Interview with Author Russell James

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By: Scott Muller

Russell James is a published author with over 15 works available on Amazon. His novels run the gamut from horror and post-apocalyptic to time travel and outer space sci-fi. James will be appearing, among other places, at Megacon in Orlando, Florida from May 25th to the 28th. I had a chance to talk to him about writing, conventions, and what inspires him to do what he does.

Scott (NHQ): Hello, Russell. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today.

Russell James (RJ): Hey, it’s great to be here.

NHQ: Good, good. So I have to ask, when I Googled your name to do a little pre-interview research, I stumbled upon some photographer who’s also named Russell James. What’s the deal with this guy?

RJ: Yeah, I did the same thing when I first was getting published. I Googled my name and I assumed it would be uncommon, and found this famous photographer, and he’s even born in the exact same year. Worse though was there is a relatively famous Russell James who is a thriller writer in England so –

NHQ: You’ve got to be kidding…

RJ: Now when my books get published, sellers put them under his name, and I always have to call Barnes & Noble or whoever and say, “That’s not him. This is a horror book. This is the American Russell James.”

NHQ: So, we met briefly at a convention in Orlando, Florida, and I purchased one of your books, Q Island (a novel in which a prehistoric virus turns the inhabitants of Long Island into psychopathic killers), and we chatted for a few minutes, but I was intrigued by the fact that you and I are in the same field: training. I really wanted to get a chance to speak to you about how you came to be a published author. Can you give me and the folks reading a brief road map of how you got to where you are today?

RJ: Well, when my wife and I would go on long trips, I would tell her a story that I had thought of. I would say, “Oh, you know what would be a good plot? If a story did this and this, and the characters did that, and it went this way.” After a while, she said, “You know, you just ought to write these down and publish them.” And I said, “Are you kidding me? There is no way anyone would ever pay to read anything I wrote.” I’ve been apologizing for that statement for years now.

I gave it a shot and started writing on my own. Then I took several online courses, which were good because they were very interactive. I got a couple of short stories published, and then in the second writing class I took, the instructor said, “Hey, there’s an editor, Don D’Auria (a famous horror editor who did the Leisure and Dorchester lines in the 70s and 80s) who had just signed on to Samhain publishing, and they’re starting a horror line, and you don’t need an agent.” I had had several novels rejected at this point, all justifiably so in retrospect. And I said, “Well, I haven’t been rejected by anybody famous yet. I need to do that.” So I sent Dark Inspiration off to Samhain. I got a note back that said, “We want to publish your book.” First it gave me a heart attack, and then I said, “Wait. This must be a scam.” But it wasn’t [laughs], and that was how it started.

NHQ: I read the listing of your novels on your website, and it runs the gamut of what I would call nerd fiction. You’ve written books about time travel, ghosts, zombies, outer space, witches, and fairytales. You pretty much covered one end of the nerd extreme to the other. What inspires you to write about these topics? When did you discover your inner nerd and love of these topics?

RJ: Well, I grew up in the 70s, so rerun television was all over the place. And I grew up on Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Space: 1999, The Outer Limits, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. All these things that are all in that category. These were the shows that I just absorbed. I think that’s why my writing goes in that direction. I’m writing what, I guess, I would like to read.

NHQ: Okay, so you’ve kind of hit on Twilight Zone and some other TV shows. You also mentioned that you saw stories and you and you wife would discuss how you should rewrite them. Is that the main place you draw your inspiration from? Do you watch a show like The Walking Dead and think, “Oh, I could totally do that.”? It seems like that’s kind of what you were saying. Or is it mainly like you said when you take something from your everyday life and add some sort of fantastic thing to it, like Q Island? When you have a book like that, were you just on Long Island one day and thought, “I wonder what would happen if a zombie outbreak happened on this island?”

RJ: Well, Q Island was inspired by Hurricane Katrina. I watched it come ashore and isolate New Orleans. It took hours, literally, for society to break down. And this was in a situation where people knew they would be rescued, or the water would recede, that this was all a temporary thing. I said, “Wow. What if that was on a bigger scale, and you knew the water wasn’t going to recede? That whatever it was that was isolating you was permanent?” I grew up on Long Island, New York, and I thought that would be the location to use because you could isolate Long Island. You blow a few bridges, you blow up a tunnel and you’re good to go. The whole place is locked up, locked out.

If you knew you had to live for a long time, that would be a different way to look at it. What would society do as it slowly devolved?

NHQ: All right. I’m going to throw you a curveball here. In Q Island, who do you see yourself as being? Are you the mother who’s trying to get her kid out of there? Are you the crazy quiet guy who gets his gun and stands watch? Are you like the homeowner’s association guy who’s kind of like, “I’ll let this other guy handle it?” Who are you the most like?

RJ: Geez. Well, it’s not the bad guy. I’ll tell you that right now [laughs]. I’d like to think that I’m Eddie. He’s a retired guy, and he helps Melanie and her son. He brings them in and he takes them back to their condo, he stays with them, and is a big part of their escape plan. He’s just a guy who puts it all on the line to help people that he sees are in need that have nowhere else to turn. So if I had to pick somebody, I’d like to be him.

NHQ: All right. Very good. I’m glad you didn’t say the crazy guy…

RJ: Yeah. Not crazy Jimmy with the telepathic, cannibalistic powers (laughs)…



NHQ: Now, I’m sure you value each of your books equally like folks can’t pick their favorite kid. However, one author I like to read, Robert Crais, freely admits that his early books aren’t that good and says there’s a certain point at which you should start reading his books because you’re not missing anything if you don’t read the first one or two. Do you have a novel or story collection you would recommend people start with to get a feel for your writing?

RJ: When I’m at conventions and I have all my books out, I regularly ask people, “Well, what kind of horror do you like?” Each of my books is a different part of that supernatural/horror/thriller genre. So, if someone tells me, “Well, I really like ghost stories,” then I can send them to Dark Inspiration. And if they like witch stories, I can send them to a different book. If they like zombies or post-apocalyptic stories, they can dive into Q Island. If they’re into supernatural with a little fantasy tone to it, they can do Dreamwalker. And then if they like the style, they can transition to something else.

NHQ: What’s your dream project? Any topics that you want to write about that you haven’t? Any topics you have written about you want to write some more? Or are you just sticking to short stories and novels? Movies? Television?

RJ: I’ve got several partial novels I’m working on. They’re all ideas I’m excited about. I just want to work on the thing that is most likely to get out there. In general, the inspiration just shows up, so wherever the muse takes me is where I go. Which is probably why I have a ghost story, and a voodoo story, and a witch story, and a post-apocalyptic story (laughs). And I like doing novels most. I’ve looked at movie and television scriptwriting, and it is such a completely different way of writing. And that just scares me to death…

NHQ: How so?

RJ: Well, when you write a teleplay kind of script, you leave a lot of detail out because those are details filled in by the cinematographer or by the director. You also have a very limited number of pages that you can work with. When I’m writing a book, I can write more. I’m writing it with you, the reader, and we are going to meet somewhere half way, in between. And I’m going to tell you a lot of things but not too much about what we’re doing, and you’re going to fill in the rest with your imagination. And that doesn’t happen with a script as much as it would with a novel, and I like being able to meet you halfway.

NHQ: Back to your novels, I have another question. Just out of curiosity, when you say you’ve got partial draft, I was wondering how much of a book or a novel you have to send to a publisher to get approved. Do you have to write the whole thing and then they yay it or nay it? Or can you send a certain chunk of it to them and then they yay it or nay it?

RJ: If you’re just starting out, you have to have a full finished novel…finished, proofread, theoretically ready to print. Once you have a publisher and you have an editor that is assigned to you, you can give them a synopsis, a summary, of here’s the plot, here’s the outline, here’s the characters, here’s what I want to do with it. They can yay or nay it for you and offer suggestions and then, they can give you a green light to go do that. I’m at the “I want to have a full novel done” stage (laughs). Because I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer, if I gave someone a synopsis, I can’t guarantee the story’s going to look like that when I get finished.

NHQ: I know I have a few ideas in my head about stories and I think them through when I’m driving to work and sometimes I’ll hit mental roadblocks. I’m like, I can’t even logically figure out how this would work. So, I can only imagine when you get really in depth, certain things probably throw the story off of a whole different path.

RJ: Yeah. That definitely happened in Q Island. Jimmy Wade, the main bad guy character, I had him in the hospital and he wakes up and he’s been infected. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do and I started thinking, “Well, what would he do?” Well he would totally take advantage of the situation because he’s a criminal. So, he would walk out, and he would steal a car. He takes the keys from a dead guy’s pocket and then goes out and steals his car (laughs). And then I’m thinking, “Okay, what would he do next? “Well, hell, he’d go to the guy’s house because he’s a lousy individual. And that all just happened as I’m thinking, “What would this character go do?” So, it’s only when I’m writing the details in the story that I get the creative urge to add to that. It doesn’t hit me when I’m trying to do an outline.

NHQ: Do you ever get down a road and go, “Oh, my God, I just did the last 20 pages, and I’m down a road where I’ve completely dead-ended,” and come back?

RJ: Yes. That’s the problem with seat-of-the-pants writing (laughs). You make a wrong turn and say, “This was bad.” Sometimes you back up. Other times that makes you think more, to say, “Oh, wait a minute. These guys are all trapped in this room.” One of the novels I have coming out is called Cavern of the Damned, and there’s a group of people trapped in a cave, and they’re working their way out to the other exit. And I got them to the other end of the cave and there was no exit. And I thought, “Well, that’s pretty bad [laughs].” I really had to start thinking, “Well, how could they get out? What other things have happened, and how can I put that together so that they have a way to escape?” When I had people read that they said, “I had no idea how they were going to get out of that cave.” And then you don’t want to say, “Well, neither did I,” so if it challenges me to find a creative answer, it is less likely that the reader will have it telegraphed to them.

NHQ: Yeah, that’s the worst. I’m not that kind of person that likes to brag, “I knew what was going to happen in six sentences, five minutes in.” I get angry when that happens. I’m like, “Oh, is this going to happen? I’m on page 20 of 200. Is this really going to happen?” And sure as heck it does…

RJ: That’s just a cliché. And something you’ve seen it a hundred times. And it’s hard. I’ve got seven novels out and I start worrying about that and saying, “Have I done something like this before? Have I had this character? Have I been in this location? Have they made these decisions?” And back up and say, “Yeah, that happened in a different book. You need to think more. Be more creative. Come up with something different.”

NHQ: Good. Keep doing that, please! Don’t use the old, “It was a dream,” or “He was crazy the whole time,” clichés. What are the other ones?

RJ: Time travel’s definitely hard to not do clichés in.

NHQ: I definitely liked Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (about a time traveler who attempts to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by entering a time-travel portal in the pantry of a local diner). It was fantastic. It’s like, “Ah, time travel in the basement of a diner,” that’s a clever way to throw that in there!

RJ: That book’s a great example of how much you can get away with and take the reader with you. And in general, you can throw one piece of nonsense in and say, “Reader, just accept that this is good.” And then the rest I have to make fit. And that’s what he does. That time travels in a diner. Totally ridiculous. No reason. No science. Nothing. But just buy that and then once you do that the rest of it was normal. Once you take in that, all the rest of these are normal reactions given that environment.

NHQ: So, we’ve mentioned Stephen King. Is he one of the authors who inspired you? Who else inspires you? Who did you read and who do you read now?

RJ: Well, Stephen King was definitely the first contemporary novelist that hooked me. I had read Jules Verne and all the classic kind of stuff. Dickens and things like that growing up. But King was the first contemporary one where I could get a book and sit down and then look up and four hours had passed by. And you’re like, “Whoa, how did that happen?” And that broke me into some other contemporary authors, from King to Koontz and a variety of other stuff.

I’ve met a great bunch of authors through Samhain, the publisher that put out my first six novels. And I could easily recommend Hunter Shea, J.H. Moncrieff, David Bernstein, Brian Moreland, Jonathan Moore. They’re all terrific thriller/horror writers. Their output overwhelmed my reading ability. So I’ve got a Kindle full of stuff I haven’t gotten to yet (laughs).

NHQ: Ah, I know that feeling all too well. Favorite King book?

RJ: Is It more than likely. But The Stand is good too. Both of those.

NHQ: So, what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever read, watched, or seen, not including a trip to the DMV?

RJ: When I was a little kid, I must have been 6 or 7. My father took me to see The House of Wax in 3D with Vincent Price (laughs). I was terrified through that entire movie. I was absolutely horror-stricken and I kept saying, “Can we go home? Can we go home?” I was so scared in that movie that I did not see another horror movie for a long time after that. And the funny thing is, I was at a convention and Victoria Price was speaking and afterwards I got to talk with her. I shared that with her. “You know what, your father scared the hell out of me and it turned me off to horror films for a decade of my life.” And she smiled and laughed and said, “You have no idea how many people tell me that same story.” I did come back, though. I did see The House of Wax about two years ago. I got it on Netflix and I said, “I have got to sit down and watch this movie,” and it was not as scary as I remembered it.

NHQ: So you defeated your demons, finally?

RJ: I did. I defeated my demons.

NHQ: Since this is an interview for Nerd HQ, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you what other nerdy stuff inspires you. Movies? Television shows? Video games? What are you nerding on right now?

RJ: Well, Star Trek, Star Wars…I’m a major fan of both of those franchises.

NHQ: You must be in heaven right now!

RJ: Oh, yeah, keep bringing it. This is a Star Trek, Star Wars renaissance. I also love the TV show Supernatural. It’s a really well written. The characters are true, and the writers are great at being consistent. So, I’m really impressed with Supernatural. And, I’ll watch any superhero movie. Bring on the Marvel movies. If I get a long flight that’s 8 hours or 6 hours or something like that I can just sit and watch four Iron Man movies or something in a row, you know? Boom, boom, boom, boom, just keep going. Why are we landing? Are we there already? Come on.

NHQ: I just did that with Arrow. I started watching Arrow on Netflix. I’ve enjoyed Arrow and Flash both.

RJ: Yeah. Flash is terrific. DC can do TV like no one’s business. But, boy, they can stink up a movie in a heartbeat.

NHQ: (Laughs) That is true. I’m currently watching Gotham to get the Jim Carrey stink out of my mouth because that Batman movie was horrendous. So, to take another road, I’m sure some folks that are reading this interview have some great ideas for stories in their heads but just don’t know how to get started. Any advice for them?

RJ: You need to write every day, every day. Even if you’re gifted. Think about like an Olympic athlete. They are incredibly gifted, yet they still train every single day in order to be at the top of their game. So, you need to write. You need to practice and you need to get yourself educated in the craft. Either through online courses, or in-person courses, or a personal tutor – I’ve done all three – you need to understand the craft. And then, once you’re working the craft, you need to get feedback and you need to listen to it. Do that with beta readers or you can do that with professional editors, however you want to do it. But when two or three people tell you, “This scene doesn’t work,” you saying, “I think it does.” is not a way to become a better writer.

NHQ: Gotcha. Are there any resources you can think of off the top of your head, websites, books, anything to help them out?

RJ: Get Stephen King’s On Writing, which is the best memoir/writing guide ever, and read that back to front. And Elements of Style is a great reference for writers when you wonder, “Where does this comma go? Where does this period go?” Because once you start writing, you start paying a lot more attention to all those things. And I took an online class through Gotham Writing out of New York City. I had a great teacher, had a good group and I got a lot out of those.

NHQ: Good places to start. Yeah, I might have to pick up that Stephen King book. That’d probably be interesting. Give that a shot.

RJ: Yeah, especially if you’re a King fan.

NHQ: So, based on the fact that you said write every day if you could boil your writing strategy or mantra down into one sentence, would that be it? “Write every day,” or is there another mantra you have? If you’re stuck or you can’t get started, is there something that runs through your head?

RJ: No, that’s it. I try to write every day. And if I’m not writing, then I’m doing something writing related. Like I’ve finished the story, so I’m editing. But I’m doing some part of that process every day. And you just have to set the time aside for it whether you have to get up at 4:00 in the morning to write between 5:00 and 7:00 or whether you have to stay up late and write between 7:00 and 10:00. You just have to figure out what works for you and then stick to that schedule. Because it is too easy to find an excuse not to write.

NHQ: That’s great advice. Another writing-related thing you do is attend conventions. In fact, you’ll be appearing at Megacon in Orlando over Memorial Day weekend. Do you do a lot of conventions?

RJ: I really enjoy going to them because writing is a very solitary experience. I’m sitting in a quiet room for 4 hours in a row, all by myself, and I’m writing. It is great to go to a convention and talk to readers, whether they’re fans of mine or whether they’re just general readers. It is so good to get reminded that there’s someone on the other end and that they love to read. And to have somebody come up and say, “Oh, I read your book and I thought it was great.” Or, “Oh, I met you last year at this con and it’s good to see you’re back and I want to buy something else.” It reminds you, later when you’re sitting there all by yourself that, yeah, there is someone on the other end.

NHQ: What are the best and worst experiences you’ve had at a convention? I’m super curious. Any that stand out?

RJ: The worst convention experience I had was I signed up for a space that they were calling Author’s Alley and I thought, “Oh, okay. There’s other authors at this place. That’s great.” So I show up and Author’s Alley is in a separate room on a separate floor away from everywhere with no signage that says where it is. And I’m in there with five or six other people in a room that could easily had fit fifteen, and none of us are a big name. It was 8 to 10 hours a day of barely any traffic. It was excruciating.

NHQ: What about a good experience?

RJ: I would say the best experience was at Spooky Empire in Orlando. From across this enormous room, this woman screams and comes running at me and says, “Are you Russell James?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “Oh, you’re my favorite author. I love Dreamwalker.” I said, “Wow, thank you. I’m so glad that you did.” She said, “Yeah, I listened to it on audio book. It was wonderful.” And at that point I realized, oh, wait a minute, I’m only half her favorite person, because David Stifel who read it was great [laughs], so I called him up and I gave him half credit, because he did such a wonderful job!

NHQ: Have you ever had any celebrities come by your booth and buy any of your books?

RJ: I did get to meet Ray Wise, who I love. And I was at a con with him and it was slow, and so I left my table and walked over to his table, and said, “You know, I just want to tell you, I love your work.” He was starring in a TV series at that point [Reaper] about a kid who’s a bounty hunter for the devil, and he plays the devil. He said, “Thank you very much.” And we just had a conversation, like I was somebody. And then at the end, as I was leaving, I said, “Do you read horror?” And he goes, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, here’s mine.” I gave him a copy of it and I signed it for him, and then he signed me a picture and gave it to me. And I’m walking out of the room, going – and this was my first book; I’d just sold Dark Inspiration. And my first con. And I’m walking around the room in shock. It’s like, “Wow, I just swapped swag with Ray Wise. That’s unreal!” I would never have thought, even a few months earlier, that that would be an event in my timeline.

NHQ: Well, I appreciate your time, but I’ve taken up a lot of it and I’m running low on questions. Is there anything I can help you get the word out about? I know folks can get your books at Amazon, and they can read about you and your books on your website. Any other books, cons…what’s coming up?

RJ: I’ve got a new release coming out soon. It should be by June, I believe, is what they’re targeting, called Cavern of the Damned. It’s about a group of people that get trapped. They’re exploring a cave, they get trapped inside, and they find out that the cave is not empty, and in fact, has got a series of cave-related monsters in it. They have to fight their way through all these monsters, trying to find the exit on the other side.

I’ll be at Scares That Care Convention in Williamsburg, Virginia, July 21st through 23rd, which is a terrific con. Everything goes to charity, helping burn victims and breast cancer survivors, it’s terrific. Great vibe, wonderful show. And there’ll be Thrillerfest in New York City July 12th and 13th and planning on Tampa Megacon in the fall so I’ll be busy.

NHQ: One last thing…I think I saw that you put on your site that you might be doing a sequel of Q Island. How’s that coming along?

RJ: It’s finished. In fact, starting May 14th, it will be up as a Kindle Scout. You can go to the Kindle Scout site, and you can nominate it. Then, Amazon decides whether or not they’re going to publish it. If they choose to publish it, I get this big contract. That Scout campaign will be running for thirty days.

NHQ: I will absolutely go on there and vote for it! Good luck with that and thanks for your time!

RJ: Thank you!


    2 Comments

  1. J.H. MoncrieffMay 22nd, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    Awesome interview with one of my favourite writers! I can hardly wait to read Cavern of the Damned–The Descent is a favourite horror movie, so I know I’m going to love it.

    I second On Writing as the best writing guide ever.

  2. Scott MullerJune 5th, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks, J.H.! Russell was a pretty cool dude. Got to see him at Megacon and I picked up a copy of Black Magic. I’m looking forward to reading it!

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