Thursday, December 11, 2008

James Scott Bell Comes to Visit

I’m delighted to have James Scott Bell join me today. Currently, he writes legal suspense for Zondervan and Center Street. He’s also a great guy who loves to share what he’s learned about writing through his craft books and teaching at writing conferences. He also doesn’t mind giving career advice to a novice like moi.

So when I thought about interviewing some of my favorite suspense authors, he was at the top of the list. Fortunately, he was gracious enough to volunteer before I could beg him to visit. So here we go…

You're known for writing legal suspense. This latest series dives into the ABA waters. What prompted that?

Circumstances just sort of presented the opportunity. Besides, I've been thinking for years that there's been a turn toward too much darkness in general market suspense, and I think the readers are looking for alternatives. That's what I'm providing. I wanted to write a suspense novel that could have been published in 1947. That's my favorite era for movies, by the way. Film noir. Suspenseful without being offensive. In a way, that's what I've always written.

The scenes are short -- often very short -- in Try Darkness. Was that a conscious decision or did it simply flow better that way?

I wanted to create a bit of a movie feel, where you can cut here and there without being constrained by certain lengths. It's a style I've developed over the years. Readers today are much more cinematic in expectation, and this style fits that.

You've written close to twenty books. How do you find a fresh angle for each?

The secret is the characters. That's where writers should look for their originality. One way some secular fiction has gone off the rails is trying to be original by being ever more violent or sexual or descriptive of evil. So how far do you push those envelopes? It's not even necessary. More fascinating is the inner life of a character, and here the possibilities are limitless. So I want to present situations that are every bit as suspenseful as the best in the genre, yet also show how it affects a deep, dynamic character.

For example, there is more tension in "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (the Lana Turner - John Garfield version, NOT the Jessica Lange - Jack Nicholson version!) without being explicit than in any ten "show everything" movies you could randomly name today.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with all things legal? And what keeps you writing them?

There's natural drama in the law, in conflict. Especially in the courtroom. It's the modern form of jousting--which, by the way, is where the whole trial system came from. I keep writing them because it's what I know, and there are fresh plots all over the place. For example, in Try Darkness I wrote about an illegal practice I found out about called "the twenty-eight day shuffle." That just sounded interesting. I researched it and it became the basis of the plot.

If you could write any book you wanted and know it would land on the bestsellers list, what would you write?

I think I'd write something in the Speculative Fiction genre. Maybe time traveling aliens who snatch someone they think represents the whole earth, like Oprah. Zany hijinx ensue. I love the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, so it would probably be along those lines. But then I'd go right back to my suspense fiction, which I also love.

As an attorney, I know I sometimes find myself analyzing legal thrillers for accuracy. What's your pet peeve legal mistake in novels?

When the writer doesn't know the rules of evidence, and all sorts of improper questions get asked in a trial--or, worse, a lawyer asks dumb questions a good trial lawyer never would. Like, on cross-examination, asking the witness, "Why did you do that, Ms. Smith?" On TV, the witness breaks down. In real life, such a question leaves the witness a wide swath to explain away the damaging admission you're looking for. You almost NEVER ask an open ended question on cross.

A trial lawyer needs to have these rules and tactics as part of his bone and sinew, and it takes years to develop. Of course, this is from a specialist. The readers don't know the rules, so most of this stuff probably slides by.

Ty Buchanan is an agnostic living in an abbey with a priest and a sister. How did they step into your imagination?

I wanted Buchanan to be a work in progress, like most people are.

Events in the first book force him to think more deeply about big questions. I came up with Father Bob, an African American priest, and Sister Mary, a basketball playing nun, to present him with ideas he's unfamiliar with. I also came up with, on the other side, "Pick" McNitt, a former college philosophy professor who went crazy, and now runs a coffee house. He's an atheist, but friends with Father Bob. Ty is in the middle, and keeps hearing things that make him think. But mostly, Ty is going after the bad guys, as well he should.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Jim. Can’t wait to read that next novel!

Here’s more info on Jim:

JAMES SCOTT BELL is the bestselling author of Try Dying, Try Darkness, No Legal Grounds, Presumed Guilty, Glimpses of Paradise, Breach of Promise and several other thrillers. He is a winner of the Christy Award for Excellence (Suspense category), and has also been a finalist for the award in the Historical category. He has served as the fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine and has written two bestselling craft books in the Writers Digest series Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing.

Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and numerous writers conferences. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver. A former trial lawyer, he now writes and speaks full time. He lives in L.A. with his wife, Cindy.


EllenToo said...

After reading this interview I had to go to Barnes&Noble website and read and excerpt from one of his books. They sound like something I would enjoy reading.

Mary said...

I enjoyed the interview. I bought my daughter one of Mr. Bell's books on writing for Christmas this year.