In the Spotlight: Robert Harrell
I was born at an early age. People used to tell me that I had an old soul. (Since I am now also physically old, people don’t say that anymore.) My parents told me I was never really a child, which doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great childhood. I did, and I look back on it with fondness. I very much see my life as a journey, one with lots of switchbacks and changes of direction. Every one of them played a part in bringing me to where I am today.
Visit Robert Harrell at: https://robertlharrell.com, to learn more about this fascinating writer.
Below is my interview with Robert. His writing showcases the creativity and humor for which he has become known and loved in the Write Practice Workshop, and gives you an idea of where his stories come from.
- I’ve been enjoying your writing in the Write Practice workshop, and now I’d like to get to know you better as a writer. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?
As I look back, I see that I have had several creative outlets in life. For my undergraduate work and first MA, I was a music major and continue to involve music in my life. Among other things, I play organ and sing in my church’s worship team. For a number of years, I worked as an actor at a dinner theatre where I played a medieval knight and rode a horse. I played Dungeons and Dragons® for several years and found being a Dungeon Master the most fulfilling because it let me tell stories. (Players used to tell me my campaigns were unlike any others they played but were the most fun.) Eventually, I became a German teacher and adopted comprehension-based teaching that incorporated storytelling and story creation. A long-term observer told me that every time I told a story, my students leaned forward in their seats, became totally quiet, and paid rapt attention. Storytelling has been a part of my creative life for a long time.
One of my units in advanced German was the Middle Ages. For it, I wanted literature that was accessible to my students and provided a springboard to lessons and activities about the German medieval period. It didn’t exist, so I wrote my own. Ultimately, I wrote two books in German for my students. One is set during the reign of Friedrich Barbarossa in the late 1100s, the other in the North Sea area in 1400. The latter is a pirate story based on a famous German legend. Colleagues encouraged me to translate my books into French and Spanish for their students. Because the pirate legend was unique, I simply translated it into the two languages. For the medieval story, I sensed the need to re-set the story into the culture as well as translate it. That resulted in a Spanish version during the Reconquista and a French version just before the Albigensian Crusade. Both of those are as yet unpublished. The French version, however, was so exciting that I decided to turn it into a general-release Young Adult historical time travel novel. That has become my soon-to-be-launched book, Chevalier: A Time for War. My involvement in The Write Practice has spurred me to explore other genres as well.
2. In a recent submission to the Writers’ Workshop, you combined genres in a unique way, coming up with Christian New Adult Paranormal. I always sense a deep faith in your writing—how does that align with the paranormal in your work?
Years ago when I was in seminary, I came across a quote that has stayed with me: “The Christian is the one whose imagination should soar beyond the stars.” I believe that applies very much to writing. In addition, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis have been particular influences on my thinking as an author. Both brought their faith into their writings. Both wrote pieces that dealt with settings we might consider paranormal. While Tolkien is best known for The Lord of the Rings, he also wrote stories set in the ‘real world’ that dealt with Faerie, such as “Smith of Wootton Major.” Lewis’s ‘Space Trilogy’ (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) brings angels and Merlin — paranormal beings — into the ‘real world’ as well. Charles Williams and G.K. Chesterton, also Christian writers, are two other influences.
The Bible shows us the paranormal. In addition to angels and demons, we have the Nephilim, for example. The prophet Elisha seems to have a connection to horses and chariots of fire. In 2 Kings 6, he prays that his servant may see the fiery army that surrounds their city. They were there all the time, so why can only Elisha see them? Perhaps they exist in a different dimension, and God gives glimpses into that other dimension (and maybe there are places where various dimensions intersect). From time to time, there is a crossover.
What about elves, fairies, trolls, etc.? In a sense, they are more natural than humans because they seem tied entirely to the earth whereas humans have a destiny beyond nature. (Tolkien makes use of this idea in his mythology, citing the ‘Gift of Iluvatar.’) Maybe humans are the true paranormal.
In theology as in history, there are large areas for which we have no information, and as an author, I enjoy playing in the interstices. Of course, the same overarching moral and ethical considerations apply whether I’m writing about a historical figure, a modern person, an angel, or a werewolf. It’s that overarching framework that is determinative for me, and I believe creation skews toward righteousness.
3. Do you have a writing routine?
Yes and no. I have a commitment to write or edit every day, but I don’t necessarily have a particular time in my calendar. I seem to be most creative in the evening, so I often wind up writing late into the night and have to tell myself to stop.
4. What is your favorite genre to read and/or write?
As you might have gathered from my source references, I love speculative fiction, especially fantasy. But I also like other genres, and so far I have written primarily in historical time travel, which combines the genres of historical fiction and science fiction/fantasy. I want to do travel writing, poetry, and mystery/crime fiction. In addition, I write non-fiction about second language acquisition for language teachers.
5. I met you through Write Practice, so tell me why you joined up with them? Has it been helpful having a community of writers?
I originally came across The Write Practice when I was working on my pirate book, which will be the second volume in my Lightstone series. Writing Chevalier was easy because of the research I had done for the French version, and it took me little time to write it while on a trip to Europe. The 100 Day Book Program helped me get North Sea Pirate written, and I decided to stick around. Over time, I have made acquaintance with several writers, and their feedback has been valuable in making revisions, tightening the story, and filling in gaps. I read and critique their writings and learn from them. The accountability piece of submitting a writing piece at least once a week is valuable. I wish we had a way to contact one another and say, “I haven’t seen anything by you for a while. Is everything all right?” The community has been very helpful.
6. What is your proudest writing accomplishment to date?
My proudest writing accomplishment to date is converting my German chapter books into full-length novels for Young Adult / New Adult readers.
7. Where are you going from here?
I participated in the 2020 Fall Writing Contest. We had to right a short story. That gave me an opportunity to try a different genre. Since then, I have explored other genres through Short Stories. As you mentioned in your second question, I have recently posted a mash-up of Christian New Adult Paranormal genres. Since writing that as a stand-alone short story, I have written a second chapter, so this may become another book. At the same time I need to do a re-write of North Sea Pirate, and I plan to take my time-traveling protagonist to German East Africa at the start of World War I as well as Poland during World War II. Who knows where else he will go? I also want to write more posts on my blog and additional materials for language teachers. I have another set of characters that I created for a German short story titled “Der Fall des sauren Kunststudenten” (The case of the angry art student): Max, Timo, Marie, and Hannah. I intend to make Max the main character in a murder mystery. There is certainly no reason to be bored.
8. Are you currently working on any other writing projects at the moment?
At the moment I am readying Chevalier for launch (re-launch, really but thoroughly revised), beginning to edit North Sea Pirate and starting to focus on the Christian New Adult Paranormal book, which may become a series as well.
9. What advice can you give to those considering writing a short story or novel?
Anyone who wants to do more than dabble needs to do at least three things:
- Establish a consistent, persistent writing habit, whether it means setting up a scheduled time or a commitment to write every day.
- Read, particularly in the genre you are writing.
- Find or build a community of writers to support you. Get friends and family to support you as well. Before she died in June, my mother regularly asked me how my writing was coming and bragged about me to her friends. The Write Practice has been a great community of writers. There are others out there as well, but I’m happy and grateful that I found TWP.
And now, without further ado, I am pleased to offer a short story from the agile mind of my Author in the Spotlight, Robert Harrell.
Party time! Woo-hoo!
The Community College graduation ceremony began mid-afternoon in the heat of a relentless Southern California sun. Endless repetitions of “Land of Hope and Glory,” interminable, dry speeches, and never-ending, self-congratulatory valedictories later, we left the field as graduates. I needed something to quench my thirst. Darius, one of my buddies, had just the thing.
“Hey, Jay. Want a cold one?”
“Man, Darius, where did you pick up a cold beer in the middle of all this?”
He grinned and held up his arm. The long sleeve of his graduation gown dangled. “Always got something up my sleeve, man. Frozen gel packs keep beers ice cold. This isn’t high school.”
The beer looked inviting. So what if I wasn’t quite twenty-one? Did a few days really make a difference? Besides, turning down Darius’s offer would offend him and make me seem ungrateful.
“Hi, Jay! Congratulations.” The voice of Salvador Ramos, one of the campus security guards, stopped me from taking the beer. Sal was easy-going and a super guy but tolerated no illegal behavior. “You must be hot. How about something to cool you off?”
A quick pivot brought me face to face with a bottle of water that still had bits of crushed ice on it. “Oh, hi, Sal. Thanks.” I accepted the proffered water. “I’m parched.” Opening the bottle, I took a long swig. “Aah! That hits the spot.”
“I’ve got plenty more if you need some.” Sal indicated the wheeled ice chest he was pulling. “What about the rest of you? Selena? Matt? Ana? Darius? Lilith?”
The way Sal said Lilith’s name caught my attention. Tension, taut and electric, flowed between them. They didn’t like each other, and I couldn’t figure out why. A glance at Darius revealed no trace of his bottle of beer. Alcohol was prohibited at all school events. Sal must not have seen it.
“Yeah, man. I’d love a cold one.” Darius’s smile twisted into a wry grin. He winked at me and glanced at the sleeve of his gown. “Give me a couple. We’ll want something cold later.” Taking two bottles, he handed one to Lilith, opened his own, and made a show of drinking. He wrapped his arm around Lilith’s shoulder and pulled her close. They were neither wearing a mask nor maintaining social distance.
She pushed him away, laughing. “It’s too hot to cuddle. I can’t wait to shed this thing.” She unzipped the gown, slipped it off, and hung it over her arm. A red and black bikini accentuated her stunning body.
Darius unzipped his gown as well. He fanned it, showing off his lean, muscular torso and tropical color-block board shorts. “You mean, I’m too hot to cuddle.” He flashed her a smile.
With a laugh, Lilith said, “You are so full of yourself.”
“I’m such a dork,” I said as I unzipped my gown. Underneath I wore a navy polo shirt and tan khakis with brown shoes and socks.
“I like your outfit. It becomes you.” Ana brushed my arm for the briefest moment. Her gown remained zipped and her mask firmly in place.
“Don’t feel bad, bro,” said Matt. “Not everyone can resemble a god or goddess.” He studied Darius and Lilith, then opened his gown to reveal a baggy T-shirt and blue shorts. “Some of us cover ourselves so as not to offend.”
Selena leaned forward and kissed Matt on the cheek. They stood apart from the group, following health guidelines. “I find you quite attractive. You’re sweet, kind, generous, and intelligent. You treat me with respect. You’re a much better boyfriend than any egotistical, self-centered gym rat ever could be.” She cast a meaningful glance at Darius.
Lilith licked her finger and said “Sssss!” as she touched it to Darius’s shoulder. “Burn.”
Opening his gown wide, Darius waggled his eyebrows at Selena. “You know you want some, girl. You’re just too shy to ask.”
Selena grabbed a bottle of water from Sal’s ice chest, opened it, and poured the contents over Darius’s head. “Cool your jets, hot stuff.”
Sal said, “Well, I guess I should see if anyone else needs water. The sooner I distribute these bottles, the sooner I can relax and take off the mask and gloves. Best wishes on the road ahead.” With that, he headed toward the next group of graduates.
Darius threw back his head and laughed. “You got spunk, girl. I like that. Speaking of jets, why don’t we head over to Flyte 39 this evening? Rumor has it they offer some fantastic brews. Who’s coming?”
Three hours later, I was banging on the left front fender of my car and kicking the tire in frustration.
My housemate Kyle pulled up in his SUV, double-parked next to me, and rolled down the passenger-side window. “What’s up, man?”
“Dead battery. Why me? Why now? I was just on my way to celebrate graduating.” I wiped my hands on the rag I used to clean the corrosion off the battery.
“Bummer. You have the worst luck. Let me help.” Kyle shut his engine off, turned on the emergency flashers, and got out of the vehicle. In minutes, he cleaned the battery terminals, pulled out a set of jumper cables, and connected the two batteries. “Give it a minute or two to charge, then try to start your car.”
After a couple of sluggish cranks, the engine caught and came to life.
Kyle disconnected the jumper cables and leaned over to talk to me through the window. “Have someone look at the alternator. Buy a new battery. You don’t want problems driving across country next week.”
I nodded. “Thanks. I’ll do that. Now, I need to go. I’m already late.”
Stepping back, Kyle nodded. “Have fun.”
I put the car in gear and pulled away. Of course, I hit every traffic light red because I was in a hurry, and traffic was heavy. At Carson and Lakewood, they were doing construction, and the road narrowed to one lane in every direction. Three cycles of drumming on the steering wheel later, I made it through the intersection. I was about to gun it when a Long Beach police car pulled up beside me. The cop gazed at me and smiled. I waved and proceeded at the speed limit.
My cell phone buzzed with a message. A glance told me it was Darius, no doubt wondering where I was. He would give up on me as a friend if I wasn’t careful. My hand inched toward the phone in the seat beside me, but I couldn’t pick it up with the cops driving next to me.
The rest of the group was standing in the Flyte 39 parking lot when I arrived. In addition to the five from graduation, four more had joined us. To my surprise, Ana waved and smiled. She had made it clear to all that she detested Flyte 39, and I worked hard to persuade her to come.
“Late, as usual,” said Ana with a smile as I approached.
I shrugged. “Sorry. I had car trouble. Battery died. Then, I hit the lights red all the way. Plus construction. To top it off, a cop car drove right beside me.”
“Are you sure there wasn’t a message in all of that?” Ana’s face was serious.
“You mean like the universe doesn’t want me to have fun?”
“Something like that.”
“You’re here now, man.” Darius punched my shoulder. “We had to wait for everyone to arrive for them to seat us. When you didn’t answer my text, I nearly dropped you from the group.” He turned away.
“Sorry. Thanks for waiting.”
Darius gave me a thumbs up. “No problemo. I’ll see how long it takes to get in now that you’re finally here.” He strode away.
Lilith sidled up and slid her hand along my back under my polo shirt. Her touch sent shivers through my body. “What do you say we hook up for the evening?”
The shivers turned to heat. “Aren’t you with Darius? Won’t he be jealous?”
Lilith nipped at my ear. She wasn’t wearing a mask. “Darius and I have an open relationship. He won’t mind. He’ll simply find someone else to be with tonight.” She stretched and blew gently in my ear. “Why don’t you take off that mask?”
“Hey, guys, get a load of that.” Trever, one of the additions to our group, spoke over the noise of the bar. When we turned, he indicated a stooped, elderly woman with a cane approaching. Her widow’s hump and wizened face contrasted with the youthful crowd waiting to enter Flyte 39. “Doesn’t she realize that only the young and beautiful get to appear in public?”
“Yeah,” said Vivien, another addition to our group. “She should stay home after getting beaten by an ugly stick.”
Everyone except Ana and me laughed. Ana put her hands on her hips and opened her mouth. I groaned inside.
The stooped, familiar figure made its way toward our group.
“Mrs. Kempe! What are you doing here?” The words slipped out before I could stop myself.
“What?” asked Vivien, “You know that old bag?”
“Yeah. She goes to the same church I do.”
At the word church, a few snickers spread through the group. Matt and Selena, as well as a couple of others, looked uncomfortable.
“Well, get rid of her.” Darius had returned without my noticing him. “If she knows you and wants to join us, she’ll just spoil the fun. Probably a closet drunk.”
I moved away from the group toward Mrs. Kempe. Behind me, Ana berated Darius.
“Hi, Mrs. Kempe. I’m surprised to see you here.” Flyte 39 was one of the last places I expected to see Mrs. Kempe. She was one of the pillars of the church and had attended since before the building existed, when it was a small house church. The children were in awe and slightly frightened of her. The teens mocked her. Most of the adults showed her deference in person but talked about her quirks and idiosyncrasies behind her back. She exhibited one of them now, jabbing and thrusting with her right hand, the one holding her ever-present Bible.
“The Lord told me I would find you here.” Mrs. Kempe twisted her head to look up at me and fixed me with her gaze. “He said I needed to bring you a warning.”
“A warning? Why did God need to send you here with a warning?” Warnings and messages from God were Mrs. Kempe’s stock in trade. Most of the time we dismissed them as spiritual talk or delusions, but sometimes it was uncanny what she knew. Like now. How did she know where I was?
“Jashen, every decision you make is important, but some carry more weight than others.”
“What do you mean?” I couldn’t straight out tell Mrs. Kempe to go away. Mom taught me to respect my elders. In addition, Mrs. Kempe might say something at church, and then everyone would look down on me.
“Good and evil come at compound interest.” She punctuated the statement with a jab to her right. “At the university, you’ll face many temptations. Don’t lose those battles before they happen.”
“By celebrating with my friends? I worked hard in school and got accepted into the university. Doesn’t God want us to enjoy ourselves?”
A jab forward came dangerously close to my rib cage. “Of course, He does, Jashen. But in the right way. You can do mighty things for the Lord, but you must be a man of God first.”
“And you think I can’t be that if I enjoy a night out with friends? I’m beginning to resent your interference.”
Mrs. Kempe made a vigorous thrust to the space beside my left ear as she muttered something I didn’t quite catch. “Are they your friends? Discern the spirits, boy. Stop living like your name and wake up.”
“What? What’s my name got to do with anything?”
“Jashen means ‘sleeping,’ and you’re a-sleeping for certain. Jashen the man was one of King David’s mighty warriors, though.” Mrs. Kempe jabbed to the right. “Be like the man, not the name. Your momma wanted you to be a mighty man of valor. That’s what she told me afore she died.”
“Huh. I always thought Mom just couldn’t spell Jason right.”
“You’ve got you some decisions to make tonight, boy. I pray you will choose a-right.” With a sweeping gesture as if cutting through something, Mrs. Kempe turned and hobbled away. I stared after her in confusion.
A hand on my shoulder caught my attention. I turned and met Ana’s eyes. Was she laughing at me?
Ana nodded in the direction of Mrs. Kempe’s receding figure. “She’s one of the mighty ones, you know.”
“Mighty ones? What do you mean?”
“Mighty with God.” Ana whacked me on the back of the head. “Wake up, sleepy.” She laid her hand on my bare forearm.
I turned my head. Mrs. Kempe smiled and waved. Only it wasn’t the Mrs. Kempe I knew. This version of Mrs. Kempe was tall and athletic. She carried herself like one of the female warriors of Wakanda. A soft glow surrounded her. The sword in her right hand radiated pale blue light.
A dark shape approached her from the side. I opened my mouth to call out, but Ana said, “Watch.”
Mrs. Kempe made one of her odd gestures, only now it made perfect sense. Her sword pierced the dark shape. It shrieked and fled.
Ana and I turned back toward the group. They continued their conversation, seemingly unaware of the activity that surrounded them. Dark figures weaved around and through the group before moving on to other customers. From time to time, they whispered in someone’s ear. The person then said something vulgar or derogatory.
“Those are demons, aren’t they?” I glanced at Ana.
“Do they always whisper in people’s ears like that?”
“Nope. Humans are capable of enough evil on their own. Some places and times are exceptional, though. You and your friends are making important decisions tonight. Darius chose an evil place.”
“But what about angels? Shouldn’t there be angels here, too?”
“This bar is a bastion of darkness. We won’t invade it unless a human or group takes it on and calls for aid.”
“We? You mean, you’re an … an …” I swallowed.
“Angel?” Ana smiled. “In the most general sense, yes.”
“There are orders of angels.”
“You mean like seraphim and cherubim?”
“Something like that. I’ll explain it another time.”
“Wow. You’re an angel and here with me. I must be special.”
Ana whacked me in the back of the head. “Don’t let your head swell like Darius’s.” She nodded in the direction where I last saw Mrs. Kempe. “She thinks you have potential. Orders came down from the Throne at her request. I’m here because of her, not because of you.”
I thought about that for a moment. “So, Mrs. Kempe thinks I have potential. Does that mean I’m destined to do something great?”
“The choice is yours. God gave you free will.”
With that, Ana removed her hand from my arm. The dark figures faded into invisibility. My friends remained.
“Glad you got rid of the old bag,” Darius said, pivoting toward us.
“Darius, party of ten.” The hostess’s voice came through the loudspeaker.
“That was mean, Darius.” Ana took a step toward him. “I think I’ll pass on this little party and go someplace where the people are nicer.”
“You think you’re better than us. Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes.” Darius drew himself up to his full height and thrust out his chest. “Why did you come in the first place? You’d spoil the party.”
“I would, no doubt, spoil your kind of party, so it’s best that I not join you.” Ana stepped away from Darius. My gaze followed her.
“Hey, Jay! Are you keeping your promise to celebrate with us or going to Bible study with Miss Holier-Than-Thou?” Darius’s voice was loud and mocking.
I looked at the group. Lilith smiled at me and ran her tongue across her lips, promising an evening of pleasure. My body responded with the urge to accept her invitation.
“You have free will, Jashen. The choice is yours.” Ana turned and strode away.
Previous Authors in the Spotlight:
Nocturne in Ashes – Joslyn Chase https://www.facebook.com/StoryChase
The Light and the Darkness – Lyn Blair https://lkblair.com
The Seafood Capital of the World – exerpt – Jonathan Byrd https;// byrdmouse.com
Lost Hope – exerpt – Edmund Stone https://edmundstoneauthor.com,
Wylde – Chapter 1 – S.E. Laughter S.E. http://selaughter.com/
My Best Mistake – Chapter 5 — Carole Wolfe https://www.carolewolfe.com/
The Babysitter — Justin Boote firstname.lastname@example.org
What the World Needs Now — David Rae Davidrae-stories.com
Flickerings –Evie Haskell . http://www.echaskell.com
The Love Birds Saga I–Margherita Crystal Lotus. https://thecrystallotus.com
Where There’s a Will-Chapter 1–Pat Leo email@example.com
Love is Messy (Finding You Again – Book 1)–Callie Sutcliffe https://calliesutcliffe.com
The Dieppe Raid — Des Dixon firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead–Jodi Elderton http://jodielderton.com
The Raven Watched–Karin Weiss https://kweisssite.wordpress.com%20%20
Blessed Mother, Blue Sky–Terry Chase http://www.drterrychase.com
Heidi–Izzy Richards https://izzyrichardsblog.wordpress.com
Darkness in the Amazon–Stephanie Colbert https://www.stephaniecolbert.co/