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Les RobetsMythbuster: Les Roberts


Date of interview: October 2010

On one of those late fall afternoons, when you want to curl up with a good book and a steaming cup of tea, we spoke to Cleveland booster and good book author Les Roberts. Not only did he share tales of his early years in Chicago, New York City — the best city in America to be young and broke in, and Los Angeles — the most ageist city in America — he shared his been-there, done-that, just-do-it insights into what it takes to write well, live smart, and age successfully.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in 1937 and raised in Chicago. I was a Depression Baby, but I don't remember it. What I do remember is World War II. Vividly.

A short story written by Les Roberts was produced into a play, "A Carol for Cleveland." Read the interview with Les in the Plain Dealer.
(Dec 2012)

What did your parents do and where are you in the sibling line-up?

I'm an only child. My father was a dentist and my mother was a housewife. My father was born in London and moved to Chicago with his parents. He went to dental school at the University of Chicago and stuck around. My mother was born in New York City and her parents moved to Chicago when she was fairly young.

In school, what were you good at, and not so good at?

I'll start with the not so good first. I was terrible in math, and still am. I was not very good in science. I was terrific in social studies and anything to do with English. And I was very active in theater, both in high school and college. I was never the guy painting scenery, I was always out front where everyone could see me.

I went to New York City and was a stage actor for many years. That was where I realize that when I got a laugh on stage it was mostly because of the guy who wrote the words I was saying, and that's why I switched to writing.

You came of age in the Eisenhower Era the 1950s. How did that influenced the man you are today?

I found it then, and looking back I still find it to be, a fairly boring period of time. Those who were involved in World War II were an astonishing group of people. Then, in the 1950s, there was no more war. Everyone got to do what they wanted to do and it was dull, without any waves, until the 1960s, when the first Baby Boomers got involved in protests and anti-war activities and the Beetles and all that. They [Boomers] were another astonishing group...I think if I'd been born 10 years earlier or 10 years later, I'd be a different person.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

When I was six. I went to school 2 1/2 blocks from where I lived so I'd come home for lunch. While I was eating, my mother would sit and read to me from all the great children's classics: Treasure Island , Swiss Family Robinson , Little Women. I started writing I could type by then short stories that were half a page long.

When I got old enough to read on my own, I read everything I could including [John] O'Hara, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, and [John] Steinbeck. He [Steinbeck] was the author who changed me, especially his Grapes of Wrath, more than any other author. He changed the way I looked at the world and made me want to be a writer.

My favorite novel of all time, though, is The Great Gatsby. I've probably read it 10 times from the time I was 16, and every time I read it I've perceived it differently because of where I was in my life. The last time I read it about five years ago I thought of its narrator, Nick Carraway, as an arrogant, desperate social climber. I'd never thought of him as being a terrible, despicable person.

When did you sell your first piece?

When I was 19. It was a movie review of Shane for a small magazine, and I was paid $15 for it. [Chuckles] And of course I gave it a green light.

Most people back in the late 1950s went to college to become a writer. You went to New York City. What drew you to the Big Apple, and what did you "learn" there about honing your craft?

Theater drew me to New York City, because I wanted to be an actor as well as writer. And I wanted very much to get out of Chicago. I wanted to see more of the world and, to me, the most exciting place to go in the world was New York City. It was a wonderful place to be young and broke and wrapped up in your first love.

I was acting off Broadway and off-off Broadway and off-off-off Broadway, but that's not how I made a living. I worked in a lot of book stores and record stores.

What I learned then, and what I use now as a writer, is how to observe people. Walking down any street in New York [City], there were a gazillion people you could observe: how they walked; how they dressed; how they carried their bodies; how they talked. I got into a habit of always carrying a notebook when I went out, and I still do.

You were in the Army from 1960 to 1962. Where were you stationed and what were you doing?

I was drafted and stationed in Fort Gordon, Georgia. I was a television writer-producer-performer for the United States Army Signal Corps. It was a lot of fun, and it was where I learned a lot about producing a TV show. When they'd tell me to put together a program, I'd figure out what the particular piece was trying to say, what it was trying to do, and how I could do it without making it boring because having an expert "up there," in his spiffy uniform, going blah-blah-blah for half-an-hour would put just about anyone to sleep.

In 1966, you and your family — then-wife Gail and daughter Valerie — moved to L.A. What took you to L.A.?

At that time, 99% of TV was being produced in Los Angeles, and I wanted to be in the that business and I wanted to get to know the people who were running things out there.

I didn't have a job when we went, we just went. But I was with the William Morris Agency in New York [City], and they had an office in Los Angeles. When I met with the agency people in L.A., I told them I needed a job quickly because I had a family to support, and they got me a job writing for an NBC game show called Showdown. It ran for 13 weeks and was canceled and replaced by another game show, Hollywood Squares. I started out as the head writer for the show. In 1969, I became the producer.

You produced a hit TV show, wrote TV scripts (and the occasional movie script), and wrote successful crime novels set in L.A. In fact, in 1987, you won the Best First Private Eye Novel for your first Saxon book. Sounds like you were — no pun intended — writing your own ticket. So my question is: Why did you decide to leave Hollywood?

By the mid-1980s, I'd gotten to the age where the people who ran the business were all in their mid-20s, and I was over 40. I remember applying for a job as associate producer and the guy said he couldn't hire me because I would take his job. I didn't want his job, but he still wouldn't hire me.

Why did you decided to move lock, stock and barrel to Cleveland in 1990.

Why Cleveland? Well, I'd come here in 1987 to create, and get on its feet, a TV game show, Cash Explosion, for the Ohio Lottery. I stayed for about four months, and within a week I'd fallen in love with Greater Cleveland. Like I've been doing all my life, I started running around with my notebook, taking notes, even thought I didn't know what I was going to do with them.

I took a couple of days off and went to New York and had lunch with the editor I worked with for the L.A.-based Saxon books. He said he'd like me to do another series, but not in L.A., or San Francisco, or Chicago, or Boston, because there were already mysteries set in those cities. I told him he'd named every place I'd ever spent time in my life, except Cleveland. When I mentioned Cleveland he got excited. No one had done a series in Cleveland in years.

For the first couple of books I'd come to Cleveland a couple of times a year to do research and every time I was treated so well and met so many nice people that I started questioning why I was still living in L.A. I'd divorced years earlier. My daughter had moved. The only person I cared about there was my son, and he was off doing his own thing. So I decided to move to Cleveland. It's now 20 years and I've loved every day of living here.

Milan Jacovich was "born" in Pepper Pike in 1988. How did you create him?

I wanted a guy who belonged very much in Cleveland. I knew he had to be ethnic in some way, so I did my research and found that Cleveland has a huge Eastern European population and that every Eastern European country has a different "personality" and habits. I zeroed in on three possibilities: he could be Slovenian or Serbian or Croatian. I decided he'd be Slovenian because Slovenian's love to sing, whereas Serbians love to fight and Croatians love to argue.

I also wanted a character who had his own problems. Milan doesn't look like James Bond. He does very, very badly with the opposite sex. He has few friends because he can't keep them because he's a very black-and-white person. He doesn't know a lot about the gray areas of life.

[Chuckles] Milan's evolved over time and I'm frequently asked if he will ever find a woman that he loves and settle down. I used to say that when I get one, he'd get one, but now I have one...and too bad for him, he doesn't get one. He's a lonely guy, and that's why, although I write hard-boiled books, a lot of women read my books. The minute I wrote he's married and living happily ever after, they wouldn't read the books. They'd be boring.

When and how do you get all the dead-on correct information that goes into your books?

I'm the luckiest man in Cleveland. I'm well-enough known that I can call up a cop or doctor or art expert or whoever I need information from and they will talk to me. No matter where they live in Greater Cleveland. And when someone tells me about something for instance about a crime what I hear doesn't go any further than my notes. And people come up to me all the time and tell me things, too.

What's your next book about?

I'm almost done with the one I'm working on it needs maybe three more days and then I'm taking a break. But after that, I have a lot more Cleveland books to write. At some point I've got to write about the political corruption that's going on in Cuyahoga County. But I'll put things together in a way to make the book a good mystery, not commentary.

They won't all be about Cleveland, though. The book coming out next spring Father Candy takes place in Youngstown in 1985. It's not a Milan Jacovich book, it's a stand-alone about a priest who commits suicide.

What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't writing mysteries?

I'd be shining writers' shoes, working somehow around writers and other creative people, of whatever stripe. That's what excites me. I know an awful lot of people who make millions of dollars a year, but I want to sit down with the guys who paint, act, write.

You are very helpful to local writers/would-be writers. That's something you don't often find in an author of your standing. Why do you think it's important to do that kind of mentoring?

Whether an aspiring writer turns out to be the next John Grisham, Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark, or never sells anything, if I can help them find who they are and who they want to be, that is important to me. Everyone needs help, and everyone needs to help. I know a couple of people right now who are just getting their first book published, and I'm proud of the fact that I helped them, supported them in what they were doing.

What is your advice for people reading this who think they want to be a writer?

You don't become a good writer without doing it, so my biggest piece of advice is just do it. And the second piece of advice is to write what excites you. You are always hearing from "experts" that you should write what you know, but that's bull. Write what excites you because if something excites you, you'll do what you need to do to find out about it.

[Chuckles] Besides, if people only wrote about what they knew, every book would be about the writer.

You are a writer, but you don't live glued to your computer. What are your hobbies and the things you are interested in that aren't related to writing?

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was very interested in good wine and food and going out to dinner. I can't do that anymore because, all of a sudden, I'm pre-diabetic. No matter where you go, when you order a salad, it's a salad.

I love the theater. I love movies, whether I'm at the theater or at home. I love music, especially classical and show music, though I don't play the piano much any more. I'm very social and go out with friends a lot.

I'm an animal lover. I've got a cat, and I feed the geese that show up outside my window every morning.

Probably the most important thing in the world to me is my significant other, Holly Albin. We've been together almost 12 years. We met at a writers' conference in Hudson. [Chuckles] She was thinking about writing children's' books, but she decided not to.

Do you every get the feeling that your writer life and your social life overlap?

Quite frequently, but that's fine with me. And I don't ever assume that when I meet people that they are only interested in meeting Les Roberts, the writer. That's a very Los Angeles way of thinking.

MythBusters is all about aging well, aging successfully. And, at 73, you are a poster boy for that. You look to be in great shape. What do you do on a daily basis to stay so fit and healthy?

My grandson, Parker, was born two years ago and I told my son that I'd make every effort to be around when he graduated from high school. So I'm working hard to do that, not just because of Parker, and because I want a lot more years with Holly, but also because I have a lot more books left in me to write.

So, I do the treadmill for about 40 minutes four of five times a week. All I have to do is walk over to the exercise room. And I'm very careful about what I eat, especially now.

You can't write with a dull brain. What are you doing to stay mentally fit and sharp?

I read, a lot: newspapers, books, articles, on-line. I love reading about politics, whether it's local politics or Washington politics. Almost every day I'll get a real laugh out of something totally ridiculous that some politician has said.

And I'm always talking to people and listening to who they are and where they are coming from. Everyone is interesting and so many people you meet people you might think at first glance are really dull are doing really fascinating things. But I have to admit, I'm more stimulated by people I don't agree with than those I do, if they aren't obnoxious.

If you could share just one "tip" for aging well, what would it be?

Never stop fighting. If you are sick, stuck with a condition where you won't get well, make that sickness work for you. Adapt yourself, how you do things, what you do, so that it doesn't get in the way.

When I was 58, I had colon cancer and was on chemotherapy for six months. I geared everything around the chemo schedule and didn't allow it to stop me. For three weeks each month I was up and going and writing every day and for the week when I had the chemo I was focused on that. I had a mild stroke five years ago and I refused to let it get to me. And now, with the diabetes, I won't allow that to get to me, or slow me down, either.

My favorite poem is Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night," and I read it at least once a week.

What and who are you reading today?

Right now I'm reading Dennis Lahane and Karin Slaughter. I've never met her, but boy can she write. She writes tougher and harder and more violent than any writer I know of. And I read a lot of non-fiction. Right now, I'm reading The Invisible Gorilla [by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons]. It's about the way we observe things: we look at a lot of things, but we don't always see them. It's a great book for a writer.

And I like biographies. My favorite is Act One , the autobiography of playwright Moss Hart.

What did I not ask that I should have?

Why I've moved to an apartment from a house. And the answer to that is that I got tired of living in a big house and taking care of it and paying people to fix things. When anything goes wrong here, I pick up the phone and someone is here to fix it in half-an-hour, and I don't get a bill.

I'm sure a lot of older people still live in the home they've lived in when they were raising their kids. They shouldn't. If they would get out of that house it would take so much pressure off them and then they'd have the time and energy to do so many things things they actually want to do.

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