Story by A.J. Kaleta | Photography by Holly Leitner
Stop by any of the delightful watering holes in Lake Geneva, Fontana or Williams Bay during lunchtime or cocktail hour, and with luck, you may spot Ray Strobel, sitting at the bar sipping an ice cold vodka and tonic or standing outside enjoying a leisurely smoke. You can tell it’s Ray. He’s usually carrying a yellow note pad and pencil so he can keep track of the continuous flow of ideas that are constantly popping into his creative mind.
Ray Strobel is the author of ten books, none of which are best-sellers, but all of which contain his slightly weird take on life and are loads of fun. The one thing they have in common is that they were all born from ideas that originated in a bar around Geneva Lake.
Ray Strobel and I met when I lived in Fontana years ago, and I recently had the opportunity to track him down for a chat.
WHILE MANY OF US WERE FINISHING SCHOOL OR GETTING A FIRST-HAND LOOK AT VIETNAM, YOU WERE BUMMING AROUND EUROPE. DID YOUR EARLY READING FUEL THIS WANDERLUST?
I’m sure it did. I wanted to visit the places I’d read about. I dropped out of college my sophomore year, worked for eight months in a factory to save money, then booked a flight to London where I bought a motorcycle and spent a half a year just wandering around. I managed to get as far as North Africa. I’ve been to over 20 countries. I still make it to Paris every year.
HOW AND WHEN DID YOU ACQUIRE YOUR INTEREST IN WRITING?
I read everything I could get my hands on as I was growing up: detective stories, science fiction, travel stories, which I absolutely loved, and great literature. I loved to read but never tried creative writing until one day in my late 40s I wrote a short piece about riding in taxi cabs around Chicago, while imagining I was in Pakistan or Africa. I sent it in on a lark to the Chicago Tribune magazine and they took it! I was so excited — I would have let them publish it for free, but they offered to pay me. I graciously accepted.
DO YOU FIND BARS A GOOD PLACE TO WRITE?
I get more creative when my mind isn’t focused. In restaurants and bars there’s always too much going on for me to just focus on just one thing. I get ideas there and then go home and flesh them out. I couldn’t just sit at home all day and write. I need that social interaction. And, by the way, Hemingway was famous for writing in bars, although he didn’t write the kind of silly books I do!
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE LOCAL BARS AROUND THE LAKE?
Some bars are for drinking and others are for writing (and drinking). Sprecher’s is my favorite because on weekdays I can get a good spot at the bar and it’s not too noisy. I tried Champs and I still like to drink there, but it’s too loud to write. Chuck’s in Fontana is nice especially during warmer weather when I can sit outside. And, I like the Owl Tavern because most of the tourists can’t find it.
LAKE GENEVA IS A FAR CRY FROM BUCKTOWN, YOUR PREVIOUS NEIGHBORHOOD IN CHICAGO. WHAT ATTRACTED YOU AND YOUR WIFE, JOBELLE TO THIS AREA?
Jobelle and I had a friend, Joe Martin, the crazy nationally syndicated cartoonist who lived here, and he invited us to visit him and his wife, Marie. On a whim, both my wife and I said, “Let’s move to the country.” Been here now for almost 20 years. I was born, raised and married in Chicago, but here we have a few acres for our dogs to run and it’s much quieter.
I TOOK THE LIBERTY OF CHECKING OUT YOUR WEBSITE, RAYSTROBEL.COM. GIFT BOOKS SEEM TO BE YOUR SPECIALTY. TRUE?
It seems like people don’t read many books these days, but they still buy them as gifts! So, I try to think of what people would like to give as gifts for friends. For cat lovers I wrote The Ultimate Cat’s Catalog, a fake mail order catalog for cats … not humans. Fifty Eight Things to do With Your Dog was obviously written for dog lovers. How to Raise a Super Child was meant to be a great baby shower book. In it I explain how to raise your child to become Pope, a Nobel Prize winner or a rock star.
HOW TO RAISE A SUPER CHILD? SO YOU AND YOUR WIFE HAVE CHILDREN?
No. Just dogs. I made it all up. It was the perfect book to write in a bar!
I had a lot of fun writing The Ultimate Cat’s Catalog because it involved thinking up the most stupid things that cats would like. For example: a mouse cellar instead of a wine cellar.
I UNDERSTAND YOUR BEST-SELLING BOOK IS A BLACK EYE ISN’T THE END OF THE WORLD. HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THIS PARTICULAR PIECE?
It started out to be one page of a cute panda photo with a caption like, ‘Keep trying, you’ll succeed’ and then a paragraph on the next page with a few more words about trying. The subtitle was “Simple Thoughts for a Better Life,” but once I started writing, I sort of lost control. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to simply say ‘keep trying.’ I found myself needing to write more.
WHAT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART ABOUT WRITING THIS BOOK?
I didn’t set out to write something serious. I was just looking for an idea for another gift book. But when I began writing about emotions, happiness, desire, friendship, etc., I found myself deep in thought. It was a great experience and it forced me to do a lot of serious thinking. It was tougher than I thought. I found I had to look deep inside my own self.
WHAT WAS THE EASIEST PART?
Those panda photos saved me. They’re so damned cute! Adorable photos combined with uplifting thoughts turned out to be a perfect combination.
HOW MANY LANGUAGES HAS THE BOOK BEEN TRANSLATED INTO?
Six so far: Russian, Hebrew, Chinese, Swedish, Japanese and Italian. I’m astounded and gratified that something I wrote is actually being read all over the world.
IS THE PANDA BOOK STILL AVAILABLE?
The book is not on too many bookstores’ shelves. Hardbound copies are available, of course, at Amazon.com. Around Lake Geneva, it’s available in the gift shops at Sprecher’s and the Geneva Inn (and at the Nei-Turner office!)
YOU’VE ALWAYS STRUCK ME AS A GUY WHO WALKS TO THE BEAT OF HIS OWN DRUM. DO YOU DISAGREE?
Actually, I’m pretty much of a conformist who tries hard not to look or act like one. I guess a lot of my “goofy” image is my attempt to seem special. I think I’m independent to the extent that I’ve almost always been self employed and can pretty much do what I want, when I want.
ANYTHING NEW IN THE WORKS?
I’m still writing. It’s better than working for a living! I’m working on a serious, full-length book about the summer both of our dogs passed away. I’m also toying with a crazy fiction piece tentatively titled Willy the Cop and the Bacon Socks Man based on the completely made up adventures of Willy who actually is a Lake Geneva cop.
Last year I finished my first eBook, which is available on Amazon for $0.99 (the title can’t be printed in a family magazine) with true stories about my world travels when I was young and foolish.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF YOUR FAMILY, ANY OTHER WRITERS THERE?
When I’m introduced to people, they often say, ‘Strobel? Are you related to Lee?’ My brother Lee is a popular New York Times best-selling author. He has sold over 10 million books (over nine and a half million more than me). But he is a Christian author, so we don’t compete!
YOU’RE SEVENTY YEARS OLD BUT STILL QUITE ACTIVE. WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
I want to keep writing and traveling. JoBelle and I traveled to Paris and Amsterdam last summer. I would like to visit Bulgaria. Don’t ask me why. It just seems like it might be interesting; maybe rent a car and drive around to some small towns and villages where they don’t see an American every day.
Editor’s Note: A.J. Kaleta, a former resident of Fontana, is now retired and living in the Four Corners region of New Mexico.