Robert Beatty: Imagination, Invention, and Reinvention

by Marie Hefley

Robert Beatty

A short drive from the busiest road in south Asheville, North Carolina—past the commercial buildings, railroad tracks, and snarled traffic backed up at lights and stop signs—open meadows dotted with Bradford pear trees, dogwoods, and tall grasses line the road. They lead to rural homesteads where birds chirp and squirrels rustle, breaking the deep silence.

In this pastoral setting, Robert Beatty, author of the New York Times best-seller Serafina and the Black Cloak, creates his stories in an office filled with his favorite books, inspirational memorabilia, a costume for his second book’s trailer, and wireless telegraph devices he and his daughters built. The bookcase-lined wood paneled room, punctuated with large windows that bring in views of mountains, trees, water, and wildlife, is quiet and private, the ideal place for him to “weave a long and twisty tale.”

Beatty began weaving tales when, as a boy of eleven or twelve, he ran out of books to read. “My mother kind of panicked and said, ‘Here, play with my IBM Selectric typewriter.’” He started his writing career by writing novels—“not very good at first”—but he kept practicing. At about the same time, he discovered computers, drafting, and engineering. Passionate about both pursuits, he delved into both with equal fervor. Having grown up near Detroit, Michigan, however, where “everybody who was in charge of anything had a degree in engineering,” Beatty chose a career in software and engineering but continued to write fiction when he could.

By the age of seventeen, Beatty already knew five computer programming languages, so he didn’t see much point in getting a computer science degree. Instead, he sought training that would complement his knowledge of software. His classes in Mechanical Engineering and Computer-Aided Manufacturing at Michigan State University exposed him to the possibilities of factories of the future.

While still in college, he began working at an old-style forging plant that wasn’t equipped for the changes to come in manufacturing systems. In 1988, Beatty started designing software to combine management and manufacturing functions into one “complex but easy to use system.” His software integrated the full scope of the company’s dynamics: “engineering, quality control, manufacturing processes, accounting, shipping/receiving, HR, and all the other departments” and prepared the company to compete in an evolving industry. After a few years, he was one of a small team of managers running the company. In 1995 he partnered with the owner in a new venture called Plexus Systems to provide software to other manufacturing plants.

Beatty’s business model was to build and set up data centers at his client companies. While very successful and profitable, this model was labor-intensive and expensive. By 1999, Beatty recognized that the Internet, which had been painstakingly evolving since the 1960s, was reliable and mature enough to act as the basis for a new business model. He would design a centralized data center that his clients would access from their own locations, an approach that would later be called “cloud computing.” He rolled this leading-edge model out in 2000 in the form of “Plexus Online.” In the years that followed, his company was renamed to Plex and “now supports more than 400 organizations and 1,300 production facilities in 20 countries around the world.”

As the Chief Executive Officer of Plexus, Beatty “worked ninety hours a week and loved it. It was my passion. I thought, ‘This is great. I want to do this forever.’ Then my wife got cancer.” To take care of his family, which now included two small daughters, he sold 90% of the company and, while he no longer ran the day-to-day operations, he remained as Chairman of the Board and a technical consultant. Emotionally, however, he couldn’t stay in Michigan and watch someone else run his creation.

Able to live anywhere, the Beattys considered moving to the Peruvian Amazon, nearer to family in the United States, or to North Carolina, where one of Beatty’s favorite movies, The Last of the Mohicans, was filmed. He Googled© all of the North Carolina locations listed in the film credits, including the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, and the Tarheel State became a strong candidate for consideration. The family came to the Asheville area, stayed in several different places, and found their ideal spot in the south end of the city. “The moment I got here, it felt more like home than my entire life in Michigan. I felt totally in love with this place. Its forests, mountains, waterfalls, and wildlife drew me here.”

Asheville’s rich writing community was also a draw for him. Throughout his mid-life transition, Beatty had pursued other passions, including writing. When time allowed, he took workshops and classes (he met his wife in a writers’ workshop). He became a student of Tom Jenks, the editor of Narrative Magazine and an editor at Simon & Shuster.

Beatty also developed a system of feedback that helped him hone his skills as well as figure out what made a story good enough to move readers to feel what they were reading. He formed his own online network and focus groups of professional, experienced editors. His goal was to know “how they reacted [to his work] in mind and heart—what were they feeling, what were they thinking when X happened.” Some feedback was about the story itself, some about the readers’ feelings at specific points in the manuscript. He also relies on input from sources closer to home and incorporates their feedback in an iterative process.

Beatty pointed out two long rows of printouts, laid out on the floor, of the sequential versions of his second book, Serafina and the Twisted Staff, to be available for sale on July 12, 2016. His first draft was noticeably thicker than the rest. His children declared it “terrifying and too scary,” so he rewrote the entire book. In an effort to get as much feedback as possible from relevant parties, he sent subsequent drafts to friends and family, classes and teachers at Carolina Day School, key employees at the Biltmore Estate (where the novel is set), the family who owns the Biltmore Estate, several book clubs, and other trusted beta readers. Once that process was done, he sent the completed manuscript to his editor at Disney Hyperion, who made several more rounds of recommendations, before it went to a copy editor, and, finally, a proofreader. The last printout was the finished galley.

Beatty’s writing process echoes the organizational and time management skills of the executive suite. He custom-designed his writing space with the peace and quiet and the tools and technology that allow him to focus on putting words on the page. He notes, “Almost every writer I know needs his own space, and quiet, and privacy. I always wanted to be the kind of author who could write in Starbucks and surrounded by society. That’s a romantic, cool idea, but for most writers it’s fictitious. They need quiet.” He indicates the challenge he faces, sharing a home with his wife Jennifer, three daughters (Camille, Genevieve, and Elizabeth), three cats, and three dogs, and says he occasionally has to go to the barn to find the solitude he needs. In fact, when his publisher wanted Beatty’s second book in ninety days, off to the barn he went.

He admits that writing a novel can be overwhelming—“It can freak you out.”—so he dabbled with a variety of writing software offerings to help him break his projects into steps. He discovered Scrivener “years ago when it was really small and minor and no one ever heard of it,” and now uses it exclusively. He considers it a major tool with a rich array of function necessary for writers, from outlining a project to structuring it to the word processing itself. He also likes that it lends itself to many types of writing, with templates that include fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting, poetry, and a variety of academic or technical projects. “It’s the most awesome thing. I honestly don’t think I could complete a project as fast or on the scale I do without it because of its ability to rearrange chapters and scenes, and to restructure things.”

Beatty emphasizes that his method works for him, and that each writer should find the process that is comfortable for her. “There is no right or wrong way. Go after the one that makes sense for you. Just write and you’ll figure out your process. You’ll experiment and learn how other do it, but there’s no magic formula.”

He also notes that part of the writing process is producing quality work with “a story that’s complete and good. Characterization has to be decent, the writing has to be decent, the story has to be decent, and it all has to work together in a holistic fashion. Agents and editors won’t even accept a book with major or even medium weaknesses. They have thousands of books coming at them and they don’t need to deal with anyone who’s not already a good writer.”

The genesis of the first Serafina book, a fortuitous confluence of events, is a story in itself. After receiving a discouraging rejection on a previous manuscript, Beatty was casting about for another story idea. His wife provided the spark. “Why not write something spooky, like a mystery?”

The family loves the Biltmore Estate and has visited it many times. They’ve explored its rooms and corridors, but noted that it’s “very quiet and empty there.” They spent time imagining who actually inhabited the House, those visible to visitors and those not. Beatty thought it might make a good setting for a mystery story.

That night, Beatty dreamed the entire story that became the first Serafina. He woke up throughout the night and made notes, then went back to sleep and dreamed some more. More notes, half-dreaming, half-awake. By morning, Beatty had the whole story of “the little girl living in the basement of the Biltmore House, prowling around, who must determine the identity of a mysterious man in a black cloak” in his head. “I ran to my computer and wrote a super-rough draft in about four days, just to get the plot in place. When I had the overall structure, I started at the beginning to get all the words and details right.” As he shared his work with his wife and daughters, they helped him refine and deepen the story. They also helped with details, especially with ensuring that Serafina talked and acted like a twelve-year-old girl.

He based the Serafina character itself on his middle daughter, Genevieve, “who likes to sneak around the house and not be seen or heard. Her claim to fame is that she snuck into my office before I got there, hid, and tied my shoes together. I thought a character who truly had those powers would be cool.” Driven by a focus on “girl-power and a mixture of history and science in my books,” Beatty paired that concept with a young girl’s love for animals, especially cats. So Serafina became “a cat-like girl who prowled around, could see in the dark, and knocked chess pieces off the board.” He reflected that while most adults need five to six chapters to figure out Serafina’s feline nature, “kids get it on the first page. They have more flexible and imaginative minds, not so literal, so they immediately pick up clues.”

After he finished his book, he went to New York to find an agent and publisher. Disney Hyperion accepted the book, so he thought he should let the Biltmore powers-that-be know about it. He was also interested in making sure that his book was as accurate as possible. “Biltmore Estate doesn’t encourage books of fiction to be written about the house or the family, so it was a challenge at first to get their attention, but after reading the Serafina manuscript they were supportive. We’ve had a friendly relationship ever since.”

“One of the great benefits for hard work is that you get rewards for it. And one of the rewards I’ve enjoyed most with Serafina has been my relationship with the people of Biltmore, and being able to explore the trapdoors, attics, and tunnels under the house.”

After Serafina was published, Beatty realized that, as an unknown author, he had to build a following. “I learned at Plex how important marketing was, so after completing Serafina, I decided my time as an artist was done, the book was written, and I had to put my entrepreneurial hat on.” He wrote the script for a video trailer for the book and, with Genevieve as Serafina and Jennifer as the costume designer, hired Bonesteel Films in Asheville to shoot the video. The Biltmore Estate gave permission to shoot on site. Beatty’s goal was to create enough demand for a second printing of Serafina and the Black Cloak; the book is currently in its sixth print run. Foreign editions are also in the works.

When Beatty isn’t writing or involved in related activities, he guides another major family project. A few years ago, his eldest daughter, Camille, “would come to me with dissected remote controls and toasters,” looking for the magic inside the devices. After replacing a few items, he asked her if, instead of taking things apart, she wanted to build something. “Yes,” she said. “I want to build a robot.”

The two older girls watched videos with Beatty to learn how to solder, to build electronic components, and to machine metal parts. With his computer background, learning the robotics software was easy for Beatty, but everything else was new to him. He’s pleased that this on-going endeavor shows his children that he’s still learning and that one can learn at any age.

His eyes light up as he describes the learning curve. “We blew things up! We caught things on fire! It was fun!” Eventually they produced their first robot and wanted to share it with family and friends, so Beatty created a technical blog, which became well known in the robotics world.

The fun grew when the New York Hall of Science contacted Beatty to see if he and his daughters could fix the Hall’s old Mars rover. Although intimidated, he asked for pictures to try to assess the effort required. “The rover was pathetic and old, so we said we’d build a new one. The Hall said that’s what they had hoped for in the first place.” So the Beatty team went to work and built two rovers for the Hall, one for the main Mars exhibit, where children who visit the Hall drive it around, pretending they’re on the surface of Mars, and a backup to take to schools, hospitals, and the like. The Hall named the new rovers Camille and Genevieve, instead of Spirit and Opportunity, the names of the original rovers. “We thought we had hit the pinnacle,” Beatty says.

And then the White House called.

“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent … that is not being encouraged…”
President Barack Obama, February 2013

Each year since 2013, President Obama and the First Lady have hosted an event at the White House featuring girls and women involved in projects and research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). At the June 2014 event, for which the Beattys had set up their Mars rover and a few other robots in the Grand Foyer of the President’s residence, the President not only mentioned Beatty Robotics in his speech, but also asked Camille and Genevieve to stand up and be recognized. The audience thundered their applause.

After meeting the President and First Lady, as well as Vice-President and Mrs. Biden, along with senators and other dignitaries, the Beattys thought for sure that they had reached the pinnacle. Wrong again! A space company in the United Kingdom aims to put a rover on the moon. They can build their rockets and land a craft on the moon, but robotics wasn’t their area of strength, so they asked the Beattys to join their team and build a rover for them. While allowing that he doesn’t “need another job or career,” Beatty recognizes how important the robotics business is to his daughters, and what a “great quality experience it is for them. I jumped on the opportunity because I can’t pass that up—for my daughters, of course,” he laughs. So the lunar rover is currently in production in the barn.

Back on Earth, Beatty is writing the third volume in the Serafina series and considering whether there are more adventures in store for her at the Biltmore House. He thinks he will continue to write for the middle-grade and young adult markets, and “has another highly-publishable book ready to go, featuring a seventeen-year-old highly intelligent and imaginative girl who is dyslexic and illiterate.” In her steampunk-like world, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison died before they discovered electricity, so, in the girl-power America Beatty creates, she invents electricity.

While he seamlessly blends imagination and technology in many aspects of his life, that may not work for all writers. He allows that there is one principle for all writers to follow, especially if they have other careers and want to make a change: “Write now, whenever you can carve out time. Procrastination is the #1 enemy of writers. You won’t be a better writer if you have all the time in the world. Almost all writers have other jobs, so don’t let a day job be an excuse.”

He urges writers to seek out feedback and to be “very tough-skinned. You have to hear the truth and then not cry or commit suicide.” Someone else’s reaction to the work will show a writer if she’s effective. “Think of yourself as a storyteller,” he counsels, “not as a person writing a book, or too worried about the way the sentences sound, or the plot, or the fact that Hunger Games is hot right now and I should be writing books like that. Forget that. Just weave a long and twisty tale. You’re a storyteller at a campfire with a bunch of kids eating marshmallows and you’ve got to keep them on the edge of their seats.”

Robert Beatty, a New York Times bestselling author, writes imaginative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers from his home in Asheville, NC. His first novel, Serafina and the Black Cloak, has been selected as an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association, and is on several best-seller lists. He has won many other honors, both as a software entrepreneur and as an author. You can read more about Robert and his projects at his web site.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Masters of Liberal Arts program at UNC Asheville. She is a regular contributor to The Forest Companion Magazine. Marie invites you to read her interviews with Wiley Cash (Issue 9), Megan Shepherd (Issue 12), and Denise Kiernan (Issue 13), as well as several others, found in the Great Smokies Review Archives.

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