Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of 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). His new novel is Checkmate.
Steven met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his new release and his views on plots in novels.
Tell us about Checkmate.
I started working on the first draft of The Pawn nearly a decade ago. Now, with the release of Checkmate, a sweeping chapter of my life is coming to a close.
This book starts when a clandestine FBI facility is attacked and FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers is drawn into the vicious, ruthless story that a killer from his past is bent on telling the world.
While researching the book, I heard about some abadoned gold mines that still supposedly existed buried deep beneath Uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, where the story takes place. Fascinated, I dove into researching the area. People kept telling me that the mines were there, but no one knew where.
Then I found the map.
It was located in the archives at the UNC Charlotte library and it showed where 63 abandoned gold mine shafts were, all close to the football stadium where the Panthers play.
That gave me just what I needed: a map to long-forgotten secrets buried deep in the city, and a starting place for Bowers as he’s caught up trying to stop one of the deadliest attacks ever planned on American soil.
Checkmate is a wild ride full of intriguing plot twists and turns and it has a climax that even I didn’t see coming until I was nearly finished with the book. It’s one of my favorites for the series and ties up a lot of plot threads and questions from previous books.
Do you believe that plot is character based or purely situational?
I tend to agree with Ray Bradbury who said, “Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
Engaging stories are always about characters that we want to see succeed, or at least that we want to see escape the turmoil they find themselves caught up in as the story proceeds.
Stories pivot on tension as the characters try to answer deep questions or fulfill their unmet desires. I think it’s best to start at that point—a character who’s facing a struggle, and then follow him as he tries to fight his way through it. The situations, the problems only have deep meaning when they’re wedded to the deep desires of a characters that readers care about.
Are your fictions redemptive?
Yes. As a Christian I believe in the reality of evil, but also the reality of hope, of redemption for a broken race of hurting people, and I think that comes through in the stories I tell.
I’m convinced that all great literature asks big questions and this series has given me the chance to explore a number of issues related to justice, truth, and the bounds of human
However, rather than start with a lesson that I want to teach, when I write fiction I start with a moral dilemma or a question I’d like to explore. In this book, it was the question of hope and truth—which is more important?
I let Patrick Bowers wrestle with this issue when he’s forced to decide if he’s going to share the truth with a woman even though he believes it will shatter her.
What else is on the cards for you this year?
This looks like a year of closure: Over the next six months I’ll be finishing up the third book of a young adult trilogy of thrillers. (Blur came out last year, Fury releases in May 2015). In addition to our wrapping up the chess series.
Also, in my spare time I’m writing a book on the craft of novel writing as a followup to my craft book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules, which came out in 2014. Lots on my plate, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Steven thank you for a great interview.