by C.J. Darlington
Steven James Interview
my books I never glamorize evil, make it look alluring, but I do make
you look and say this is how far people have fallen. This is
what our world is like. But guess what? There’s a redeemer who’s
bigger than the evil we’re capable of."
Critically acclaimed author Steven James has written more than twenty books, including The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight, and The Bishop, all part of the bestselling thriller series The Bowers Files. The Pawn is the basis of a TV series currently in development. One of the nation's most innovative storytellers, Steven developed his skill as a performer at East Tennessee State University (MA in storytelling). He lives in Tennessee with his wife and three daughters.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
It’s interesting, as a kid I was telling stories. When I was a kid we were the school crossing guards. They had the sixth grade kids instead of adults like today. I would stand on the corner, and I was on the corner where there weren’t many kids crossing. I was like the B string or the second string, or something. I guess they didn’t trust me much. So I would just stand there and tell myself stories. Just talk to myself to pass the time. I was always making stuff up, but I never thought I could be a writer. And then back about in the mid 90s I kind of felt God’s calling to write and speak. I ended up sending some stuff to magazines. Everybody said, you’ll never get published, it takes so long, you’ll be rejected, and so on. I thought, well, who cares? I’ll just send it out there. I started selling some articles and stories, and then little by little ended up doing it full time. It’s been interesting. I’ve always liked telling stories but it was only at that point where I said, maybe I could do this.
What kind of jobs did you hold prior to being a writer?
Out of college I was a wilderness guide for a little while, then I worked as a program director at a camp, and then after that I went to graduate school and got my Masters Degree in storytelling, and at that point started telling stories, performing for schools, libraries, and so on. I began to write some, and then eventually just started to do it full time. I’ve worked a variety of interesting things. I was a museum educator for a while just to try and help pay the bills. After leaving the camp, which was my last real full time work job, ever since then it’s just been scrabbling along trying to write my way into a living telling stories.
Why do you believe stories are such powerful mediums in sharing truth?
There’s a Jewish folk saying that says God created man because he loves stories. I kind of like that. At the heart of humanity is this God woven desire to tell and hear and listen to stories. In a philosophical way, through stories we can approach the truth of life that we want to deal with but are overwhelmed by. Grief is overwhelming for us, but if we watch a movie or we read a novel where someone is working through grief, maybe we cry then. But it allows us some sort of mental or emotional space to experience the things as humans we want to experience, but in real life we’re almost afraid or overwhelmed with the idea of grief, or of loneliness, or of love. Stories give us a window to look into that. For example, in Haiti 250,000 were buried alive. We hear that, but it’s overwhelming. We don’t cry. But if your dog is hit by a car in front of your house, and killed, people will grieve. Well, how could that be? We know human life is more valuable than an animal. We know that a quarter of a million people being buried alive is much more tragic than a dog being run over, but emotionally we don’t connect with that. It’s overwhelming. But if you could hear one person’s story, or read about one person’s journey, one woman digging through the rubble for her baby, maybe then you would cry and it would hit home. Because it seems to me that life is overwhelming and stories give us that freedom to experience the things we know we want to but can’t seem to bring ourselves to because it overwhelms us.
Sometimes I mention in seminars that Jesus’s stories didn’t overwhelm, they underwhelmed. They slipped underneath the defenses and sort of pulled the rug out, and people said, “Whoa. Wow, I guess I never noticed that was true.” Stories can definitely be used to teach moral lessons and to teach us different truths that we kind of will argue about.
How did the Patrick Bowers stories come about?
For years I had wanted to write novels. I’d written a number of nonfiction books and quite a few articles. I really wanted to write fiction. So I started work on a detective novel. People always say there should be something unique about your character, so my character was going to be a one-handed detective. Like his left hand was going to be gone, blown off or something. So I had this one-handed detective in mine. I started writing this story, and I started to ask myself, “What makes him unique? So what if he’s one-handed. I don’t really care.” I was doing research on profiling and criminal investigation. I stumbled across this whole geo-spatial investigative approach, which is now Bowers’ specialty. It was so fascinating. I had never seen anything or heard anything, or seen tv shows or read novels that dealt with it. That became the impetus for me to say, okay I’m going to really work on making him unique not just some random physical disability, but give him a very unique niche in the literary world and with his investigative world. He ended up getting both hands.
I had written some nonfiction books for Revell, and I told them I really wanted to do this novel. They said, well let’s see what you have. So I sent them fifty pages. They ended up offering me a three book contract, and it was off the ground and running. Since then we’ve extended the series and expanded it. Penguin does the mass market versions of the book. ABC studios has optioned The Pawn, but we’re very close to going to Pilot. CBS would actually air the Pilot but ABC would produce the Pilot. There were so many hoops to jump through, it’s just crazy.
Have you had input on the script?
No. Well, I shouldn’t say no completely. In some respects I have. If the show is filmed, I’ll be a consultant. I won’t write the scripts per se, but I would consult with them on each episode.
When you first wrote The Pawn, you never expected it to be a long series, did you?
I proposed that it could be six books. The Pawn, The Rook, The Bishop, and so on. I thought that would be a unique way to frame it if we could extend it that far. I had no idea if we would, but I thought it would be unique to do that.
Developing a character over a series takes a special skill. How do you do that, and do you ever get tired of Patrick Bowers?
In each book I try to wrestle with one deep, moral question and let him wrestle through that. In The Pawn it was what makes us different from those who do the unthinkable. In The Knight it was what’s more important, truth or justice? In The Bishop it was what makes humans different from animals, does free will exist? So in each book I try to push him through this moral question or moral dilemma. The Rook was what keeps me from stepping over the line and becoming like those who I hunt, at least for Patrick. In The Queen, the question is what does it mean to forgive yourself? Does that mean anything, or is it nonsensical to even talk about?
For example, if you came to my house and you broke my window, you would owe me a window, right? I could say don’t worry, I’ll pay for the window, in which cawe I’m taking your debt and paying it myself. Or you could pay me for the window. In the Bible whenever it talks about forgiveness it’s in terms of debts being forgiven or debts being paid off. So if I forgave you for the window I would pay the debt myself. But you can’t forgive yourself for the debt you owe me! It doesn’t make any sense. Yet people still talk about forgiving yourself as if it’s something you can do. In terms of our relationship with God, if we commit a sin and say we have to forgive ourselves, how could you claim to cancel a debt that only God could cancel? Seems pretty arrogant to me to say that. It’s very interesting because it’s so common in our culture for people to speak like that. Should we just drop the term from our language? How do you move on from the past with receiving forgiveness or living in denial. In the book different characters have to ask this question of having to deal with forgiveness from different perspectives and come to different conclusions. I think at one point in the book I have Tess ask this, “Without forgiveness, can you think of any way of dealing with your wrongs that isn’t some form of denial or negotiation.” And honestly, I can’t. I haven’t been able to think of any apart from forgiveness.
The way I look at it is in each book Patrick becomes more fully human. He begins to realize these different aspects of human nature and humanity and grow in that respect. I do look at the series as a whole as his character arc, his story arc, as an eight book kind of thing. In each book I do of course try to keep him consistent as far as his thought process, but I do try to push him to grow in certain areas of understanding. In relationship to other people, for example, with women and his step-daughter. I try to change the dynamic in each book. In The Pawn he begins physically and emotionally distant from his step-daughter and through the book they end up coming together. In The Rook they begin physically and emotionally close and then they’re ripped apart in both ways. In The Knight they start physically and emotionally together but end up emotionally apart but physically close in the same city. I try to alter these things so the books don’t have this cookie cutter feel, that it’s always a dad and his daughter trying to connect. That’s not what I want.
I’m working right now on the sixth book and just gathering ideas for the seventh as I do it. And I’m still intrigued with Patrick Bowers. I’m not sick of him at all. Which is so refreshing because I was afraid maybe at this point that I would be tired of him, but not at all. I’m planning to do eight and then that’s all. But who knows? If he doesn’t want to go away, then maybe we’ll keep going. But at this point it’s eight.
For those who aren’t familiar with what geo-spatial geo-spatial investigative techniques, could you explain it in a nutshell?
Everyone forms a mental
or cognitive map of the region they’re familiar
with, the area where they live. For example, if you lived in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, and I said, “Draw a map of Pittsburgh,” you could
do that. But it would be skewed toward the places you’re most familiar
with, and you would leave large parts of the city unmapped because you
just never go there, you’re not familiar with them. Killers do the
exact same thing. Their routes through a city would have certain
patterns defined by the places that they work, the places they maybe go
to church, where they visit friends and shop.
Let’s say there were a series of murders. By understanding the locations of where the bodies were found, where the victims lived, or maybe where they were abducted or killed, and then understanding the victim's travel patterns through that area, you can look backwards to try and figure out the most likely location of where the killer would have left from, his home base, based on our understanding of how people form cognitive maps. And then you can shrink the investigation down to that area. So let’s say that in all of Pittsburgh this sixteen block area is the most likely location for this killer to have left from. Then you might look at your suspect list and say, well only four of the suspects live there, let’s start with those guys and see how that goes. That’s the approach, but you need a number of crimes so you have a number of data points or locations from which to work. So with this series it works well because he can track serial arsonists or serial killers.
It’s growing in use, although some people still kind of say it’s hocus pokus or pins on a map. It’s all based on logic when you look at timing, location and progression of crimes. 80% of murders happen within a mile of the offender’s home. Just knowing things like that, if I were investigating a murder, and you have ten suspects and one of them lived three houses down, it’s only logically you’d start with that guy. It’s not anything voodooish or predicting the future. It’s basically understanding reality and looking at things logically. You know, somebody commits a crime, they have to get away. They have to escape. Most likely they’d commit a crime in a place they’re familiar with enough to be able to escape without being detected. It’s unlikely I would go into an area of the city I’ve never been to before and kill someone because I might not be able to get out of there without being seen.
You must have so many things you have to keep in your head!
I have notes and so on, but after four or five years of reading on this and then writing on it you get a handle of the aspects and principles of it.
Being an author doesn’t necessarily equate to being enormously wealthy. Could you talk about that?
Obviously some successful authors are quite well off because they have sold millions and millions of books. But the reality is, we just refinanced our home so we could make it through until my next royalty check comes. That’s life. If you want to be rich, you might make it as a writer. But all of the writers I know make about what a teacher makes. We work hard, we write a lot, and then in the end you make about a middle class income. There’s a tiny fraction of people who make an extreme amount of money, but for the most part all of us are just going to work every day and doing what other people do, and getting paid a little bit in the end. Much less than someone would ever imagine. If you bought a twenty dollar hardcover of mine, I get about a $1.20. You can see you’ve got to sell an awful lot of books before you’re going to put your kid through college.
Share with us a little bit out your views on why books with so little Christian content get classified as Christian fiction.
First of all, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “Christian fiction”. Just like I don’t believe there’s “Atheist Fiction”. You don’t go into a bookstore and have them say, here’s the “Materialist Fiction” there’s the “Buddhist Fiction”, there’s the “Christian Fiction”, here’s the “Mormon Fiction”. I think there’s fiction of excellence and fiction of mediocrity. There is fiction that glorifies God, and fiction that doesn’t. Fiction that celebrates the things He celebrates, and fiction that celebrates the things He abhors. As part of a being a discerning reader I try to look at three aspects of art, whether it’s a novel or a movie, and that is the content, the worldview that’s taught, and also the artistic excellence. In some of my books there’s content of a graphic nature because they’re about a person who tracks violent offenders. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t allow you to be present in that. The other aspect has to do with artistic excellence, and I think this is where a lot of books we would call Christian fiction tend to stumble because they’re message driven. They start with an agenda, trying to tell someone, you should forgive others. Then as you read it, you get it. Instead of telling a good story it becomes a narratarized sermon. It’s okay, but it’s not a novel. It’s a lesson.
A lot of Christian
novels and movies don’t teach a Christian worldview.
That really bothers me that they’re called Christian. For example,
any book that would make it seem like once you trust in Jesus your life
gets easier and you keep your job, and your wife and you who were having
trouble in your marriage, suddenly are okay and everything is solved. You
win the award for
the best salesman of the year, and you have a baby even though you’re
infertile and your wife can’t have twins, and all this . . . Christianity
doesn’t teach that once you become a believer life becomes easier.
It teaches the opposite! Jesus says it’s going to get harder. The
world is going to hate you. You’re going to get persecuted. Christianity
teaches instead that no matter how hard it gets, God is present through
all of it. People do become Christians and end up with a divorce, lose
their job, not have a kid, and don’t win the awards. We call a book
Christian just because it talks about trusting in Jesus, but that doesn’t
make it Christian if it doesn’t tell the truth about the world.
I think part of telling the truth about the world is telling the truth about evil. A lot of what we would call Christian fiction mutes evil. It doesn’t make evil really seem all that threatening, but it’s sort of like that one-dimensional bad guy. He’s not really scary because we all know he’s the bad guy, and so we’re not disturbed by evil, which I don’t believe is really what we should be writing if we’re Christians. Instead, as we portray evil, it should be disturbing. Never alluring, never muted, and never toned down, but as it is in this real world. The reality is, pedophiles really do abduct little boys, drag them into their basement, rape them, and then bury them alive. This is reality. This happens. People really are videotaped getting their heads sawed off. This is our world. I think before people can really acknowledge their need as a savior, they have to look at our world as it is, not as we want it to be.
In my books I never glamorize evil and make it look alluring, but I do make you look and say this is how far people have fallen. This is what our world is like. But guess what? There’s a redeemer who’s bigger than the evil we’re capable of. I think you show the worth of something by showing how much pain is caused when it’s lost. To show the worth of human life, I need you to look at something and grieve. If you watch a tv crime drama, you’ll see a body and the cops kind of gather around and joke about it, and they cut to the commercial. Nobody grieves, nobody cries, nobody wails. That’s not the truth about the world. It devalues human life, the dignity of human life, to portray things like that. In essence, what you might call Christian fiction is fiction that tells the truth about the world. That strives for excellence artistically, that portrays things from the worldview we come from. We have a fractured relationship with ourselves and with God that only He can heal, and when we write we might have content that is in some cases graphic, but sometimes the context determines that’s necessary, just like in the Bible. The Bible is quite graphic and violent, filled with erotic sex and beheadings and dismemberments and visceration. But it’s there to show us what humans are capable of and how far God will go to rescue us.
I don’t think I could really be honest about evil without really making people disturbed by looking at it. You would just build up a caricature, a straw man, that’s too easy to knock down. It’s been interesting to hear people’s responses. 99% of people I hear from really do enjoy reading the books, but the people who don’t like them because there’s a dead body or something like that, which is so shocking and strange to me because the criteria that people have for what is Christian and what isn’t Christian is strange. Someone will say, well nobody gets converted. Well, in none of the stories Jesus told did anybody get converted. There were no conversions in his stories. Well, somebody will say, “You don’t talk about God very much.” Well, the book of Esther doesn’t even mention God. Ever. Once. So is it Christian? Were Jesus’s stories Christian? We just need to move past whatever the cliched, trite little Christian novel sort of stuff and start looking at whatever we read with discernment and asking ourselves what worldview is this teaching? Is the content appropriate for the story? Is it telling the truth about the world?
Is the prequel to the Patrick Bowers series, Opening Moves, about Patrick?
I’m actually planning to do Opening Moves next instead of waiting until the end of the series. And it is about Patrick. It happens about ten or twelve years before The Pawn. Before he’s joined the FBI. He’s still a detective in Milwaukee, and this will cover one of his dramatic cases back in his early days. It’ll be a lot of fun, where I can show the genesis of his character, the traits he has. I can bring up some questions and foreshadow some things I can then deal with in the series in The King and Checkmate.
Are you finding it at all difficult to remember everything you’ve said about Patrick in the books you’ve already written so it all lines up?
I kind of write and then get to the end and think through and have to do some fact checking. I haven’t told you a whole lot about Patrick’s background yet. We learn he used to be a detective in Milwaukee, we learn a little bit about some of his cases, we get glimpses of his family members, but I prefer writing that way, where you continue to reveal the character as you go on. I don’t like reading a book where they introduce you to the character and suddenly spend three pages giving you their life story, where they went to college, how they first met their wife, and then move on with the story. That always annoys me! I don’t want all that stuff you wrote up before you started the book. At this point there’s still a lot of mystery about how he came to become who he is. That’ll be really fun to unpack in Opening Moves.
As a guy who writes thrillers, I think it might be surprising to some that you enjoy science fiction movies.
I do like a variety of movies, thrillers, actions, science fiction. I had a lot of fun with the latest Star Trek movie.
You’ll be writing a science fiction novel next then?
Well, I actually am working on an idea that might be termed science fiction. We’ll have to see if I actually end up doing it or not. It has to do with quantum physics and blurring the world of reality and how to change reality through quantum physics. It’s interesting, strange, strange stuff quantum physics. And string theory . . . it’s crazy.
Anything else you'd like to share?
The Bishop was named Suspense Magazine’s Book of the Year. Suspense Magazine reviews thousands of books, mystery, horror, suspense, thrillers, and they choose a top ten in each category. But then they choose a book of the year. For me that was really exciting because that’s going against Stephen King, Dean Koontz . . . that’s really neat for me because in the book I deal with questions of evolution, abortion, free will, what makes humans different from animals, and I do it from a Christian worldview. I really try to ask important questions, and then include the implications. And it’s neat to see that what people would call a secular magazine still acknowledge it. With The Bishop, I sent it to this guy for endorsement who’s not in Christian publishing, and he said, “Yeah, when I got done reading it I was talking to my son who’s at MIT about whether free will exists.” I’m like, how cool is that? It’s a thriller. It’s neat to help open up dialogue about important questions and do it through stories.
Portions of this interview first appeared as an article in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue of FamilyFiction Digital Magazine.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.