Ronald E. Yates is a former award-winning foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the University of Illinois where he was also the Dean of the College of Media.
He is the author of the Finding Billy Battles trilogy the first in a series of novels. The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles, published in May 2016, is the second book in the series. He is also the author of The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with A Japanese Soul, published by McGraw-Hill. Other books include Aboard The Tokyo Express: A Foreign Correspondent’s Journey Through Japan, a collection of columns translated into Japanese, as well as three journalism textbooks: The Journalist’s Handbook, International Reporting and Foreign Correspondents, and Business and Financial Reporting in a global Economy.
Yates lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America where he covered several major stories including the fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, the 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy in Beijing, and revolutions in Nicaragua, El Salvador an Guatemala.
His work as a foreign correspondent resulted in three Pulitzer Prize nominations and several other awards, including the Peter Lisagor Award from the Society of Professional Journalists; The Inter-American Press Association Award for coverage of South America; and three Edward Scott Beck Awards for international reporting.
Yates is a graduate of the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. He lives in Murrieta, California.
What makes you proud to be a writer from Kansas? I grew up in Kansas and graduated from the University of Kansas. I set the first book of my Finding Billy Battles trilogy in Kansas—a state steeped in old west history, where the “buffalo roam and the sky is not cloudy all day.”
What or who inspired you to become a writer? When I was in the fifth or sixth grade I had a teacher (Mrs. Gooch) who encouraged me to write. She insisted I had the gift of the storyteller. My mother also bought me books and took me often to the library–a place that I found magical and magnetic. She often read to me and I could “see” the story unfolding before me. When I could read myself, I began to devour everything I could get my hands on. Reading took me places I could not, as a boy, otherwise go. As I used to tell my journalism students at the University of Illinois, if you want to write well, read well.
Did your environment or upbringing play a major role in your writing and did you use it to your advantage? I certainly used my upbringing on a Kansas farm to my advantage in Book 1 of my trilogy. I used to listen to my relatives talk—they used some wonderful Kansas vernacular that I have incorporated in my books. I also have used the Kansas terrain and environment in Book 1.
When did you begin writing with the intention of becoming published? Of course, as a journalist, I wrote thousands of stories from all over the world and reached an audience of millions. I wrote magazine stories, editorials, opinion pieces and news stories. So, I guess that means I was published some 30 years ago. I did a corporate profile of the Japanese company, Kikkoman in 1998. That book (The Kikkoman Chronicles) was published by McGraw-Hill. I also wrote three journalism textbooks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. My trilogy of novels (Finding Billy Battles) had been bubbling up inside me since the late 1990s. When I left the University of Illinois and moved to southern California I suddenly had time to devote to putting the trilogy together.
What has been your most rewarding experience with your writing process? Writing, whether fiction or non-fiction is storytelling. I love telling stories. The difference with fiction is that I am not limited only by facts. I can take the story and my characters anywhere I want to and in so doing, I can take readers with me on those journeys. However, the books in this series rely heavily on real events and are, therefore, meticulously researched.
What has been your most rewarding experience in your publishing journey? I have enjoyed meeting readers at book festivals and fairs and talking to them about writing, a subject I taught at the University of Illinois. Reaching a broad array of readers, connecting with other published authors, and listening to people comment and critique my work has been very rewarding also. As a writer you should never stop listening or learning.
How many published books do you have? Currently, I have six published books, three of which are journalism textbooks, two are fiction and one is non-fiction. I also have published a book of my translated newspaper and magazine columns in Japan.
Please list the titles of all your books:
Finding Billy Battles: An Account of Peril, Transgression and Redemption
The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles (book 2, Finding Billy Battles trilogy)
The Kikkoman Chronicles
The Reporter’s Handbook
International Reporting and Foreign Correspondents
Business & Financial Reporting in a Global Economy
Aboard the Tokyo Express (a collection of columns translated into Japanese)
Do you come up with your title(s) before or after you write the manuscript? In almost every case, the titles simmer and stew while I am writing the book. Then, when I am almost finished, I usually “see” the title.
Please introduce your genre and why you prefer to write in that genre? The books of the Finding Billy Battles trilogy belong to a couple of genres. The most dominant one is probably historical fiction, but both contain action and adventure. I love recreating the past for my readers—either through descriptive scenes or via language. The trilogy begins in the 19th century when our language, the vernacular, and expressions used were quite different from the English we use today. Being true to the language of the time is just as important in creating an authentic setting of a book or story as the architecture, technology or modes of transportation. Taking your readers on a journey to the past with your characters is one of the great joys of storytelling.
What was your inspiration, spark or light bulb moment that inspired you to write the book (one book) that you are seeking promotion for? Because my second book is part of a trilogy, I would have to say I got the idea for this story a long time ago when I was interviewing a 98-year-old Spanish-American War veteran on the veranda of the Wadsworth Old Soldiers home in Leavenworth, Kansas. I was a summer intern from the University of Kansas working for the Kansas City Star and I was given the assignment to talk to this man. He regaled me with some of the most amazing stories I had ever heard about his time in the Philippines as part of the 20th Kansas Volunteer infantry. I never forgot that interview and, if you read Book 1 of the trilogy, you can see how I used that experience to get my trilogy started.
What one positive piece of advice would you give to other authors? Try to write as much as you can from your own experiences. They are real and uncontrived and if you incorporate those experiences in your fiction, your work will have a truthful ring to it. Beyond that, KEEP AT IT! Don’t let anybody (editors, agents, etc.) discourage you. At the same time, be willing to accept constructive criticism from those who have experience as authors, editors, agents, etc. Notice I said CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Some people criticize just to be criticizing–or to be malicious. You must believe in yourself, your work, your vision, and your story. If you don’t, who will?
Who is your favorite author and why? It is really difficult to point to just one favorite author. As a journalist, I really liked Hemingway. I also really enjoyed Evelyn Waugh. So those two are at the top, as is John Steinbeck, Mark Twain.
Which book title would you like featured in this interview? The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles. It is the second book of the trilogy and was just published.
Additional Q & A’s provided by Ron Yates:
What do you think makes a good story? A good story needs a strong plot and even stronger characters. Otherwise, it falls flat. The writer needs to be above all, a good storyteller. If you build a good story, THEY WILL COME, to paraphrase “Field of Dreams.” Make readers care about your protagonist. Make readers empathize, cry, and laugh with them. At the same time, keep them off balance. Don’t be predictable and don’t be afraid to do terrible things to your favorite characters. Have you ever known anybody who has sailed through life without some turmoil, some pain, some suffering? I haven’t.
If your book became a movie, who would be your first choice to play the lead roles? Clint Eastwood as the elderly Billy Battles; Clive Owen as the middle aged Billy Battles and Ashton Kutcher as the young Billy Battles. I would pick Saffron Burrows for Billy’s first love, Mallie McNab and Famke Janssen for the widow Katharina Schreiber who Billy meets on the boat to the Far East. (Why these choices? These folks are all tall, like me. Billy is 6’3″ and Mallie is about 5’10,” as is the statuesque widow Schreiber).
Do any of your characters have qualities/characteristics that are similar to yourself? I think Billy Battles and I are a lot alike. I mean, aren’t most novels a bit autobiographical? He is a restless sort. He enjoys traveling, going to new places and experiencing new things. Like Billy, I couldn’t wait to get away from Kansas (though I love the place dearly). And, like Billy, I am a happy wanderer. How else could I have survived and thrived as a foreign correspondent for 25 years? We are both journalists. At the same time, he is a dependable guy who is loyal to his friends and to those he chooses to keep close to him. Above all, Billy respects two traits in people: Honesty and Kindness. We are alike in that way.
How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula? I write from the seat of my pants. I don’t outline my books and I don’t write down plot scenarios. I just start writing and see where the story and my characters lead me. It’s a lot like life itself. We may have a goal in mind, but the route to it is often strewn with obstacles, surprises, and sometimes tragedy. I usually write 3,000 or 4,000 words a day and I edit as I go. In other words, I may write a few paragraphs and then rewrite them within a few minutes of creating them. I don’t really write what I would call a “First Draft.” When I finish writing a book it is finished. I may go back and make a few tweaks with the plot here and there, or alter a little dialogue or some action by a character, but there is no second or third draft.
I know some authors who will write a first draft and put it away for weeks or months and then go back and look at it with fresh eyes. Alternatively, they may send it out to professional “beta readers” or “critiquers.” Those strategies may work for some people. They don’t work for me. I guess it’s my journalistic training: see it, report it, organize it, write it and then move on to the next story.
If your publisher offered to fly you anywhere in the world to do research on an upcoming book, where would you most likely want to go? Back to Vietnam, Cambodia and The Philippines–three countries I worked in as correspondent in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and three countries where Billy Battles is going to wind up living during the 1890s. While I know a lot about those places, having lived and worked in them, I would love to dig deeper into their colonial periods and learn more about life during that era.
Is being a writer a curse or a gift? It is a wonderful gift if you allow the process to come to you and don’t force it. However, don’t let anybody tell you it is not damned hard work. It is. The joy of writing for me is telling a good story. I don’t care about imparting a “message.” Nor do I care about creating any hidden “meanings” that some literature professor will hold forth about in a writing class when I am no longer around to rebut him/her. I just want to tell a good story. That, to me, is the ultimate goal of writing.
The curse is that writing can take over your life, isolate you from family and friends, and turn you into a kind of sophistic recluse if you are not careful. Writers need to take breaks from working. If they don’t I believe they run the risk of becoming stale, self-absorbed, and misanthropic.
What challenges have you had in regards to your writing life? When I was a working journalist for the Chicago Tribune and then a Dean and Professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, I could never find large enough blocks of time to write consistently. Writing requires HUGE amounts of time and long periods of seclusion–things most of us don’t have. Therefore, time to write was always my greatest challenge. Now that I am no longer administering a college, teaching or working full-time as a journalist I am blessed to have a lot more time to write than I ever thought I would have.
When did you first start and when did you finish your book? I started the first book in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy in 2010, but I wasn’t consistent in working on it. I really buckled down in the spring of 2013 and probably wrote 60% of it in about five months. I started Book #2 in the trilogy in December 2014 and finished in May 2016.
What does your protagonist think of you? Would he/she want to hang out with you? I think Billy Battles and I would be good friends. We are both journalists and we both like going to new places and experiencing new challenges. In addition, we both enjoy a good cold beer after a long hard day.
How do you market your book? What avenues work best? I am still learning how to use the vast universe of social media to market my book. In addition to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course, my book is on Goodreads, Smashwords, Google Books, Createspace, NetGalley, Independent Book Publishers Association, as well as the Historical Novel Society, my blog, my author page on Facebook and http://www.ronaldyatesbooks.com/
What has been the toughest criticism of your book so far? Most of the critical comments have been minor. A few people found the 19th Century Kansas vernacular my characters use in Book #1 an annoyance. Book #2 has very little of that because Billy Battles is now in Asia and Europe. A handful of people said they didn’t like the fact that the book is part of a trilogy because now they have to wait for Book #2. I like THAT kind of criticism.
What has been the best compliment? There have been several, but I will list just four here. You can find these and other reviews on the book’s Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001KHDVZI/-/e/B00KQAYMA8/
“This is easily the best work of fiction I have read in some time.”
“There is something about this book that is almost impossible to explain, but it takes it from being a *good* book to a GREAT one.”
“Move over Elmore Leonard and Pete Dexter–there’s a new deputy sheriff in town.”
“Ever have a book that takes over your days and nights – that’s what Finding Billy Battles did for me.”
Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination? That’s tricky. I call my work “Faction,” because it is both fact and fiction. Some of the events in the book–especially those dealing with real people, did happen. Was my character directly involved in them? No. However, members of my family were native Kansans and some of the experiences I write about did happen. Of course, I have woven some of my own experiences into the story line also.
What was the scariest moment of your life? There have been several. One was during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. The last day was chaos incarnate. Russian made 122mm rockets were slamming into buildings, 130mm mortars were hitting Tan Son Nhut airport, and the U.S. Embassy was surrounded by frantic South Vietnamese desperate to get out of the country because they had worked for the American military or some U.S. agency. The city was in full panic mode. Several of us made our way to the sprawling Defense Attaché Office building at Tan Son Nhut and we were finally evacuated by a U.S. Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter. It was a relief until the door gunner told me later aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa that the pilot apparently had to drop a flare to misdirect a SAM-7 (surface to air missile).
Another was during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when several Chinese students and I were pinned down near the square for 30 minutes or so by Chinese soldiers shooting in our direction. Several students near me were wounded and we were helping them get to a doctor’s house nearby so he could treat them. I was convinced I was going to wind up dead in the square. Then suddenly the shooting stopped and I was able to get my Red and White bicycle that I had chained to a lamppost and peddle like crazy for the Jinhua Hotel where I was staying and from where I was filing my stories to the Tribune.
Yet another memorable moment was during the revolution in El Salvador when two German correspondents and I were stopped in our car near the town of Suchitoto by Communist guerillas. They put cloth bags put over our heads and forced us to kneel alongside the road. We were sure we were going to be executed. However, suddenly the “jefe” (leader) showed up and set us free. “Don’t kill journalists–unless they are armed,” he yelled at his troops. I was greatly relieved that I had left the Model 1911 Colt.45 pistol I had purchased a few days earlier back in the hotel in San Salvador. I believe it is still there.
Ahhh yes, the life of a foreign correspondent…never a dull moment. Nevertheless, I still believe I had the best job in the world and I wouldn’t trade my career for anything.
What books have most influenced your life? Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh; The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck; The Quiet American, Graham Greene; The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott; Kim, Rudyard Kipling; Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain); A Passage to India, E.M. Forster; Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser; The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer.
What do you do to unwind and relax? What else? I read. I find reading a good book helps me escape from my own writing, which I need to do on occasion.
What is your favorite line from a book? I have a couple and they are both from Evelyn Waugh: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.” It is a line from Waugh’s book Scoop written by nature writer William Boot for the London Daily Beast just before he is mistaken for a famous foreign correspondent and sent off to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia to cover a war.
AND from Waugh’s book, Vile Bodies comes this great line: “I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence.”
If it were mandatory for everyone to read three books, what books would you suggest? Huckleberry Finn; Grapes of Wrath; Sister Carrie. Not only are these classics, they are wonderful stories about the human spirit, its resiliency and strength, and its deficiencies and weaknesses.
Billy Battles is definitely not in Kansas anymore.
As Book 2 of the Finding Billy Battles trilogy opens, Billy is far from his Kansas roots and his improbable journeys are just starting.
The year is 1894 and Billy is aboard the S S China sailing to the inscrutable Far East. Trouble is not far behind. He has met a mysterious and possibly dangerous German Baroness. He has locked horns with malevolent agents of the German government and battled ferocious Chinese and Malay pirates in the South China Sea.
Later, he is embroiled in the bloody anti-French insurgency in Indochina–which quite possibly makes him the first American combatant in a country that eventually will become Vietnam. Then, in the Philippines, he is thrust into the Spanish-American War and the brutal anti-American insurgency that follows. But Billy’s troubles are only beginning.
As the 19th century ends and the 20th century begins, he finds himself entangled with political opportunists, spies, revolutionaries, and an assortment of vindictive and dubious characters of both sexes. How will Billy handle those people and the challenges they present? The answers are just ahead.
Three Pulitzer Prize nominations by the Chicago Tribune
The Peter Lisagor Award from the Society of Professional Journalists
The Inter-American Press Association Tom Wallace Award for coverage of South America
Three Edward Scott Beck Awards for international reporting.
The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles is the sequel to Finding Billy Battles. I jumped right into this book without reading the first in this trilogy and found it to be a compelling story based on fact and expanded by narrative fiction.
Ted Sayles who is the great-grandson of Billy Battles inherits Billy’s journals and while writing this trilogy he stays very true to the language of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While this book opens in 1894 with William (Billy) Battles heading for the Orient aboard the SS China it covers his time in the Far East, Latin America, and Europe.
It is aboard the SS China that Billy meets German Baroness Katharina von Schreiber. She is gorgeous and regal, far out of reach of a Kansas scribbler (journalist). Since you have probably read the book’s description I wrestle with what to share with you from this amazing story and journey that Billy Battles is about to embark on. So I have decided to quote this passage to whet your appetite. I quote:
“Katharina’s cabin was a bit larger than mine was, and like mine, its walls were covered with dark mahogany panels. In addition to the two overstuffed chairs and writing table, she also had a small dining table. That is where we settled, she on one side and me on the other.
“I’m sorry, I have nothing to offer you to drink.” Then she paused, stood up, and walked to her wardrobe where she produced a tear-shaped bottle of Glenglassaugh single malt Scotch whiskey and two heavy cut crystal glasses. “Except for this.”
She returned and placed the glasses on the table in front of us. “May I?” she asked, and then uncorking the bottle, she poured two fingers in each glass. “This was my late husband’s favorite.”
I shuddered imperceptibly at that remark but pulled the glass toward me anyway. Images of Katharina pushing Baron von Schreiber over a cliff or poisoning him with arsenic-laced Wiener schnitzel flooded my mind.
I forced those macabre thoughts out of my mind by focusing on the rich amber hue of the whiskey as I uneasily swirled the glass around and around in front of me.
What was I doing? I found myself thinking. Why was I in Katharina Schreiber’s cabin about to drink expensive single malt Scotch whiskey with a woman who had just admitted she had killed, but not murdered, her husband?”
Murder, mystery, intrigue, people, places and events that were intended to divert Billy’s attention from his past soon gets him embroiled in Katharina’s past, with the German government, not to mention Chinese and Malay pirates. Later on he finds himself perhaps the first American to be involved in the Anti-French insurgency in Indochina which will later be called Vietnam and involve America. War will not end there as he is forced into the Spanish-American War while in the Philippines.
Just as life takes many unexpected turns for Billy Battles so will your desire to keep turning the pages of this book to find out what is it about Billy Battles that causes him to try to escape his past, endure his new reality and find measured peace as he heads into the twilight of his life.
I invite you to read The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles as it is a journey worth your time. Be sure to read Finding Billy Battles (book one in this trilogy) while waiting for the author to write the final book in this amazing trilogy.
Author Ronald E. Yates life experience as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America gives him the authority with which he writes. It is important to point out he won “three Pulitzer Prize nominations and several other awards, including the Peter Lisagor Award from the Society of Professional Journalists; The Inter-American Press Association Award for coverage of South America; and three Edward Scott Beck Awards for international reporting. He is a graduate of the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. He lives in Murrieta, California.”
Cold Coffee Press endorses The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles (Trilogy Book Two) by Ronald E. Yates. Ronald E. Yates is the author of the Finding Billy Battles (book one in this trilogy) and The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with A Japanese Soul, Aboard The Tokyo Express: A Foreign Correspondent’s Journey Through Japan as well as three journalism textbooks: The Journalist’s Handbook, International Reporting and Foreign Correspondents, and Business and Financial Reporting in a global Economy. We reviewed this book from Kindle/PDF format. The review was completed on June 17, 2016. For more information please visit Cold Coffee Press http://www.coldcoffeepress.com
When a great-grandson inherits two aging trunks and a stack of meticulously detailed journals penned by his great-grandfather, he sets out to fulfill his great-grandfather’s last request: to tell the story of an incredible life replete with adventure, violence, and tragedy. The great-grandfather’s name is Billy Battles–a man often trapped and overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control.
For much of his 100-year-long life Billy is a man missing and largely unknown to his descendants. His great-grandson is about to change that. As he works his way through the aging journals and the other possessions he finds in the battered trunks he uncovers the truth about his mysterious great-grandfather–a man whose deeds and misdeeds propelled him on an extraordinary and perilous journey from the untamed American West to the inscrutable Far East, Latin America and Europe.
As he flips through the pages of the handwritten journals he learns of Billy’s surprising connections to the Spanish-American War, French Indochina, and revolutions in Mexico and other Latin American countries. But most of all he learns that in finding Billy Battles he has also found a long lost and astonishing link to the past.
One Special Book Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Historical Fiction Amazon Verified Purchase Review
Most of my relatives are normal, boring people. They have interesting anecdotes and some cool experiences, but overall there is nothing that will make me sit back and listen to them for hours on end. Billy Battles is nothing like these people.
Apparently taken partially from a real life person, this tale is told through the great grandson of Billy Battles reading through the personal journals of his life as a young man, exploring the world and discovering himself.
Having studied history, the research involved in this book is striking and very thorough. The language, the details, the people and cultures, are very true to life, and I have to take my hat off to Ronald Yates. Yet the book doesn’t just rest on being factual. Through the journals, I got a very close look at Billy, and the people he met, which humanized several actual historical characters, without taking any undue liberties to make them fit a certain mold.
I read this book in a day and half the night, and I don’t regret the lost sleep.
Reviewed by Dan Clarke
Combining ancient craftsmanship with modern technology and marketing innovations, Japan’s Kikkoman Corporation has quietly become a $2 billion market leader. This book tells the fascinating story of how Kikkoman changed the course of international marketing, shrewdly adapting to 20th-century realities while never turning its back on centuries of tradition.