Battles returns to desert roots to share secrets of his success
News Review Staff Writer
“As authors, we are very fortunate to live in a time where we have more control over our careers than ever in the history of publishing.” Brett Battles returned to his hometown recently to deliver a presentation to a packed house of Ridge Writers and guests (and have coffee with this reporter) to share his journey to becoming a full-time author, best known for his popular “Jonathan Quinn” series.
He pointed to writers like Andy Weir, whose hit novel “The Martian” was recently translated to film, who are finding that online and independent publishing are giving authors access to a broad readership while allowing them to maintain a controlling interest in their creative output.
Although Battles got his break in publishing through traditional channels, he has spent the last several years writing and releasing his work on his own terms.
His particular path to becoming a professional storyteller was influenced by parents who instilled in him an early love of reading (particularly science fiction), local teachers who nurtured his creative talent, college mentors who helped him hone his abilities and ultimately his own dedication to the craft.
Battles was born in Riverside, where his father worked for a government lab in Corona. When Brett was about 8 years old the lab closed and the Battles family relocated (along with hundreds of others) to the Indian Wells Valley, where his father would be employed at China Lake.
“A couple of things happened around that time,” he said. “I started really loving to read, for one.”
His fifth-grade teacher Cheryl Bernhardi (then Thurm) reinforced that by reading daily to the class. “It was about that time that I realized I didn’t just love reading, I wanted to tell the story.”
He convinced his teacher to assign a class-wide creative-writing project to see how long a story the students could come up with. Hinting at the intrigues and international settings that would help him build a following decades down the road, Battles penned an adventure set in Hong Kong.
Battles got an internal perspective for storytelling in high school, when he took Alan Kubik’s theater class.
“That was another big turning point for me — when I really learned how to get into other characters,” he said. “You look at a person, and drill down into all the layers to figure out what happened to them, what drove them to that point, what motivates them. I still use those techniques to this day.”
Battles kept in touch with Kubik, and even visited him last fall along with a group of former students. Kubik passed away the following day. Kubik and Bernhardi share a dedication in one of the Jonathan Quinn books.
After graduation, Battles traveled the world for two years with the motivational performing company Up With People, worked for a year at Comarco and attended Cerro Coso before settling in Los Angeles in 1985.
“After being here for more than 30 years, L.A. feels like home now.” Following his college graduation he worked in the graphics world of television. “I did that partly because it was the job that was open, but I stayed because I didn’t want to tax my writing brain.
“I worried if I wrote for television, I would be burned out writing for other people. And I was not as enamored with writing for television and movies, since so many other people put their hands into it. When you are writing a book you are the writer, the director and the actors.”
That decision may have been different today. “We are experiencing such a wonderful revolution in television writing at the moment — I would love to be in the middle of all that.”
At the suggestion of a friend, he decided to keep his writing skills alive by taking classes through the UCLA extension. He would meet there another important mentor, who saw Battles’ potential and shepherded him through the completion of Battles’ first novel.
But real life stalled the start of his career. Between working, getting married and having children, he would all but walk away from writing for the better part of a decade.
Eventually, he picked it up again, and completed two more novels. His third, he thought, was ready to show publishers. He sent “about a hundred” queries to various contacts within the industry. When no one bit, he started writing a fourth. Well into that next novel, Battles finally heard back from a small publishing house in L.A. that wanted to publish his book.
“That was great news for about a minute, and then they went bankrupt!” he recalled. The silver lining was that his contact had a connection at Random House, a subsidiary of which eventually picked up the project and offered him a three-book deal.
“That’s how everything got started.”
Unfortunately, this all happened at the peak of turmoil in the publishing industry. The advent of e-books and the national economic downturn had triggered massive downsizing in publishing — in many cases leaving authors like Battles orphaned in the process.
By 201 he had released five books through traditional publishing. “I had a lot of other friends who were having success in independent publishing, so I decided to dip my toe in.”
This independence turned out to be better than his previous deals, which limited him to one book per year. “I’m a fast writer, so I can write three or four books a year — and I can write whatever genre I want.”
After about nine years as a full-time author, Battles is enjoying greater success than ever. He is now working on his 12th Quinn novel, and has a spinoff series that features a mostly female cast.
He joined the Mystery Writers of America and is active in the Los Angeles chapter. In his spare time, when he has it, he shares his insights with other burgeoning writers.
So what are the common threads among storytellers? “I think for the majority of writers, there is an empathy for the people around you. You see stories in everyone, and you are able to put yourself into those situations — good, bad or indifferent,” he said.
“You can see their dreams and their motivations. Well, good writers can. You can see a bad writer right away because their characters are wooden.
“My big thing about writing is we all find different paths for doing it — no two people write the same way. When I talk to others about my process, ultimately I’m hoping to spark something that will allow them to think, ‘Oh, maybe I can write this way ...’
“You have to figure out how you can write your story, however it works for you — whether it takes charts or outlines or flying by the seat of your pants. There’s no magic key. You just have to find what works best for you.”
The most important thing, he said, is to write. “I had years go by when I hardly wrote a word — and it was wasted time. In retrospect, I wish I could have it back.”
He also reminded novices that, like any other skill, writing is a craft that takes time, patience and dedication to hone.
“A professional baseball player doesn’t start out at Yankee Stadium during the World Series,” he said. “You’re probably in Little League with a coach who doesn’t know what he’s doing. So you swing and you miss. But then you keep swinging.
“Give yourself permission to be bad, give yourself time to get better. Live a life, get experience, find a new perspective, and then sit down and write about them.
“And remember — I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my 40s.”
His novels are available through amazon.com, and more information is at brettbattles.com.
Pictured: Thriller novelist and BHS?grad Brett Battles addresses a crowd of Ridge Writers and guests. -- Photo by Liz BabcockStory First Published: 2017-02-24