I FIRST MET Robert Kerr at a book signing at the Joice, Iowa, Public Library in March of last year. He was promoting his book, Completely Restored, which involves a time-traveling family that begins restoring a century old home only to wake in the year the house was built. A school psychologist, he has followed an interesting career path: a welder, a carpenter, a mental hospital attendant, a mortician’s assistant, and a general Man Friday for an electrical engineer. He knows about restoring old houses, he and his wife, Joan, have rehabilitated five houses, including a Victorian-era house that inspired his book. Originally from Nebraska and the father of two grown children, he lives with his wife in Ankeny, Iowa. He reports that he is planning on retiring this year to devote more time to writing.
Mike: Welcome to my blog, Robert; I’m glad to have you here. First of all you need to tell me how you went from a mental hospital attendant, a mortician’s assistant to a school psychologist?
Robert: Actually, it has been an interesting journey. I majored in Psychology with the idea of going into counseling, but had to eat in the meantime. The mortician's assistant gig was while I was a college student. I lived in the mortuary with a room mate who was going into the "business". We helped with everything you would expect a mortician to do. I found it an excellent opportunity to observe people in many different states, from their best to their worst. It gives a rich source of characters and personalities to draw on in my writing.
After graduation, I took time off from school for a year to build the bank account up again before returning to graduate school. I received a call from an electrical engineer I had met at a seminar in college telling me of a job opening for a psychologist at the state hospital nearby. I applied and was hired to carry out behavior programs with mentally handicapped adults. I spent the summer and part of the fall working the three to midnight shift, tracking data, charting, and helping the clients with the routines of the ward. I also got quite a dose of the Watergate Hearings as that was all that was on our ward TV all day.
By October I was ready for a change and the same engineer who had told me of the state hospital job, hired me full time as the staff psychologist at his manufacturing plant. He was a true entrepreneur and inventor, specializing in equipment used by psychotherapists and psychiatrists. To say the least, he was an eccentric individual. We never knew when we came into the plant in the morning which personality would greet us. He was at once the hardest task master I ever worked for and at the same time one of the most supportive and encouraging people I ever had the pleasure to know. In the year I worked for him, there was never a dull moment; I had hundreds of unique experiences I could not have had anywhere else.
But, after a year, graduate school called and my boss helped convince me that if I wanted any kind of future, I had to pursue an advance degree and move on, which I did. After working in these two jobs for 15 months, I was committed to a career in psychology.
M: That is a wide range of experiences, tell me, what bearing has that background had on your writing?
R: Actually the main influence on my writing was the training I received in high school from a very dedicated English teacher who praised and encouraged me to write daily. Later, my experiences helped open my Nebraska farm boy's eyes to a larger world, one where I could use my training and experience to help students with difficulties in school find ways to succeed. And, after many years of writing essays, poetry, and short stories, which I never once tried to publish, I stumbled on to the true story of the Green Mountain Train Wreck and the role Dr. Elijah Jay played in the rescue effort; I was instantly hooked and couldn't resist intertwining his story with the adventures of a Marshalltown family who were taken back in time 100 years to the year when the house they restored was first built.
M: That brings us to your book, Completely Restored, can you give us a short synopsis of it?
R: An Iowa family completes the restoration of a 100 year old house only to wake up one morning in 1909, the year it was built. They quickly make friends with their next door neighbor, retired physician Silas Fischer. During their time-travel adventure they try to discover why they have been thrust back in time and encounter the Rev. Billy Sunday, magician T. Nelson Downs, the 1909 World Series and eventually the 1910 Green Mountain Train Wreck. In the bargain, the somewhat dysfunctional family pulls together to deal with their plight.
M: What gave you the idea for the book?
R: I have to give credit to my wonderful wife of 38 years who has always been a lover of houses, old houses in particular. Several years after we were able to unload the money pit that was our one adventure into old house ownership, she said to me over coffee one morning, "Boy I sure miss that old house." After spitting my coffee across the kitchen, I replied "anybody who would want to live in an old house should have to spend a year living in the year it was built!" She looked up at me and said that would make a great plot for a book and Completely Restored was born.
M: Where can the book be purchased?
R: The book can readily be purchased on Amazon.com for $14.95 plus shipping.
M: Can you tell me a little bit about what else you write?
R: In terms of sheer volume, most of what I have written has been reaction to various social or political phenomena which have stirred strong feeling in me. As far as fiction, the novel Completely Restored and a few short stories are it. I have also penned a few poems for family members and dabbled in song writing with a friend from Marshalltown. Essentially I write about the things I become emotionally involved in and I in turn try to stir emotions in my readers. In my work with parents, teachers and kids, it has been important to do the same thing at times to motivate them to change or accept change in others.
M: As a writer, what is more important: Plot or Character?
R: As a reader, characters are what keep me reading and wanting more, but it always seems that the plot is what I find myself referring to when I recommend a story to others. As a writer, I have developed the plot first, then developed characters and finally made changes in the plot to accommodate the needs of the characters. That makes it sound like I hold characters in the highest importance; I guess I do.
M: What started you writing?
R: As I said my high school teacher Edith Payne was a tremendous influence on me. Everyone should have at least one teacher like her.
M: Tell me about your writing habits? Do you write each day, morning, evening, etc.?
R: Unfortunately, most of my habits are bad ones and my writing habits are no exception. I spent way too much time researching the story for Completely Restored, working on it off and on from 1993. Then in the summer of 2007, I began seriously trying to complete it and knocked out the first draft in 2 months. My serious writing usually takes place from 5 to 7 a.m., with quite a bit of coffee. This is the time of day when I am awake enough to type, but still not so alert as to get in the way of my characters lives.
M: Do you have anything on the drawing board; anything upcoming?
R: I am working on a sequel to Completely Restored in which the father and son go on a guy's road trip to Clear Lake in a restored 1965 T-Bird, but once again get transported back this time to the winter of 1959. One of them winds up being thrown in a mental hospital and they are both caught up in a murder. The working title is Car Crazy.
M: How about your spare time? Any hobbies, etc.?
R: Working on whatever house we happen to be living in is a hobby of mine in the same sense that capturing Moby Dick was a hobby for Captain Ahab. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, my spare time in the nicer months of the year always seems to go to some form of do-it-yourself project. (Did you catch the connection to Completely Restored there?)
We recently purchased a cabin on a Central Iowa lake which has been our home-away-from-home this fall and winter. We have added those touches to the inside that have made it ours. This summer, after I retire, I hope to get back into a routine of writing every morning until 7 a.m. before I start the day’s chores on the outside of the cabin property. It should make a great place to settle in and do some serious writing.
M: How can readers contact you?
R: My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
M: Thank you, Robert. It was great to have you with us today.