I’ve been obsessed with Steven James’ Patrick Bowers series of books. He’s the critically acclaimed author of more than three dozen books, including the Patrick Bowers and Jevin Banks thriller series, and he has recently released the first book of his teen suspense trilogy, Blur. Steven’s other works span a variety of genres including non fiction, fantasy and drama. He has a master’s degree in storytelling and has taught writing and creative communication around the world. When he’s not writing or speaking, you’ll find him trail running, rock climbing, or drinking a dark roast coffee near his home in eastern Tennessee.
Here he talks about writing, banned books, and faith. Enjoy this interview.
How long have you been writing and when did you first publish?
I’ve been writing ever since I was a kid in fourth grade, staring out the window daydreaming about the wide world outside. My first short story was picked up in 1996. Before that I’d written a lot of poems and stories secretly in my journals and on my computer, but I’d never ventured to send them out for fear of—well, getting rejected. (Imagine that, an author not wanting to be rejected.)
After writing for magazines for several years I moved into writing nonfiction and educational books in the early 2000s. My career as a novelist really started in 2006 as I worked on The Pawn. Now, eleven novels later, I’m still at it.
What is your writing day like?
It almost always gets started by me drinking unreasonable amounts of coffee. I typically write / edit in the mornings, then take a break to exercise and answer email in the early afternoon, then get back at it again in the late afternoon and evening. Sometimes to break things up I’ll roll out of bed at 3 a.m., write for five or six hours and then go back to bed, get up at noon and sort of start my day over again.
I think I actually get more done this way, but it’s not an easy schedule to keep up so it doesn’t usually last for more than a week or two. Every couple months I’ll go on a writing retreat and pack as much in as possible in a week or week and a half—usually shooting for about ten hours a day. That’s brutal, but it helps me really wrap my mind around the story. Cheetos often play some role in the day, as does whining about editors. No matter what strategy I do, I get bored with one schedule after a while and end up shaking things up again. Glad I don’t have a nine to five job though. I probably wouldn’t last a week.
Besides your thrillers you’ve also written inspirational books and faith-based books. Do you ever get criticized because of the content, the violence, in the thrillers?
It’s true, over the years I’ve written books on how to tell Bible stories to preschoolers and now I write serial killer novels. It’s all up there in my mind swirling around. When I write my novels, I try to tell the truth about the world—about the violence and grief and horror, but also the grace and love and beauty. Life is a paradox in this way. I never glamorize evil; neither do I mute it. My novels are by no means sermons. I think all great stories ask big questions so I don’t shy away from questions of faith and human nature in my stories.
Do you outline your books?
No. Never. At my heart of hearts I’m a storyteller, not an outline-maker. Outlining a story sees daunting to me, not a whole lot of fun, and a very artificial way to approach any art form. I’ve never started a novel knowing how it will end. I write organically, constantly trying to listen to the story. My novels are really too complex to outline. And this way is the best chance of having my readers be surprised by the twists and turns of the story, because I’m just as shocked by where things go as they are.
Is it true that some of your books were banned from some libraries and bookstores?
Yeah. Two of them, actually: The Knight was pulled from some library shelves and a chain of bookstores refused to carry Opening Moves. Both are intense and dark stories, but not extraordinarily graphic so it was a bit of a surprise. There’s little violence in either book—nearly all of it occurs off the page and there’s a smaller body count than in most Criminal Minds episode, but hey, it’s sort of a badge of honor among authors to have your books banned somewhere. (I should be completely forthcoming and admit that both books did give me nightmares, but I guess that’s not really a bad thing when you’re writing thrillers.)
How much of you has found its way into Patrick Bowers?
I asked my wife once which character in The Pawn reminded her of me the most. She told me the serial killer. Still claims she was kidding. As far as Bowers, well, he’s smarter than I am, a better rock climber (which is a little annoying), and more of a coffee snob (but not by much). I think there’s a little of me in every character. Tessa gives me the chance to say the things to people that I always want to say but can’t or I’d get in trouble.
What advice do you give to aspiring writers?
You’ll need to be willing to sacrifice to reach your dream of making a living writing. Remain teachable, stay passionate, listen to where the story wants to take you, and never fall in love with your first draft. Don’t self-publish until you have traditional publishers offering you contracts. Then it’s the right time to evaluate which direction to take things. Don’t default to self-publishing just because you’ve run into some dead-ends or don’t want to be rejected. It may be that a traditional publisher doesn’t accept your book because it’s not quite ready. Don’t discount that and publish something that may come back and haunt you.