advice: I knew from many other endeavors that a principal in any activity is always too close to the work to be objective. If someone with a reasonable amount of patience tells you that they don’t understand something, you must assume that they’re not alone, and you have to find out why they don’t understand it and rewrite it so it is understandable. If they’re bored by something, or a line doesn’t ring right, you have to think hard about why, and fix it. My book reflects a great deal of advice.
What do I mean by implied advice? See what good writers are doing to appeal to the readers you want. For example, the idea of writing in the present tense (even though the events of the book took place 400 years ago) was suggested by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I thought about writing in the first person, as C.J. Sansom does in his Shardlake novels, but found it didn’t work for me, as it hinders the occasional shift in point of view that I think makes it possible to set up a good sense of conflict.
Any advice or tips for writers looking to get published?
Yes. Don’t rely on preconceived notions of what the publishing industry is today. It’s so radically different today from what it was even 10 years ago, that it’s the first day of school for just about every author.
My website, to which everyone is invited, is: www.authornealroberts.com
I also have an author page on Facebook to which I keep adding items of interest. That’s at: https://www.facebook.com/Neal-Roberts-534058260076084
Where can we find your book?
A Second Daniel is available in digital form and hard copy at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and iTunes.
What’s next for you?
Book 2 of the series, entitled The Impress of Heaven, will be out in a couple of months. Book 3 is in the works!
Thanks for your visit, Neal. Best wishes with your books!
About Eleanor Parker Sapia
Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.
A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club, and book clubs in across the United States have enjoyed the book. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.