Author Interview: Robert Earle
Hi, Robert. Welcome to my blog. It’s a pleasure to have you here with us.
Would you take a moment and introduce yourself to us? Hi, Lizzie, first let me say how pleased I am to join you on your blog. I’ll attach a picture for you that shows me in the woods down below my house in Arlington, Virginia. You might not believe we’re only six miles from the White House, but we are, with deer, foxes, a redtail hawk, a pileated woodpecker, and possums as company. My wife, Mary, and I have lived here thirteen years along with our two sons, Nick and Rob. That’s longer than we’ve lived anywhere. Before and during a 25-year career in the Foreign Service, we moved more than 35 times. But this is where we’re staying. Soon we will have been married 40 years; we met at Princeton when I was 19 and she was 21, so it’s been a long run.
I pursued a career in the Foreign Service initially thinking it would last five or six years while I figured out how to write full-time. Well, I did “retire” when I was 49 and begin writing full-time, but then I was drawn back into government service, and it took me another several years to cut the ties altogether.
I’m originally from Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, and was educated in the east at The Hill School, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins. I always knew my vocation was literary, but my interest in world affairs and talent with languages kept me busy for a long time in Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East.
How long have you been writing?
I began writing regularly and seriously when I was fifteen. My first love–and it’s still a love–was the short story. For many years I was too busy as a diplomat to write short stories, novels, or anything literary, but eventually, I figured out how to do both things at once: get up at five in the morning, write until eight, then go to work at an embassy or the State Department.
I wouldn’t recommend this, but you do what you have to do. One night I hosted a dinner for Toni Morrison at my apartment in Madrid and she told of how she worked all day as an editor, raised children, and also pursued her own writing between eight in the evening until midnight or so. That’s more or less when I began pushing myself harder. Through the 80s and 90s I began publishing short stories in literary magazines around the U.S. and have continued to do so, along with some books, ever since.
Would you mind telling my readers a little more about your book, The Man Clothed in Linen: The Messiah or Herod’s Son?
This is an ambitious novel that tries to relate the intimate details, characteristics, relationships, losses and triumphs of Jesus, the Herod family who ruled Palestine during his lifetime, the Romans who oversaw the Herods, the traditional Jews of the Temple in the Jerusalem, and the hinterland Jews who followed John the Baptist and Jesus in rejection of the Temple cult. I try to relate the actual history of the times to what we know from the Bible itself, particularly the four Gospels.
In a way this is a tale of the rulers (Augustus Caesar, Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate) and the ruled (John the Baptist, Jesus, and their followers.) As the novel progresses from its early focus on Herod and the Romans to John the Baptist and Jesus, the emphasis increasingly falls on what were called “the people of the land,” meaning common folk found throughout Palestine.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
I grew up in a Baptist family of fundamental belief in the literal truth of the Bible and then received a classical education at a boarding school that entailed lots of Bible study, Latin, Greek, and ancient history. The world of THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN is as accessible and natural and compelling to me as my birthplace or where I live now. In fact, I would say our world today emerged from that world. We are its cultural progeny. The political power of the Romans, and the deadly subservience of someone like Herod the Great, was clear to me. What wasn’t so clear, and what fascinated me, was how someone like Jesus could have emerged in such a context and transcended the politically powerful. I wanted to write a story that brought everything together and made the enigma of Jesus more intelligible. Where would someone like him get his ideas, his words, and his courage? What forces did he have to contend with? Why was he loved so much by his followers? Why was he hated so much by his opponents?
I wrote the novel to answer these questions. History can only give us a framework; fiction can fill in the blanks. It can make you “feel” the weight of this epic story.
What type of research was involved, if any, in writing the novel?
Much of the novel is related through the point of view of a man named Nicolas of Damascus, who really existed, and who really was the tutor to the children of Antony and Cleopatra, court historian of Herod the Great, and finally, a member of Augustus Caesar’s court. When I “discovered” Nicolas (who is well-known to Biblical specialists), I went to the Library of Congress (as I mentioned, downtown D.C. is really only a bike ride from my house) and made full use of its magnificent reading room. I read everything associated with Nicolas; I read many histories of Herod and the Caesars; I read lengthy studies of the Age of Augustus; I read the Gospels several times (almost continuously), and I re-read a great deal of the classical literature I had first encountered in high school. I once did a selected bibliography of the most important texts I consulted; it came to about seventy-five books; but there were many more sources consulted than that–I simply ran out of patience tracking them all down.
Is this the only genre that you’ve written of? Or have you experimented with others?
THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN is historical fiction, to be sure, but I write in whatever idiom or genre best suits my literary purposes. My first novel, THE WAY HOME, is contemporary suburban realism with a bit of a gothic touch. My memoir of a year in Iraq, NIGHTS IN THE PINK MOTEL, is non-fiction written as a kind of factual novel. My short stories are lyrical, realistic, mordant, ironic, and playful. I don’t feel constrained by form; I’m driven by substance and the aesthetic effect I want to achieve.
Your book touches upon the lore surrounding Mary and the birth of Jesus, as well as other stories from the Bible. While this is Historical Fiction, it is based upon religious teachings. Have you encountered any opposition in regards to the story because of the fact that there is a bit of creative liberty taken with the biblical scriptures?
Yes, I have received a little “push back.” One reviewer responded, “Sir, this book is not for me!” Another asked why I thought she would be interested. The irony, it seems to me, is that Jesus separates himself perfectly from the corrupt world into which I have him born, and that was my objective: to begin in real darkness, as it were, and gradually shine more and more light on his story. For me one key is the role of John the Baptist. The passages devoted to him in the novel are among my favorites.
How do you find the inspiration when writing your stories?
Often I do something called “webbing,” which is a word-association technique, but just as often, I am riding my bike, or I wake up in the middle of the night, or I mishear what someone said, or I just want to explore a character or a period of time….and I’m off. I always have far more ideas than I can pursue.
What/Who has influenced you the most?
I dedicate THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN to my secondary school teachers, the ones who taught me Latin, Greek, ancient history, and the Bible. The Hill School definitely was the most important part of my education. Then there was the example of my literary-minded older brother, Bill. He’d bring home books and read them and as soon as he finished, I started reading them. Lots of writers have influenced me: Joseph Conrad, John Updike, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and of course the translators of the King James Bible.
What sort of lessons do you wish your readers to gain from reading the story itself?
I write hoping that a reader will experience a story, understand difficult characters, and connect unlikely events. Reading should take you places that are difficult to get to on your own. In this case, I hope the reader will comprehend the massive forces that collided to create the world we live in. In a cultural sense, we’re Jews, Christians, Romans, and Greeks all mixed together, but the critical moment occurred during the life and times of Jesus. He was the figure who most profoundly embodied our highest values and aspirations. And yet…life on this earth is a tragic experience and mankind is a frail entity…so power prevails…and power errs…and we must be mindful of this at all times.
Plotter or pantser?
I plot in broad terms but I write by the seat of my pants. I call it whitewater drafting. It’s what I love most–just writing, just letting it happen, just seeing what I’ll come up with next. And then, as Faulkner said, I am doomed to revise, revise, and revise again. The shortest way to say something is generally the best way.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re at liberty to tell our readers about?
I am working on an cycle of stories that extends Dostoevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV from its ending in Russia through three generations that emigrate to the United States. The first volume of this cycle is complete, and a few of the stories have been accepted for publication It’s called TO HELL AND BACK. The second volume is underway. It’s probably going to be called THE LAST KARAMAZOVS. It will end in New York in the late 1970s.
Do you have any recommendations for books that you think the blog’s readers may enjoy?
I’d list the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro and William Trevor and books too often neglected like William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Time Will Darken It. For readers and writers alike, I would suggest Francine Prose’s book on reading like a writer; it’s full of gems about the writer’s craft and contains a long list of books she thinks everyone ought to read. Her judgment is excellent.
Do you have any tips, or thoughts, that you would like to offer to the blog’s readers?
If your question refers to advice about writing, I would say you should try to write something every day, never give up on yourself, be willing to try new ideas and listen carefully to readers’ reactions and critiques. Most writers, and most artists, think they’re failing to achieve what they set out to achieve. Being creative is inherently full of risk. I know it’s hard on you to hear others agree that you’ve fallen short, but it does you no good whatever to be praised when you really need to keep on revising.
There you have it, Everyone, a lovely interview with the wonderful author, Robert Earle. I appreciate that you’ve given me the opportunity to feature you on my blog and look forward to future works. I wish you the best of success with all you do.
Synopsis: The Man Clothed in Linen presents the grandeur of royal power before focusing on humbler kings and queens in dusty sandals. It explores the mysteries of the New Testament with the authenticity of history and the details of a realistic novel, easy to read and yet eerie in its echoes. Here, like the proverbial mustard seed, the smallest incident grows into the largest, world-changing event.
The Man Clothed in Linen answers age-old questions: Who was Jesus the boy, and then the man? What was he like? Who were his real friends and key followers-including many women–and avowed enemies? What caused John the Baptist to emerge and then be executed? What had Herod the Great and Rome done to ensure turmoil in Palestine, and what was the arrogant Pilate’s role in making things worse?
The Man Clothed in Linen begins with a virgin named Mary brought to King Herod’s sickbed to warm him. When Herod hears that the virgin is pregnant, he orders the child killed. Joanna the steward’s wife thwarts Herod’s order, only the first time she’ll play a key role in the unfolding drama.
In Herod’s last will, he names his less worthy son, Archelaus, as his successor so that Archelaus will bear the brunt of widespread discontent, clearing the way for the younger Antipas to gain the throne. Rome acquiesces, but when Palestine goes up in flames under Archelaus, Rome asserts itself not only by removing Archelaus from Jerusalem but also by limiting Herod Antipas to rule only Galilee and Peraea.
And there a man Herod Antipas once knew well, a childhood friend, emerges to criticize him. This is the Baptist. Beheading him does nothing to dispel the people’s disquiet, for soon thereafter the charmed boy who escaped Herod’s wrath appears. Jesus of Nazareth wisely begins threading a path between revolutionaries and zealots on the one side and supporters of the Temple and Rome on the other.
The battle thereafter is set: Pilate wants to control all of Palestine, Herod Antipas wants to reclaim the entirety of his father’s kingdom–not cede it to someone he suspects is his half-brother–and Jesus thinks Palestine is no more than a prelude to the ultimate conquest of the human heart.
Jesus’ vision, faith, and miracles emerge naturally but so does the tragic sacrifice he must make when neither Herod Antipas nor Pilate will spare him from the cross.
About The Author:
Robert Earle is a novelist, short story writer, and memoirist who lives in Arlington, Virginia. As a diplomat, he also has lived and worked in Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, Germany, and Iraq.
He holds degrees in literature and creative writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins His most recent novel, THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN: THE MESSIAH OR HEROD’S SON?, is a realistic but counterfactual novel that explores the collision of Rome, Palestine, and rebellious Jews like John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth in the aftermath of Herod the Great’s bloody rule. THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN is available in e-novel format through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Goodreads.
He also has a published a memoir of a year he spent in Iraq, NIGHTS IN THE PINK MOTEL (Naval Institute Press, 2004), and another novel, THE WAY HOME (DayBue, 2004). In addition, his short stories have appeared in dozens of U.S. literary magazines, and he was contributing editor of NORTH AMERICAN IDENTITIES: SEARCH FOR COMMUNITY (Stanford, 1995).
Currently Earle is writing sequel stories to THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. He would be the first to agree that he seems to find everything interesting and is willing to put himself in impossible positions for something like the fun of it. He does this with equal abandon in “real” life as well as fiction, but he prefers fiction.
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Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund