Russell James grew up on Long Island, New York and spent too much time watching Chiller, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and The Twilight Zone, despite his parents’ warnings. Bookshelves full of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe didn’t make things better. He graduated from Cornell University and the University of Central Florida.
After a tour flying helicopters with the U.S. Army, he now spins twisted tales best read in daylight. He has written the paranormal thrillers Dark Inspiration, Sacrifice, Black Magic, Dark Vengeance, Dreamwalker and Q Island. He has two horror short story collections, Tales from Beyond and Deeper into Darkness. His next novel, The Portal, releases in 2016.
His wife reads what he writes, rolls her eyes, and says “There is something seriously wrong with you.”
Visit his website at http://www.russellrjames.com and read some free short stories.
Follow on Twitter @RRJames14, Facebook as Russell R. James, or drop a line complaining about his writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Q Island. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: A virus that turns people into psychopathic killers breaks out on Long Island, New York. The government drops a quarantine and no one can leave. Melanie Bailey and her autistic son, Aiden are trapped there. Aiden becomes infected, but does not get sick. In fact, his autism gets better. She realizes he may be the key to more than one cure, if shje can get him off the island. She has to get him past the crazed infected, past the government troops, and out of the hands of a gang leader who has his own designs on a boy who may be the cure.
Q: What do you think makes a good thriller? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: The first is, you must have good characters, ones that people can connect and empathize with. If the reader doesn’t care what happens to the hero, there is zero tension when he is put in danger.
In no particular order after that, a thriller has to move. No navel-gazing introspection, no four-page back story, no meandering conversations. Every chapter, every paragraph lives to advance the story. Then, thriller readers want a roller coaster with more downward rushes then upward pulls. I also like a thriller to have plenty of twists, plenty of “Oh wow!” reveals that sent the hero in a different, untraveled direction.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: I am a discovery writer, seat-of-the-pants writer, organic writer, whatever you want to call it. I start with a situation, then I try to have some kind of plausible ending in mind. Then I create the main characters with some pretty broad brush strokes and start writing. Everything kind of blossoms as I write. About two-thirds of the way through, I have to go back and construct an outline so I know how everything is fitting together and that the timeline makes sense.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: Melanie Bailey went through several transformations. She starts out the story weak and dependent on her husband, a jackass stockbroker who gets trapped on the other side of the quarantine. She’s all alone with her special needs son and it overwhelms her. But she gets stronger through the story as she realizes she has no safety net, and if her son is to survive, only she will make that happen. Early readers didn’t think she grew enough, or couldn’t see the turning point in her life, so I had to go back and add several scenes and change others.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: There are villains galore in Q Island. A lot of readers tell me that the uninfected are more scary than the infected. One of them is Paul, an oddball survivalist who lives in Melanie’s condo complex. The people turn to him in their hour of need, and the power most certainly goes to his head. I’ve seen lots of examples where people are put in charge of something and they turn all Napoleon. I amped that up and let Paul’s sadistic streak bloom. You’ll love to hate him.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: If I got to a section where it bored me to write it, I guessed it would bore someone to read it as well, so I cut it out or shrank it. Q Island also follows a few different parallel stories, that eventually all intersect, so I had several people who could encounter something amazing and I could pick who’s turn it was to get riveting. I think that read better than having one point of view person who experienced every adventure. That just starts to feel unrealistic after a while.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A:Setting almost sank the manuscript. I selected Long Island because it was large and relatively easy to isolate. A tunnel, a few bridges, a few ferries. Close them and the only way out is swimming. But then I had to do the world building in the post-Paleovirus version of the island. I wanted it to be more realistic than a lot of post-apocalyptic works are. That meant I needed to answer a lot of questions like will the mainland still supply electricity? The world won’t let them starve to death, so how does food and gasoline and medicine get through quarantine? Some businesses will disappear, like the mom-and-pop store making gourmet dog treats. How will those people live? Some jobs have to stay filled, like water treatment operators and police. Who pays them when there is no economy generating money in the zone? The whole thing seemed unmanageable and I set the manuscript aside. Later I read some other post-apocalyptic stories that got it right, and I was inspired to get the story rolling again. I think I did pretty well with it in the end.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: I don’t have a theme when I start a story. One usually surfaces. Sacrifice is about the bonds of friendship. Black Magic is about the strength of family. I really don’t notice the theme until I review the final product. I think more authors have theme running subconsciously when they write than people doing literary analysis want to believe.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: Wow. Can I answer something that deep? To me, art is personal. “Here’s an expression of my life and experience and inspiration.” It is made with little to no assessment of whether it will appeal to anyone else. It touches the heart of the creator. Commercially viable work is something that touches the hearts of the masses. An editor, understandably, wants the latter. That’s his job. In my experience with Don D’Auria at Samhain, and editor and a writer can collaborate and make certain that the finished work tells the story the writer wants in a way people would be driven to read. If an editor wants a writer to turn the whole story upside down, the writer should probably find someone else more aligned with the initial creative vision that drove the work.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Number One is drive. I remember watching a politician mount a very low energy bid for the presidential nomination, and reporters wondered if he really wanted the job all that much. He later dropped out of the race. Successful people in any profession need to have that drive to do the work to win. Authors have to have it by the barrelful, because they face a much higher failure rate, harsher criticism, and delayed rewards because publication, and any positive feedback, may be years from the moment the story was finished.
Number Two is being ready to improve. You have never mastered the craft. In the same way that athletes are always training, and golfers sometimes call in a coach to rebuild their swing, a writer needs to always be exploring ways to improve what they create. New, often unpublished. writers who prickle at constructive criticism likely won’t ever sell a thing. To apply and paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we need to be free to doubt our own infallibility.
Number Three, sorry to say, is luck. There are many good authors out there without publishing contracts. An editor had a bad day, a manuscript file was deleted accidentally, the work’s genre is stone cold this month, the writer missed the open call posting. There are a million different reasons good things stay on writers’ hard drives. That is why it is so important to scroll back up and make sure that you have Number One covered. The more you work, the more you submit, the more you publicize, the more the odds turn in your favor that the right opportunity will be there for your work.
See how I left out talent? You can be successful without it. (I’m skipping listing famous names here.) But without the top three above, you can’t be successful, even with it.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: True, but it is homework in a subject that you enjoy.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: Any aspiring author who hasn’t read Stephen King’s On Writing needs to close their laptop, buy it, and read it cover to cover, twice. I had great experiences with the Gotham Writer’s Workshop classes that are held online. But all classes are dependent of the skill of the instructor and the participation and caliber of the students.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: If you have the itch within you that says you must write, you have no choice. It will not go away if you ignore it. It will irritate you for years, even decades, and until you scratch it, it will offer no relief.
Just start. Sit and write. Read good writing. Sit and write some more. Do not give up, do not be discouraged. Since man first painted pictures on cave walls, some of us have been driven to share stories with the tribe. That is the DNA that has been passed down to you. Embrace it, and enthrall others.