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Interview with Author Joseph Y. Roberts

Eclectic author of Across the Vaal

(This interview first appeared in 2017 and has been updated.)

Today, I’m interviewing Joseph Y. Roberts. Joseph has written a series of short stories and novellas that revolve around a single, central character—Jacob Vanderhoek—and recently published a full-length novel, Across the Vaal. I find them fascinating because they take place in South Africa in the 1970’s, during a time of great racial turbulence. Jacob is a new Selous Scout—a shadowy Special Ops regiment of the Rhodesian military. The setting and character arc keeps me reading as Jacob grows from a young, and decidedly racist recruit, to a changed man tortured by his life as a Scout.

The first story in the series is Bright Light, Dark Heart.

Joseph—tell us about yourself.

Joseph – I was born in the late fifties in San Pedro, the harbor suburb of Los Angeles. I grew up there in the sixties when it had a small town feel despite being a part of the L.A. metropolis. Because of that, I like to call myself a “small town boy from a big city.”

I spent many years working as a newspaper graphic artist building display ads. When you work at a newspaper, you learn the ins and outs of human behavior, especially those of your coworkers. My hobby of tabletop role-playing games honed my understanding and drafting of character backstory and portrayal. (Yes, I am a reformed gaming geek. I know what a D20 is.) Through those years, I also wrote and shared opinion essays on LiveJournal. These experiences and interests paved the way to becoming a writer, something I suspect may be common among writers.

About two years ago, I relocated to the Pacific Northwest to be closer to family. I’ve always loved forested land and rain, so I believe I was born for this region. By moving here, I feel I fixed some kind of cosmic mistake. In short, I have arrived where I need to be… for now.

Jeanne – I love that area, but I’d be a statistic—not enough sun for me. But it sure is beautiful.

Jeanne – How long have you been writing seriously?

Joseph – Going on seven years. When I became permanently disabled and was forced into early retirement I no longer had anything constructive to do. To pass the time, I found myself daydreaming to songs on the radio. One song in particular, Africa by Toto, became a recurring daydream that grew in detail every time I indulged in it. I came to love visiting it and became attached to its central character, an adventurer from South Africa. So obsessed, I decided to write the daydream down. Thus, I wrote my first Jacob story, the novella “Zimbabwe.” More ideas followed based on Jacob and I was hooked. I’d always wanted to be a writer. With this turn of events, I decided to make a go of it.

Jeanne – What do you like to do for fun?

Joseph – Well, on Sunday nights I like to listen to “Floydian Slip” on the radio while indulging in a craft beer or a cider. (Highlight of my week.) Overall, cruise Pinterest, listen to music on Pandora, and toy around with my role-paying games (even though I don’t have any players at the present). Once the weather warms up a tad more, I’ll start taking walks again.

Jeanne – Do you write to music/create play lists?

Joseph – Since my current writing career was born from daydreaming to music, absolutely yes! I’ll either pick a playlist that reflects the mood or genre of the story I’m working on, or I will select a theme song for the story. For example, for the novella “Mozambique,” it’s “Brothers In Arms” by Dire Straits. For the novelette “Scars,” it’s “Get Together” by The Youngbloods. I often listen to Pink Floyd songs to get deeply in touch with my emotions for writing purposes.

Jeanne – I’ve found I can’t write with music on if it has words. I tend to sing along.

Jeanne – Who are your favorite authors? Have they influenced your style?

Joseph – Mostly the Sci-Fi writers I enjoyed reading back in the Seventies: Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Frank Herbert, and George R.R. Martin. Later, I became a fan of Robert E. Howard, Richard Brautigan, and Clive Barker. Now, not all have influenced my style, but they do inspire me in other ways. They all taught me things.

Misters Bradbury and Martin taught me to imbue my tales with hearts and souls. Mr. Martin also taught me that a powerful story does not require a happy ending. Niven and Clarke inspired me to write SF and that, no matter how advanced technology becomes, humans will still have flaws. Mr. Howard taught me the joys of a rollicking adventure and that a writer need not be chained to one genre. Mr. Brautigan taught me not to take this all too seriously and that it’s okay to cut loose once in a while and be the madcap.

I haven’t yet expressed all these influences, but they are there, lying in wait in my head.

Jeanne – What inspired “Dragonfly?”

Joseph – Like some of my other Jacob stories, it was born of my interest to follow up on characters that appeared in earlier stories. In this case, to explore what became of the helicopter pilot in “Scars.” It was also my way of addressing the issue of homeless veterans and the struggle with drug addiction. The latter topic gained a personal dimension when a family member passed away, possibly due to an overdose, during the writing. The story has a greater meaning for me than it did when I first conceived it.

Jeanne – Really good stories have a way of doing that. I appreciate you tackling that topic as I also lost a loved one to addiction last year.

Jeanne – Tell us about your two main characters? Were they inspired by real-life?

Joseph – That’s easy, Dragonfly has only two main characters. The protagonist, Jacob Vanderhoek, is my prime recurring main character, the star of the series. He’s my flawed hero: noble in intent, but faulty in execution. A man raised in a hyper-masculine environment, who proves to be too empathetic to remain that way. As for inspiration from real life, I gave him some of my own traits, but far from all. He’s not my alter ego, by a long shot.

Adrian “Dragonfly” Thackerey, the title character, isn’t based on any one real person. But his statements about drug addiction, and about heroin in specific, are drawn from things friends who were addicts have said to me.

Their banter was inspired by similar exchanges between myself and my male friends.

Jeanne – What is the most special thing a reader has said about Dragonfly?

Pamela Murray said: “Very well constructed, the characters jump off the page, they are so real. I hope to have a chance later today to finish it, SO intriguing!” I suspect I can count her as a fan, eh?

Jeanne – What are you working on now? (UPDATE: Across the Vaal was published in 2019)

Joseph – My historic novel about the Second Boer War. It’s been in progress for the last three years (now published), and I’ve entered the final stages for release (editing to be specific). When it is, it will be my first novel.

Dragonfly Book Description: Johannesburg 1999. Not all battles are fought in the field between armies arrayed side to side. Some are fought inside, where no one can see, a war of the soul. Every conflict has a victor, but it must also have its vanquished.

Jacob must help an old friend from long ago find his way. Does he have the resources to succeed? Can he defeat an enemy he neither sees nor understands?

Across the Vaal Book Description: At the close of the Nineteenth century, two land-locked, independent republics took on a globe-spanning empire to retain their independence. The upheaval and brutality of this war altered the lives of ordinary people forever.

One such life belongs to Christiaan Van Der Hoek, a humble widower farmer coaxing a living out of the Transvaal soil while raising his only son, Piet. A God-fearing, peaceable man, he is called upon by his nation to battle the oncoming British. His faith and character are tested to their limits as he rides into fight and fire, leaving behind all he knows and loves.

Daphne Moorehead, daughter of the town’s leading British merchant and beloved of Christiaan, is caught between conflicting loyalties—her British heritage and her love of Vaalwater and the Boer people. Her heart becomes torn between two suitors, each with benefits to offer but a great dilemma as well. They are on the opposing sides of the war, bent on each others destruction.

Major Roger Albert Howe is an ambitious Royal Army officer determined to make a name for himself regardless of the cost. He becomes dedicated to winning Daphne’s hand, also regardless of the cost, and to put his rival for her affection, Christiaan, in his grave.

On the threshold of the horrors of Twentieth century warfare, these three lives, and many more, are caught in the whirlwind of the Second Anglo-Boer War, and all they knew before is scattered like dust Across The Vaal.

Where can readers find out more?

Facebook author page

Amazon author page

Smashwords author page

Joseph, thank you for your time and for sharing with us. I look forward to your future efforts.

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