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.
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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.”
There’s a big difference between reading someone’s resume and becoming someone’s brother. Growing up, they taught me God’s resume. But no one going’s to fall in love like that. We fall in love by finding out a person’s likes and dislikes, their wounds, what makes them laugh. I think that if God could have revealed himself to us in a three page doctrinal statement, why didn’t he? He spent 300 years writing parables and letters and poems, because that’s the only way we can get to know him. We make a mistake when we only teach people the truth about God. We also need to teach them to fall in love with the mystery of God. Part of the core of a relationship isn’t knowing the truth about someone. It’s the mystery of a relationship with them.
The plotting in The Pawn is very intricate. There are twists and turns everywhere. And I have to say, it certainly doesn’t deal with the usual Christian subjects.
When I was at this Christian booksellers event last summer, speaking about The Pawn, I told the audience, “In this book, the schoolmarm does not marry the sheriff, Armageddon does not come and everyone does not get saved.” There was a lot of nervous laughter, because it’s true.
Someone emailed me once and said, “Is The Pawn a Christian novel?” I started asking myself, “What would make a book non-Christian?” Maybe erotic sex or gratuitous violence or idolatry or people eating their children? Then I thought, “No, that’s the Old Testament!” If the Old Testament was made into a novel, most bookstores wouldn’t carry it. The Pawn tells a story about evil and truth and grace and the human condition. That’s what makes it Christian—not that we talk about Jesus or the faith. A lot of movies and books we call Christian aren’t Christian. They make it seem like, once you become Christian, life is easy and you’re happy. In Facing the Giants, we’re taught that if you pray, someone will give you a brand new truck, your infertile wife will get pregnant, you will win two state championships, and you’ll get a job. I don’t think that’s a Christian movie. These things might not happen.
You describe things very vividly in the book, and sometimes it’s quite disturbing. You have a body that is sawed in half, for example. What do you say to those who insist that The Pawn is too graphic?
I think that when we portray evil, it should be disturbing. Christianity, more than any other religion, believes in the reality of evil. Other religions, like Buddhism, would say evil is an illusion. Humanism would say that it can be overcome by hard work and education. Some religions might look at evil and say it’s real, but Christianity says, “Yeah, but so is grace.” G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy said that Christians are more pessimistic than pessimists. We say, “It may be bad now, but it’s going to get a whole lot worse when you get to hell.” But Christians are also more optimistic than optimists, too [Chesterton says], because we say that infinite joy and grace and mercy and forgiveness are all possible, beginning now. We have this strange paradox of a religion that shows us the incredible power of evil but also the incredible power of glory and grace and wonder. So the way I look at it is, when we portray evil, it should not be muted. It should be disturbing. Because, if our world is just “sort of” a bad place, then we only need a “sort of” a good savior. But if evil is as horrifying as God says, then we need a really, really good savior.
Why did you decide to present the killer’s point of view?
I make a lot of promises to the reader from the point of view of the Illusionist, so there has to be a big payoff from the reader. It can’t be just another dead body. It has to be something disturbing, otherwise all the previous 150 pages would have to be toned down. Suspense is the promise that something is going to go wrong. You drop the ball if you make a promise that something is going to go wrong and there isn’t anything that goes wrong. That was the problem with the movie The Village. There was a huge promise but it was just people dressing up. There has to be a payoff.
In a mystery, the reader is two steps behind the detective. But in a suspense novel, you’re two steps ahead. You see the killer coming into the house, walking into the kid’s room, and you’re like, “No, no, no, no!” You know he’s there and that he’s about to do something. So that’s why I think I’ll always have the point of view of the antagonist. I tend to step into the character’s head. I start thinking like that.
How do you step into the head of a serial killer? Do you have serial killer relatives?
When I asked my wife who I was most like in the story, she said the serial killer. I’m not sure that’s a good thing! No, I have a masters in storytelling and it’s always been natural for me to think in monologues. So it’s partly the way I’m engineered, to step into a character’s eyes. I tell writers that you need to enter your black hole. It’s a place we don’t normally step into, because of convention or society or whatever. We don’t like to go there. So I try and think, if I were this killer, what would I be thinking? I did about a year of research. I read lots of books on criminal profiling, geographic profiling, serial killers, criminology. I had the world’s leading geographic profiler consulting with me.
I like the main character of Patrick. He has so many qualities, yet he’s not perfect. How did you come up with him?
I wanted a character like Sherlock Holmes, who could piece the character together and be ahead of the reader. But Holmes seems kind of wimpy. I wanted [my character] to be a man of action, conviction and courage, but also notice what other people don’t notice. We identify with the struggle of a character. So to have a character who has internal struggles, questions and doubts, but still has strength, we can draw some hope from that but also identify with them.
What about your Asian character?
I don’t know. I just wanted more of an international feel. I didn’t want it to be just a North American book. Initially I envisioned seven books with a culminating one. I wanted some of them set in the U.S. and some set in other places around the world. So I think that gives it another international flavor. I liked the idea of creating an international team of agents who aren’t all white, generic characters. I like her character. In my next book, The Rook, she’s going to be a POV character so you’ll see a bit more about her struggle.
I’m not a huge fan of thrillers, but I really, really, really enjoyed your book. I have to tell you, however, that I was amazed that this came from a Christian publisher. The quality is so good. Sadly, we don’t see that every day.
It’s interesting you should say that, because I was just at a Christian conference and I said to the audience, “How many of you have said, ‘I love reading great writing. I love great storytelling, and that’s why I only read Christian fiction.’ Everyone was like, “Uhhh, that never happens. That’s why I don’t read Christian fiction.” My goal is to change some of that. Too often we excuse mediocrity by saying, “It’s Christian.”
So was that a big goal for you as an author?
My goal is to really write the best stories that I can and to write multi-dimensional stories. This is the difference. Instead of writing from my answers, I start and write from my questions. The question that drove me to write “The Pawn” was, ‘What makes me different from people who do the unthinkable?’
I’ve always loved thrillers. But most of the Christian thrillers I’ve read are thinly veiled sermons. I say, if you want to teach a message to share or a lesson to teach, write non-fiction. That’s what it’s there for. If you want to tell a good story, write a novel. Fiction explores issues or exposes things, but it doesn’t explain them. That’s not the point of a story. It’s to allow people to think and consider and explore things. It’s interesting to see how Jesus told people his stories. He didn’t tell people what they meant.
I really believe that as Christians we have the best story to tell. Often, we excuse mediocrity by saying that it’s a Christian movie or Christian fiction. It should be the opposite. When people think of excellence in the arts—movies, plays, books—they should be thinking of the best. God’s spirit is a creative spirit and he lives in us. And the more we become like him, the more creative we have become. Christians should be producing not cheap imitations of that the world does but the finest art.
When did it get derailed?
It used to be. The home of the arts was the church. I don’t know how we became afraid of story, especially since we have a storytelling God. There didn’t used to be Christian publishers. Lord of the Rings and Narnia were published by secular publishers. They wanted good stories so they published them. Today we have this CBA and ABA and everyone knows that he CBA books aren’t as good. It’s so sad. It should be the opposite. I don’t know why, but I know we have to continually work to change it.