Monday, October 31, 2011

Interview with Psychological Thriller Author, Steven James

Steven James has written more than thirty books, including the award-winning Bowers Files, an eight-book series featuring chess terms as the titles. I recently read the fifth in the series, The Queen, in which environmental criminologist Patrick Bowers must find the link between Cold War secrets and present-day tensions in the Middle East.

About his writing habits, Steven says this in Wikipedia,
When it’s time to crack down on some serious writing, the office in his basement, his porch, and his kids’ tree house (which he built “supposedly for them”) are a few of his favorite places to tune out the world’s distractions. Finding his optimum time to write, however, can be tricky: “It’s funny; I work really well late at night from 11 to like 1 and from like 6 to 10 a.m. or so, which really stinks because I can’t do them both one day after the other. I have to choose: Do I want to stay up late or get up early?”
Here's a little more about him:

AC: Scattered among the thrillers and action films of your favorite movies list are Finding Nemo, Enduring Love, The Princess Bride, and Babe–all undoubtedly thanks to your daughters. I wonder, do you analyze any part of these films–theme, characterization, etc.–and derive lessons from them? Do you feel they influence your writing?

SJ: Whenever I watch a movie or read a novel, I can’t help but view it through the eyes of a storyteller, of a novelist. I’m always looking at characterization, the movement of the story, the pace, etc. However, there are certain movies where I’m so engaged where I don’t do this. For whatever reason, they grab my attention and my emotions and don’t allow me to analyze them. These always end up becoming some of my favorite movies.

AC: While I’m on the subject of deriving lessons from outside sources, do you learn from any of the authors you read? And as a side question, what do you like to read?

SJ: I tend to notice more when something’s not done well. Whether it’s issues of believability, or flat characters, or whatever. This goes for both movies and novels. Lately I’ve been reading and enjoying Mark Greaney, Gillian Flynn, Gayle Lynds, and Lee Child.

AC: You’ve defined yourself as a “tree house builder,” which says “family man” almost as well as your movie list does. Do you draw from your family to develop the relationship between Bowers and his step-daughter?

SJ: I have two teenage daughters, and there are times when their comments, attitudes or actions spark ideas for Tessa in my novels. Sometimes they’ll say something and I’ll say, “Cool, I can use that in a book.” And they’ll groan, roll their eyes, or shake their heads. I think they think I’m desperate for material.

AC: You did an excellent job of explaining why you write about evil, but do you have a line you refuse to cross? Something you simply will not depict?

SJ: This is a good question. I tend to show the prelude and aftermath of violent acts. I don’t show the slow step-by-step process of someone being beheaded or anything like that. So, in other words, I do my best to keep most of the violence off the page, and I try to avoid images that I just don’t need rolling around in my head.

AC: I read through the more critical reviews on Amazon of the first in the Bowers Files, The Pawn, and was astounded to see the words “cardboard characters” applied to your work. I didn’t read The Pawn, but if it’s anything like The Queen, I believe the claim is unfounded. One of the critics said you used James Patterson’s “Alex Cross” as a pattern. I've read some of Patterson's Alex Cross books and believe there's quite a difference between the two characters, but here’s your chance: Care to respond?

SJ: No, I didn’t use his character as a pattern. Patrick Bowers is a much different character than Alex Cross. Patterson is certainly a successful author, and I’m not criticizing his work, but I think my books tend to be more complex and have more twists. As far as cardboard characters, The Pawn was my first novel, and I think that with each book my characters become more dimensional as I learn about the craft of writing. So if that criticism was leveled at any of my books, I suppose The Pawn would be the one.

AC: In The Queen, the way you handled your bad guy, Alexei Chekov, fascinated me. You portrayed him as an assassin with integrity, and I found myself developing a warped sense of sympathy for him.

SJ: Many readers have noted that Alexei has become a favorite character of theirs. As I wrote the novel, he became an assassin with a conscience, which fascinated me. It added depth to his character and allowed me to explore the evil I believe lurks in each of our hearts, and the good that constantly fights against it. I think of all the villains I’ve created, he’s the most interesting because he’s not pure evil, but a little more like me, with a mixture of both the good and the bad.

AC: You have a lot of technical information in this novel. How long did it take you to research for The Queen? Do you have “inside sources,” or do you have to scratch and dig to retrieve your info?

SJ: My novels typically take nearly a year to write. I always travel to the location of the book to do research of the site. I also interview experts in the field, so I did the same with The Queen. I spoke with sources in the military to get the most up-to-date information about cyber warfare that I could.

AC: In your “Story Trumps Structure” article in Writer’s Digest (February 2011), you suggested forgetting about structures and formulas in favor of “propelling your protagonist through a transformation.” Do you outline your novels?

SJ: I despise outlining. I can’t imagine what it would be like to outline a novel then spend the next six months filling in the blanks. I write organically, continually evaluating the story and its direction, asking myself a series of questions related to the movement of the story. As I write, I’m constantly surprised about the direction the story goes even though I have in mind certain ideas regarding the ending as I begin the project. Even when the book is done, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to go back through the story and try to write an outline of what happened.

AC: You choose not to use explicit language in your novels, but other authors feel expletives are necessary to maintain “realism.” How would you respond to them?

SJ: I empathize with the goal of creating realism. In fact, I believe it’s a central and vital part to the story. It’s not always easy to write a thriller without profanity, but I hear from readers all the time that coarse language is a distraction to them. I don’t hear from too many people asking me to use the word “f-bomb” more. So I feel as a service to my readers that it’s worth the extra effort to develop believability without resorting to profanity.

AC: This is the fifth book in a series, yet I don’t feel like I’ve “missed something” by not reading the others. Novice writers want to catch the reader up on everything that happened in the previous books all at once, or they continue to make references about the previous books that make no sense to the reader of the current novel. What would you suggest to authors of series novels to make each of their books stand alone?

SJ: Every story, even the first in a series, has back-story, context that has developed the character to where they are as the story begins. I look at each of the novels I write as stand-alone projects just as I would if I was writing the first book of the series. However, to satisfy my readers, I also have an overarching narrative that spans the series. I have a policy: Never write a book that someone can’t understand unless they read another book.

AC: Novice suspense/thriller writers seem to have trouble knowing what to reveal and when to reveal it. They want everything, including the full names of the characters, kept secret until later. What advice would you give them?

SJ: Always give the readers what they want, or something better. At every moment in the story, in every chapter, in every paragraph, that’s the principle that guides my writing.

That's a terrific principle, and a perfect way to end the interview. AuthorCulture appreciates Steven for taking the time to answer our questions.

If you want to learn more about his Bowers Files series, see the videos and excerpts on his website, Steven James, and you can find his books on

Note: Steven's publisher, Revell, provided The Queen for review.
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