Steven James has a new novel out, Opening Moves. He is a critically acclaimed author who has written more than thirty books, including his bestselling Patrick Bowers series. One of the nation’s most innovative storytellers, he developed his skill as a performer at East Tennessee State University (MA in storytelling). Steven is a much sought after speaker for writing conferences and seminars around the world. He lives in Tennessee with his wife and three daughters.
Opening Moves is a prequel to my Patrick Bowers thrillers The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight, The Bishop and The Queen. It’s the grittiest crime novel I’ve ever written and, in fact, gave me nightmares when I was working on it. In this book, we meet Bowers before he joined the FBI and is still a homicide detective in Milwaukee. When a series of grisly kidnappings and mutilations draw Bowers and his team into a case that appears to be an ode to the cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, they discover a spiraling nightmare of manipulation, brutality and terror. Michael Connelly calls it “Mesmerizing . . . A darkly gripping story with relentless power.” Personally, it was the hardest story to write, since it deals with such an intense subject matter. Professionally, I think it’s one of the tightest, most powerful works of fiction I’ve done.
Do you think the fictional treatment of disturbing materials appeals to readers because it explores areas deemed to be inhuman and therefore unlikely to be encountered, or are those areas what Nietzsche called human all too human?
Wow, what a question. Let’s see, first, I’d say that it’s part of human nature to be allured by the forbidden. From the earliest recorded accounts of our species, even from the events in the Garden of Eden itself, we’ve proven ourselves to be interested in the evil that lies just out of reach. So that’s part of the answer—but as you rightly point out, the fictional treatment of disturbing materials appeals to us. My Nietzsche is a little rusty, but I do know that philosophers have identified a universal trait in humans known as Schadenfreude, which is the opposite of envy. As ethicist Joshua Halberstam writes, “Envy is your private dejection at seeing another succeed, Schadenfreude is your private joy at seeing another fail.” I think this is why we’re more apt to rubberneck at the scene of an accident than pull over and pray for those who might have been in it. We are a species that dreams of the stars, but wrestles in the mire of our own nature. I think that in most of popular culture evil is either glamorized (such as in a slasher movie) or muted (for example, on the news when it becomes just another talking point). In my books I try to show evil for what it is, and honestly, readers tell me that’s part of what attracts them to the books. There’s no glossing it over, there’s no glamorizing it, but instead I’m trying to tell the truth about our world—a place of grace and beauty and wonder, as well as a place of terror and grief and horror. So, I think in some cases, it’s telling the truth about human nature that attracts people to the evil and horror in fiction. That’s the reason I strive for.
Do you think that the best detectives have strong criminal shadows?
Yes, and I like the way you put that—criminal shadows. As I’ve worked on my Patrick Bowers novels, I’ve found myself exploring that fine line between good and evil that winds through our world and through each of our hearts. Patrick is rooted in what he believes about justice and is committed to uncovering the truth whatever the cost, but has found himself drawn toward the darkness, toward the things he has seen in his investigations. In Opening Moves when he’s pressed to explain why he became a homicide detective, he mentions it was to keep the demons at bay. “What demons?” his girlfriend asks him, and he says, “I just feel it sometimes—the darkness tugging at me. When the things you despise the most about human nature call to you, whisper for you to take a step closer to them.” This knowledge of the darkness, of what people are capable of, unsettles Patrick because he realizes that if humans can really do the things to each other that he sees in his cases, then what’s to keep him from doing them himself? I think that the more you pull away the curtain of our own self-denial that makes us so comfortable—“At least I’m not like those people. I could never do those things.”—the more you can do that as a novelist, the more the book will connect with people on a deep, visceral level because of the empathy they can feel with both the detective and the villain he’s pursuing. And it will echo with insight to help readers take a more honest appraisal of themselves and their own criminal shadows.
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that before. It reminds me of the quote by Franz Kafka: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen in our souls.” A little different sentiment, but along the same lines. I’ve always liked this quote because I think that so many books are too timid. It seems like either a lot of authors don’t know how to chip the ice away or they’re just afraid to pick up the ice-axe. As far as what Greene says about writers having a piece of ice in their hearts, I suppose that’s true. Both ice and fire. You need that flame as well. You have to be able to look at the world with unflinching eyes, and then write the story that reveals itself to you and not the one that panders to accolades and applause. If I didn’t ache when I looked at the world, I wouldn’t be able to write. And if I didn’t rejoice, I would never make it through the day.
How important is strategy to your killers?
The strength of a protagonist is measured against the strength of the forces of antagonism that he has to overcome. If you have just a run-of-the-mill villain all you need is a run-of-the-mill detective. So, when I create my villains they have to be bigger than life, terrifying, calculating, ruthless so that they force the protagonist to rise to the challenge of stopping them. In this sense, I think that strategy is important, but no killer can think of everything. In movies and TV sometimes the killer seems omniscient. I like to let the villains have a plan, but also be forced to adapt as the protagonist gets closer to catching them.
In addition to writing fiction, you have also written numerous nonfiction books. How important is religion to you?
Thanks for asking. I suppose that depends on your definition of religion. I am (or strive to be) a follower of Jesus. He never encouraged people to be more religious, but rather told them over and over to look at a relationship with God as personal and transformative—more like being adopted into a family than following any religious rituals. I think religions spring up as ways people come up with to try to bridge the gap between themselves and God (or between themselves as they are and as they wish they were). Christianity is about what God has done, not about what we do. We believe that grace and forgiveness from God are what provide salvation, not the obedience to any code of laws, which all people invariably fall morally short of. This relationship is important to me, and I’ve written a number of inspirational / spiritual titles that explore it. Since I know how flawed and imperfect I am, I don’t know how
I would face each day without the knowledge that God accepts me as is and desires to have a relationship with me.
Is there a particular incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
I was In India about five years ago teaching writing. The man who organized my trip worked with a number of ministries and programs to help societal outcasts. He invited me to visit with some prostitutes who were being trained as peer counselors to other prostitutes. They would teach them how to avoid AIDS, what to do if someone got violent, and so on. We arrived in a dingy building that served as a hospital for them. The women greeted us joyfully, handing us roses to welcome us. It was tragic and beautiful. While talking with them we asked if any of them had hope that they could do something different, and in that small room packed with 50 prostitutes not a single hand went up. All at once my host stood and offered to buy sewing machines for the center and to hire someone to come in and teach sewing. “If you’ll come for three months once a week and can make me a shirt when it’s over, I’ll buy you your own sewing machine, and you can start a business as a seamstress.” You should have seen the smiles and nods in the room. Well, afterward I asked my friend, who wasn’t by any means rich, how he would pay for it. “The money will come in,” he said simply. “God will provide.” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have a lot of money with me, but I offered him a hundred dollars. “Here,” I said, “use this to help pay for it.” And he took my hand and looked me directly in the eye and said, “You just bought two sewing machines. You just saved two women’s lives.” I’ll never forget that day. From then on I’ve tried to value human life in my stories in ways I never did before, no matter who the characters are or how marred their pasts are. And I’ve never looked at the impact of spending $50 the same again.
Do you think the fact that much crime fiction centres on threats to the family reflects anything about modern Western society?
I’ve never thought about that before, but you may be onto something, a trend I hadn’t even noticed. I do know that over the years readers have told me what scenes they found the most frightening in my books. I’ve noticed a pattern—almost always those scenes are ones in which a threat comes to someone in the place where they typically feel safest or most secure. For example, in The Pawn there’s a scene about a villain sneaking in and watching a woman as she sleeps in her bedroom. Most of the female readers I’ve spoken with find that the most unsettling in the book. The place where they feel safest isn’t safe after all. One practical aspect of having the family of the hero threatened is simply because suspense is usually ratcheted up when the threat becomes more personal to the protagonist. However, it may also very well be true that in our society we seek refuges from the stress of modern life and when those places become dangerous as well, we feel that there is nowhere to turn. And that’s always a good place to take readers to when you’re trying to thrill them.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m working hard on finishing the first draft of Singularity, the second book in my new series featuring illusionist and escape artist Jevin Banks. I have several projects on the
horizon, but I’m doing my best to focus on just this one—something I don’t tend to do very well.
What do readers tend to ask you?
Sometimes readers ask me if I outline my books. And that would be a definite no.
I’m an organic writer all the way. I guess this is a rant of mine for another time, but let’s just say I can’t imagine outlining a book.
It seems like it would drain so much of the mystery and excitement.
Thank you Steven for an informative and perceptive interview.
View all Steven James books, read reviews, and download excerpts here.