An Author’s Heart
A Conversation with Steven James
Today’s guest is Steven James, author of the popular Patrick Bower series of thrillers. Steven, along with Ted Dekker and Teri Blackstock, has been nominated for the Christy award in the suspense division. When you finish here be sure and check out my review of The Bishop. My thanks to Steven for taking the time to reveal a bit of his author’s heart.
Congratulations, Steven, on your Christy nomination for 2011 for The Bishop. How about I offer up one quote from my review of your worthy entry and allow you to address it any way you see fit.
As good as the characters are it is in the area of theme development where I feel Steven James has flexed his literary muscles. Using Tessa’s love of Edgar Allen Poe, a distaste for Sherlock Holmes, and fascination with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde we are given a fascinating look at the nature of good and evil. Tessa is not a believer but she is searching. What separates man from the animals? Are the fractures in man’s soul evidence of his fallen nature? Are we all capable of the same darkness as those who take lives in such horrendous ways in the story? And just when I felt James had strayed from his spiritual roots in The Knight, he hits me between the eyes with a most profound observation in the last pages of The Bishop. It is the reason both for the title of the book and my own hope that Tessa and her step-father are yet to solve their greatest mystery. They are almost there. Almost.
It’s interesting to me that you note the theme development in my work. I like how you reframe the ideas into moral questions, since this is what I do when I approach my work. When I write I don’t have a theme, per se, in mind, but rather a question or dilemma that ends up exploring moral themes.
In The Bishop, the question that drove the story was indeed “What makes humans different from animals?”
I think when an author starts out knowing the answer, the story suffers since it becomes overly agenda-driven. Instead, I want my books to be driven by a question that will keep me intrigued for the ten months or so that it will take me to write my novel. So, I wouldn’t write a book with the theme of “forgiveness,” or with the intent of telling people “you should forgive others.” Rather, I would let a question such as “What does it mean to forgive someone who has raped you?” Or “What does it mean to forgive yourself?” Or taking that idea further: “Where do we get this concept of self-forgiveness from? Why would Christians make it a priority when the Bible never commands us to forgive ourselves?”
My views concerning Christianity and fiction might differ from those of some of my contemporaries, so I’ll give you a quick rundown. First, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “Christian fiction,” any more than there is such a thing as “Christian photography” or “Christian woodworking” or “Christian graphic design.” In all areas of the arts I think there are works of excellence and works of mediocrity, works that celebrate the things God celebrates, and ones that celebrate the things he abhors. Any form of art that tells the truth about the world (including boththe reality of evil and the availability of grace) can honor God.
Second, I don’t understand the criteria most people use to judge the quality of “Christian fiction.” Often, if a work contains profanity, nudity, graphic violence or sex it is maligned. However, the Bible is never shy about portraying violence, sex, or nudity. It also has lots of earthy language, anatomical references and phrases that wouldn’t make it into most “Christian” novels of today. I don’t want to needlessly offend people, but I don’t want to paint a dishonest portrait of the world by either muting evil (as happens so much in “Christian fiction”) or glamorizing it (as happens so much in “secular” film and print.
Third, I think some authors make the mistake of doing what I call “writing toward the conversion.” The story is shaped to try and end with the Christian conversion of a character. Those stories often seem contrived, predictable, or pedantic. I think we need to write stories that have the agenda of telling the truth about the world—and sometimes that will end with a conversion and sometimes it will not. No one was ever converted in any of Jesus’s stories (unless you count the seeds in the story of The Sower) so I’m not sold on the idea that we need to make that happen in our stories in order to bring glory to God. So it try to …
- Let deep questions about human nature drive the narratives of my stories,.
- Tell the truth about the fallen nature of man and the hope that is available.
- Celebrate what God celebrates.
- Allow the characters to respond honestly to the story and let that dictate their spiritual journey.
Steven James is one of the nation’s most innovative storytellers. As one of the most versatile authors in the country, Steven has penned more than 25 books of both award-winning fiction and nonfiction including fantasy, inspiration, poetry, short stories, scripts, a nine-book storytelling library of resources for educators, and the best selling psychological thrillers The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight, The Bishops and coming soon, The Queen.