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James Scott Bell Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"What seems to be a constant theme is the idea of one man standing up for what's right against strong opposition. I guess in my writing that's a theme that's constant." -- James Scott Bell


James Scott Bell is the award winning author of several novels of suspense and historical intrigue. His fiction has been compared by Booklist and the Los Angeles Times to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, two of his favorite authors. A former trial lawyer, Jim is also fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine and adjunct Professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His book on writing, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, is one of the most popular writing books available today.

Jim received his B.A. in film studies from U.C. Santa Barbara, where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and his J.D. from U.S.C. Law School.


C.J: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Jim: I always wrote stories, even as a kid. But in school I thought I'd be a professional baseball or basketball player. After college, I went into acting. After acting, law school. And then one day my wife and I went to see Moonstruck. It knocked me out and I knew I had to write again.

Originally you were an actor. Can you tell us about some of the plays/commercials/or anything else you acted in?

I went to New York because I wanted to be a serious actor, and studied there. Did some Off and Off Off Broadway. Some Shakespeare, some new material. There was a theater strike during this time, so I ventured back to L.A., where I met my wife to be. I moved back to L.A. and did commercials – Pepsi, milk, beer – a whole range of things. My greatest performance was placing a tray of hamburgers on a McDonalds serving window.

What made you go from practicing law to writing legal thrillers?

It was a natural for me. Legal thrillers weren't being done in the CBA market, and I loved reading them, so I thought why not write them? I had the background, after all. So I got a 5 book contract and started.

Many of your novels have no doubt required a lot of research. Ever had any unusual or embarrassing moments while performing research?

Once had an LAPD detective take me for a ride along through "the box" in downtown L.A., the area that includes Skid Row. He showed me how to visually ID the crackheads, the prostitutes, the drug dealers, the mentals. That was eye-opening, a whole different world, where every street has its own rules.

Presumed Guilty by James Scott BellChristian fiction has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years. What are your thoughts on the future of Christian fiction?

You're right about the growth. People are being trained in the craft, and it shows. The Christian fiction segment of publishing is one of the only growth spots in the whole book industry. Fantastic future ahead.

You’ve thrust your characters into many harrowing experiences. Where do you draw the line in portraying violence/adult situations in your novels?

My friend Jack Cavanaugh gave me some great advice years ago, regarding any sort of tough material – do it as if it were a movie from the 40's or 50's. Those movies had all the edge without anything gratuitous. Many of them are classics. It can be done.

Your latest novel Presumed Guilty dealt with some tough issues as well (pornography, abuse, post traumatic stress disorder). What was the hardest part about writing that novel?

Trying to render these issues without melodrama. The key, I think, is to give all characters a fair shake, even the ones on the "wrong" side of things. Complexity of character makes for a much stronger read, especially when you're dealing with hot button issues.

Do you ever struggle with sharing your faith in your stories?

First, you have to tell the story. You have to tell it truthfully, which means letting real, human characters struggle through the conflict. Then it's not a matter of "sharing." It's a matter of what really can happen in a life informed by faith. That should emerge organically, not larded on.

Of all your characters, who’s your favorite, and why?

I love Kit Shannon. I did six books with her (the first three co-authored with Tracie Peterson). She was a character I conceived when I decided I wanted to do a historical legal series. She's wonderful – smart, tough, clever – and I hope to see her come around again sometime.Breach of Promise by James Scott Bell

What about your books? Do you have a favorite? What about it do you love?

I thought Breach of Promise represented a step up in my writing. My plotting has always been strong, but I decided I needed work on character. So I designed a six month "self study" program. I read books on characterization, did exercises, but mostly read several of my favorite novels again, trying to figure out what made for great characterization. What was it about Scarlett O'Hara, Vito Corleone, Holden Caulfield? When I wrote Breach of Promise, all this came together for me in a new way. I hope I've carried it on.

What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?

An epic novel about a semi-mad sea captain who obsessively searches for a white whale. I'm thinking of calling it Ahab and the Big Catch or I've Got You Pegged.

Other than that, I don't really know. I find that when I'm ready to start a new project, I've changed a bit. What interested me a year ago might not now.

Were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?

The Hardy Boys were a big influence. I loved getting caught up in the story, the cliffhangers, turning the pages to find out what happened next. Tarzan of the Apes and the old Classics Illustrated comic books were big with me. Entering the "fictive dream" was intoxicating, and that's never left me.

Glimpses of Paradise by James Scott BellI hear you’re a huge classic film buff. Could you talk about some of the movies that have impacted your life and writing?

As I mentioned, it was Moonstruck that made me want to really go for the writing dream. I loved the characters, the dialogue, the unexpectedness of so much of the movie.

Growing up, I loved Errol Flynn movies, especially Robin Hood. Later on, as I began to appreciate film, I fell for On the Waterfront, High Noon, Shane. Then, later, film noir, especially Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, The Narrow Margin. There are many more, but these are representative.

What seems to be a constant theme is the idea of one man standing up for what's right against strong opposition. I guess in my writing that's a theme that's constant.

What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?

I used to do close up magic for tip money in restaurants. And I do a killer Kirk Douglas imitation.

When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?

Traveling with my wife, Cindy. Reading fiction, theology, history. Golf.

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

- Peanut Butter
- Trader Joe's Chunky Salsa
- Onions

Writing is often a sedentary profession. Is there anything you do to beat stress and keep in shape?

Treadmill and Total Gym.

You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?

A drip refill. I don't go in for the fancy drinks, except as an occasional treat. Usually it's just a tall drip, though if I'm facing a deadline I might order an added shot. Zoom.No Legal Grounds by James Scott Bell

What’s currently in your iPod?

An audio book from Michael Connelly. Jazz by Marc Antoine, Larry Carlton, Joyce Cooling, Peter White. Movie soundtracks are big with me. I often write suspense to "Road to Perdition" and the Hitchcock scores of Bernard Herrmann.

What do you most like about living in L.A.?

I love the ocean, the mountains, the culture, the Hollywood Bowl, the attitude, the ethnic restaurants, the courtrooms, the history.

What do you least like?

Traffic, of course. Lately I've been taking the subway – yes, L.A. has a subway! – downtown. It beats paying twenty bucks for parking.

What’s next for you novel-wise?

My next Zondervan thriller, No Legal Grounds, is coming out next February. It's about a successful family man and lawyer who gets a message out of the blue from an old college acquaintance who wants to "get back together." And won't take No for an answer.

Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?

If you ever go into a restaurant that says "Breakfast Served Anytime" ask for French Toast during the Renaissance. See what they say. Life, faith and art are about taking risks, and that's a good one to start with.

C.J. DarlingtonC.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.