Interview with James

james in Rothenburg 2

Interview with the author

Q: How did you get started in travel writing?

A: That’s the question I’m asked most often. It happened by accident when I decided to blend my two favorite things, writing and traveling. I’d always had a knack for writing; it’s what came the most naturally to me. I was always good at painting a picture with words and telling a story. When traveled I kept a journal (something I recommend to all writers and travelers). One thing that marked my travel experiences was a tendency to have encounters with interesting people, to find myself in strange or funny situations, and to observe a lot. So before I knew it I was writing down some of my stories for friends back home. They liked them and told me I should try to get published. I submitted some of my reports from various places, and to my surprise, they found interest. Lots of people write about their travel experiences, and some of them do it really well, but never get published or noticed. I think it was my approach to the writing that helped to set me apart.

Q: Did your interest in travel begin early?

A: Yes, pretty much from the very beginning. I think the curious, vagabond impulse is either hardwired into your brain, or it isn’t. As long as I can remember, the idea of packing a bag and going off somewhere far from home was tantalizing. My dad traveled a lot for work, and he’d go off to rather mundane places like Omaha and St. Louis, and as a toddler I found the names of these cities thrilling. I’d stand near the door in my Superman pajamas and watch him leave with his suitcase, off to exotic Omaha and mysterious St. Louis, and dream of the day when I’d be able to have adventures. There was something about the notion of being free that captivated me. Needless to say, I eventually found out Omaha and St. Louis were not terribly exotic or mysterious. I’ve since broadened my horizons.

Q: Where are you from?

A: I was born and raised in Chicago. My grandmother was from Belfast, Ireland, and my grandfather was from Vienna, Austria. I’ve lived across America and in Europe but I’m still a Midwesterner at heart.

Q: Where do you live now?

A: I live in Seattle, in the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood. Seattle’s pretty much the perfect place for a writer, as many of the writers here will tell you. After all the places I’ve been, I still love opening my sliding glass door, walking onto my balcony, and seeing Elliott Bay stretching out into the Puget Sound, seeing the ships coming and going out to sea, the Olympic mountains looking like cut glass in the distance. I wouldn’t trade that view for the world. I just stand there and watch, and breathe in the fresh breeze coming off the ocean. On a warm sunny day the water sparkles, and the contrast of the white sailboats on the blue water is just like a postcard come to life. Lots of green, too; everything grows easily. Though I loved living in Europe, I’m fond of the ocean. My family still lives in Chicago. I miss them.

Q: Did you really do internships in the White House and the American Embassy in London?

A: Yes I did! Those were some of the best experiences of my life. I applied to the State Department for an internship in the American Embassy in London during graduate school. I was studying public policy at the time. To my immense joy, I got accepted to work with the US diplomats in the Political Affairs department of the Embassy. It was probably my extensive travel experience that won me the gig; I’d already spent lots of time roaming around Europe. After the FBI issued my security clearance I quit my job and moved to London.

Once I’d earned the diplomats’ trust and respect, I was able to accompany them to meetings at the UK’s Foreign Office to talk about diplomatic relations between the two countries. I learned a lot about human nature and international relations during that time. I also compiled a daily report disseminated throughout the U.S. government. The diplomats I worked with were very kind to me and quite generous with letting me take time off so I could travel. I traveled extensively during my time there. I loved every single moment of that experience.

Q: So what about the White House?

A: As the Embassy internship was winding down, I was encouraged to apply for a White House internship by the Ambassador’s assistant, who took a liking to me. I told her I would, and did it as a lark, never expecting to actually get it; I was a kid from Illinois with no money, connections, or influence. To my extreme surprise I was accepted. I found out while I was taking a long weekend from London and wandering around in Rome because I’d found a cheap last-minute flight. I was actually in the Vatican museum when I got the call. Talk about surreal! So, after wrapping things up in London, I flew home to Chicago and spent Christmas with my parents. Then I packed up my car and drove to Washington, DC to begin work.

I served in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. An amazing experience I’ll wrote more about one day, maybe in my memoirs or something. Afterward I was planning to return to Chicago or go off to Europe, but I was hired by a Washington, DC cancer nonprofit to work in their public policy group. The money wasn’t great but I saved it well and would beg steal, and borrow time off to travel overseas when Congress was in recess.

Q: Does the White House and West Wing look like they do in the movies?

A: Not really. Everything is a lot smaller and less shiny than you’d think. Lots of beige.

Q: What drives you? Not just in travel, but life in general?

A: Interesting question. I’ve wondered where my drive to travel and create comes from. There were no writers in my family, or travelers (except my dad, for business within the US). Something that’s occurred to me in recent years is that it’s probably rooted in my childhood, like all drives are). I don’t mean to psychoanalyze myself here—always a dangerous proposition—but as a child I had severe asthma. That meant that on many gorgeous days I was unable to do a lot of stuff that kids do. I had to stay inside a lot when the pollen count was high—usually on the most beautiful days of spring and fall, of course—while my friends did fun things. I didn’t complain or show my unhappiness but it bothered me tremendously, and sewed the seed of a “life is short; go get things done!” type of attitude in me.

So, I believe that’s where my drive stems from. Not just to travel and write, but to live life to the fullest extent I can; to cram in as many experiences and learn as much about everything that I can. Fortunately my asthma disappeared in my teens and I’ve been blessed with great health and energy since. I didn’t waste time; I worked hard in school and became the first in my family to graduate from college, the first to travel overseas widely, and the first to live overseas. I’ve done internships in the White House and the US Embassy in London during graduate school. I completed an executive education program, Leadership for Nonprofits, at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. So, traveling aside, I’ve spent my adult years trying to make up a lot of lost time.

Q: Sounds like it. How many countries have you been to?

A: I don’t know; I never kept count of border crossings. I probably should have. My passport’s beaten-to-hell and full of various and sundry stamps.

Q: Where is your favorite/least favorite place?

A: This is the second most asked question I get. I liked them all to a certain extent, for various reasons. I’ve found that every place and every culture has their own unique charm, if you’re open to experiencing it. Having said that, I’m a massive history buff and have always been madly in love with Europe, so France and Italy top the list. Southern Germany (Bavaria) and Ireland are also near the top for deeply sentimental reasons. And they’re both beautiful places with great people and delicious beer. What’s not to like?

Q: In addition to writing, you also give occasional talks on travel.

A: Yes, I’ve given occasional talks on affordable independent travel. The talks are aimed to audiences interested in getting more out of their travel experiences for less money. The goal is to educate them on the best (in my opinion) places to go, and how to do it on your own and on a budget.

Q: How did that start?

A: Well, it happened much like my travel writing. I’d get asked so many times about great places to go that weren’t the standard iconic cities, and how to do that on your own when you’re on a budget and don’t speak the language. I realized there were a lot of people hungry for such information, hungry for the empowerment that gives them, and, most importantly, they wanted to hear it from a real live person they could ask questions of, as opposed to just looking at a website, reading a travel guidebook, or watching a DVD of a stranger running around a foreign land. So, I began offering travel talks; basically a seminar with anecdotes, a power-point and photos and hand-outs. Hopefully it is entertaining and informative in equal measure. It was really fun to teach and interact with people so eager to go off and experience the places on their own. All they needed were the skills to get around and not get ripped off, and to hear the information from someone who had no agenda other than to share hard-won advice. I had nothing to sell. Only information and advice to offer. It’s extremely rewarding to share my hard-earned knowledge with people so they can profit from the experience, and have a great time aboard on their own without blowing a fortune unnecessarily. It’s about empowerment, really.

Q: You focus solely on Europe?

A: Yes, that’s my specialty. No one can be a specialist about everywhere, and don’t trust someone who claims to be. The world is too big and diverse.

Q: Tell us a little bit about how you came to be a novelist.

A: It grew organically from my travel writing. I had already developed an ability to paint a pretty vivid picture of a place with words, and I’ve always been a storyteller, so it was a pretty natural progression. It’s funny; all of my experiences came into play, not just travel. Knowing a lot about human nature from my many various jobs and experiences in life was enormously helpful.

Some writers, who are better with words than with life, fail to create textured characterizations; they have their characters act. But humans don’t act; they behave. They’re incredibly complex and often have conflicting motivations they’re not even consciously aware of. Their little tells—which are unique to every person—give them away. So I try to paint the picture using those little details to inform your understanding of them and where they’re coming from. I try to ply them with as many layers as I can, because people are multilayered. I also do it to increase the suspense—I want readers to keep guessing as to what the characters will ultimately do or feel. It’s not really hard to achieve that effect; we humans are subject to so many competing drives and desires and impulses, and that in itself creates lot of suspense, and I try to convey that while still keeping a tight, fun, suspenseful story going.

Q: Did you have any mentors?

A: Yes! I’ve been extremely fortunate to know some great authors who’ve shared the fundamentals of their craft with me. I studied with the legendary Don McQuinn, a fantastic author here in Seattle. I was encouraged to apply his writing critique group, and sent him some samples of my work. He liked them and admitted me into the group. It’s him and four of us lesser mortals (me included). Every week we work-shopped each other’s latest chapters under his mentorship.

Don was a career military man before becoming a novelist, so this helped in many ways. Because of his various assignments during his career he’s incredibly well traveled himself, and was doing it for decades before I was born, so he was able to bring a critical perspective to those sorts of scenes. He was every bit the old military guy in that he was very tough to please, and it forced me to raise my game tremendously. He really drilled the techniques of fiction into my bones.

Also, his military experience taught him a lot of self-discipline, which is absolute crucial for a writer. He instilled a lot of that into me and it’s reflected in my approach. I was already pretty self-motivated, but his approach to life, influenced by his Marine days, definitely inspired me. Don’s a fantastic writer, a great guy, and a good friend. Having been in the writing business for decades, he’s pretty well connected, and he’d regularly have novelist friends of his—some very gifted and extremely successful people—join us via skype for discussions on the craft. That was invaluable too.

As a matter of fact, the idea of a travel writer protagonist—the basis for my Matthew Hunt character and series that begins with Dangerous Latitudes—was Don’s idea. I owe him that one. One day he told me, “You have a unique advantage; not many people are travel writers. Write what you know. And there are a million story possibilities for a travel writer protagonist!” And just like that, the light bulb went off in my head and a character, novel, and series were born.

I’ve also studied story architecture with the brilliant Larry Brooks. He’s unmatched when it comes to conceptualizing story dynamics. I attended his workshops and swapped emails with him. His work taught me to identify the six core competencies of a story and make them shine. He also showed me how to rip a great story into its component parts and then to put them back together again, exactly the way a mechanic-in-training deconstructs a car’s engine and then reassembles to learn the physics of the thing. It helped me to understand the physical dynamics that produce a cohesive, satisfying story.

Interestingly, Larry was a pro baseball player in his pre-novelist years. So there’s that professional athlete-type work ethic in terms of constantly training to improve your skillset. That pro ethos of staying rooted in the fundamentals, and dedicated to getting better all the time. That inspired me too. I highly recommend his book, “Story Engineering”, and checking out his blog; it has tons of great articles:

Q: What were some of your favorite travel writing experiences?

A: Wow, that’s tough. I’ve had lots, but a few spring to mind. I love history, as I’ve mentioned, and am particularly interested in World War II. So I was very excited when World War II Magazine offered me an assignment write about the historic Duxford Air Force base, where the Imperial War Museum now houses it’s collection of historic warplanes. Long before the IWM put its aircraft collection there, the base itself played a significant role in the Battle of Britain; lots of spitfires were stationed there during England’s struggle to protect the country from Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

So, I traveled to England and made my way to the base, located in the countryside near Cambridge. I’d arranged to interview the IWM’s head aircraft historian, and he gave me a personalized guided tour of the place. It’s a huge campus. The buildings range from the original hangars—he base was founded during WWI to —to brand new, state-of-the-art structures. The collection included WWI planes like the Sopwith Camel, B-24 bombers from the Second World War, the Concorde, and the most modern fighter jets. It was amazing to tour the place with the Imperial War Museum’s lead aircraft historian and be regaled with stories of the Duxford’s role in the Battle of Britain. Lots of drama played out at that base, as you can imagine. It was a great visit.

Another one that springs to mind also happened to be in England. I found myself at an archeological dig at William Shakespeare’s former home in Stratford-upon-Avon. The British government was funding a major excavation of the site where Shakespeare spent his final years, after retiring to the same town where he was born. The goal was to unearth some evidence to tell us who the man really was and what his life was like. The archeologists I met there were friendly, professional, and dedicated. They were thrilled to be able to dig at such a historic site, and were glad that I was joining.

I donned a yellow volunteer vest and assisted the archeologists on the dig in order to get a better feel for the work they were doing. It was hard, dirty work, digging around in a pit with a trowel, under the hot July sunshine while tourists gawked at the proceedings. But it was also great fun and made some friends. I also learned that being a real-life archeologist kind of sucks.

So, those are the two assignments that immediately spring to mind. By the way, I kept the yellow vest.

Q: Did you find anything interesting at the excavation?

A: I dug up some shards of tile from his floor, and bricks from the wall of his cellar. Bits of glass and pottery too, and his refuse dump in the garden. We found older material suggesting the site was in use during the Middle Ages, way before Bill moved in. That was the biggest discovery. It was an electrifying feeling to hold pieces of Shakespeare’s home in my hand, and being the first one to have seen those things since the man himself. Didn’t find any lost manuscripts though. That would’ve made for a great article. Maybe next time. Or maybe my character, travel writer Matthew Hunt, will find it and get into some sort of trouble. There’s a sequel idea right there!

Q: Tell us a little bit about your writing process for the novels.

A: My approach is that any story has to pass my “would I buy it?” test. If someone told me about the plot or the characters, would I be interested in checking out the book? If so, then it’s a worthy idea to pursue. Then I begin outlining. I draw up a blueprint for the plot and crafting twists. Some authors boast about how they never outline, or just plunge ahead with only a vague notion of the plot. That works fine for certain types of stories. But stories like mine rollick right along with an international scope and lots of twists to keep the reader engaged. So I like to blueprint it down to the most minuscule details of plot and characterization. I diagram scenes, and sometimes I even storyboard action sequences like a movie director.

At the same time I create characters, deciding who’s going to be exactly who they seem to be and who’s got a hidden agenda or a secret that rocks the plot. Plying them with quirks and attributes and flaws is essential. They need to pop off the page. Then I decide where it’ll be set, but that’s usually predetermined by the nature of the plot or the characters involved. I spend lots of time making sure the elemental competencies of concept, character, theme, and narrative are strong. Dialogue comes later, during the drafting. Without any of these, the boat won’t float.

Theme is a big thing for me. I don’t like books that are entertaining but ultimately devoid of a theme or larger arc. Adventure, thrillers, and suspense novels really seem to lack these sometimes, and are the poorer for it. When the elemental competencies are in place, I focus on the executional competencies like scene construction, pace, and writing voice.

By the time I’m done I can more or less see it all play out as a movie in my mind. And I work on it until that movie is great. My books are crammed with stuff happening around the world, so I need to be on top of the narrative before writing the first word. Then I put pen to paper and write, “Chapter One”.

Q: Your books are very cinematic.

A: Thanks, I tend to be very visual, and so the stories and scenes themselves are cinematic. I want to keep people on the edge of their seat through dramatic tension or action, and the stories have a huge scope that spans several counties and sometimes continents. A couple movie people are interested in them. We’ll see where that goes.

Q: What is your approach to travel writing?

A: There’s loads of bad travel writing out there. So much. It’s so easy and so tempting to spout out clichés about “quaint” villages, “charming” towns, and “idyllic” beaches. You know, the sort of stuff you read in glossy brochures. Those are fine adjectives—and I do use them from time to time—but they’re like cayenne pepper; a little bit goes a long way. They are generally really overused, and consequently lose their impact. Plus, clichés paint only a two-dimensional portrait. Good travel writing is kind of like creating a personality profile of a place; to give the reader a more three-dimensional feel for the location. In other words, pulling in sensory data is really important to draw the reader into the location emotionally.

Just as important to the texture of a place are the people. Wilfred Thesiger in Arabian Sands tells the reader that he always considered the deserts and mountains just a backdrop to the real allure of the place: the people. Aside from the geographic wonders, the world is an endlessly amazing place filled with incredible stories of hate, love, war, forgiveness, dying, and life. Play by play, A-B accounts just don’t cut it.

There’s a great quote that my friend and fellow vagabond-writer-blogger Rolf Potts likes; it’s from Freya Stark’s Riding to the Tigris: “Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear. Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art.”

It’s a lovely quote and I think that sums it up pretty well.

Q: Tell us a little more about your main character in “Dangerous Latitudes”, travel writer Matthew Hunt.

A: As you said, he’s a travel writer. He’s a loner, kind of laconic, and comes off as kind of gruff. But he’s a decent guy who strives to so the right thing, in the big picture. He’s got a good heart. That’s not to say he’s perfect. He’s not. Since he’s always traveling and observing and immersing himself in far flung bits of the world, Hunt’s not exactly “normal”. He’s is a bit of step with the norms and expectations of the regular world. He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup. I actually have one of the characters in Dangerous Latitudes call him that. But that turns out to be a virtue of his.

He’s profoundly curious, and that drives him. He’s driven to learn and explore, and bring that little slice of the world back to his readers. He sees it as a moral issue. And so sometimes—almost always, actually—gets him into more than he bargained for. His fortitude in the face of difficult circumstances and his desire to solve the mystery drive the stories.

Q: Does it take place in the present time?

A: No, The series is going to take place in the late 60’s, because I didn’t want to give him or other characters an easy way out of trouble. For instance, if someone’s lost in the jungle or the desert in this decade they can use an app on their smart phone and find out exactly where they are and contact help, or do a bunch of other things. I didn’t want that “easy out”, neither for myself as a writer nor for my characters. Hunt and anyone else on the stories will have maps, compasses, and their own wits. I want to keep it old school. He manages to get himself into jams in the most exotic places, and in my stories there’s no “app” for that.

Q: Will this be the beginning of a series?

A: Many people have asked me about that, and the answer is…Yes!

Q: How about “The Vanishers”?

That’s less certain. I loved researching and writing the book, and coming up with these extraordinary characters and their challenges. But, because of the way the story ends (don’t want to give too much away), that might be tricky. It doesn’t lend itself to a series as naturally as Hunt’s adventures do. That was meant to be a series. The Vanishers was a stand-alone story, but I have conjured an idea as to how a return could play out. We’ll see.