Monday, December 01, 2008

Jessica James Interview

Today I have an interview with Jessica James the author of Shades of Gray. Shades of Gray is a civil war novel that I read and enjoyed quite a few months ago. Read my review here.

Other stops on her blog tour:
Dec. 2-3 Visit Favorite PASTimes. (BOOK GIVEAWAY)
Dec. 7-13 Say hello at the Historical Novel Review
Dec. 15 I'll be guest posting on The Printed Page blog
The week of Dec. 15 BOOK GIVEAWAY on UpForGrabs

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey towards becoming a published writer?

I always loved two things: animals and writing. Animals won out when I first when to college, resulting in a degree in veterinary technology. That career lasted about three years – too depressing – so I went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism/public relations. I lasted about 18 years in this profession, starting out as a newspaper reporter, then moving up to editor. During that time, I tinkered a little bit with fiction writing, but it felt like such a big leap from writing straight news that I wasn’t sure I could do it. In time, I got my brain muscle retrained and it became easier and much more natural. After I’d finished the first draft of Shades of Gray, I quit my full-time editor job so I could concentrate on re-writing (and re-writing and re-writing). That process took the better part of a year. Saying it was “done” was one of the hardest things I had to do, but there came a time when I had to let go.

Were there any surprises along the way on your journey to publication?

Yes, there were many surprises. Make that very many surprises. I didn’t really know anything about the publishing industry, and had the same naïve ideas about becoming a published author as most people probably do. Learning the ropes took a lot of time, but it was a fun and interesting journey. Along the way, I’ve become more proficient at Internet marketing – which is probably the biggest area of surprise for me. The publishing industry is so competitive that authors have to be really creative to sell books. Luckily, Shades of Gray has received attention for winning some pretty prestigious awards, but it’s still a great deal of work.

What inspired you to write Shades of Gray?

I have always been amazed at the common soldier’s intense commitment to God, honor and country, and the terrible heartbreak and sacrifice that occurred as a result of the War Between the States. The more I read about the Civil War era, the more inspired I became to put a story down on paper that reflected these values, as well as the affection and devotion that existed between those who vowed “’til death do us part.”

Many readers are not interested in reading a dry book about the Civil War, so it became a mission for me to weave a story around the facts, create characters with real feelings, and make history come alive. If readers are entertained and fall in love with the characters, they won’t even know they are learning something.

I also became driven to set the record straight over the common misconception that the War Between the States was caused by slavery. The current trend toward political correctness, which involves banning Southern traditions, songs and symbols, also inspired me to educate readers about the principles and values that both sides fought for so valiantly.

Have you always been interested in history? In the Civil War?

I live in Gettysburg, Pa., so I’ve always been surrounded by Civil War history. But I really didn’t fall in love with it until I moved to Virginia to work at a horse hospital (back when I was still a veterinary technician). Learning about Col. John Mosby riding across the rolling hills down there gave me “the bug” and I’ve had it ever since. Mosby is every writer’s dream of a great character: gallant, valiant, handsome, and chivalrous. My main character, Colonel Alexander Hunter, is based on his legendary life as a Confederate officer.

What do you love—do you love—the research process that goes into writing historical fiction?

Yes, I do love the research – maybe too much. It’s hard to stop and it’s hard to have to cut things that I find interesting when it just doesn’t fit. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use some of the unused tidbits in future books. In the end, nothing really goes to waste because all research deepens my understanding of the era as a whole, which means I can write more deeply and passionately about it.

Do you have a favorite fascinating tidbit or fact that didn’t make it into the novel but that you’d like to share?

When I finished writing Shades of Gray, it was more than 1,000 pages (oops), so there was so much was cut out of it, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I really hope to someday release the “lost chapters” on my website - if not in actual book form.

Also, I have a few other Civil War novels planned, so eventually everything filed in my computer under “leftover” will get used.

Do you have any research tips (or writing tips for that matter) you’d like to pass along?

Research can be very time consuming – and also very enjoyable. The hardest part is knowing when it’s time to quit and knowing how to balance how much research to include. I know I spent more than four hours researching the death of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, which resulted in maybe two sentences in my book.

The Internet, of course, has made looking up a battle or historic date much easier, but I did a lot of research by reading first-hand accounts, obituaries, news articles and diaries. This helped me not only see through the eyes of an actual witness, but get a feel for the emotions and language of the times as well.

It was also important for me to visit the sites I wrote about to more accurately reflect the imagery in my writing. I did not visit landmarks just once, but many times, in different seasons and varying weather conditions. I am also lucky to live in Gettysburg and have the opportunity to visit large Civil War re-enactments. No creative spark can equal the experience of walking through an encampment at night with a couple of thousand campfires blazing and smoke stinging your eyes.

How do you find time—do you find time—to keep reading? Do you have any favorites of the year?

Unfortunately, lately, I don’t have any time to write and barely find time to read. I made a one-year commitment to make Shades of Gray my top priority and so devote any and all spare time right now to that. I am hoping to relax a little in January, and I am looking forward to curling up with a good book when the snow starts flying. I’m also going to start concentrating on my next Civil War novel, Above and Beyond.

Who are some of your favorite authors? Have you met any of your ‘favorites’? Who would you most like to have dinner with?

I don’t read anything contemporary, so all of the authors that I really admire, I’m sorry to say, are no longer living. One though, that stands out as a person I would have loved to have met would be Kenneth Roberts, who wrote Northwest Passage. He was a brilliant historical fiction writer that did an unbelievable amount of research, and I would love to pick his brain.

Do you have a book or two (or three) that you would recommend that everyone read? What handful of books are must-reads in your opinion?

It’s so hard to pick just a few! For anyone with even the slightest interest in the Civil War, I would recommend The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara because it gives readers an idea of the emotions and personalities of the great generals. I am also a big fan of some of the classics like Gone with the Wind, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Pride and Prejudice because they are such great love stories. Most of the books I read are 19th century fiction and non-fiction, so my “keeper” shelf is made up of old, battered books from fairly unknown authors.

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

What a great question! I don’t think I would need the money – just the time machine.
First, I would want to travel back to the 1780s, to the swamps near Charleston, S.C., and meet Francis Marion, the great Revolutionary War officer. Readers might know of him from the movie “The Patriot,” starring Mel Gibson. His hit-and-run tactics became legendary, and were imitated by Colonel John S. Mosby during the Civil War, which is where I would want to make my next stop in the time machine. There is nothing that money could buy that I would enjoy more than going on a midnight raid with Mosby and his men.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Anonymous,  1:16 PM  

"Shades" is a beautiful read. I can't wait for "Above and Beyond"! Lets hope Ms James gets snowed in so she has time to work on it...

NovelEagle 11:56 AM  

Great blog. Given your Civil War interests, you might like my novel "Fixin' Things" a novel of women at Gettysburg before, during and after the summer of 1863.

More info on my website

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