Steven James just wants to tell stories. The father of three, who lives in Tennessee, has written 20 non-fiction books and traveled throughout North America, Europe and Asia as a fulltime speaker.  But now, he’s making his move to fiction.

In The Pawn, the first title in James’ thriller series, FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers finds himself dancing a deadly duet in Asheville, N.C.  He’s come to catch “The Illusionist,” a serial killer who leaves chess piece in his victim’s mouths—but no clues about his identity.  After things get personal, however, Bowers decides that this is one game he can’t afford to lose.

I recently spoke with James, who talked about his decision to write fiction, his take on graphic content in thrillers and why Christian novelists can’t afford the luxury of mediocrity.

Youth worker, storyteller, student, speaker, author—wow.  You have quite the background.  Can you tell us a little about how your career evolved?
I started as a wilderness guide in Illinois, just like Patrick, my protagonist.  Then I did youth ministry at a camp for five years.  I felt God calling me to write and speak. I’d always liked storytelling, so I went to East Tennessee State University, which offered the only masters degree in storytelling in the country.  I did some work as a museum educator but my goal has always been to do more writing and speaking.  I’d also like to do some screenplays in the future.

The way that our culture tells stories is through novels and movies.  That’s how we frame, understand and explore human nature.  In a novel, you can explore issues of human nature and good and evil and the existence of God and the availability of hope.  I explored some of those things in my non-fiction, but here, instead of trying to give answers, I just portray what it’s like. When you write about human nature from a Christian perspective and you show something about grace and falling, it rings true. People can understand their own guilt and failings.  We all want a happily ever after, and to find out that it’s true—that redemption is possible—is powerful.

What constitutes redemption for you?
In any story, the main character goes through a transformation from the struggle to the discovery is the redemptive ending to the story.  Sometimes it’s external, sometimes it’s internal, but there comes a point of revelation so that they end the story transformed by that story.  That’s what I’m talking about, and I guess pointing toward hope—that it’s available. And that’s a Christian worldview. The secular worldview is “follow your dreams, follow your heart.”  The other is hopelessness—that our choices don’t really matter.  But what really attracts us is that ‘happily ever after’ is available. We can encounter the divine in a positive way and be transformed  Even if you don’t get into God a whole lot, if you point them that way, it will led them to God. Seek and you will find, knock and the door shall be opened.  As people genuinely seek the truth about themselves and the world, it will always lead them closer to Jesus.

Did you grow up going to church?
I grew up going to church, knowing a lot of the answers about God.  When I was 20, I went to my boss’s church, when I was a wilderness guide.  He asked if I was a Christian and I went.  It was a charismatic church.  I grew up orthodox Lutheran.  People were dancing and playing tambourines, and I was like “Whoa!”  I left thinking that people had genuine joy knowing God.  Their service was like a marriage—not a funeral. That’s when I became a believer.  I said, “God, I need you to change me.  I’ve been telling people I’m a Christian but I need to live it.”