On the Wings of Words

Ralph Roberts at the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim, CA.
Ralph Roberts signing autographs at the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim, CA.

by Ralph Roberts

Like those magic flying carpets of old, selling words creates its own magic. We’re wafted along to unexpected meetings and faraway places. Do they know I’d do this for free?

Shhhhhhhh.

People

My favorite writer story involves not me but witnessing the true graciousness of famed horror writer Stephen King. We were both guests at a science fiction convention in Knoxville in 1984.

In the restroom, he’s using the facilities. Some kid comes behind him and says, “May I have your autograph, Mr. King?” Stephen finishes his current task, zips up, turns around and nicely signs the book — before washing his hands (perhaps a subtle statement, eh?). Later, he mentioned how much he liked one of my stories; had the title right and all.

Another example of a nice person occurred at the American Booksellers Association show in Los Angeles, 1994. I was there to introduce Classic Cooking with Coca-Cola®, my most successful book with over half a million copies sold, still in print, and a royalty check every six month period to date (four figures last month).

I’m standing in the middle of an aisle, awestruck to be playing with the big dogs. A very deep voice behind me said, “You’re blocking the way.”

I stepped to the side and turned, it was the actor James Earl Jones. He smiles and shakes my hand.

I was quite lucky! He was the voice of Darth Vader. He could just as easily have whipped out a light saber and carved his way through. “I am your father, Luke,” he said as he left. Not really but I heard it in my mind.

Writing certainly puts you in position to meet widely varied people. On assignment to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago for Compute! Magazine in 1992, I met heavyweight boxing champ George Foreman and Vanna White (“I’d like to buy a vowel, please”) within five minutes of each other.

So I’m standing in the aisle (yes, again, you’d think I had learned my lesson by now). It’s crowded. A lady’s voice behind me said “Excuse me, please.” It’s Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the famous sex therapist. We chatted briefly but I missed asking the big question, “Why are you at the Consumer Electronics Show?”

This, of course, was back in the day when we geeks did not… (Wait, I am being corrected. We did?)

Interviews were one of my staples as a freelancer. Such as with Ben Hur, I mean Charlton Heston. He didn’t break any stone tablets on me either. He was a super fine man. And singer Perry Como invited me into his home for a most enjoyable interview.

Then, there was Lash Larue, the whip-wielding antihero of B-Western movies. For a couple of years back in the late eighties, I edited a monthly tabloid for Western movie buffs, the Sagebrush Journal.

So Lash, in his late seventies by then, was in town on a gig to open, of all things, a pool hall. He was an interesting character, actually had a Doctor of Divinity degree. I grab my camera and head over there. We knew each other from working Western memorabilia shows together, so he beckons to me. He’s in costume, wearing his six-guns, and carrying his trademark whip.

“Roberts, gonna flip a cigarette out of your mouth.”

Well Lash, despite the religious degree, did drink a bit and had been.

Being a writer means thinking fast. A simple “I don’t smoke” wouldn’t do the job. He’d just growl, “You don’t gotta inhale.”

Inspired by the desperate desire to survive, I held up my camera. “Let me shoot it for the paper, Lash.”

Instantly, some crazy young man yells, “Let me, Lash!”

And that shaky old movie star, with a thunderous crack (it was a small pool hall) flips the cigarette from the young gent’s mouth with nary a scratch. I got a great photo to go with my article and retained my nose.

It wasn’t all celebrities, though. In the decades I’ve spent as a professional writer, a glorious parade of interesting characters has trooped through my word processing software. They’ve amused, bemused, and entertained me as the articles about their accomplishments practically wrote themselves.

 Places

The wings of words also have taken me to a lot of places.

One of the more interesting sojourns was in the actual West. No longer just writing about it, I was there.

As some writer once wrote, “the high deserts of the West are nothing but miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.” (Oh, wait, that was me.)

A subsidiary of Daimler-Benz had bought a small high tech company in El Paso that made artificially-intelligent machine controls for the auto industry. They wanted a book about it. They checked the available books on artificial intelligence and found one by me on Prolog (an AI programming language) they liked a lot.

It was supposed to take a month but everyone in the company by the committee effect dragged it out for almost a year. Not that I cared, since they were paying me tons and providing an expense account as well as a condo up on the Franklin Mountains.

A Western enthusiast, I traveled all over the area. Found the grave of gunfighter John Wesley Hardin. Visited where Billy the Kid was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett, where Pancho Villa invaded the United States in Columbus, New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, and much more.

In the meantime, the marketing director was pregnant and needed time off. I took over as Acting Marketing Director and did most everything a B2B copywriter does today (great experience). I was also in a position of power and got the book done.

Finally — for this article — having a minor name in the writing of speculative fiction, in 2006 I was a guest at the World Science Fiction convention in Anahein, CA (right across the street from Disneyland!). In an autographing session, they seated me next to Walter Koenig, the actor who played Mr. Chekov in the original Star Trek TV show.

A great guy and fun to chat with, Walter (although he was far too nice to show it) might have been a little miffed at me. In the two-hour session, I signed over three hundred times to about two or three for him. To be fair, he was charging for his and I, being a far lesser name, gave mine away.

Still, you gotta fire those photon torpedoes whenever you can, eh?

In conclusion, during the past thirty-five years, over a hundred books and thousands of articles and stories (more than twenty million words sold) the wings of words have carried me to great heights.

And I’m still writing because I love this ride!

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