“5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”, with Robert Steven Goldstein
You’ll discover the immense joy in the craft. That paragraph you redraft innumerable times until it sounds right to you — that is where the real joy is. Early on, such things seem a burden. But it is in the craft where your story truly gets told. And inexplicably, it is precisely while you are so immersed, that other surprising ideas occur to you — where to take your characters later on — where your plot will eventually meander.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Steven Goldstein. Robert retired from his job as a healthcare information executive at age fifty-six and has been writing novels ever since. He has practiced yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism for over fifty years. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now lives in San Francisco with his wife of thirty years and two rambunctious dogs.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I learned to read when I was three years old and began writing stories almost immediately after that. At the age of seven, I had a poem published in my elementary school newspaper. When I was a senior in high school, I took first prize in Scholastic’s national short story contest with a tale called “Fumatorium.” And in college, I majored in English Literature and Creative Writing and published a couple of articles in trade journals as well.
My writing career appeared to be off to a terrific young start, but I knew I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t lived. The confidence, maturity, self-discipline, and wisdom I’d need to write the kinds of books I wanted wasn’t yet there.
And writing was certainly not a reliable way to make a living.
I read an article — it was probably back in the early 1970s just after I finished college. It posed this question: how many people in the United States make a living solely from writing fiction? The article’s author found only seventy-five people in the entire country who did. I recognized the names of many of them, and their books were not the sort I wanted to write.
I had begun practicing yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism in my junior year of high school when I was sixteen. When I graduated from college, I considered teaching yoga as a profession, but it didn’t seem viable, so I started working full-time in offices instead. In 1974, I began as a mail boy, making five-hundred dollars a month. Thirty-five years later, I was a corporate vice-president specializing in medical information technology. I had also done executive-level consulting in that same field. People considered me successful in my career, and although I appreciated their praise, I knew I was a writer — I was just playing the role of a corporate executive for now.
In 2008, I turned fifty-six years old — and I finally felt ready. So I retired early and began writing novels.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Prior to devoting myself to writing fulltime, I had a thirty-five-year corporate career. I worked hard every day to model the values of honesty, integrity, ethics, and compassion — not just because I believed it was the right thing to do, but also because I was convinced that people who worked in an environment where they felt safe, supported, and trusted produced better results long-term. My teams were, indeed, consistently among the highest performers in the enterprise — to the nagging surprise and consternation of many of my peers and superiors, who tended to be hard-driving, take-no-prisoners, bottom-line oriented executives.
Near the end of my corporate career, I found myself at an offsite team-building meeting, in a room with twelve other vice-presidents from my company. All of us had just taken the Myers Briggs assessment, and the session moderator was now posting our personality types onto a huge chart in the front of the room. The chart was divided into four quadrants. Blue adhesive dots, one for each executive present, were being pasted into the quadrants, depicting each VP’s personality traits. In the end, twelve dots were crowded into the upper right corner of the chart. One lonely dot sat completely apart, in the extreme lower left.
The moderator said, “This one dot down here is yours, Mr. Goldstein. We don’t usually see this personality-set in hard-driving executives. It’s much more common in priests and therapists.”
Nearly in unison, several of my peers yelled out, “He runs his department like a he’s a damn priest or therapist.”
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Writers trying to break into the publishing industry can find it nearly impossible. They soon learn why.
These new voices trying desperately to have their books looked at seriously by agents and publishers keep coming up against the term, “author platform.” This “author platform” is a fearsome thing — protecting and shielding this sanctified enclave of agents and publishers in a seeming fortress — encircled by soaring brick walls — surrounded by a deep murky moat swarming with voracious serpents — impenetrable by new authors.
Or so it seems.
You may think I’m exaggerating for effect, or perhaps I just didn’t know how to go about it. That is not the case. Prior to writing seriously, I had a successful thirty-five-year career in the corporate sector. I worked my way up from mail boy to vice president. Along the way, I talked my way into countless positions in various organizations. I had experience in line-management, consulting, and heading special projects. I am neither naïve nor incapable of selling myself.
Yet I found trying to get a foothold in the publishing world nearly impossible — far more difficult than any challenge I’d faced during my corporate career.
So, what exactly is this “author platform”?
Quite simply, it’s a sort of insurance policy for a publisher to protect against the risk of a book that doesn’t sell. It’s an accounting of how many people have heard of you and are likely to buy your book. Are you a celebrity? Have you written books or articles in the recent past that found lots of readers? Do you have a vast social media network? Do you have connections in high places? Did you graduate from a prestigious MFA writing program? Are you young and attractive?
I was a zero. On every single question. I suppose that the compounding of zeroes made my cumulative score even less than zero in some metaphorical way. No one would look at my work or take a chance on me.
It used to be that publishers assessed the quality of a manuscript, and opted to take the financial risk that publication involves, based upon their subjective appraisal of the work’s quality. That is no longer the case. Agents and acquiring editors will tell you, with absolutely no trace of shame or embarrassment, that if they are faced with deciding between an awful memoir by a famous celebrity, or a really excellent literary novel by a writer no one’s ever heard of, they will pick the celebrity’s book every time.
All of us who read novels have seen this policy play out with established authors. We all know of authors who have written terrific books in the past, but their last couple has been dreadful or unreadable. Yet those authors have tremendous name recognition, and people buy their books regardless. So they’re good risks, and they continue to be published. And every book of theirs that’s published takes a slot away from a new author trying to break in.
Yes, this certainly hurts new writers. But there are far more readers than writers, and, it seems to me, it hurts readers even more. It hurts readers because it dumbs down the overall array of books available — it diminishes the collective quality of what readers have to choose from.
Please understand that this isn’t a tirade against people who work in the publishing industry. Agents and editors are not evil people. They are, by and large, good people who mean well, and who love books. But they are working in a competitive industry where the rules for the acquisition of new works come down from the top. And those at the top are driven by profit and loss — they have to be — if they’re not they are quickly replaced by others who are.
Is there a solution?
There was for me.
This quintessential dilemma in the publishing industry eventually engendered a new variant of the independent press: the hybrid publisher. Hybrid publishing seeks to find the principled middle ground between traditional publishing and self-publishing. It is a fairly recent innovation in the industry.
Hybrid publishing is like self-publishing in that it is an entrepreneurial model. Authors who believe in their books take on the financing of the book’s publication costs.
But like traditional publishing, hybrid publishers are very selective about what they choose to publish. It is a highly curated process. With a good hybrid publisher, the author receives the same sorts of high-quality editing, proofreading, cover design, layout, publicity, and distribution services that would be offered by a traditional publisher.
Most importantly though, by taking the publisher’s financial risk out of the equation, the hybrid publisher is now free to base their selection criteria solely on the merit of the manuscript.
When I learned that there were legitimate publishers whose very mission statements proclaimed that they were not interested in the “platform” of the author submitting work, only in the quality of the book itself, I knew I’d found my path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My first novel, “The Swami Deheftner,” chronicled the life of a man from Brooklyn, who idolized Harry Houdini, and eventually became a stage magician and escapologist himself. But he abandoned that career to pursue what he considered to be true magic — the mysticism inherent in ancient Yoga, as practiced for centuries in India.
This was a novel with arcane themes. It depicted esoteric practices. It would not have been a prudent choice for a first novel had I considered its commercial viability. But that was not important to me at the time,
What was important to me was becoming a writer.
For thirty-five years, I had pursued my corporate career. I believed I had, through frugal living and prudent investments, provided enough of a nest egg for my family to enable me to retire early, at age fifty-six, and indulge my lifelong dream of writing novels. I had, at that point, worked my way up to the vice president, and although I kept an adequate focus on my work to do it well, I confess that during the endless meetings I sat through each day, scenes from “The Swami Deheftner” frequently played themselves out in my mind. By the time I retired, that book was pretty much written in my head. I just needed to get it down on paper.
So that made it the perfect book to write first. There was no danger of a writer’s block or the fear of starting a new endeavor. It was there, almost fully formed, waiting. And it had been nursed, lovingly, as a tantalizing dream, inside my being for decades.
Because “The Swami Deheftner” was by an unknown author and featured arcane, and possibly disturbing themes, I did not think that established presses would have any interest in the book, so I self-published it. It then became my responsibility to attempt to market it. So, I tried to think of who might be interested in reading such a thing. The tack that occurred to me was this: the book is about Yoga, so try marketing to people who practice Yoga.
I assumed that people who did Yoga would be interested in its history, and in the obscure practices that were part of its canon for centuries.
I could not have been more mistaken.
The book’s protagonist decries modern Yoga as practiced in America. He considers it a pitiful bastardization of what he embraces as true Yoga — the Yoga steeped in magic and mysticism as practiced in ancient India — the Yoga that promised its practitioners frightening physical and mental powers which must never be abused — the Yoga whose sole ultimate goal was spiritual enlightenment.
And the book’s main character is a rather headstrong and egocentric champion of such beliefs.
To my disappointment, most of the people in the American Yoga community who read the book found it threatening and insulting to a practice they held dear. Because it was the first, and at that time the only book I had written, readers believed it to be a personal manifesto or memoir. It wasn’t.
One unhappy reader posted a review online saying that the book could “set Yoga back fifty years.” I was advised to never respond to someone who posted a negative review — and I didn’t. But I very much wanted to grab that fellow by the collar and scream, “Yes! Yes! Exactly! That’s exactly what the character wants. He wants to return Yoga to the way it used to be. You get it! That’s the point! You might not like it. But you get it!”
The book did find a few fans. But they were mostly outside the Yoga community.
Then came a surprise. A couple of years after I’d published the book, it got an unexpected “like” on Facebook from a very interesting man in India. He was a Yoga master and a martial arts sensei, and he owned an academy in India that taught both. (In my novel, the Swami’s best friend is a martial arts sensei who, like the swami, practices ancient forms of his craft.)
I had no idea how the book had found this gentleman or reached India. I had not marketed it there.
Over the next few months, “The Swami Deheftner” built a small cult following throughout India. I noticed that many of the Facebook “likes” were from pupils who had studied under the master who’d created that initial post. Others appeared to be from their friends who had evidently learned about the book via word-of-mouth.
This incident helped me understand that the act of writing a book, and the subsequent act of publishing that book, are starkly different endeavors — requiring entirely disparate skill sets. Even the publishing process itself comprises two quite distinct aspects: the editorial phase and the publicity phase. Writing is an introverted, solitary pursuit, best performed by those willing to mercilessly mine their innermost feelings and perceptions on a daily basis. Publishing tasks within the editorial phase, such as copyediting and proofreading, are things I can comprehend and work with. But publicizing a book is something altogether different — it calls for fearless and persistent extroversion, along with a thorough understanding of a dizzyingly complex marketplace. Those are skills I don’t have — nor do I have the inherent aptitudes to attain them.
I have learned that this is an area where I do best to trust others.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am at work on my fourth novel. Every new novel I take on is interesting to me, especially as I immerse myself more and more into the characters and the story each day. But perhaps the most beguiling aspect of this project for me is something that most people wouldn’t give all that much thought to — the novel’s narrator.
All three of my prior novels were written in first person — the main character is the narrator and he tells the book’s story from his point of view. The first-person narration has pros and cons — the approach enables the author to explore the main character’s thinking and motivations extremely deeply — but it limits the author in that only events the main character witnesses personally can be vividly conveyed — and the mindset of other characters can only be guessed at.
The novel I’m working on now is my first attempt at third-person narration with an omniscient narrator. I’m not unfamiliar with this approach — I’ve written many short stories utilizing an omniscient narrator, but to apply it to a novel gives me the opportunity to play with a number of disparate plotlines that eventually merge into a complex and hopefully resonant gestalt.
While I write this novel, I’m working concurrently with my publisher and publicist to get my third novel, “Enemy Queen,” ushered successfully through to its May 12, 2020 publication date.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
The following story from my most recent novel “Enemy Queen,” is related by Big Al, an old-school reactionary Southern gentleman, addressing a small crowd of people at his daughter’s wedding in North Carolina:
“Did I tell y’all that I just got back from a medical records convention? They make me go to one ever’ year.
“In goddamn Berkeley, California, of all places. The most left-wing, commie town in all of America, that’s where they send me for this medical records convention. So the first night, one of the attendees who lives there says he wants to take a bunch of us out to dinner.
“So this guy is taking us to dinner to some Ethiopian dive where ever’ one eats off the same plate with their goddamn hands. But just before we get there, we’re at a corner tryin’ to cross the street, and some guy comes walking toward us, slowly, kinda hunched over. And he’s buck naked. Middle-aged, paunchy, brown guy. Buck naked, I swear it. Just walkin’ down the street. Not a thing on him. Except for these metal pieces. Listen to this. Metal pieces, like the size o’ dog tags or a little bigger, but just metal sheets of all different shapes. And ever’ one of ’em is danglin’ from his skin, from a safety pin that he stuck right through his flesh. All over his goddamn body. And he’s just walkin’ down the street like this. These metal things hangin’ all over ’im.
“But from the other corner, I see two Berkeley policemen crossin’ the street right toward us. So the naked guy’s walkin’ at us from one direction, and the police from the other. And I’m thinkin’, what the hell they gonna do when they meet?
“So the police walk right up to this guy, and one o’ the cops says, ‘Good evening, Frank, how yah doin’?’
“And the naked guy says, ‘I’m good. How you guys?’
“And they all just walk on. They just goddamn walk on!
“So we have the dinner. And I ate god knows what kind of goop with my fingers.
“And then the next morning I’m waitin’ for the convention meetin’ to start up, and some lady grabs a cup o’ coffee there in the convention hall and sits down next to me. So I introduce myself, and we get to talkin’. She says she’s still really mad about somethin’ that happened to her over the weekend. So I ask her what happened.
“She says she lives there in Berkeley, and it was cold over the weekend, and she had some people over, so she put a couple logs in her fireplace and made a fire. About an hour later some policeman knocks on her door and says he saw black smoke comin’ out o’ her chimney, and it’s against the law in Berkeley to burn real wood in your fireplace ’cause it pollutes the air, so he gives her a ticket, and she has to pay like two hundred dollars. And she’s still all pissed off about it.
“So, in goddamn Berkeley, you can walk around buck naked with metal shit hangin’ off your body, and policemen say hello and wish you a good evenin’. But you burn a log in your fireplace, and you’re a goddamn criminal.”
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
“Full of wicked humor, artful eroticism, scintillating dialogue, and a bit of intrigue, Enemy Queen is an exhilarating romp set in a North Carolina college town.” This is how its advertising copy bumptiously describes my most recent novel, Enemy Queen. It is not a preachy, ponderous, or arduously serious book, but I suppose if it has a lesson to impart, it would be this: The novel’s characters are a motley bunch — northerners and southerners, Christians and Jews, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives. Each character is comically dysfunctional in their own way — yet somehow, not so much because they want to but because they have to, they all eventually find a way to work and live together with at least a modicum of tolerance and trust.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
1) You’ll dwell alone frequently — not just when you are at your writing desk, buried inside your story, immersed in your characters — but on many other occasions when someone you love is trying to engage with you, only to find that you have been momentarily lured back into your parallel literary universe.
2) You’ll discover the immense joy in the craft. That paragraph you redraft innumerable times until it sounds right to you — that is where the real joy is. Early on, such things seem a burden. But it is in the craft where your story truly gets told. And inexplicably, it is precisely while you are so immersed, that other surprising ideas occur to you — where to take your characters later on — where your plot will eventually meander.
3) Publishing is hard work. Writing is too, but writing pulls you into that glorious meditative trance where time flies by without you knowing it. Publishing is more akin to those jobs you’ve worked at outside of writing — with deadlines, deliverables, disagreements, disappointments, and only the rare kindred spirit who shares your precise perspective.
4) As you write more books — though it’s overtly less about you each time — it is inherently more about you — as you learn to tell a story for its own sake, rather than to spew out your own suppressed dreams, frustrations, triumphs or resentments. The magic is this: the more you tend to the story, to the words, to the characters you create who are not you, the more, in some strange unfathomable way, does your essence, your wisdom, and your message emerges.
5) No matter how successful you are, you are the same person — you’re still alone each day with your words — you still pry them out in much the same labored, isolated manner. You have learned a few maneuvers to make the process more efficient, you have gained wisdom with age, and experience with the practice. If you’ve been fortunate with sales, people see you differently. But it is their perception of the thing which has changed — the thing itself has not. The thing itself is immutable.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Patience. Which, of course, implies persistence, doggedness, and belief in what you’re doing, but always tempered with patience.
Writing takes time.
Some authors may churn out a novel in less than a year, but most writers take much longer. I can write a short novel in about a year, but my longer ones have taken two or three years to complete. There are some very fine, award-winning writers who average a book a decade. And each day, no matter how long it takes to finish that book, an author must have the patience and equilibrium to sit down and tell their story with consistent voice, consistent plot, and consistent characters — regardless of whether they’ve had a good morning, whether their life has been going smoothly of late, or whether they’re especially motivated to write that day.
And after you’ve written your book, if you’re fortunate enough to find a publisher, the publishing process takes a long time too. My most recent novel, “Enemy Queen,” was picked up by its publisher in September 2018. Its publication date is scheduled for May 2020.
I wasn’t patient at all as a boy. But it was a trait I wanted to possess — and I believe my practicing Yoga and meditation was highly instrumental in enabling me to acquire it. By the time I was a young man, it was ingrained in me.
All through my thirty-five-year business career, people marveled at the calmness and patience I displayed each day. I recall an occasion, when I was a vice president leading a large project, that we came upon a particularly thorny problem in a specific facet of the endeavor. But I’d seen this sort of thing before, and I was convinced that the best course of action was to be patient and let it work itself out. I was quite certain that it would.
There was a woman who reported to me then, an executive director. We got on well. We’d go to lunch from time to time, and we always worked smoothly together, despite the fact that she was far less patient, and far more emotional, than I. The problem we were weathering affected her department directly, and the longer it persisted the more she tried to convince me that intervention was necessary.
She was originally from London, had a strikingly authoritative British accent, and she was always quite direct when she had something to say. So, we had a number of encounters during which she tried strenuously to persuade me to change my tack. But I kept saying we needed to give it just a bit more time — the problem would fix itself.
As I predicted, it did indeed work itself out. The executive director and I had lunch shortly thereafter and we discussed the situation. Her features tightened into a scowl and she snarled as she raised her voice and said to me, “You’re the most bloody patient man I’ve ever met.” Then, as if her tone and facial expression had not adequately conveyed her annoyance, she added, “And I don’t mean that as a compliment.”
That was over twenty years ago, but I recall it vividly. The woman and I are still friends. Recently, over cocktails, I recounted that incident to her. Her recollection of it was distinct as well, and we both laughed uproariously. “You’re still bloody patient,” she assured me, amid guffaws.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
The author who first lured me into reading serious literature was John Steinbeck. I wasn’t yet a teenager when I discovered his works. His prose style was simple and muscular yet it evoked intense emotion, and his stories challenged me intellectually. It was obvious that he cared deeply about his characters, and about the societal inequities, they battled against. Steinbeck was the first author to show me the potential power a novel could wield. My favorite long novel by Steinbeck is East of Eden. My favorite short novel is Of Mice and Men.
In high school, I discovered the works of Hermann Hesse. I had begun practicing Yoga and meditation secretly, alone in my room at night, garnering instruction from books I kept hidden from my parents. This was in the early 1960’s — and Yoga was still considered by many an occult practice, dangerously at odds with traditional western religion. Novels like Siddhartha, Demian, and my personal favorite Steppenwolf, helped me with my spiritual journey — as I was attempting to chart a path that was simultaneously eastern and western in its sensibilities. The abstract poetic language that Hesse employed when describing the mind’s immersion into mystical reality was brilliant — such experiences, being inherently non-rational, can be characterized through literature in ways that neither science nor mathematics can achieve.
In college, one of my creative writing professors enjoyed asking us to mimic the style of different authors. One author she selected for such an exercise was Jerzy Kosinski. The professor assigned us the novel Steps and had us write an original segment that might have been included in the book. I was strongly drawn to Kosinski’s dark world and mesmerizing prose. But the most profound influence he had on my writing was his uncanny ability to focus only upon those morsels of a story that were truly compelling, leaving the connective tissue, which most writers feel is vital to relate, to be supplied instead by the reader’s imagination. My favorite Kosinski novel is Blind Date. (I am aware that various sources have claimed that Kosinski did not actually write these books — that he was a plagiarist — a con man who employed ghost writers. I don’t know whether that’s true — but I love the novels — and I’ve been strongly influenced by whoever wrote them.)
My favorite contemporary author is John Irving. He is a true storyteller, in the tradition of Dickens, who understands that relating an engaging story with richly drawn characters is what literature is really about. He has never succumbed to chic literary trends that ultimately have no staying power. The World According to Garp, and The Cider House Rules are wonderful novels, but I think A Prayer for Owen Meany is Irving’s crowning achievement.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Find your spiritual path and follow it.
Personally, the path I chose was Yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism — practices I have embraced for over half a century. But for me, there is actually the fourth component — it is more nuanced and therefore a bit more difficult to describe — but it is perhaps the most important. It involves moral and ethical behavior. Every religion and ideology has precepts in this regard. The Yoga version, Yama and Niyama (do’s and don’ts), is perhaps more generic and open to interpretation than some. But for me, one Yoga precept became all-important: Ahimsa.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term that is difficult to translate precisely, but it is often rendered as “compassion” or “harmlessness.” The concept is interpreted in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist traditions as “respect for all living things — and avoidance of violence toward others”. Ahimsa led me to embrace vegetarianism as a way to express compassion toward animals and led me to pursue a corporate career where I acted with honesty, integrity, compassion, and sensitivity toward everyone I encountered. These were personal choices — other people may interpret Ahimsa differently — but if you embrace it sincerely, you will behave admirably.
The point, I think, is that you can practice postures and meditation, you can attend church or temple, you can pray or chant, you can read the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita — but if you don’t accompany those practices with an ethical and compassionate lifestyle, you cannot progress spiritually.
Some may think that focusing on a spiritual path is a selfish thing to do. It isn’t. By living ethically, you do not just make yourself a better person, you positively affect the people around you. You model behavior that others may choose to emulate. And if enough of us do so, we can positively affect everything we know.
One word of caution: whatever path you choose, please always respect the different paths that others have chosen. We are all seeking the same thing. If you reach a point where you believe that only your path is the right one, you have become a fanatic. Fanaticism leads to discrediting and dehumanizing others. From there it’s a fast and slippery slope to discrimination, hatred, violence, war, crusades, inquisitions, genocides, and holocausts.
We don’t need more of those things.
If all this seems a bit too overwhelming to make sense of — start by simply embracing Ahimsa, in the manner you see fit. It may be all you need to do.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.