Twelve years in the making, new writer Richard L. Black has recently released his debut novel Maximus, a religious piece of historical fiction that follows a Roman General who must travel to Judea to investigate whether a man named Jesus is a threat to the Roman Empire. Black took time and dedication to complete his first published work and succeeded in ways not too many new writers of today can. “Everyone has always wanted to write a book. It’s just a matter of sitting down and making a long term commitment,” Black said. “I’ve told people, just wait. You don’t climb a mountain by staring at it, going, ‘Hey, I wish I were on top of it.’ It takes a long term commitment, which I found out.” To discover the inspiration behind his story, we must first discover the story of the author himself.
Black lives with his wife in Utah and they have a very sweet backstory. Both were from California, Black from San Diego and wife from the Napa area, but they actually met each other in Utah. Upon their first meeting, Black knew she was the one and, after going out on a Friday night, he proposed to her that following Sunday. Six months later, they were married. Now they have eight children and three grandchildren with hopefully many more on the way. His story as a writer, however, began in his 30s. He had been told by his high school teachers that he had talent in writing, so he decided to go back to school and took a creative writing course at night. In the class, he had to write three short stories, with one of them having to be submitted to a publisher as a final project. He received positive feedback from his professor as well as his peers and came to the conclusion that maybe he could write, but he did not pursue the notion for a little while longer. The idea began to form, believe it or not, at the movies. “I’d always go to the movies with my wife and one of the things that interested me when I would watch the movie, at the end of the movie, I would look to see if it was based on a book, based off some book by so and so,” Black said, “And I used to kind of flip and turn to my wife [and tell her that] someday I would like to have a movie that was based off a book by Rick Black.”
The idea of writing a book became more of a reality thirteen years ago when one of his neighbors was part of a research team writing an autobiography of one of their church’s leaders. They began talking about studying the Bible and studying the life of Christ. Black said that he was a student, not a scholar, and that it was difficult to study those types of things. He mentioned how reading and studying are two completely different things: that one can read a book about quantum physics, but actually studying quantum physics is much more different. Black told his neighbor that “I would like to become more of a scholar, not just a reading student and, all of a sudden, this idea hit me. I was thinking, if I wrote a book about some event, something that happened during the life of Christ that I could cross that line from becoming a student reader to an actual scholar.” He began writing the first part of Maximus then and he began by writing the last chapter of his book first. After finishing the chapter, he let it sit. He admitted that it was never far from his mind and he always said that he would finish his story someday. Three or four years after that, he began writing the first chapters of his book. Then, a truly unique experience happened, one only writers would be able to understand: Black’s characters began speaking to him. His characters told him what they wanted to do and where they wanted the story to go.
Two of the characters who really stand out in Black’s story are the Roman General Maximus and Maximus’ Jewish teacher Ezra. Ezra is a unique character who Black said spoke to him, took over, and became bigger than he had ever imagined Ezra would be, becoming almost like a golden thread throughout the book. He is the voice of reason throughout the entirety of the book and is also not only the teacher and guide to Maximus and the General’s Commander Androcles, but also a teacher and guide to the reader. Ezra explained things Black had researched to readers who may or may not know as much about the Bible and Black wrote his dialog in a way that was not meant to convert anyone to religion, but rather to inform readers of stories and possibilities they may have never thought of before. These teachings, in turn, play an important role in bringing Maximus’ character to life.
Maximus is a character that everyone can relate to, having gone through inner challenges and conflicts that everyone has experienced at least once in his or her lifetime. “He’s very representative of a lot of people who maybe has the tiger by the tail and I think that the background of this character was my own experience,” Black said. “Everything Maximus had been through; he’d seen enough, he’d had enough. He was questioning everything about his life, his choice of what he was involved in. He questioned the government, he questioned his religion. And I think he was a very studious introspective character and a deep thinker. And many nights, he would just sit alone trying to figure it out and he couldn’t.” Sounds familiar, right? The mission he was given to travel to Judea gave him a chance to escape from everything he knew to explore a different culture and here is where he meets Ezra “who just starts throwing seeds into his garden of thinking,” Black said. These seeds sprout questions in Maximus’ mind: Are you going to take this information? Are you going to grow from it? Maximus becomes curious and excited from Ezra’s teachings and wants a deeper understanding as to what the Biblical stories mean. However, Ezra knows just telling the stories to Maximus is not enough and that the General must experience the emotions and beliefs the Jewish community feel and believe in for himself. “I wanted to portray him as a very strong person, but he just kind of hit a wall in his current life as a lot of people do,” Black said. We, as human beings, question ourselves in life and wonder how we arrived at the destination we are at. Black calls this destination a “checkpoint moment” where we ask ourselves questions like: Am I where I want to be? Where do I want to go? What can I do better? How can I be better? What’s wrong with my life and how can I fix that? Black added that these are normal emotions everyone has and that each stage of life holds new and different questions because of our ever changing perspectives.
Another of the main characters in the book that the reader hears much about but hardly ever sees is Jesus Christ himself. What is so fascinating about how Black wrote Jesus was that he gave the son of God no dialog until the very end of the book. Black said, “I made a very conscientious decision early on that he would never have any dialog with the apostles.” Black wanted the only interaction his characters had with Jesus to be a look: a silent communication where at the moment the characters made eye contact with Jesus, they just knew that this man was who he said he was. This plays a part in one of the most rewarding, yet most painful parts for Black to write in his story: the crucifixion. It was a very emotional experience for Black and he hopes readers will feel some of the same emotions he experienced as well. “Just to have the reader have an emotional experience with descriptions of what’s happening and how Maximus is fitting in to this and what he’s trying to do and realizing that, ‘Even though I’m the highest ranking official on Judea soil, I have to let this play out. My hands are tied. I can’t do anything,’” Black said.
Characters are but a mere portion of what awaits readers in Maximus. So much is included in this 400 some page book that makes the reader want more once it is finished. Black even said he has taken notes for a possible sequel, but its publication will depend on the success of its predecessor. “It’s funny the way the book ends how it ends: I described the crucifixion, I described the emotions and, then I realized, where do you go?” Black said. “It’s like a rock band: you leave the audience screaming for more. Even my wife said, ‘This ends abruptly. I want to know what happens.’ And I said, ‘That’s good.’” Black wants the readers to question where the characters go and what they chose to do.
The entire process of writing Maximus has been a wonderful and emotional ride for Black. Beginning from the moment he received an email from Shadow Mountain Publishing that he was going to be published to when he received his finished creation in the mail and held it for the first time in his hands. “It was an unbelievable experience to hold that book and realize how much work had gone into it and how much blood, sweat, and tears and emotions had gone into that and to actually be there holding it,” Black said. The emotional ride, however, is not over yet. Now, the anxiety has settled in. Of course every writer is anxious to hear what people have to say about his or her book. For Black, he has viewed it from a professional and a personal standpoint: from a professional standpoint, he wants his book to do well, but from a personal standpoint, he would like readers to have an emotional experience. “I hope they take away a few feelings,” Black said. “I hope they want to perhaps investigate more, they want to learn more, to have an emotional moment. It’s a story about a guy who comes to a life crisis and how he deals with it.”
Black took a risky step in writing his debut novel as a religious historical fiction, but readers should not write it off just because of its genre. Many people nowadays seem to pick up a book and as soon as they read that a Biblical figure or story is in the book, they immediately put it back on the shelf. “I hope my book will reach past that line and people will actually pick it up and read the first page or two in the bookstore,” Black said. He even admitted that even now, he questions some things in his story, but concluded that, “It is what it is. I’m still learning. This is a debut novel. I’m a debut novelist. I’m still learning that I have got a lot to learn.” Black is a new member to the writing world who has a beautiful way of writing and expressing emotion through carefully selected descriptive words and has great potential for future books. He is an author to keep an eye on. He has already an a TV interview on Maximus and Maximus is a story that any reader who is looking for something new and insightful should read.
Originally published at www.examiner.com on March 7, 2015.