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James Scott Bell Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"Sometimes a character dies on me and I have to figure out why." -- James Scott Bell


James Scott Bell's 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 was also fiction columnist for Writers 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. He now writes full time. His favorite writers, in addition to Chandler and Hammett, include John D. MacDonald and Michael Connelly.

C.J.: How and when did you know you were supposed to be a writer?

JIM: I always wrote stories, way back in elementary school. I read The Hardy Boys and watched adventure movies and wanted to write like that. I got into sports later, but a high school teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, saw something in me and encouraged me to be a writer. It took a long time, but I finally made it, and Mrs. Bruce got to see it. We kept in touch. She died last year at the age of 90.

Share with us a little bit about what first drove you to write the Ty Buchanan series.

I get a lot of ideas from news stories. Several years ago a man shot his wife in South L.A., then drove to an overpass, got out, shot himself and fell a hundred feet to the freeway below. His body slammed into a car and killed the driver. That stayed with me. I thought, what an opening for a novel. (I can't help it).

So I started playing around with the incident in my mind, and wondered who would be most affected by this, and came up with a young hotshot lawyer, Tyler Buchanan, whose fiancée is killed on page one in an incident like that.

That started the ball rolling.

How did you come up with the name for your lead character?

It was purposeful. One of my favorite Westerns is Buchanan Rides Alone starring Randolph Scott. He's a loner who rides into a corrupt town and helps a guy, and gets a lot of people mad at him. Sounds like Ty in Los Angeles.

Tyler was chosen because there's a fight going on inside him, a dark side that competes for attention. Sort of like an inner Tyler Durden from The Fight Club.

That juxtaposition of these characters seemed like it would make great fodder for inner conflict, which is, after all, the most compelling aspect of a novel.

Can you explain a little further?

Flat characters are ultimately dull, even if you put in all the plot fireworks you can. Inner conflict is essential to overcome this. I mean, look at High Noon. The inner conflict is written all over Gary Cooper's face for the whole movie. And why not? He's probably going to be killed by the bad guys, and he's just married Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly! No wonder he's conflicted.

Seriously, as the town refuses to help him, and death becomes almost guaranteed, he knows he cannot back out. It would kill him inside. That's inner conflict. The character has to face a choice that means "dying inside" if he does the right thing.

How did you develop the plot for the second book, Try Darkness ?

Again, an item in the paper. There are low rent hotels in L.A. that sometimes play fast and loose with the law. In something called the "28 day shuffle," they force residents out before a full month, so certain renters' rights don't Try Darkness by James Scott Bellkick in.

I have Buchanan representing a poor woman who's getting this treatment. Of course, murder happens and Ty has to find out what's going on. Because he now has the woman's six year old daughter to protect.

Have you found writing a series more challenging than writing stand-alone novels? Why or why not?

I am liking this series, becoming very fond of the characters. The challenge is to keep them growing throughout, even as they encounter twisting plot lines. But I enjoy the challenge.

When it's really done well, as in the books of Michael Connelly, it's incredibly satisfying. That's a high bar, but it's what I'm reaching for.

What is the role of the Catholic characters – Sister Mary and Father Bob?

They represent one side in a multi-layered argument going on inside Buchanan. Spiritual interest is high in society right now, and why wouldn't it be, with the way things are? The search for answers is strong now, and I like having several different characters for Buchanan to play off.

There is Sister Mary Veritas, the basketball playing nun, and Father Bob, as you mentioned. There's also Barton C. "Pick" McNitt, a former philosophy professor who went crazy and now runs a coffee bar where Ty meets his clients. McNitt is an atheist who rails, Howard Beale style, against societal ills.

Then there's the simple innocence of a child, Kylie, who Ty has to protect.

All these things swirl around him as he deals with the loss of the woman he was going to marry.Try Dying by James Scott Bell

How many more books can we expect in the Ty Buchanan series and what’s his next adventure?

The next one is Try Fear (mid-2009). This one is going to have a full on murder trial, and takes place mostly in Hollywood. I'd love to keep the series going after that. I have thirty good titles (when I get to "Try the Veal" I'll have to pack it in). The more the word gets out on the series, the better the chance it'll go on. So be sure to tell every reader to get a copy, and spread the word to their entire extended family.

Umm…

No pressure.

I love the character Sister Mary and was thrilled she played an even greater part in Try Darkness. Any chance she’ll have her own series someday?

A spinoff? That never occurred to me. But, as I said, I love this character. Who knows? But I still have a lot for her and Ty to do. And some surprises to spring.

If Try Darkness were made into a movie, who would you cast in the lead roles?

You know what? I'd rather not say! Why? Because I want readers to form their own picture of the characters. I'd hate to spoil that with a single answer.

I will say, however, that I have had an actor in mind from the beginning. But that's only for myself, to help with the writing. I like to cast my characters. Maybe someday I'll reveal it.

No Legal Grounds by James Scott BellYour novels are always filled with wonderful plot twists and turns to keep us guessing. How often are these planned and how often do they come as you’re writing?

I don't plan all the twists. Some major ones I do, but a lot of times things arise in the writing and you go with it (at least I do). If things are getting slow, for instance, I use the old Raymond Chandler trick: just bring in a guy with a gun. Or variations on that theme.

Sometimes a character dies on me and I have to figure out why. Or a character refuses to do something I want her to do. So we argue. The character usually wins, and I have to regroup.

What are you hoping the Ty Buchanan series accomplishes?

Like any novelist, I want to give people a good read. I want them to fall in love with the characters. And I want to write about the search for justice in a dark world. That seems to be my theme, in all my books.

But whatever the theme, unless readers are compelled to turn the pages, nothing else will matter. So that's my first task.

LA is often as much a character in your books as any of the humans. What are some things the average American might not know about LA?

It's not as smoggy as they think.
But the traffic is worse.
We have a subway!
And not everybody is trying to sell a screenplay. Only 98% of the people are. The other 2% are psychiatrists Glimpses of Paradise by James Scott Bellworking with people who are trying to sell a screenplay.

Who has been your biggest influence as a writer and how have they impacted you?

Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald, for sure. Chandler for his style and MacDonald for his range and pure storytelling ability. They weren't just entertainers. They had ideas, and their books are richer than most of their contemporaries because of that.

I mentioned Michael Connelly among contemporaries, and Robert Crais. I love L.A. based writers.

Out of all your books, what scene is your absolute favorite? What makes it so special? (I know this is a tough question!)

I wrote a historical novel called Glimpses of Paradise which is my longest novel and, somehow, the most satisfying. I wanted to see if I could pull off a long historical, and I think I did. There are a couple of scenes in there where the rich kid, Doyle Lawrence, and the hillbilly, Alvin Beaker, meet as doughboys during World War I. I like the way those developed.

I have a scene in Try Darkness where Sister Mary and Ty are confronting….well, I don't want to give it away, but I love what Sister Mary does in that scene. It's not like anything you think a nun would ever do. But she's not like any nun.

Jim, I’d heard you were working on the movie adaptation of a bestselling novel. Is that something you’re free to share about? We’d love an update, if you are.

It hasn't been announced yet. I was hired to write the script and did. Now comes the hard part, waiting for the green light.

Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott BellYou’ve just released your second writing how-to book, Revision and Self-Editing, which is chock full of great info for writers. What would you say is the biggest misconception aspiring writers have about novel writing?

Maybe that once you're published, the hard part's over. It ain't. It's just beginning. Because you have to keep getting better. The more you learn, the higher the bar you set for yourself.

Who is Revision and Self-Editing for?

Any beginner who wants to learn the essentials of the craft. And experienced writers, who can pick up some extra tips that work and a systematic approach to revision that will make their books better.

It's a reference for almost any purpose, and can be referred to constantly.

What’s next for James Scott Bell?

A trip to New York with my wife and a stay at the famous writer's hotel, The Algonquin, right after I turn in my next book. Then it's on to my next novel.

Parting words?

Hitchcock's Axiom: A great story is life, with the dull parts taken out. So don't write any dull parts, and your work is practically done.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Two eggs, scrambled. Toast. Louisiana style coffee with chicory (Mmmm).

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Peanut butter (chunky style); Salsa; Onions (be very afraid).

What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?

Have a bit part and a couple of lines in a movie made out of one of my books.

Where can we find you on a Friday night?

On a date with my wife. A sushi restaurant (likely), a drive to the ocean, or an evening at home with a good steak and a DVD. Right now we're working our way through Law & Order, our favorite show (especially the Moriarty years).

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.