It’s been a while since we had a chef visit our kitchen, but I’m proud to have Don Westenhaver, the mind behind the latest Starving Review book, Alexander’s Lighthouse, here to answer our usual, intense battery of questions! Let’s see what he has to say.
Please introduce yourself to my literary foodies!
I’m Don Westenhaver, one of the slowest writers in the world. I’ve written four and a half historical thrillers over a 30-year period. I enjoy writing but I tend to prioritize it lower than working, helping others, socializing, and spending time outdoors. When I finally sit down and write, I do tons of research and I take the time to revise my work until every word is perfect.
Do you do any work outside of the writing kitchen? Any non-work interests?
Having retired after a career as a finance executive. I now use my financial experience to assist my church and Habitat for Humanity. My wife and I have two daughters and two grandchildren, which fill our lives with joy. I get outdoors as much as possible, playing golf, gardening, traveling, and hiking.
What is your latest dish to be served up? Are there any past pieces of literary cuisine you thinwe should take a bite out of?
My fifth novel is over halfway done, but meanwhile all four of my previous novels are available. The Whiplash Hypothesis is about a very wealthy Asian gangster who plans to destroy the US economy by manipulating global oil prices. Only his daughter and her husband stand in his way. The Red Turtle Project is a sequel. The wealthy Asian gangster is murdered by rival bad guys but he manages to transfer $500 million to his daughter. The rivals then come after her but she invests the money in Vietnam in a secret plot to convert the country to capitalism. The third and fourth books take place 2,000 years ago. In Nero’s Concert, Rome has burned to the ground and Emperor Nero orders his close friend Rusticus to investigate the cause, hoping to blame it on the Christians. Instead Rusticus finds a tangled conspiracy, a love he had given up on, and the threat of losing everything. Alexander’s Lighthouse is set in Alexandria Egypt, a melting pot of Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, and Romans, which frequently boils over into violence. A young engineer finds himself caught between the Romans and rebel forces as he helps invent the most powerful weapon in the world.
What made you want to put on the chef’s hat and whip up your own books?
Like most authors, I have loved reading stories since I was a kid devouring science fiction and espionage tales. In Vietnam I wrote long-winded letters home. Years later my mom gave me all the letters and I turned them into a 100-page memoir of my time in the Marines and Vietnam. My friends and relatives loved it and encouraged me to write a real book, which became The Whiplash Hypothesis. I had not planned on publishing it, but when it was complete I was so proud of it I wanted to share it with the world. But marketing turned out to be much harder than writing.
Do you have a genre of specialty or do you dabble? Why?
I like historical fiction for many reasons. First, it’s different. Why do so many of us love to travel? To see something new of course! Second, I enjoy the paradox of humans displaying similar virtues and faults despite differences in culture, geography or historical era. Third, we Americans need to learn more about other times and places in order to broaden our perspectives and appreciate how lucky we are. Finally, if a story’s setting is today’s world, it tends to be obsolete in ten years.
Style! Every literary chef aspires to have their own unique one! What do you think sets yours apart and why?
Hard question! Style includes several elements, some of which are included below in #8, #9 and #10. My goal is to write page-turners, so I focus on action rather than lengthy descriptions of scenery. I try to make the characters multifaceted so the reader can keep track of who’s who, and not include so many that the reader has to build his own cheat-sheet for them. I have tried to wade through literary fiction with its lyrical phrasing and deep philosophical observations, but frankly it takes too much effort.
Even the best of us find inspiration is the dishes of others. Do you have any literary inspirations, heroes, and influences?
My favorite authors in the historical fiction genre are Martin Cruz Smith, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Robert Harris, Nelson DeMille, Stephen Hunter, and David Morrell. However, I also love crime fiction by T Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver, Greg Iles, and Dennis Lehane.
Aside from authors, I give a lot of credit to the SCWA – Southern California Writers Association. This group of authors and would-be authors meets monthly to hear presentations by professionals in the business, authors, agents, publicists, etc., and network with each other over lunch. Check out their website: www.ocwriter.com.
Let’s get into the meat and potatoes: the art and craft of writing itself! Do you have a preference of points-of-view when you write?
So far I’ve only used omniscient, which seems best for thrillers. You want the reader to see bad guys threatening the hero without the poor guy knowing it yet. The plot also becomes more complicated because several characters are working toward different goals, getting in each other’s way. The reader sees the world through different sets of eyes, not just those of the protagonist. In contrast, first person POV works well for detective fiction.
Sparse or wordy, how do you like your descriptions served up? Are you a Hemmingway man or do you like some saucy adjectives with your nouns?
I have two conflicting goals: writing a story the reader cannot put down versus inserting the reader into a different time and place. So my descriptions need to be compact and yet very vivid.
Picking off the menu of base literary conflicts, what’s your favorite and why?
Each of my novels has an overarching theme, a high-stakes setting or plot that could possibly change the course of history. I guess I got this from Ian Fleming – James Bond usually faced a villain who wanted to take over the world. In “Whiplash” the villain wants to destroy the US economy. In “Red Turtle” his daughter wants to transform Vietnam from a Third World country to a thriving capitalist society. In “Nero”, the hero finds himself caught between Roman culture, which values strength, and Christianity, which turns the other cheek. Finally, in “Alexander”, the Egyptians aim to overthrow the hated Roman occupiers.
What do you think is more important to your recipes, plot or characterization? Why?
In my first two novels I probably focused too much on plot, but over the years I heard that some of my characters were shallow and that readers need to care what happens to them. I think my last two books are more balanced between plot and character.
We all know that the first taste means the most! What do you do to get that first bite hook with your readers?
My first chapter is always one of the most dramatic. For example, Nero’s Concert, is based on the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, which affected hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, a calamity on a sweeping scale. My first chapter pinpoints a husband and wife trying to escape from their sixth floor apartment as the flimsy building burns down around them, forcing the reader immediately into the massive disaster, identifying with this one couple.
The most important of questions: Cake or pie?
I’m not too tempted by sweets, but don’t let me near a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips!
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring literary chefs out there, what would it be?
Only one? Many authors I’ve heard speak say you should write each and every day. On a novel, a short story, an email, a blog, doesn’t matter. The more you write, the better you get. Now if only I would take my own advice!