Books

Oldie but goodie

Author Robert Westbrook revisits his 1998 novel ‘Ghost Dancer’

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Treacherous acts, ruthless characters, and a mystery peeled away in layers like an onion. What better way to warm up on a cold winter’s evening than with such a read?

Author Robert Westbrook will be revisiting “Ghost Dancer,” the 1998 debut novel in his popular Howard Moon Deer mystery series, on Saturday (Nov. 18) from 2-3:30 p.m. at Op. Cit. Books, 124A Bent St. Westbrook will be reading from the acclaimed mystery, and will follow with a discussion and book signing. This free event is open to all.

Set in the fictional New Mexico town of San Geronimo, Westbrook premiered in “Ghost Dancer” two of his most popular characters: Private investigator Howard Moon Deer and ex-cop Jack Wilder. The former is a Native American from a fictional Indian Pueblo who is pursuing his doctorate; the latter was blinded in a line-of-duty injury who relies upon his new partner to provide the eyes in “private eyes.”

Following the trail of the murder of a U.S. Senator, the novel is “overrun with pleasure-seekers, plunderers, and fanatics [so] San Geronimo has no shortage of suspects,” according to publicity for the novel.

The four-installment series — including “Warrior Circle,” “Red Moon,” and “Ancient Enemy”— features mysteries and mayhem centered in the high desert of Northern New Mexico and seasoned with Westbrook’s political outspokenness.

“I have a lot to say about America,” he said with a smile, “and that’s especially true in the Howard Moon Deer series.” The storyteller sees himself as both a humorist and satirist whose stories are structured to be enjoyable, but with a point. Above all, “Thou shalt be interesting,” is the first commandment of this prolific author.

And if anyone epitomizes ‘interesting,’ it is Westbrook himself.

His early childhood was spent in Hollywood where his mother, Sheilah Graham, was one of the queens of the town’s gossip columns. Before Westbrook’s birth, she was the paramour of F. Scott Fitzgerald. With Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, institutionalized, and with the author himself down, out, and broke, he had come to Hollywood to try his hand at screenplay writing.

The two had a passionate yet tumultuous relationship, fueled in part by Fitzgerald’s alcoholism. At the age of 44, he succumbed to a massive heart attack in Graham’s living room as she looked on in horror. Her memoir of their three-and-a-half-year relationship was made into a major Hollywood motion picture, “Beloved Infidel.”

“I grew up in the shadow of this contradiction, both the glory of what it meant to be a writer, and the terrible price it often entailed. Somehow, despite the cautionary tale of Scott Fitzgerald – and despite my mother’s pushy ambitions on my behalf – I always wanted to be a writer, from as long back as I can remember. It seemed to me the most wonderful thing in the world,” Westbrook said.

Westbrook said he was living in Greece, on the island of Crete, “when my mother died in 1988 at the age of 84. I returned to America and tackled the story of her life, with ... the many details she had left out of her own autobiography. My book, ‘Intimate Lies,’ was brought out by HarperCollins in 1995, and I think it’s perhaps the best writing I’ve done.”

Graham and her Hollywood story is not the only influence in Westbrook’s writing journey, however, though certainly the most impactful.

“After a summer trip to the Soviet Union after my sophomore year [at The Putney School, Vermont], I wrote my first book, “Journey Behind the Iron Curtain,” which was published by Putnam’s in 1963 when I was 17. Later I attended Columbia, joining the memorable class of 1967 that was eventually to shut down the university. From the sex, drugs and revolution of that time, I put together a first novel, ‘The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart,’ published in 1969 and made into an MGM movie that introduced an 18-year-old actor, Don Johnson.”

After a 15-year hiatus, which included marrying his wife, Gail, and having three children, Westbrook returned to novel writing and thoughts of Hollywood. “In 1985 I began writing a series of satirical mysteries set in the Los Angeles of my childhood,” he said. “And, at the moment, I’m nearly finished with a huge novel set in the 1940s and 1950s. The trilogy, entitled ‘The Torch Singer,’ [follows] the rise and fall of a singer, a B-talent who lives by her wits and beauty with disaster generally close on her heels.”

The ebullient Taos author-screenwriter also spends his time teaching story structure and the craft of writing, and traveling the world with his wife, who is an English as Second Language professor with contracts spanning the globe. “In fact, I wrote ‘Ghost Dancer’ while we were living in China. What a different perspective on America when you’re living outside it,” he mused.

“I’ve been a writer all my life, long enough to have seen the business change from three-martini lunches and family owned New York publishing houses to mega-media corporations and sparkling water – and now, most intriguing of all, the new digital revolution where it’s possible to bypass publishing companies altogether.”

In fact, in choosing “Ghost Dancer” for this event, he said he wants to acknowledge his new publisher, the Santa Fe-based Speaking Volumes, will be releasing the catalogue of his novels in print-on-demand format beginning with the Howard Moon Deer series.

“I still believe it’s magic, the luckiest thing in the world to be an author of books,” Westbrook concluded.

Those attending this event will be in thrall from the reading to Westbrook’s entertaining stories of movie stars, life in LaLa Land, world travel, old school/new world, and just about everything in between. For more information, contact Betty Palmer, event coordinator of Op. Cit. books at (575) 751-1999.

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