BookView Interview with Author Sheldon Charles

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we talked with Sheldon Charles, a decorated Air Force veteran and the author of Three Paperclips & a Grey Scarf,Blood Upon the Sands, From Within the Firebird’s Nest, and Ferdinand’s Gold about his writing. (read the review of Blood Upon the Sands here).

Sheldon Charles is a decorated Air Force veteran who spent most of his career as a strategic war planner and logistician. After his uniformed service, Charles was hired by the Department of Defense to be the civilian Director of Information Operations for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Charles’s career has taken him around the globe and given his writing a unique international flair. He is the author of Three Paperclips & a Grey Scarf, Blood Upon the Sands, From Within the Firebird’s Nest, and Ferdinand’s Gold. He currently resides in Michigan.

He can be contacted at shel@valkyriespirit.com or via www.valkyriespirit.com

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

At about age eight, I went to my first sleep-away camp at Lake Arrowhead, California. Every night of the week, there was a huge bonfire down by the lake right at sunset.  It seemed like there were thousands of us gathered there. Still, in reality, it was probably only 2-300 boys gathered around in a semi-circle being led in cheers, songs, and watching skits.  All of this was new to me, and the camp was a big bag full of new stuff of which to be a part.  At the end of the evening came a life-changing act.

The character’s name escapes me now, but he walked out slowly from the darkness, using a cane, and wearing a jungle explorer jacket with a pith helmet.  A long beard and wire-rimmed glasses finished his look.  Everyone fell silent as he walked to the center of the fire ring and slowly sat down on a small stool a few feet in front of the fire.  The intensity of the moment increased as he took off his glasses and cleaned them using a handkerchief he had taken out of one of his many pockets.    The only sound to be heard was the crackling of the fire roaring behind him.   

Even among us first-timers, there was a sense of expectation as he cleared his throat and began to speak.  He told us a story.  The story was a combination of local legend, tall tale, and humor, all told using various voices and sound effects he provided.  As he spoke, he used facial expressions and hand gestures to emphasize points.  The assembled crowd was no longer silent as we laughed, cheered, and shouted comments while he kept us enthralled.  The teller of tales would eventually stand and walk from side to side. The story came to the climax, his gestures becoming more wild and inspiring excitement.  

When he finished the story, he would slowly drop his hands to his side and lower his head –the absolute silence returned.  As if on cue, we all exploded in loud cheering and applause.   I’ve come to realize what I witnessed was a master storyteller sharing his craft throughout my life.  I went back to my cabin every night of camp inspired and knowing the career path I wanted for my life.  I wanted to be a storyteller too.  

How often do you base your characters on real people?

I have always been a people watcher; I like to observe how people act and react in any given situation. Somewhere in my mind, I’ve built a catalog of personalities I’ve observed over the years. A lot of those quirks show up in the novel’s characters. I think it adds a lot to the realism and the relatability of those characters. I hope to draw the reader in by keeping the characters real and avoiding the easy way out by using stereotypes.

Of course, it’s often said, “If you know a writer, you’ll live forever. “ The hidden meaning is that the writer will, at some point, immortalize you as one of his characters. There is a fair bit of truth that, even if a character is not a complete match up to a real person, a real person often serves as the basis for a character.

I’ve had people ask if a particular hero is based on someone I knew. The absolute truth is that yes, to some degree, they are, but so are the villains.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

I have stories I‘ve started and gotten two or three chapters before realizing I don’t have enough for a full book, so I set it aside. If the story is particularly good or exciting to me, at some point, I may go back and rewrite the narrative as a short story; partly because I’m emotionally connected to almost every tale I tell.

Because of this question, I went back through my collection of partially finished works. I found I have twenty-three partial stories. At some point, I want all of those stories to live if they can be told well.

My novel, From Within the Firebird’s Nest, sat as an outline and two chapters for almost six years. One morning, vital parts of the story connected in my mind, so I pulled it out and completed it.

How many hours a day do you write?

During my last tour in the Middle East, my work schedule allowed me to have uninterrupted time segments. I’d once read about an author who would start each day in front of his typewriter and not get up until he’d written a thousand words. Sometimes it took him an hour or two; other days, it took him ten or twelve hours. I tried his process.

What I discovered was I could not force myself to continue writing when the storyline in my head ran out; otherwise, I would spend every other day deleting half of what I had written the day before.

Now, I start each writing day sitting in front of my keyboard, but how long I remain is based on how easily the story flows from my mind to the page. I’ve been blessed as I’ve never really faced writer’s block per se, but I usually wind up deleting most of what I’ve written when the flow is gone. So, I don’t push it. When it is done for the day, it’s done.

How often you read?

Always. My usual pattern is to read three books at once. I read something nonfiction, a biography, or history. A book just for fun, be it a novel or something humorous. Finally, I read something for self-improvement. The last category gives me broad latitude. I consider Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Gandhi and Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning to fall in that category rather than the nonfiction realm.

I’ve also read quite a few books I can’t entirely agree with. I’m not sure if my stubbornness forces me to finish the book because I paid for it.  Maybe it is the need within my mind to know what people I disagree with think. I find it much healthier than sitting in an echo chamber of people who agree.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

I think you’ll never grow as a writer if you do not. The first review I ever received was for a stage performance in the first grade. I’d just performed for the first time publicly as a toy soldier in a Christmas play. My Mom said I was outstanding. Since that time, almost everything I’ve done has also included some evaluation of the job I did. Because of that, I can handle a bad review and appreciate the actual words and meaning of a useful review without getting a swelled head.

I realized that I was getting more mature about how I handled criticism after getting a one-star review on Goodreads for From Within the Firebird’s Nest. After going beyond the star rating, I took the time to read the review and discovered the reviewer did not like my use of italics. The novel is full of internal dialogue. Therefore, I set those sections apart from the rest of the printed word on the page by using italics.

Suppressing the desire to lash out, I instead read some of the person’s other reviews. What I noticed was a trend. The reviewer seemed to be a frustrated copywriter who also had issues with people who used ellipses too often, asterisks, and hated the Oxford comma. The one massive thing lacking in the reviews was anything about the book’s content or storyline. Because of his obsession with punctuation and typeface, the joy of reading had been sucked from him. Pity.

Of course, not all bad reviews are undeserved. Sometimes, you run into someone who just does not like the way you tell a story. I can handle that. I also learn things from reviews, which help me in the future. I had a reasonably good review mention an interaction between two main characters. The reviewer felt it served no purpose in the plot. I went back and reviewed the offending section, and they were right. It didn’t hurt the story, but apparently it distracted some readers, at least that reader. I am more aware and tried to avoid repeating the error.

I think the one thing all writers need to do is keep in mind is that a review is only one person’s opinion.  When I first released Blood Upon the Sands, I expected my character Maksim Fillyp Bondreovich to be noticed. I was quite proud of him, even though he was a sociopath. I spent a lot of time and effort crafting ways to make him sadistic and easy to hate, including lengthy internal monologues about how he was enjoying the evil he did. It did not go unnoticed, as I got two reviews back to back. One called him a great villain — so memorable he might cause nightmares after reading the book – Yea! The other said Maksim was too mean, and too much time was spent inside his head, providing his viewpoint as he shredded other characters – Uh Oh. Same book, same character but two different opinions.

Tell us about your other book From Within the Firebird’s Nest.

I grew up in the Cold War era, and I was in uniform when the Eastern Bloc fell apart. Deep in the recesses of my mind, the sudden shift of espionage forces in those countries going from being the bitterest of enemies to friends did not seem logical. The novel is a simple story about payback. Someone who lost everything when peace broke out, still possessed weapons capable of lashing out, and based on years of propagandist teachings still wanted to destroy the West.

From the first time I heard about numbers stations and the mystery surrounding them, I wanted to include them in a story. This book afforded me that opportunity and allowed me to introduce characters who were doing that level of work in a chain that could ultimately destroy an entire nation. Add to that sleeper agents and a writer who found himself suddenly thrust into a situation better handled by an experienced spymaster, and you have a tale of multiple layers and multiple stories within stories—my type of story.

How does your faith life/ethical outlook inform your writing?

I do not go looking for lessons in ethics to inflict upon people, but I do not look away or exclude those things when they are a deep part of the story.  An author cannot avoid slipping pieces of his spiritual ethos into their writing. I can see that in almost all my novels.

During the almost two years I spent in Kuwait, I discovered one of the regime’s best-kept secrets – – the suppression and oppression of the Bedoon people. When I started writing Blood Upon the Sands, they became an integral part of the story and the plot.

Dex’s father’s back story in Ferdinand’s Gold exposes a lot of the bureaucratic bullshit that existed during the Vietnam War, both when it was going on and how politicians wanted to bury it once it was over. It is too easy to allow a hero to become a goat when a specific narrative is desired.

The interactions between the soldiers and the Afghan rebels in Three Paperclips & a Grey Scarf show the difference between what was encountered on the ground and what politicians would have us believe. One of the characters mentioned in the book, Hakim, was a college friend who went back to Afghanistan when the Russians invaded to help take back his country. I have no idea what became of him.

From Within the Firebird’s Nest includes a teenager who is convinced to become a terrorist by a man who uses faith to warp the teenage boy’s motivation. We don’t often hear about what turns an innocent person into a lethal weapon of destruction; sometimes, it is more uncomplicated and more straightforward than you would ever think.

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