Next week I will be posting my review of Opening Moves, the prequel to Steven James’ Patrick Bowers series. Over a year ago, when he was wrapping up work on Queen I had the opportunity to interview James and thought this would be a good introduction to his body of work.
Steven James is one of the nation’s most innovative storytellers. Since developing his skill as a performer at East Tennessee State University (MA in Storytelling), he has spoken more than 1,500 times throughout North America and has taught creative storytelling and writing in South Africa, Ukraine, Canada, Kazakhstan and India.
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 bestselling psychological thrillers The Pawn and The Rook.
Tim George: Those who have read your fiction may not be aware that isn’t where you started in your writing career. Tell us a little about your storytelling and non-fiction. What led you to try out fiction and what challenges does fiction writing present as opposed to non-fiction?
Steven James: I wrote non-fiction books for nearly 10 years and with my Master’s Degree in Storytelling, I often teach communication skills at conferences across the country. For me, it’s all about story–whether it’s a true story, a novel, or a an orally told story. I’ve always liked thrillers and over the years I had bigger and bigger stories I wanted to tell. Eventually those found their way into my novels. I think in many ways fiction is more difficult to write than non-fiction. I think that a good novel raises moral questions in an honest manner. Non-fiction gives answers. It’s a lot easier to be an answer-giver than a question-igniter.
TG: Randy Singer and I spoke about this in my interview with him. There are differences in good non-fiction and good fiction. At the same time there are similarities; story being on of them. What kind of non-fiction has most shaped the way you think and write?
SJ: It’s interesting that you ask this. My Master’s Degree thesis was on this very subject—how to craft personal experience stories–specifically, how much can you change them and still claim that they are true. Fascinating stuff. I read a variety of nonfiction, much of which explores this boundary. Lately I’ve been reading Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife.
TG: Another reader said she thinks your stories are “a wonderful blend of suspense, forensics, mystery, humor, and relationships.” Could you comment on the challenges presented to a writer in maintaining a balance between all these elements?
SJ: I believe one of the keys to writing a good novel is creating characters we care about and want to see succeed. We discover the characteristics and dimensions of a character when we see him in relationship to other people. For example, when Patrick Bowers is alone with a woman, he’s often fumbling for what to say; when he’s with his stepdaughter, he’s searching for ways to connect with her; but when he’s at a crime scene, he responds with courage and confidence. By seeing him in each of these relationships, it deepens our involvement in the story and adds depth to the novel.
TG: So even though few of us can relate to Bowers on a professional level, all of us can relate to him on a personal level. Isn’t that part of what makes for a good hero: they are bigger than life and yet liable to be just as conflicted as we are, maybe even more?
SJ: Yes. And this empathy that we have toward the protagonist is what helps us care about what happens to him or her.
TG: We’ve looked at what makes for a good protagonist. What about the antagonist? What elements are needed for a powerful yet believable villain?
SJ: I’ve gone back and forth on this. I used to believe that antagonists are most frightening when they are also compassionate in some areas of their lives, but in The Knight, my antagonist lacks any form of empathy whatsoever. Other people are just props for him, objects to use for his own pleasure. And he treats his victims almost like pieces of meat. For me, this was my most terrifying antagonist so far.
TG: I read where you said, “Most of the Christian thrillers I’ve read are thinly veiled sermons.” In fairness, I have heard a lot of sermons that were thinly veiled stories. What did you mean in that statement?
SJ: I don’t believe good fiction is written with the intention to make a point, but rather to render the truth. In other words, if I start a story with the goal of trying to prove or argue something– for example, that we should forgive other people–the story will end up shallow and didactic. However, if I write from the perspective of a dilemma, such as — what does it mean to forgive someone who doesn’t want to be forgiven — if I do that, I’m able to help people think about the issue and engage with his honestly. Ever since Aristotle pointed it out in his book Poetics (and probably before that) writers have understood that good stories end in ways that are both unexpected and inevitable. If I read a story and I start to think, “Oh I get it–if this person would just trust in Jesus, then her problems will be solved,” and that’s precisely where the story goes, the story has failed since the ending is only inevitable and not unexpected.