It is unnecessary to urge young people to read more and understand the importance of reading because, given the chance... More

Author Showcase

Winter 2006 Featured Author Neal R. Voron

RT: How did you become inspired to write The Obstacle Course?

Neal: I am inspired by writers like Og Mandino, Napoleon Hill, David Schwartz, George Horace Lorimer, Norman Vincent Peale, and others. For many years I had a goal of writing a book to help people improve their lives. I wanted it to be a suspenseful adventure story that would entertain readers as they absorbed the lessons. Then in January 1993, after having been laid-off from a job, I found myself staring at a blank computer screen questioning myself and contemplating what to do. I decided I needed to take some earnest, thoughtful action and wound up creating Dr. Ernest T. Acton, a character who would challenge my thinking, yet entertain me while enabling me to learn to discover and create my own path. I decided that my attitude and how I chose to look at “obstacles” would be key determinants to my ultimate success, so I creatively explored those topics by having Dr. Acton take me —and his students (and readers)—on an adventure towards self-growth and personal development. Writing the The Obstacle Course was great fun, and I am thrilled that the story is able to entertain and enlighten people of all ages as they continue their journeys through the “obstacle course of life”.

RT: The protagonist in The Obstacle Course is a professor, Dr. Acton. What makes this individual the best person for telling the story? Is there a particular teacher that Dr. Acton is modeled after?

Neal: Actually, Dr. Acton is the character who moves the story along, who challenges readers’ preconceptions, builds suspense, enlightens, and entertains. He is indeed the protagonist and serves well in that role because, as a teacher, he is perceived by students in the “class” and by the book’s readers to be a wise and knowledgeable leader who can be learned from. His words and actions command attention, and when he says or does something unexpected, people notice. As a character, he creates intrigue that makes the story fun. Dr. Acton is not the narrator, though. The narrator of the story is an unidentified student who enables readers to see and experience the class as if they are actually there in the classroom—a device I believe makes the story more personal and enriching. The readers take “The Obstacle Course” class as they read the novel. Dr. Acton is not modeled after a particular teacher. He is the teacher I want to be through my writing: challenging and helping readers to become creative, thinking, proactive “doers” who see possibilities and solutions that they will work to achieve despite whatever challenges they may face in their lives.

RT: Your target audience (teenagers) is one of the toughest groups to get/keep interested in reading. What is it about The Obstacle Course that grabs their attention?

Neal: I know adventure and suspense are key factors in a fictional story grabbing my attention. The Tom Swift and Hardy Boys series’ really interested me as a teenager because they were exciting reads and because the authors creatively presented the characters’ forward-thinking and inventiveness towards achieving solutions. I could not devour those stories fast enough! I sought to include those elements in the book. Right away, the narrator begins building suspense by describing the sense of anticipation and expectation the students have while awaiting the arrival of Dr. Acton and the beginning of the “The Obstacle Course” class, which was rumored by other students to be “the most worthwhile course you’ll ever take.” Then the students find that Dr. Acton does not look or act the way they had expected. He challenges their preconceived notions immediately and tests their resolve—they never know what to expect! Throughout the class, Dr. Acton encourages the students (and the readers) to open their minds, to be creative, and to think for themselves, perhaps in ways that are different than they have tried before. This approach is empowering to individuals for their self-growth and personal development, and, therefore, is very appealing to teenagers. In the fast-paced story, the reader quickly gets through the first five chapters and finds Dr. Acton and the class in an interesting situation. To find out what happens, the reader must keep reading! The experience is both fun and exciting. The pace of the chapters and the fact that The Obstacle Course imparts wisdom and knowledge through an entertaining story also make the story ideal for teenagers, young adults, and others. It is certainly not a stuffy non-fiction book, and the self-help content is very different from what most students are used to reading for school or on their own!

RT: What did you find to be the most difficult part of crafting the story?

Neal: While The Obstacle Course plot is about a teacher and his students, the story is really about the reader learning from the wisdom Dr. Acton presents and taking that knowledge into his or her own life to achieve greater success. So, I needed to be careful to include only the most relevant content to advance the storyline while imparting the “lessons.” I purposely de-emphasized fuller development of the characters and instead emphasized packing a lot of information into a fast-paced, suspenseful, entertaining, and enlightening story. Still, it was a challenge to make sure I developed the characters enough so that readers could identify with them and their roles in the story. It was also a challenge, albeit a fun and creative one, for me to constantly keep the readers in suspense throughout the entire story and to develop interesting ways to “teach” the lessons.

RT: Clearly the story is inspiring others. I loved the story about the Fourth Grade Class who got hooked on a pre-release copy of the story. Can you tell us more about the group? Were you ever able to meet them?

Neal: Originally, when I wrote The Obstacle Course, I envisioned it being for readers from about 7th grade through senior adult, but appealing mostly to high school students and young adults/college students—people searching for ways to grow and improve their lives. It does indeed serve these audiences well, and I have gotten positive feedback from teachers, businesspeople, and members of the self-improvement community. I was pleasantly surprised, though, back in 2000, when a group of 4th graders in California absolutely fell in love with Dr. Acton and the story! After they read the first five chapters online, they were eager to continue reading and find out what happened! So their teacher, Sharol Brunner, contacted me to order copies. I gave her a password to read the story online to make sure she felt it was appropriate for her young group, and then I desktop published them myself because the book was not in print yet! Ms. Brunner then surprised the students at a party celebrating their participation in a Destination Imagination competition by presenting them with signed copies of the book. She reported that the students then stopped playing video games and instead sat down to read the book! Their parents were amazed! In fact, Ms. Brunner was so impressed with the book that she agreed to write the Foreword. She and the students were kind to send me a card they made with their comments about the book plus a picture of themselves, the “Eggnoggin Heads,” with their 48-inch DI competition obstacle, “The Great Wall of Eggsarrity,” shown in the background. I treasure the card and have kept it. They have no idea how much they inspired me to finally get the book into print and beyond! Unfortunately, we did not keep in contact, and I never had a chance to meet them. Meeting them someday would be very special. I guess they’re in 10th grade now… Thinking about them makes me wonder what sort of influence Dr. Acton and The Obstacle Course has had in their lives. It would certainly be nice to re-connect with them!

RT: The book is also being transformed into a musical, and a CD will be available later this year. Do you foresee the story being transformed into other media?

Neal: I had contemplated the possibility of The Obstacle Course being adapted as a movie or a TV series someday, but I was absolutely caught by surprise and delighted when, visiting RyKy Records™ co-founder, songwriter/composer Joseph F.M. Pokorny, one day, Joe announced, “I have a surprise for you! Your book is now a musical!” Joe had created The Obstacle Course Musical, a collection of 15 songs offering his interpretation of the story! To hear him sing great—and meaningful—songs like "The Obstacle Course," "Learn," "For The Heroes," "Starlight," "Number Twenty-Nine Beware," knowing that their creation and/or inclusion in the musical was inspired by my story was a special gift that I will treasure forever! Joe has clearly brought The Obstacle Course to a whole new dimension of creativity, enlightenment, and entertainment with the potential to spread the story’s messages to a much wider audience! What’s especially nice about it is that music reaches the consciousness of people who may not ordinarily be inclined to read the book. What’s also nice is that the book and the musical can stand on their own. You don’t get exactly the same thing with each of them. The book is my story; the musical is Joe’s story, through music and lyrics, based on his interpretation of my story. It is great, and I cannot wait until the CD album of the musical is released! Regarding transforming the story into other media, we’ll see what happens after the musical is released. An audio version of the book would certainly be nice to offer, and I would love to explore licensing opportunities for all sorts of fun and educational products, both online and offline. By the way, fans of Dr. Acton can look forward to Beyond The Obstacle Course, a sequel which I am currently writing!

RT: In addition to publishing books, your company offers communication vehicles in various forms, from Websites to software to music. Thus, you fully understand the push-pull of electronic vs. traditional media in garnering our kids’ attention. What can you offer to parents and teachers who are trying to help get teens interested in or re-energized about reading?

Neal: Embrace the reality that traditional media are being both complemented and supplanted by newer media forms, and teenagers are not only less attached to traditional media but more comfortable with newer media than most adults currently are. Teens may not spend as much time with tree books as with e-books or with paper newspapers as with online newspapers in the months and years ahead. They’ll likely spend more time at a computer reading emails, web pages, newsletters, blogs, instant messages, and discussion forum postings than you would ever imagine. What is most important is that they are reading regularly and learning, accessing worthwhile content. So, take note of the communications formats and vehicles that your children seem to favor and support their use of those means to access quality content. Consider audio books and videos of literary works if your child learns more readily via auditory or audio-visual means. The solution to energizing and re-energizing teenagers to read may lie within the newer online interactive media and with music. Online quizzes, videos, activities, games, contests, and music tied-in to reading opportunities of literary works might catch their attention enough to get them to read a chapter or two—or, once hooked, a whole book!

For good books for teenagers, keep looking at book profiles offered at The Reading Tub™ and at lists of recommended books offered by teachers and librarians. Identify the children’s interests and hobbies and let them know about (or provide them with) books and other written resources in those areas… Better yet, let them choose books themselves. They will be grateful for your interest and it will help get them in the habit of reading, hopefully expanding a bit to other topics. Nothing motivates quite like self-interest! When you like something, the “work” involved with it becomes fun! Also, encourage, but try not to put too much pressure on children to read specific books or too many books at a time. During high school and college, I was being forced to read so many books for my classes (simultaneously), that, for a while, I did not have the time or the interest in reading other books on my own. It started becoming more of a chore than a fun activity. Again, keep reading fun for your children and yourselves!

RT: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Neal: Yes, thank you. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to be introduced to The Reading Tub™ community. I think your efforts in support of reading are truly wonderful. Readers may access the first 5 chapters of The Obstacle Course for free online and via .pdf e-book at http://www.TheObstacleCourse.com. I welcome feedback about the book and I invite readers to subscribe to the free “Dr. Acton Fan Club Email Newsletter.” I would love to hear from parents, teachers, and librarians about how they are using The Obstacle Course and how it impacts their children/students. I would like to facilitate sharing ideas between teachers and reading group leaders. Also, although we have focused in this interview primarily on students and teenagers as the book’s readers, The Obstacle Course is a self-improvement book that many sales, training, and employer organizations may find helpful for their members/employees. Classroom groups, reading groups, and organizations may contact me directly for discounts on large orders and/or for signed copies.

Teachers are welcome to direct their students to the creative writing activity I offer at WriteYourOwnChapter.com. Additionally, to promote the importance and benefits of asking questions — which Dr. Acton encourages — I will be holding ĎAsk A Question Day’, at AskAQuestionDay.com, on the third Tuesday in September (Sept. 19th in 2006) each year. The idea behind the day is simply to encourage people to ask a question or two, no matter what the question may be or to whom it is posed. It will be fascinating to find out what is learned just by asking those questions! Thank you for supporting authors and other artists who provide quality content that encourages self-growth and personal development!


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