In the world of fiction, one thing is for sure: Les Roberts will keep you guessing.
Roberts, 75, of Stow, is in the middle of promoting “Whiskey Island,” his 16th book in a mystery series featuring fictional private investigator Milan Jacovich (pronounced MY-lan YOCK-ovich).
Jacovich, an ex-cop with a taste for klobasa sandwiches and Stroh's beer, is a character that has an easy time finding trouble on the streets of Cleveland.
In the new novel, councilman Bert Loftus is embroiled in media scrutiny and an FBI investigation that may end his career. Convinced that someone is trying to kill him, Loftus turns to Milan for help. (Sound familiar?)
Patch recently corresponded with Roberts to learn more about the book and his eclectic career that's taken him from Hollywood to Ohio. Here’s what he had to say:
Patch: Please offer a snapshot of your process as you developed and wrote “Whiskey Island.”
Les Roberts: No one will be surprised that the plot of "Whiskey Island" was inspired by the titillating news reports every day about local political corruption. I've watched (and enjoyed) Cleveland politics since I moved to NE Ohio 22 years ago, so it was much more than local news reports that kept me going. I've always thought "Whiskey Island" a great title for a mystery novel, but I had to wait many years until the actual Whiskey Island was turned into a harbor and a park with a hopping, fun restaurant. As in all my other books, the characters are FICTIONAL---but often based on real people I know, I've met, or I've seen on the street or in a supermarket. Also, most books are suggested to me by things that really happen, whether in my own life (like "Pepper Pike," "Full Cleveland" or "King of the Holly Hop") or in the lives of others. I'm fortunate to have never been even remotely involved in a MURDER---but that's what I always write about.
Patch: This is your 16th book in the series, how has the main character, Milan Jacovich, evolved over the years?
Roberts: In my first Milan novel, he'd recently been divorced and finds himself lonely. Through the next fifteen he's tried hard to find himself once more in a real relationship. But Milan sees everything in black and white---in a world that is almost always gray---so his social interactions have usually not worked well. He's still an ethnic Cleveland kind of guy, but as he's matured, he's learned a lot and now has acquired a certain degree of sophistication in two and a half decades. "Mature" is an operative word here; Milan has grown older right along with his creator (ME). So in "The Cleveland Creep," he acquired an assistant, an angry young man named Kevin O'Bannion (aka "K.O.") who will basically handle the more dangerous and very physical encounters Milan used to take care of himself. Let's face it--tough as he might be, nearly-sixty year-old men generally DON'T get into fistfights.
Patch: Given your rapport with the fictional character, do you, at times, have trouble distinguishing where Les Roberts stops and Jacovich begins?
Roberts: I am not Slovenian, not Catholic, not a Cleveland native, and I'm a newly-born vegan (whereas Milan LIVES on Slovenian sausage sandwiches). Unlike him I'm not 6'3" and 230 lbs., never played football, haven't struck anyone in anger since I was eleven years old, am not losing my hair, never smoked cigarettes, am in a lifelong relationship with a beautiful woman who is NOT a cop, and up until a few weeks ago had never drunk a Stroh's beer in my life! On the other hand, Milan Jacovich and I share the same ethics, are committed to the same causes, share a sense of justice, both believe what things are right and what things are wrong, and we both become ENRAGED by the same things, too. Frankly, most novelists, especially those who write mystery series, are really writing our own autobiographies---or at least what we fantasize our autobiographies should be.
Patch: Of the many genres, why mystery?
Roberts: My Hollywood writing days were mostly in comedy, but as I grew older, I felt there were more important things to write about. Mystery? In almost any GREAT novel there is some sort of murder or tragic death. Don't believe me? Superb classic novels: "The Great Gatsby?" Murder. "Of Mice and Men?" Murder. "The African Queen?" Rigging up a torpedo and using it to blow up a German warship, which is MASS murder. "A Farewell to Arms?" Tragic death. I could go on. And in ANY piece of fiction, even lighthearted comedy or romance, there is CONFLICT---or else you don't have much of a story at all. And what conflict is more compelling than the matter of life and death? Also, writing mysteries allows me to make observations about the world that I couldn't make in a mainstream novel. I grew up reading mysteries---and loved them on the screen, too---especially in the film “Noirera.” Some of the greatest American writers worked in the mystery field: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes, Ross McDonald, John D. MacDonald (past) and James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane. Karin Slaughter, and our own master Charles Dickens kind of storyteller, Mary Higgins Clark (present).
Patch: Your resume stretches from professional actor, singer and jazz musician to Hollywood TV producer, teacher and writer. What insights have you gleaned from your professional experiences and how could they help those entering one of the many fields listed above?
Roberts: Almost all the great authors didn't BECOME great until they'd lived a bit and are past forty. The best fiction writing is character-driven, so good writers spend much of their time, no matter what they're doing otherwise, studying people. And when you're in your teens and twenties, you're too busy living your own life, sowing your own wild oats, trying to figure out exactly who YOU are, to study other people---what they do, how they do it, WHY they do it. Just watching the 2012 political campaigns taught me SO MUCH about how people go about becoming famous, dealing with power, making decisions, etc. And when I go out---whether to a theater, a supermarket, a grocery store, or just walking around downtown--I look at things with what I call "The Writer's Eye," taking notes about people, places and things. One could develop an entire novel just by sitting in the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport for three hours. So all my time spent in the above fields, whether good or bad (or indifferent), were learning experiences for me, giving me insights I'd never had before. A writer doesn't have to be a Hollywood producer or a teacher or anything else; if you're a dry cleaner or a ditch-digger or handing customers shopping carts in a Wal-Mart, you can learn just as much. And here is the MAIN thing I learned: I'm sure everyone has heard "Write what you know." But to quote Vice President Joe Biden, "That's a lot of malarkey!" Instead, write about what excites you. And that returns me to the previous question, "Why mystery?" That's my answer.
Roberts will speak and autograph copies of "Whiskey Island” on Saturday, Nov. 10 from 1-3 p.m. at Books-A-Million, located at 335 Howe Ave. in Cuyahoga Falls.
The event is free and open to the public.