He’s been a police officer, federal agent, organized crime prosecutor, and private investigator–now he’s an author of young adult historical fantasy. This month, Genre Chick Alethea Kontis interrupts the fascinating Judson Roberts in the midst of writing his debut Strongbow Saga series to talk about book one: Viking Warrior and to pick his brain for juicy stories from his past lives.
Alethea Kontis: When did you start writing?
Judson Roberts: In 1993. By then, I was feeling very burned out and disgusted with all of the corruption and lack of justice I’d seen in government and the legal system (where I’d worked my entire adult life) and wanted a change.
AK: What got you interested in Vikings?
JR: The Vikings have fascinated me for as long as I can recall. I remember that as a young child, one year I received a Ben Hur playset for Christmas (and I’m sure that dates me, since no doubt the playset came out in connection with the movie’s release). I used to pretend the Roman and gladiator figures from the playset were Viking warriors, and used them to act out Viking stories I created to entertain myself.
AK: Viking Warrior has been classified as Young Adult. Did you write it specifically for that age group?
JR: Actually, I wrote the novel as adult fiction. However, because the protagonist is a teen–fifteen years old in this first book of the series–and because there are some “coming of age” themes in the story, my agent suggested submitting the manuscript to Young Adult editors, as well as to those who handle Adult Fiction. In the current publishing climate, it seems the young adult market tends to be much more interested in series than adult publishers, so that’s where the book and series found a home.
AK: You have a fantastic cover! Were you involved in the process of choosing the cover at all? Does the cover image reflect your idea of Halfdan?
JR: I had no idea what the cover would look like, until the publisher sent an image of it to me to ask my impression. It is fantastic–I couldn’t be more pleased. Interestingly, when I saw the cover image I realized for the first time that to that point I had only the vaguest image of Halfdan. The story is seen through his eyes, so I’d always seen what he sees, rather than seeing him. However, in my mind he’s always been somewhat of an outsider to the Vikings’ culture, so the image of him on the cover–quite the opposite of the classic Nordic blond–feels right to me.
AK: Viking Warrior is also available in a library edition. How cool is that?
JR: My editor has told me she sees this series as being one readers of all ages will love and want to reread for years, so I suppose HarperCollins felt it was a natural for libraries. I certainly hope my editor’s impressions are correct.
AK: How have libraries helped you in your writing?
JR: I used to love the public library when I was a child. I remember making trips there during the summers and loading up on books, which were always a major source of entertainment for me.
When I was researching the Strongbow Saga series, I several times turned to the Houston Public Library system to obtain copies of hard-to-find copies of translations of old texts, such as Frankish annals from the ninth century. The Houston Public Library participates in an inter-library loan program, and was on several occasions able to locate for me copies of source materials I might otherwise not have access to.
AK: In addition to your own Web site, you have one specifically dedicated to the Strongbow Saga–how is it different?
JR: The site, www.strongbowsaga.com, is a free educational Web site about the Vikings and the 9th century world, drawing on all of the research I’ve been doing for the series. It complements the fiction series by providing a convenient place to learn more about the real cultures and history in which the series is set. Some articles are already available at the site, and I’ll be adding others on an ongoing basis. Teachers and librarians might like to present the book/Web site combination as something for readers to explore.
AK: What’s one of the most puzzling stories from your colorful past? Most dangerous? Funniest?
JR: The most puzzling story involved a case I worked on in Arizona from roughly 1986 to 1991, while I was an Assistant Attorney General with the Organized Crime and Racketeering Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. I was also cross-designated as an investigator for that office because of my prior law enforcement experience, and during the period when I worked for the AG’s Office I planned and directed a number of major undercover investigations, many of which involved organized crime. In 1986, on the anniversary of the murder of Donald Bolles, an investigative reporter who’d been assassinated ten years earlier in Phoenix, my boss asked me to take a look at what had been, for years, an inactive case. I worked on it over a five year period, and took it from a dead file to a point where I was able to indict several people for participating in the murder, or for participating in an elaborate conspiracy to cover up the reasons for Bolles’ murder–which apparently was motivated by Bolle’s discovery of some sort of connection between members of the Mafia and some very prominent Arizona political figures. Unfortunately, in 1991 the sitting Attorney General retired, and a new AG, who was a close friend of a suspect I was investigating, was elected. I was fired on his first day in office, and the investigation was closed, so I was never able to complete the investigation. Working on that case was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done, though–searching for the truth was like peeling away the layers of an onion.
My most dangerous experience–or at least my scariest–occurred when I was a rookie police officer, fresh out of the police academy and riding with a training officer. This was back in the 1970s, before police officers carried personal radios–our only means of contact with the station was through the radio in our squad car. One night we received a call to meet a man who’d been assaulted–the sort of vague call that could mean almost anything. It turned out, when we met the complainant, that he’d been accosted at gunpoint by a deranged neighbor, who’d locked him in the trunk of his car and absconded with the victim’s wife and infant child. After we arrived to back him up, the victim–who’d managed to free himself from the trunk of his car–led us down the street to his neighbor’s house, and before we could stop him, kicked in the front door. Inside, his wife was lying dead on the floor, shot in the head, and his child was on the floor beside her, crying.
My training officer told me to go the car and call for back-up and an ambulance. “I can’t,” I told him, “I don’t know where we are.” I had not yet learned the police trick of always noting where you are. So my partner told me, “I’ll go call in. You search the house and see if the killer’s still here,” and ran back to the squad car, taking the husband, who was in shock, and the child with him.
I’d never been so frightened in my life, but I searched the house, room by room, and determined that no one was there. When I reached the back of the house, I shined my flashlight out the back door into the pitch black back yard, and could see nothing, but figured I’d done my duty by clearing the house.
When daylight came, the crime scene crew found another dead woman in the back yard. The suspect had literally gone crazy that night, and ended up killing three women he felt had wronged him. While I’d been searching his house, he’d been driving across town, headed toward the home of his third victim.
My funniest experience also happened when I was a police officer. Once I caught a burglar in a house he’d broken into, but he escaped before I could arrest him and took off running. I chased him for a while, but I was weighted down with my dress oxford shoes we had to wear as part of our uniform, plus the pounds of equipment police wear on their belts. In frustration, I yelled, “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” The suspect stopped–only briefly–turned back toward me, said, “No you won’t,” then kept going.