Robert Neff ’49 returned to Blair on April 18 to address the Society of Skeptics about novel writing, a pastime he embarked upon after completing a career in international business. Just last year, the first-time author published Uber Alles, a book that explores love loyalty and political intrigue during World War II. In addition to inspiring Blair students and faculty to read his novel, which was published by Old Stone Press in fall 2016, Mr. Neff conveyed to the audience the satisfaction that writing can yield, as well as inspired young people to publish their own thoughts in the future. He also distributed complimentary copies of Uber Alles to 20 attendees who committed to reading the book and posting a brief comment about it on Facebook, Amazon or another platform of his or her choosing.
To watch a video of Mr. Neff's presentation, click "play" below.
Mr. Neff feels that the artistic process of writing a novel is an especially timely topic in the digital age, where brevity on social platforms reigns and readers’ attention spans are more divided than ever. “Facts can be jammed into 140 characters, but literature can’t,” he said. “It is a wonderful form of personal discipline to choose a topic and purpose and to organize our personal knowledge of the subject into permanent form. That said, I will warn any who venture there that writing can become a jealous mistress, who takes over your thoughts while you are at a dull party, reclining in a dentist’s chair or doing rote work. Your writing project may wake you at 3 a.m. with a new idea, or may put you to sleep while you are watching TV with friends. But the finished project is yours forever—and there's always that magic moment when a friend introduces you as ‘so-and-so, the author.’ It’s priceless!”
Taking a mixed approach in terms of presentation style because Blair students knew more about the historical period of his novel than about the novel’s storyline, Mr. Neff touched on the writing, editing, publishing and marketing processes, speaking extemporaneously rather than from formal notes.
His path to authorship was a desultory one: After completing his formal education at Cornell Law School in 1956, Mr. Neff entered his “productive years” and enjoyed a half dozen distinct occupations ranging from USAF JAG officer, to Latin American overseer of a private family's holdings, to chief administrative officer of an international airline to New York investment banker, all of which required writing. “While the recipients of my written communications were quite different from one position to another, quality was always important, and I set aggressive standards for completeness and readability,” he explained. “Somewhere along that path, I added historical novel to my bucket list. I wanted to create something in writing which might achieve longevity and have my authorship clearly visible to future readers.”
In addition to Uber Alles, which he notes is a work of fiction, Mr. Neff has written an autobiography, Thirty Thousand Sunsets, which he jokingly notes “must be properly edited and bound before it becomes necessary to change the title.” While Uber Alles is not autobiographical, Mr. Neff admits it does contain a great deal of material derived from personal experience and interests. “My fictional protagonists are musicians, and I have had long-standing interest in the popular music of the time period of their story,” he said. “The locations in Europe and in South America where my story takes place are familiar to me. Some of the action involving my fictional characters mirrors real-life situations encountered by associates. All of my story is woven through actual history, which I've taken care to represent accurately.”
Although he spent only one year at Blair as a postgraduate, Mr. Neff cites literature teacher David Potter Eliott as a “real force” in his appreciation of good poetry and prose. “I made copious notes in the margins of the selections we read in class, and committed passages to memory which I can still recite seven decades later,” he laughed. “Mr. Elliot wasn't at Blair long enough to become iconic, but he influenced my decision to add writing to my personal bucket list.”
This was the second time Mr. Neff speaks before the Society of Skeptics, having addressed the group a decade ago on The U.S. Corporation. Blair’s Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.
The program was an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon.’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial. For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please click here.