You have to figure it takes a lot to shock the people at a magazine called “Suspense.” It’s not easy to surprise or impress writers whose work revolves around the tricks of the crime-thriller trade. A Johnson City writer keeps doing it.
“With a master’s in storytelling and over 20 books in his arsenal, it is shocking to us that critically acclaimed author Steven James has managed to virtually fly under the radar for so long,” Suspense Magazine wrote in January 2010, when James was the magazine’s writer of the month. That was after “The Knight” had been named one of the magazine’s top books of 2009 and before “The Bishop” was named Suspense Magazine’s best book of 2010.
Maybe the fifth Patrick Bowers case will be the charm. “The Queen,” available Sept. 1, picks up where “The Bishop” left FBI Special Agent Bowers. Maybe this time James will fly right into the middle of every thriller-lover’s radar screen.
Maybe James’ new contract with publishing powerhouse Penguin will bring the kind of mainstream exposure and distribution that puts books front and center in bookstores, in airport newsstands, in big box stores and on the New York Times Best Seller List. The first Penguin book, “Opening Moves,” will be published in fall 2012 under the New American Library imprint.
Publishing can be a soul-crushing business, no matter how talented or hardworking a writer is. James clearly is talented and hardworking. Fortunately, he shows no sign that the business is crushing any part of him. Actually, he’s one of the happiest people you’ll meet.
“I don’t know why I’m not better-known. That would be great,” he said. “But the people who read my books really seem to like them and I’m really grateful for that.” And that was on the day he posted this Tweet: “I am about to disappear into Editville, a miserable little hamlet on the outskirts of Hades.”
Revell has published all five Bowers books in hardback and trade paperback. Penguin Group has been publishing them since 2009 when “The Pawn” was released as a mass market paperback. The first four are available as audio books. James has a new literary agent and an agent for film and television rights. “The Pawn” has been optioned by ABC Studios for a possible TV series.
Reviewers often use the words “master storyteller” to describe James, and not just because he has a degree that says he is one. That degree is what brought James and his family to Johnson City. By the time he moved here from Wisconsin to enroll in East Tennessee State University’s storytelling program in the mid-1990s, he’d been telling stories for years.
“In high school, when other kids were working at McDonald’s, I was working in libraries leading story time for kids,” James said.
His first career after college was as a wilderness guide back in Wisconsin. He’d often take groups of troubled teens on treks into the wild. Storytelling was always part of the adventures. One day, it occurred to him that he’d rather think up stories sitting down instead of while traipsing through the woods and fording streams.
His second career as a grown up was as a storyteller and speaker, but making a living that way meant being on the road 250 days a year, not something a man with a wife and three daughters relished.
James already had a proven track record with Revell writing Christian non-fiction when he told the publisher he’d like to try writing a thriller. He submitted 50 pages of what would become “The Pawn.” Revell came back quickly with a three-book contract. That doesn’t happen every day.
Because Revell is a Christian publisher, the Patrick Bowers books often are shelved in the inspirational section, which may be a reason the series hasn’t caught on widely with thriller readers and reviewers, who just aren’t aware of them. The series isn’t un-Christian in any way, they just aren’t overtly spiritual. James shows the spiritual journey as part of the story rather than announcing it or setting it apart.
Stories move and characters grow only when things go wrong, James said.
“One night I was reading a bedtime story to my 5-year-old daughter. In the story, five sisters had a picnic, then played dress-up, then ran around outside, then danced, then sang. Finally, my daughter sighed and told me she was bored. ‘You don’t like the story?’ I said. ‘Course not!” she exclaimed. ‘Nothing’s going wrong!’”
In “The Pawn,” Special Agent Bowers has recently lost his wife to breast cancer and doesn’t know how to relate to the teenage stepdaughter he’s raising. And he’s hunting a serial killer in the mountains of Western North Carolina. He struggles with the age-old questions of why bad things happen to good people and where God is when they happen.
“I want to take my characters to the brink, really press them until they seem to be in an impossible situation. For me, the change in the character does not really happen slowly, but rather dramatically in the climax as they reach a moment of understanding or revelation,” James said. “Up until then, I’m trying to drive them deeper and deeper into the struggle. Often, as they resolve the external struggle (which usually happens first) it gives them the impetus, understanding or resolve to tackle the internal one.”
James’ stories twist and turn like a snake stalking supper, but always by his rules. Plot twists — especially whodunit — work only if they are “both unexpected and inevitable.
“Readers are savvy. When you flip back through it mentally, everything has to lock together. You have to be honest with your readers. Readers want to predict who did it, but then they want to be wrong,” he said. “It’s a fun game you play with the readers.”
Read more about Steven James and Special Agent Bowers at stevenjames.net.