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Author Steven Pressfield on new novel, personal journey

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Author Steven Pressfield's books have earned him worldwide acclaim. His first published novel, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," became a best-seller and Robert Redford turned it into a hit film. But that doesn't mean Pressfield was an overnight success. Jeff Glor talks with the acclaimed author about his very long journey and what he hopes others can learn from it.

Video Transcript

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JEFF GLOR: Author Steven Pressfield's books have earned him worldwide acclaim from, "Gates of Fire", to "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "The War of Art". Pressfield it's written both fiction and nonfiction books that reach back thousands of years and ones that deal with the struggles of our modern times. Some of the stories you've seen on the big screen and maybe soon, his latest, called "A Man at Arms". But his personal story is just as inspiring.

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: I think of this book as like an American Western, even though it's set in the first century AD.

JEFF GLOR: Steven Pressfield joined us via cross country call. The sun and sand of Malibu on one end, snow in Connecticut on the other. Our common ground, the Sinai desert, setting of "A Man at Arms" in the first century AD, shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. The main character of Pressfield's latest book is a soldier of fortune named Telamon of Arcadia. Living during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and the Holy Lands and plucked in the middle of an epic tale of heroism and betrayal.

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: The character of Telamon is a character that I've had in three other books. He's like my only recurring character and he's kind of a fascinating character to me. A little bit of an alter ego for me. So I wanted to write this book to follow his journey and just see where he was going.

JEFF GLOR: Telamon's journey is an expansion of recurring theme in Pressfield's work. People engaged in monumental struggles against others and themselves. You wrote for how long before you found success?

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: I think it was 28 years I was trying to write. And, you know, some friends of mine call me the man who has written more words for less money than anybody on the planet.

JEFF GLOR: Including as an advertising copywriter, just one part of a dizzying life. Pressfield was born in Trinidad in 1943 while his father was stationed in the Navy. After graduating from Duke, he served in the Marines, before taking jobs as a bartender, teacher, trucker and fruit picker.

21 jobs overall in 11 states. Meanwhile, the writing rejections kept rolling in. Was there a lowest point?

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: At one point I was in New York driving a cab, dead broke, living just me and my cat in this apartment and I didn't know what else to do. You know, I was wondering whether I should hang myself or blow my brains out and how that would affect my poor cat. But here's the positive side of that, for whatever this is worth after. A few days of, like, utter agony I said to myself, why don't I go to Hollywood and try to be a screenwriter?

JEFF GLOR: Screenwriting, including the forgettable, "King Kong Lives" didn't really work out, but finally book writing did. Pressfield published his first at the age of 52. The fantastic, "The Legend of Bagger Vance". Later made it a movie with Matt Damon, Charlize Theron and Will Smith.

- I could have killed you out there.

- Oh. No, sir. See, I set myself directly in front of you. But judging by how you was hitting them balls, I figured that's why I'd be out of harm's way.

JEFF GLOR: An even more famous novel followed. 1998's "Gates of Fire" about the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece. One of our all time favorites. What do you think it is about "Gates of Fire" that means so much to so many people now still 20 years after it was published?

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: That historical event is such a pure expression of the warrior ethos. It was a purely defensive battle. So there was nothing wrong about it, nothing-- no conquest elements to it. It was against overwhelming odds and it was for a great cause. You know, to save Western civilization.

JEFF GLOR: Since "Gates of Fire", Pressfield has alternated between historical fiction and non-fiction books of guidance and inspiration. The best one, 2002's "the War of Art" focusing on resistance.

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: Resistance with a capital R is that negative force that will try to stop us from moving from a lower level to a higher level. Self sabotage, fear, arrogance, complacency, procrastination. And to me, the number one thing that any writer or artist needs to know is they've got to overcome that force, one way or another, before they can do anything. Like I say, it's not the writing that's the hard part, it's the sitting down to write.

JEFF GLOR: Pressfield has done that and now has 18 books to show for it.

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For the past year during the pandemic, he's tackled yet another project. A series of 50 YouTube videos on the ancient warrior archetype, focusing on courage, selflessness and the willing embrace of adversity.

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: When I start the morning with something hard and something physical, I've got a real head start on my day. It's the kind of thing in this times, this are virtues that it's great to reinforce in ourselves and to hang on to. Because we're not getting the external feedback that we might get if we went into an office, if we went into a workplace, if we had a boss that is rewarding us or kicking our butt. You know? Instead, we have to do that all ourselves and it's all internal.

JEFF GLOR: It's tough sometimes for people, given how insane the last year has been, to take lessons from thousands of years ago. But they're important.

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: I mean, I think in many ways we're desperate for those lessons. And because we can't really find them here. You know, I don't want to get too political, but, you know, that if we look at the Senate and the Congress right now, we've been searching very, very hard for honor. And people are hungry for that and they want it in their own lives. And so that's why I think it's certainly why I'm drawn to the ancient past.

JEFF GLOR: Well that's the best part about your books. They're not about politicians, they're about warriors.

STEVEN PRESSFIELD: I mean, that's what I'm hoping to do.

JEFF GLOR: There's always been this interesting split between people who love his historical novels like "Gates of Fire" and those who love the inspirational books like, "The War of Art". I've always liked both. But if you get a chance to-- I mean, "A Man at Arms" his latest, it just funds-- It's interesting relief reading during these times. To pick up something that doesn't have anything to do with something that's currently happening.

- He seems like such an affable guy.

- Yeah.

JEFF GLOR: He's great.

- Yeah.

- And appreciating success that came later. I want to know, he had the cat then, if he has cats now. The cat that saved his life.

JEFF GLOR: I don't know, actually. I'll have to ask him.

- Obviously, that cat no longer with us.

JEFF GLOR: That cat is probably no longer around.

- That's many, many years ago. Yeah.

JEFF GLOR: [INAUDIBLE] will tell us. He's great.

- Yeah.