by C.J. Darlington
Heather James Interview
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have the ability, the power even, to either imprint a reader or stain
them. I didn’t want to stain my readers. I still don’t."
Heather James is the author of the Lure of the Serpent Series, suspense novels that pack quick wit into the high heels of attorney turned vigilante, Evelyn Barrett.
In addition, Heather is a practicing lawyer in California and a columnist with The Bakersfield Californian. Her columns focus on the humorous aspects of marriage and parenthood. Heather is married and works at home, raising two young sons.
Were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what book had the most impact on you as a child?
Sadly, no. For the
most part, I believe reading is a modeled behavior and I hardly remember
seeing a book in either
of my parents’ hands. I always had a fondness of books, but never
followed through with picking them up and reading them because it wasn’t
something generally done in my house. Of the juvenile books I picked up,
they bored me to tears and I’d never finish what I started. However,
my grandfather knew I enjoyed writing—despite my lack of interest
in reading—so one day, he gave me Gone with the Wind, telling me
that somewhere inside of me was a sleeping book lover who just needed to
find the right books. I read Gone with the Wind straight through in one
weekend when I was in high school.
Next, I read Of Mice and Men and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I think those three books, back-to-back, solidified to me that as long as I had a good story in my hand, I was a voracious reader. My favorite book of all time, Wuthering Heights, got in my hands once I was in college. I was fascinated that I could both hate and love main characters. I think the main character in my series, Evelyn Barrett, has that slap ‘em or hug ‘em thing going on, like Bronte did for Heathcliff and Catherine—even with what Mitchell did with Scarlett O’Hara. In that regard, I’d have to tip my hat to those ladies for influencing how I create characters.
Law came before writing for you, right? What was it that drew you to practicing law and what did the journey to become a lawyer look like for you?
The short of it is that I’m a lawyer because my dad’s a lawyer, too. Law did come before writing but only as a means to an end. As a child, I’d go around saying I wanted to be a lawyer or author when I grew up. The author was something I wanted for me, and the lawyer career was something to follow in my father’s footsteps. As I neared college, I started dropping the lawyer part of the equation and my father intervened by asking if I knew why society used the term “starving artist” to talk about poets and what not. He told me that even though my heart wanted to pursue writing, I should still look to a career that could faithfully pay the mortgage. In retrospect, this was phenomenal advice. In fact, when teens or college kids ask me for writing advice these days, my father’s advice to me is one of my staples: Get a good day job and then follow your dreams. It isn’t easy to pull double duty, but it makes it easier to “suffer” in a decent home, a dependable car, and with food on the table.
Granted it was a lot of work for a fallback career—four years of undergrad and three more for law school, (not to mention the student loans that hurt to talk about.) As a lawyer, I primarily do business and contract law, but still dream of the day I can hang up my briefcase and only call myself author. Law definitely has its financial perks, but after all these years, I’d still rather be following my heart.
When and where did
newspaper writing and novel crafting come into the picture?
The novel writing has always been my end game. Everything else I’ve done—including being a lawyer and a newspaper columnist—has been to further my end game. The newspaper writing was my mother’s idea to help start creating a fan base. The columnist position originated from emails I’d send to my family and friends, detailing all the wacky and wild stuff my firstborn was doing when he was a toddler. Because I wasn’t writing anything else, my emails became more elaborate and descriptive. I also seemed to have a knack at making it funny and entertaining rather than simply saying: “The baby shoved spaghetti up his nose. Hardy har har.”
The more I did this, the more response I got back from family members who told me my emails reminded them of Erma Bombeck’s column from long ago. That’s when my mother started encouraging me to be a columnist. I immediately shot her down, saying it was novel writing or nothing. She then reminded me that I’d garner more attention from agents and publishers if I were already in print.
I started submitting to our local paper and magazines, receiving no compensation for my print time. After about a year of that, they decided to pay me and offered me my own spot in the paper. Not to mention that both my current agent and publisher said it was a huge plus when deciding to sign with me that I had a column in print. Give it to Mom for being right!
I used to say I’d drop the column as soon as I got a novel published, but there’s no way now. I love it. It’s short, rewarding, and a great platform to show—humorously—how my children and husband are slowly killing me. As I’ve often remarked to my husband, if I didn’t have the column to turn their antics into a comedy routine, then I’d be drowning in my own tears. (They never let me go to the bathroom by myself! Even the husband intrudes! It’s ridiculous. I don’t know why I even feed them.)
Hunger the first novel you wrote or do you have others sitting in a drawer?
We’d love to hear a little bit about your journey to
Does having others sitting in a landfill count? Unholy Hunger is the second full-length novel I’ve done, and that’s after a try at a non-fiction attempt at a business book for stay-at-home moms, modeling how I managed to run my own law firm from my den while my kids napped. The non-fiction got an agent’s attention, but then nothing. I honestly didn’t have my heart in it and I just let it die, wanting only to pursue fiction. The first fiction manuscript I did was almost there, but not quite enough. I got some interest in that one, too. In fact, my current agent, Greg Johnson, and I met over that manuscript. He said he liked my writing but didn’t like the story. I had to noodle that one because if I was being honest with myself, it wasn’t what I considered my best shot, either. It was more of a mamby-pamby love story, and I think I’ve learned from trial and error that that’s not my genre. There are plenty of talented people out there who can rock love stories, but I’m not one of those people.
Going for broke, I decided to write the type of story I love to read, even though I wasn’t sure the CBA would have any of it. Enter Unholy Hunger.
Now, this novel
deals with some tough subjects. I see some similarities in Evelyn that
your life (she’s a lawyer, mom, etc.),
but I hope you never had to deal with the horror she did. Share with us
what drew you to write about the subject of losing a child to a pedophile.
No, I’ve never had to deal with the loss of a child. The reason I wrote this story, however, was because it sprang from a nightmare I had when my eldest was about three years old. I dreamt a pedophile got him, and I’d never been so scared in my life. It was a horrible dream. When I woke up the next day, I even tossed the clothes my son had worn in my dream because I was so shaken. The nightmare seemed to haunt me for years, even becoming a recurring one. If I saw a parent turn their eyes away from their kids for too long at a park, I’d want to run up to them and tell them my dream. I had this overwhelming desire to shout it out to every parent: DON’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF YOUR CHILDREN!
I don’t really find it a coincidence, but during the same week Greg Johnson told me to scrap the mamby-pamby love story and start over with a new story, I had the dream again. Utterly sick of having the nightmare, I got up and started writing it, hoping that it would make it go away like when you write your troubles in the sand and the tide pulls it away forever.
Luckily, it worked. I haven’t had the dream since. As the story developed into what it is, I realized that God was giving me my opportunity to shout out to every parent: DON’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF YOUR CHILDREN! Yes, this is fiction but make no mistake about it, I have a message to tell you.
there’s a definite grittiness to your work, it is never
gratuitous. Kudos to you for that. What challenges, if any, did you face
in the writing?
If I’m being totally open here, the first draft was a bit gratuitous. Then, in between the first and second draft, I read a book that was unnecessarily gratuitous itself. I wanted to scrub my brain to wash out the images from that book, and that’s when it occurred to me that writers have the ability, the power even, to either imprint a reader or stain them. I didn’t want to stain my readers. I still don’t.
The hardest challenge for me in writing this book was the obvious heart strings involved. I had to become that woman who lost her child and I really didn’t want to go there. Still, I knew it had to be done. Because there’s a message I believe every parent needs to read, I pushed myself through the emotions of it.
I love the
humor of your blog posts and columns! Evelyn gets to have many funny
Was that intentional on your part, to balance
the horror with humor?
Thank you! That’s why I won’t ever give up my column. I love to make people laugh at the crazy stuff my family does. There is seriously no end to them giving me great material.
With the book, though, humor wasn’t intentional at first. I was simply writing along the way I knew how. When it was done, I realized that something good had accidentally happened, and that it did, in fact, balance the hard-hitting emotions. Just when you think you can’t handle the tears, Evelyn is somehow making you laugh out loud.
I really like the end-result, with its mix of grit, drama, suspense, and humor. I intend to continue to do that for the same reasons I like mixing my TV viewing between comedies and crime dramas. Since we all experience a myriad of emotions on any given day, I enjoy setting up my books in the same fashion.
There are some
Christian fiction readers who might squirm at the idea of reading about
a child’s murder, especially at the hands of a pedophile.
What would you say to them to encourage them to give your book a try?
First, I want to alleviate any fears anyone has about this being a scary book. It’s not. I have yet to have a reader call me a liar when I’ve told them it wasn’t scary. The bad things that happen to the children in this book happen out of the reader’s view. Readers abstractly know what happens, but they don’t have to read the nasty details of it. Consider it like watching the news, and I believe the news gives out more details than you’ll find in this book. As you’ve already pointed out, this book may be gritty, but it’s not gratuitous. Ultimately, I have to answer to God for what I put out there and I feel I haven’t crossed any lines in that regard.
I’d also encourage everyone to give the book a try because of the message involved. Not only am I trying to convey to parents to keep a close eye on their kids, I’m trying to relay to the world that you have an enemy out there, above the flesh and bone ones we may cross paths with on a daily basis.
What are two things
people might be surprised to know about you?
I’m actually looking forward to the day when I’m so old, I don’t care if I wear my pajamas all day. (Just don’t take a picture of me at Walmart and post it.) Seriously, pajamas rule. I love them. My husband is not happy about my transfiguration into the world of constant PJs, and when he told me that, I started buying the ugliest, frumpiest pajamas ever. It’s like a game now. I’m winning by the way.
Second thing most people tend to be surprised about me is how I talk to my kids and what they know. This is thanks to the lawyer in me. For example, my four year old said to another four year old at church the other day, “Don’t run around the bricks on the fountain because if you fall and get hurt, there might be a lawsuit and then the insurance premiums would rise and those are our tithe dollars.”
Um, yeah. Guilty.
You sound like
one busy woman raising your kids, writing and lawyering. How do you
Denial? Ha ha! I have a wonderfully supportive husband. What I can’t get around to in a day’s time—errand and child-rearing wise—he gladly does for me. My house is definitely far messier than I’m all right with, so that part really does fall in the denial category. But my kids have promised me they won’t complain to their future therapists about the constant state of chaos on my kitchen counter.
All kidding aside, I think the largest part of my sanity and ability to keep going starts each day when my knees hit the floor beside my bed in daily prayer. I beg God for strength, patience, and caffeine. He’s pretty darn faithful to give those things in heaping measure. Well, except for the caffeine. My husband brews the coffee each morning.
How would you
describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read it
I’ve had someone call it, “terse but pretty.” I liked that. I liked your reference even better: gritty but not gratuitous. One of the original editors on this book said I was the Christian version of Janet Evanovich. I picked up one of Evanovich’s books to understand the reference and sure enough, it was accurate. The only difference is I won’t use bad words and you won’t be finding any loose women in my books.
in line at Starbucks, what are you ordering?
I usually save Starbucks for holiday time, and then my favorite drink is Pumpkin Spice Latte. The rest of the year, I’m too much of a cheapskate and calorie counter to frequent Starbucks. The kids do like their little donuts there, though, so if I’m feeling particularly weak on disciplining them, I’ll turn to bribing them with some Starbucks sweeties.
Could you share with
us a little bit about the other books in this series? Have they been
or are they still in the works?
I’ve recently finished the second book and will begin the third right away. I can’t give away too much about the next two because I don’t want to give out spoilers for the first. What I can say is the main reason Kregel signed me for a three-book deal is because they fell in love with my main character, Evelyn Barrett. You can expect each book to follow a new chapter in Evelyn’s life, as well as some high profile crimes occurring for the underlying suspense nature. In Unholy Hunger, readers find Evelyn a bit off kilter because she is grieving the loss of her daughter. In the next two books, she’s more humorous when she’s out from underneath her dark cloud, but on occasion can be more ornery because of everything she’s been through.
you’d like to say?
Yes. I’m afraid I have a soapbox here I need to get up on. SUPPORT CHRISTIAN ARTISTS! While I could’ve left out some of the God references and marketed this book to the ABA, I chose not to. Even though I would’ve likely made more money doing it, I chose not to. My choice is based on the premise that I want to honor God and uplift my brothers and sisters in Christ. However, on this journey I’ve become keenly aware of very talented musicians and writers in the Christian market who’ve had to hang up their hats because there simply isn’t enough profit to sustain them being artists in Christian industry as a career choice. Take any number of immensely talented Christian recording artists, for example. You like them, you hear them on the radio, but then bam, they’re retiring. They’re not telling you this, but the majority of them retire because they need to pay mortgages and tuitions, etc., and making uplifting, God-centered songs aren’t doing it when so many Christians are still buying Beyoncé and Katy Perry instead of Barlow Girl and Beckah Shae.
The same is true for Christian fiction authors. I’ve heard complaints that many of the Christian authors aren’t of the same caliber as the ones in the ABA. To that I say, look harder, but I also say, are you sure you’re buying enough books to draw in big talent? The more the CBA pulls in sales, the more you’re going to draw better writers to produce for you. That’s truth. Plain truth.
So again, SUPPORT CHRISTIAN ARTISTS! It’s sort of like that Field of Dreams line: If you build it, they will come.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.