Interview with Geek Fiction Writer Russell James
You might not know the name Russell James yet, but if he keeps churning out awesome geek fiction like Q Island, Cavern of the Damned, and Black Magic (that you can find on Amazon, right HERE), you’ll know him soon enough. Mr. James has written novels that span the geek spectrum: from stories about zombies and monsters to stories about magic and time travel. I had the chance to sit down with Mr. James and ask him about his career, some of his recent novels, some of his upcoming novels, and advice he’d give to aspiring authors.
Scott (GNN): So, I guess we’ll start at the beginning. How and when did you get your start writing, what led you to it, and what was your first piece?
Russell James (RJ): Well, when my wife and I would go on long drives, I would say, “Ah, you know what, I was thinking, this would be a really cool movie,” or, “This would be a good story,” and then I would tell her, “This person would make a good character and this is what happens,” and eventually at one point, she just said, “You know, you ought to write that stuff down.” And I said, “No way, there is no way anyone would ever pay to read something I wrote.” And man, have I been apologizing for that forever. I started, by taking some classes because you can’t be a self-taught writer. I got some coaching, some individual coaching, and wrote a lot of stuff for five-plus years.
The first thing that I got published, were some short stories, and then the first novel I got published was Dark Inspiration. That was in 2011.
GNN: Okay. You’re talking about your wife talking you into writing, but what about when you were a kid? I know a lot of authors I’ve talked to say that they started young writing their own stories or comic books. Or did you not get into writing until later, like junior high or high school?
RJ: In junior high, I wrote something that got published in the junior high literary guide, whatever they had at junior high was, and that was a short story. And I wrote some other short stories during high school, but I really never thought about doing anything with it. There were just a lot of other things going on.
GNN: Got it. So, when you got started, I know one reason a lot of people don’t become writers or even put pen to paper to write longer pieces is fear of failure. How much, if any, failure did you experience before you were published? Or did you get the first thing you wrote, boom, published?
RJ: No, I got a lot of things justifiably rejected, and that’s good because the first things you write are terrible. I look back now, of course, I’ve got all these files and stuff, these are handwritten things and all this I’ve got, and I look through it and I’m thinking, “Boy, am I glad this never got published.”
And you have to take it that way, though, as, “Okay, it’s a learning experience,” and hopefully you can get feedback on some things. But even now, the rejection keeps coming; there’s no end to it. I took a novel to the International Thriller Writers convention last year, talked to a whole bunch of different agents, and about 10, maybe, agents, give or take, said, “Yes, I wanna’ look at that novel.” And I came back and I dutifully sent it out to all of ’em and I got notes back from everyone that, “No, it’s really not… I don’t think it’s ready. I don’t think it’s what I want. I don’t think it’s what the market needs.” I mean, they all had good reasons, and I still sold it anyway myself to another publisher. So, really, sometimes something can be good, but it’s not right for what someone’s looking for, so you just roll with it.
GNN: I don’t know if this is a real genre or if anyone else mentions it, but the subjects of your novels tend to fall into what I like to call “geek fiction,” magic, zombies, time travel, fantasy, big monsters. Are there any topics that you haven’t hit on yet that you’d like to hit on?
RJ: The next book I’ve got coming out is called The Playing Card Killer and it’s a straight thriller. It’s coming out through Flame Tree Press, a new startup out of England with Don D’Auria as the editor for the horror line there. There’s definitely horror aspects in it because of the thriller…because the main character is having such terrible nightmares about being a serial killer and he finds out that those are actually coming true. So those nightmares are pretty terrifying. And that was one of the things I thought. I thought, can I pull that off without having, like you said, the fantasy, fantastical element in it? And I think I did, and I think I’d really like to do a psychological horror thriller.
So, I haven’t done one of those yet. I’ve got a couple of ideas. I’m trying to see if my skills are up to the task.
GNN: Excellent, yeah. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I, for one, I like more of the psychological versus the unbeatable, un-killable, the Freddy Kruegers and the Michael Meyers. Give me Get Out or A Quiet Place instead.
RJ: Yeah, that’s a great example. I just watched Get Out with my wife and she turns to me and she says, “You wish you wrote that, didn’t you?” I said, “Oh, you have no idea.”
GNN: Alright, so I have a “What-if?” question for you. Let’s say you save an entertainment executive from getting hit by a car, and he says, “Russell, for saving me, I’m gonna’ let you turn one of your works into one type of project.” So, you’ve got here some choices we’ll lay out for you: turn one of your short stories or books into a video game, a movie, a Netflix series, like a network cable television show, or maybe like a Netflix limited series. Which work would you like to take, and what medium would you like to put it in?
RJ: I would really like to turn Q Island into a limited series, a limited mini-series like Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Q Island is about a viral outbreak on Long Island, and the island is quarantined. There’s a woman trapped there with her son, he has autism, he gets infected by the virus, which turns people into crazed killers, but he doesn’t get sick, and his autism gets better. She realizes he can be the cure to two things if she can get him off the island. So, she has to get him past the crazies and she has to get him past the government and then there’s a gang leader who’s also found out about him and he’s got his own plans. There are several story arcs built into it: the story arc of the main character, the woman and her son, a story arc of a supporting nurse that helps her through everything, a story arc of a doctor who is trying to solve the problem, and then the story arc of the bad guy who’s the gang leader who’s trying to get in.
If this was trying to be condensed into a movie, it would lose most of those story arcs, but if I had eight hours, you could really get everybody in it the way you can the way Lost has all the characters, or The Walking Dead, which has time to get different characters and different things. I really think it would work well in that medium.
GNN: Well, if any entertainment moguls are reading this interview, perhaps they will reach out.
RJ: Feel free.
GNN: I just want like half a percent cut, if you don’t mind. Half a percent, that’s not that much. Or at least tickets to the screening, if you have a big screening of it.
RJ: That’s it, we’ll go to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and do the red carpet.
GNN: Sweet! Yes! That would be awesome. So, we just discussed Q Island, one of your more recent novels. Let’s talk about some of your other more recent novels: Cavern of the Damned, Monsters in the Clouds, and Return to Q Island. Two of those: Return to Q Island and Monsters in the Clouds, are sequels to the other two. I’ve talked to other authors who say that unless you get super-popular, you’re not writing for the sequel. How did you determine that Q Island and Cavern of the Damned were going to have sequels? Well, I guess, first, you’ve described Q Island. Tell everyone about Cavern of the Damned and then explain how those sequels came about.
RJ: Well, Cavern of the Damned is about a down-on-his-luck paleontologist who gets recruited to join a team that’s going to open a cave that’s been sealed for 10,000 years, and they want him to tell them what bones they find and that kind of stuff, and it’s all going to be videotaped. Well, he finds out that it’s really more of a reality show, and he’s only going be in the background and it’s going to be very unscientific. He’s not happy at all with how it is, but he got stuck with it. He and the team, they get stuck inside the cave because of a cave in and they have to fight their way out. So, the only way out is through the other end where they could feel some air, and its monsters galore all the way through. Giant scorpions, killer fish, a whole bunch of different things. I just got inspired to write that. I wanted to write a 1950s sci-fi adventure that’s kind of a fun book that’s something that kids could read and families could read.
Once I got finished with that, I got a lot of positive reaction. People were really happy with the main character, they thought the Grant Coleman character was a lot of fun, and they said, “What does he do next?” I’m like, “I don’t know, he barely got out of the cave, so…”
But as I got to writing the end of it, I left it open that it was possible for another adventure to happen. And so, when that sold well enough, the publisher said, “Hey, if you have other stories of this character, we’re interested. Send them to us first.” So, I started thinking, “Okay,” and that’s where Monsters in the Clouds came from. It picks up with Grant going on another adventure. He gets recruited to find dinosaurs in the Amazon. They’ve got pictures, and they go in, and the plane crashes. And, again, it’s all survival against giant creatures out in the Amazon, so that led to that.
There’s also a third Grant Coleman installation called The Curse of the Viper King. I just signed the contract for that, so, that should be coming out sometime soon. I didn’t get a date on it; it’s probably the next few months. I hope by the end of the year, we’ll see.
GNN: That’s awesome. So one question, on the topic of the main character, Grant Coleman. For those who don’t know, this guy’s not exactly Dwayne Johnson or Sylvester Stallone, who can do everything. Did you start out saying, “I’m gonna’ make this guy a frumpy everyman.”? Was that a conscious decision? How hard is it to do that?
RJ: That was a complete choice, to say, “This guy is gonna’ be a little out of shape; he’s gonna’ be a little hesitant; he’s not going to have a set of super skills because he used to be a Navy SEAL or something like that. He’s gonna’ be out of his element, and when something goes right, he’s gonna’ be shocked at that.” One of the things he says frequently is, “I’m still not dead,” because he’s amazed every time something happens and he’s not killed. I think that that adds a little more realism to it, and I think it could get people to connect better with that person, ’cause even though he has a heroic mindset, he has trouble translating that into being heroic in his actions instantly.
GNN: Right, right. It’s the John McClane thing. I think that’s why Die Hard over the years was such a classic movie. People seem to connect with Die Hard because, by the end of the movie, John McClane is beaten to hell and back.
RJ: Yeah. When he’s got no shoes on, he’s walking through the glass, and you’re thinking, “Oh, man, you don’t do that to your hero.” But yeah, you do, and you give ’em a little more realistic adversity to overcome, instead of The Rock hanging out of a skyscraper and dropping 30 feet and landing and rolling through fire.
GNN: Exactly! So, we’ve talked about the Grant Coleman series, now let’s talk about Q Island and Return to Q Island. In this sequel, the only real returning character was the island itself. Talk about how that came to be.
RJ: That environment, the Q Island environment, is a very difficult place to write about because it’s so dark. And when you’re writing, you have to put yourself in the location. And that post-apocalyptic location was not a very pleasant place to be. So, I was happy when I got done with the book. I was very happy with the book, but I was also happy to see some sort of creative daylight because it’s very grim. But, once I had all that area, I had the detail and I had the environment built, I thought, “Well, other things are gonna’ happen here. What kind of stuff could be going on here without those same characters?” And I had a reader come up when I was talking through the books, give me the best explanation of the two you can get, which is the difference between The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. They’re totally different people in the same environment.
And I said, “Okay, well, if I wanna’ be different, what’s gonna’ be different here?” And I said, “Well, the first story, someone’s trying to get out, why would someone want to try to get back? And then that started that part. “Okay, well what would they do?” Well, they get trapped. There are people trapped on the island, someone got trapped off the island and their family’s not there, and there’s a reason for them to get back. How would they sneak in? And then that got that whole story rolling.
GNN: So, in the future, you say the setting is dark…is there a light at the end of the tunnel for Q Island?
RJ: I’ve got another idea, and it would actually…it would incorporate some of the characters to finish it off as a trilogy. It would incorporate some of the characters, the autistic boy, Aiden, from the first book, and then our hero from the second book would both get recruited to come back to Q Island for their specific skills because people are going to try to finally put this virus down to rest. So, I’ve got some ideas percolating in there. We’ll see if I can put it to paper.
GNN: Okay. So now… So you’ve talked about three upcoming projects of yours, and we’ll summarize those in a bit, but for now, let’s switch gears. Since this is an interview for GNN, what are you geeking out on right now?
RJ: Right now? Well, I travel a lot, but my wife and I have just started watching the Black Lightning TV show. We just started binge-watching that and we’re getting a major superhero fix out of that.
GNN: Is it good so far?
RJ: Oh, yeah, we’re really enjoying it. There’s a really good character dynamic in it, and a family dynamic in it that rings very true. The main character with the superpowers, Black Lightning, is actually an older guy. He’s got kids now, and he’s kind of retired from the superhero business but has been convinced to get out of it because it’s so dangerous and what it does for his family. And then circumstances in this town drag him back in. It’s the idea of the reluctant superhero, which is really good, and the acting is spectacular.
GNN: So, anyone who’s reading this, check out Black Lightning. Now, let’s move on to advice for anyone out there who wants to be a writer. First, let’s talk about getting “seen.” Nowadays, there are a million places to get your work out. It’s easier to get out there, but it’s harder to be seen because there’s such a crowded marketplace. Would you say that’s true?
RJ: Absolutely. That is definitely true. You can self-publish anything you want, but you can’t get someone to see it. So, if your goal is simply to be published and have your book out there, you can go to Amazon and do that. If your goal is to get people to read your book, it’s certainly easier to get people to read something when there’s a business out there who lives or dies as to whether people read your book. So, that definitely makes it easier.
GNN: Okay, so that being the case, what’s one thing you would tell authors to do and one thing they should maybe avoid? Are there any things that maybe people don’t even think of that they should and shouldn’t do?
RJ: You definitely should read, and the more, the better, and the more diverse your reading is in different genres, the better your writing will be, because you will absorb things there, and you will definitely appreciate things more as a writer when you read them. You’ll see a turn of phrase and go, “Oh, I wish I wrote that,” or you’ll see a setup or a location or you’ll see a twist in a plot, and there’s so much deeper of an appreciation for it when you know how much work went into creating that. So that’s number one, that you’ve got to do.
And anyone who is interested in doing this professionally or even semi-professionally, do not ever write for free. If you think your work has value, then it has value, so, make sure that you get paid for it. The only exception I would have to that is if you are doing something that is for a legitimate benefit anthology. And I’m in several benefit anthologies for Doctors Without Borders; I have short stories in those. Because of the way they’re administered, I absolutely know that 100% of all the royalties from that goes straight to Doctors Without Borders, and I’m thrilled with that. And they make money for them every month, so that’s great, but the idea of, “Give me your story and I’ll make money from it and you’ll get exposure,” is a very bad idea, and I would never do that.
GNN: I’m hearing a lot about that lately from friends I have that are musicians or artists. It’s like, “Hey, do some art for my company and it’ll get out there,” or, “Hey, perform at a concert at my event for free, and people will see you.” I guess you’re saying that’s not such a good idea?
RJ: No. I mean, if you were a house painter and someone said, “Come paint my house for free, and then people will see what a good job you did, and then they’ll ask me for your name,” the painter would never do that.
GNN: Maybe I’ll try that. I’ll walk into the place I bring my clothes to get them laundered and say, “Hey, if you clean and press my clothes, I’m going to wear them and people are gonna’ see them, and I’ll tell them how great your laundromat is.”
RJ: Doctor, could you do my appendectomy for free and I’ll recommend you to all my relatives?
Seriously, though, I think that there are some aspiring writers who get into that rut, who say, “Oh, well, I’m published in this anthology. And then I’ll do it one more time.” And then, “Yeah, I’ll do that third one because that’s the one that’ll get me over the top. I don’t know of any success stories that were brought about by giving your work away for free.
GNN: Right. Right. So, for folks that don’t know, you’re not a full-time writer. You have a “real job,” a 9:00 to 5:00-ish gig. Correct?
RJ: I do technical writing for a Fortune 50 company. So, I do technical writing and training.
GNN: All right, you have a full-time job and a spouse, so how do you make it work? For people out there that are like, “I don’t have the time to write, I’m a student,” or, “I can’t write, I have a job,” or “I don’t have time to write, I’m a mother or a father,” what can you do to make writing and a full-time job work?
RJ: Well, the first thing you need is to have a commitment from your spouse, your family, for you to do it because you’re going to take time away from them. So, once you have that commitment, then you need to set up those boundaries and say, “We’re gonna’ set aside a certain time, and I’m going to do that every day. And it depends on your personal preference. I’m a morning person, so I can get up in the morning and I can write before work, and I’m good with that. So, if that’s the way you work, then you say, “Okay, that’s gonna’ be my time. You’ll take care of the kids, get ’em off to school. I’m going to write and then, at night, when we’re both home, then I’ll pick up the slack at night.”
So, you work out a plan that everyone agrees with, and then you set that time aside, and then you have to write during that time. And it’s not, “I’m gonna’ do email,” it’s not, “I’m gonna’ answer fan letters.” It’s, “I’m gonna put keys to keyboard and I’m gonna make Grant Coleman do something today.” That’s what you have to do; you have to set up that schedule because it’s a second job. For most people, it’s a second job they want to turn into their first job. So, you have to put that discipline in.
GNN: That makes total sense. Now, do you have pretty much the same process for every book or story? Do you attack every one differently, or is there a skeleton that’s the same, but things change depending on maybe the genre or the timing? What’s your process?
RJ: Originally, I was just a seat-of-the-pants writer. I got a few ideas and got a character and got an idea for a plot, and I just started going and tried to see where it went. I wrote books that I’m very proud of that way. Then I changed a little bit because what I did is, as I got ideas about where I want the story to go, I would start just doing chapter titles of those events because every chapter has to be an event that moves the story forward. So, I’ve gotten to the point where I start out seat-of-the-pants, and then as I put all these plot points in ahead of time with chapter titles, I’ve actually almost got an outline by at least half of the way through. So, I’ve done a lot more plotting. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m like some authors that can plot the whole story out and then they go back and fill in the blanks. If I could write that way, I would write much faster, definitely.
GNN: Any other advice, writing, little tips that you can think of before we move on, like getting writer’s block, coming up with ideas, anything?
RJ: For me, writing is enjoyable, but getting started writing is not enjoyable. Like, you like to go running, but when you have your shoes on and you’re standing at the doorway, you’re like, “Ugh, I can’t believe I have to go out and do this.” Once you do it, it’s great. And it’s the same thing for me with writing, because it does take a lot of mental effort. So, you have to be able to get over that and just get started, and then it’s a lot of fun.
GNN: Exactly. It seems like how I view going to Hawaii. My wife wants to go to Hawaii, but I hate flying. Hawaii sounds phenomenal, but flying to Hawaii, the air travel just doesn’t seem pleasant. But once you get there, I’m sure…
RJ: It’s worth it. Trust me. Hawaii is amazing.
GNN: So, as we’re winding down, let’s talk about upcoming projects. Earlier you talked about another Grant Coleman novel coming up?
RJ: Yeah. It’s The Curse of the Viper King. Grant Coleman, the paleontologist, is still trying to make his way out of the Amazon. As he tries to make it out, surprise for Grant, something bad happens! The story revolves around the curse of an Aztec king who was in charge of that area. There are also fights with giant spiders and a giant snake. So, it’s kinda’ dicey.
GNN: You also mentioned you have a psychological thriller coming out as well?
RJ: Yeah, I’ve got a serial killer thriller story called The Playing Card Killer. It’s coming out at the beginning of next year. I think it’s coming out in February. And it’s a story of a guy who’s living in Tampa, Florida. He’s in his early 20s. He’s been on anti-anxiety meds all his life, and he decides he’s had enough of that. So, he goes off cold turkey and begins to have nightmares, which he was told are the side effects of if you stop doing this. In the nightmares, he finds he’s killing people and it really upsets him, but not nearly as much as when he turns on the news and finds out that some people have been killed exactly how his nightmares have been telling him it’s happened.
So, he has to figure out, “Am I doing that? Am I sleepwalking and making these things happen? Is someone else doing it? How am I connected to this?” And when he goes to the police to say, “I’d like to give some evidence,” of course, what’s the police’s first reaction is? “Yeah, because you did it.” So, he gets in way over his head, and when he finds out who the killer actually is, that’s when the story really ramps up.
GNN: You also mentioned the third Q Island book. Is that just kind of an idea or is that in production?
RJ: I’ve got a couple of ideas and I just need to kinda’ get a go-ahead signal on them from one of my publishers, to say, “Yeah, that sounds good; go do that.” Because it takes me a long time to write something. The shorter novellas take at least six months for something like a Grant Coleman story. The longer works take almost a year. So, I don’t want to commit all that time to something that no one is interested in.
GNN: So, the Grant Coleman novel, 100% that’s coming out. Thriller novel, 100% that’s coming out?
GNN: Q Island follow-up, still, for those looking for that, 50/50 chance? 60/40? 70/30?
RJ: More like 20/80…
GNN: Oh, wow.
RJ: Yeah, it all depends. It just depends on the inspiration and the market, and see where it’s gonna go.
GNN: So, if people want to write to you and tell you how much they want to see another Q Island book, here’s your chance…
RJ: Or the opposite!
GNN: Well, Russell, here’s your chance to plug away. I know folks can get your books on Amazon. You also have a website, but unfortunately, when you type “Russell James” into Google, photographer who looks like Fabio that pops up first.
RJ: Yep, and that’s definitely not me. My website is www.russellrjames.com. I had to throw the middle initial in there. If you want to get in touch with me to complain about whatever it was I wrote, that’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
GNN: Social media presence?
RJ: I’m on Twitter and on Facebook. Twitter is RRJames14, I’m pretty sure. And there’s a Russell James personal account and there’s a Russell James author account. You can check out either one.
GNN: Any conventions coming up where people can meet you face to face?
RJ: I’ll be at Spooky Empire in October, in Orlando, Florida; and I will be at MegaCon in Tampa, Florida. I believe that’s in September this year. And then next March, I will be in MegaCon in Orlando. I’ll probably do the Los Angeles Festival of Books in April next year and Scares that Care next year in the summer, so plenty of opportunities to come say hello.
GNN: Well, that about wraps it up. Thanks for your time!
RJ: My pleasure!