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Steven James
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Steven James

Truth teller

Q&A | Award-winning author Steven James is always on the lookout for stories where something goes wrong

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

Steven James has written 30-plus nonfiction books and novels, most notably the Bowers Files thriller series with its titles taken from chess pieces: The Queen won a 2012 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Book Award, and three James novels won 2009, 2011, and 2012 Christy Awards (“honoring and promoting excellence in Christian fiction”). James lives in Tennessee with his wife and three daughters. 

When you told your 5-year-old a story about sisters having a picnic, playing dress-up, dancing, and singing, she didn’t like it and complained, “Nothing’s going wrong!” What did that tell you about writing? We don’t have a story until something actually goes wrong. I was at an elementary school after a vacation and the teacher said, “Write about what you did.” The kids just listed stuff. So I said, “Please don’t tell me what you did over vacation. Tell me about something that went wrong.” A fourth-grade boy raised his hand and said, “My cousin came over to my house. We had a contest to see who could jump the farthest off my bunk bed.” I thought, This could be good, and asked, “What happened?” He said, “My cousin jumped first and got pretty far. I said, ‘I can jump farther than that.’” I asked, “Did anything go wrong?” He said, “I backed up to the wall to get a running start”—that’s your first clue right there—“and I jumped off the bunk and the ceiling fan was on. I got my head stuck in the ceiling fan. It threw me against the wall, but I got farther!” That’s the ceiling fan principle: Always look for something that goes wrong.

So when you develop a plot, you’re always thinking how you can make things worse? In writing The Rook I thought about being chained to the bottom of a pool that’s filling with water. So I said to my wife, “I’m going to chain a woman to the bottom of the pool and fill it with water,” and she said, “I hope this is for your book.” For the next book I was thinking, What’s worse than being chained to the bottom of a pool that fills with water? I thought, Being buried alive! That’s good. I’ll use that. For the next book I thought, What’s worse than being buried alive? Maybe being buried alive, strapped to a dead body —this is great! I said to my wife, “You’ll never guess what I’m going to do!” She said, “I don’t even want to hear it.” 

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You wrote this: “A lot of books we call Christian fiction tend to stumble because they’re message-driven. They start with an agenda … and instead of a good story it becomes a lesson.” Dorothy Sayers said that when you try to tell a story as a sermon, you end up with a bad story and a bad sermon. One of the keys of great storytelling is that the end is both unexpected and inevitable. We don’t see it coming, but when it comes we say, “That makes sense.” If we can guess what the ending is, we’re often unsatisfied. 

Do you have an example of how storytelling rather than sermonizing works out in practice? The Pawn deals with a serial killer. Instead of writing, “You shouldn’t do evil,” I asked, “What’s the difference between me and those who do the unthinkable?” I was able to interview one of the people who survived the 1978 Jonestown massacre, when over 900 people committed suicide and murdered each other down in South America. He told me what it was like to stand there and have people lining up to drink Gatorade or Kool-Aid with cyanide in it. He said about Jim Jones, “I’ve never seen the look of pure evil before.” I asked him if he thought Jim Jones was possessed, and he said, “Without question.”

Should you and I, or these students here, content ourselves by saying, “He was a sinner. We are not”? I asked myself, What would I have done if I were there? Would I have squirted cyanide down the throat of my baby? What keeps me back from doing what these people did? We can say, They were in a cult, but as Christians we teach that evil is real. If I believe our world is a pretty good place and we are pretty good people, then we just need a savior to get us over the hump. But we believe and confess that we are desperately fallen people in need of a very big Savior. The way to show that is to show the reality of evil in our world, and the hope available from outside ourselves, not just from ourselves. So I deal with darkness, with violence, but within the context of a broader story. 

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