Interview: James Hankins

Posted: February 2, 2015 in Best-sellers, Interviews, Thriller
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Hankins

 

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing James Hankins, bestselling author of BROTHERS AND BONES, DRAWN, and JACK OF SPADES.  His newest novel, SHADY CROSS, is set to be released on February 24th, but is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.  James has been highly successful with his work, and he has seen both sides of self-publishing and traditional publishing.  I did us all a favor and used my Jedi powers to make him share his secrets.  We discussed everything from writing processes to why Atticus Finch should fist fight John Grisham.  I’ll stop rambling now and let you enjoy.  Here’s how it went:

Will:  Tell me a little about yourself, something that isn’t in your bio.  Something my readers might be interested in.  Do you have any crazy hobbies or things you like to do?

James:  This is where I’d like to be able to tell you about my experiences scaling sheer cliff faces with my bare hands and the weeks I spent with the crew that discovered Blackbeard’s sunken ship a while back, but the truth is, I’m not that cool. I write, I read, I travel – though the travel is family-oriented these days (amusement parks, zoos, SeaWorld). I do play and guitar and piano a sing a little.  I also co-write music with a musician friend who records (without my help) and releases the songs.  My wife is teaching herself to play the drums, so we play together all the time, which is great.  She’s cooler than I am.

Will:  I see you went to NYU Tisch school and then later law school.  Did you study writing screenplays?  Later, you went to Hollywood, then became a lawyer, but ultimately came back to writing and found your niche writing novels.  Is there a big difference in writing a screenplay and a novel?  Do you think being trained in the first helped when it came to writing books?  It sounds like you were very driven and focused in your academics, but c’mon, we’re writers here.  I know there must be a crazy side.  What’s the craziest thing you ever did or pulled off in college?  Something the wife would read, cross her arms behind you and say, you did what now?  This is a safe place, the statutes have run out, you have one-time immunity from prosecution here.

James:  I studied screenwriting in school as well as most other aspects of filmmaking, but I focused on writing and directing skills. In my senior year I won the Chris Columbus Screenwriting Award for my final film. It’s hard to say whether writing screenplays has helped me as a novelist because I’ve never been an author without having first been a novelist, if you see what I mean. It’s all I know. But I suspect that my writing is cinematic in some ways, and I do tend to think very visually, so that might be a vestige of my screenwriting experience. As for the latter part of your question, I was indeed pretty focused on my schooling…less so the academics than the writing and filmmaking part of it.  Nothing too crazy to report from my college days (remember what I said earlier…I’m not that cool).

Will:  Your newest novel, SHADY CROSS, tell us a little bit about it.  What type of themes does it address?  What sets it apart from other novels in the genre?  Basically, why should my readers skip over others on the shelf and choose it out of the crowd?

James:  Rather than skip the other books, try to read them all.  There are some great books out there.  SHADY CROSS is a little different than my other novels.  The protagonist is more of an antihero, which sets him apart from many – though certainly not all – other protagonists that are out there.  He’s not a nice guy, in that he has made very selfish choices throughout his life. The thing is, though – and this is vitally important – I don’t think he’s unlikeable.  I think there’s a huge difference between not being a nice guy and being unlikeable, at least when it comes to a protagonist.  The character may do things that make the reader question his morals, but if we truly did not like him we probably wouldn’t want to read about him or be inside his head for hundreds of pages.  My protagonist, Stokes, is definitely not someone you’d want as a friend, but I do believe he’s someone you like to read about, and is someone you even root for, as he navigates his way through the unfamiliar waters of trying to do the right thing for the first time in his life.  Plus, I think he’s funny at times.  If you’re looking for a theme in the book, it would have something to do with redemption.  Stokes is unknowingly on a path toward at least partial redemption for a life not lived well…though, and I think this is important, he’s not doing anything in the hopes of finding redemption.  Redemption would merely be the result of his actions.  To my mind, to truly find redemption, one shouldn’t take actions hoping to be redeemed as a result.  It’s like trying to get to heaven by doing good things.  If you are going to do a good deed, commit a selfless act, I think it’s more laudable to do so because it’s the right thing to do, rather than because you believe you will be redeemed for having done so.  At least that’s my opinion.  In SHADY CROSS, Stokes certainly isn’t thinking about redemption.  He’s just trying to do what’s right (though there’s probably a small part of him that suspects that the actions he’s taking are influenced by poor choices he’s made in the past).

Will:  Writing screenplays in Hollywood probably means you rubbed shoulders with some celebrities, I’m assuming.  Any good stories or run-ins with actors/actresses/directors we may have heard of?  What made you decide to give that up in favor of law school?

James:  I’m going to answer this one backward, starting with the latter parts of the question and work my way forward.  I’ve always wanted to tell stories, and for a while I thought it would be through film.  (I still hope to do some work in film again, by the way).  But Hollywood is a tough town to crack so eventually I had to pay bills.  There were already a bunch of lawyers in my family so I thought one more couldn’t do much harm, so I went to law school, clerked for a year with the Connecticut Supreme Court, then practiced for a few years while writing books at night.  So, that’s why I gave up the Hollywood dream (at least for a while).  So, having now set up the fact that I didn’t have a staggering amount of success in the industry, you should understand why I didn’t rub shoulders with too many celebrities (though many years ago Johnny Carson almost ran me down in an alley – I’m pretty sure it was by accident).  I did go on ONE date with a woman who is now a successful actress (no names, sorry), but that was during film school.  My greatest celebrity-shoulder-rubbing experience was getting to kiss – on the cheek – Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island.”  She appeared in a low budget movie I co-wrote and when I met her and asked her if I could, remarkably, she said yes, thereby giving me an experience that I share with pretty much anyone who will listen.

Will:  So, you self-published your first three novels which became best-sellers, but the next one is through a traditional publisher. Why the change?  How has the experience differed between the two so far?  Any tips to aspiring indies out there, looking to break through?  Was there any big secret to why you think your novels sold so well (other than writing great novels of course)?  Did luck play a role?  Did you catch a ride on that Amazon algorithm that nobody can figure out?  Did you have a network of people who helped share the word about your book?  What do you think were the main contributing factors to your success?

James:  I self-published my first three books all at the same time because my agent and I hadn’t had much luck trying to sell them to traditional publishers.  A major contributing factor was that the industry was going through very difficult times – things are changing every day even now, it seems, but when we were trying to sell my books there were layoffs everywhere in the publishing industry, and publishers were justifiably hesitant to sink money into too many unknown authors when they had enough known quantities around.  Some newbies broke through, of course, but I didn’t.  So I self-pubbed and things went pretty well for me.  As for why I was fortunate enough to see that happen, it’s hard to be certain.  I do think that my books resonated with enough people to help them get off the ground and for that I’m very grateful.  But luck certainly played a part.  One of the main things I had going for me was that Kirkus Reviews, the self-proclaimed “world’s toughest book critics” gave my thriller BROTHERS AND BONES a starred review (which, according to the Wall Street Journal not long ago, they give to only 2% of self-pubbed books, as opposed to 10% of the traditionally published books they review). Kirkus also later named BROTHERS to its list of Best Books of 2013.  But it was that starred review shortly after publication that lit a fire under the book, which went on to spend several months on the list of Top 100 Kindle Bestsellers on Amazon.  Then the people who enjoyed BROTHERS bought my other books.  So, though I can’t be certain, I do believe that early Kirkus review made a big difference in my career trajectory.

Will:  If you were still a lowly indie author, selling a few copies of your book each month, how would you approach the scene in today’s climate?  Reading, writing, reading some more and then writing some more?  What things would you devote the most time towards outside of writing your book?  Cover art, blurb, promotion, blogging, social media, etc.?  What do you think of enrolling in Kindle Select vs distributing through multiple retailers, for e-books anyway?  Do you think the exclusivity is worth it for the borrows you get from Kindle Unlimited and Prime?

James:  Hey, there’s nothing lowly about being an indie author!  As you know, many authors who have a choice decide to stay remain independently published for a variety of reasons.  But if I were selling very few books a month, what would I do?  I would do exactly as you say…write, write, write, and read, and write some more.  Spend an appropriate amount of time marketing your existing books – a lot of people do an 80/20 split, with 80% of their time spent writing and 20% spent marketing – but spend the bulk of your time writing, getting better at the craft, finding the best story there is to be told buried in the concept you’ve come up with…and read as much as you can.  And I think you should hire the best editor you can afford so that your words are polished to a high gleam, then get yourself a fantastic, high-quality cover that looks good in thumbnail size because that’s what most people see when scrolling around the bookseller sites.  I can’t overstate the importance of good editing and a good cover.  As far as social media goes, do as much as you’re comfortable doing.  If you’re a blogger, blog away; if you’re good at it, it’s a great way to get some notice.  I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit wishy-washy on your other questions.  My first three books were, of course, available in as many places as I could make them available, and it worked well for me.  For my new book, SHADY CROSS, my publisher, Thomas & Mercer (Amazon’s thriller imprint) is holding the reins and I’m really excited to see how things go.  In fact, I’ve sold them my next book, as well, which is tentatively planned for a fall release.  As for your final question about Kindle Unlimited and Prime, I haven’t formed an opinion because I don’t have enough data.

Will:  Lawyer fights!  Since you’re an expert on the matter (I’m appointing you one anyway).  Who would win in a fight between Atticus Finch and John Grisham?  I mean Atticus was a tough dude, fearless even, but c’mon, John looks like he can throw down, and he always has this look like ‘yeah, i’ll whip a man’s ass’.  What say you?  You can analyze from both a Gregory Peck standpoint and the novel’s Atticus if you so desire.

James:  You’ve hit upon my favorite all-time book, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, so it’s hard for me to say that Atticus would lose to any other lawyer.  The problem is, for Atticus for resort to fisticuffs, the cause would have to be incredibly just and the fight extraordinarily noble.  In fact, I just don’t see him doing it.  He would always try to think of another way to resolve the conflict.  Come to think of it, while he’s standing there thinking, he might be vulnerable to a sucker punch, so maybe he has to be the underdog after all.

Will:  Who are your favorite authors?  Do you get to read much?  What are a few books you’ve read over the last few years that are must-reads that you can recommend?  Do you have any names you can drop that might be in the price range of the starving indie writers out there as far as cover art, editors, formatters, etc.?  People you’ve worked with and can vouch for?

James:  This is such a tough question.  There are so, so many great authors out there.  My very favorite is probably Mark Twain, and I love Dickens.  But they aren’t writing much anymore and I tend to stick to my own genres these days anyway, so I’ll list the first several authors who come to mind (with the caveat that there are many, many, many authors whom I admire but won’t mention in this response).  The following are a few of the authors I read and admire:  Nelson DeMille, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Greg Iles, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Stephen King, Lee Child, Harlan Coben…the list goes on and on.  As for folks who can help get a book ready for publication, there is indeed one graphic artist whose work I love.  Her name is Asha Hossain.  She works out of Seattle.  She did my first three covers (and, in fact, does some ebook covers for David Morrell, who wrote RAMBO and is therefore hailed as the father of the modern thriller).  She does great work that is worth far more than the reasonable rates she charges.

Will:  You’re a stay at home dad (it makes you a semi-hero of mine by the way) which is totally cool.  How old are your kids?  How do you balance home life and finding time to write and polish your stories?  Do you solicit the family for input when writing your stories?  Do you have a mentor or someone who helped guide you towards your current career throughout your life?  I know you mentioned writing and reading sci-fi on the bus to kids as early as seven and then in front of your class, any plans to write a sci-fi book in the future?  (I ask because it’s what I mainly read)

James:  I have two eleven year-old boys who are probably more interested in hanging out with each other these days than with me, so they give me space to write.  My wife and I get the kids out the door in the morning, then I do a few household things for an hour or so, then I write until it’s time to pick the boys up from school five hours later.  I don’t get much done after school, at least not until the rest of the family is in bed for the night.  I don’t seek input from family members while writing, except when I need legal advice beyond my own limited expertise, at which point I turn to the criminal lawyers in my family.  My wife, though, is always my first reader, and now and then some of my siblings will read early drafts and share their thoughts.  I also have a few writer friends with whom I have shared early drafts of books, and they’ve shared theirs with me, and we give very honest – sometimes brutally honest – opinions.  As for a mentor, there’s been no one in that role guiding me throughout my career, but I do have a great relationship with Michael Bourret, my terrific agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, and he’s helped me make good decisions and stay away from some that probably wouldn’t have been good ones.  With respect to sci-fi, I do enjoy the genre and used to read far more of it than I do now because it’s not what I write at the moment, but I definitely read it now and then.  I actually have a sci-fi story in mind that I love but I don’t know if I’ll get to write it as a novel.  Maybe I can get it onto the screen one day.

Will:  What’s your writing process like?  It looks like you mainly write mystery type thriller books.  Do you outline?  Hammer out a first draft?  How do you come up with twists for your plot and find the ‘aha’ ending that really socks a reader in the balls at the end?  Do you know the ending you want and then shape your story towards that?

James:  I write thrillers, mysteries, and suspense, with some supernatural suspense thrown in.  I do outline but not exhaustively.  I need to know generally where I’m going at any given time, though the route I take to get there is sometimes a bit up in the air.  Before I actually putting words onto the screen, I usually know the beginning, the general idea of the ending, and several big moments along the way.  Then I write the beginning (which I end up revising over and over), then try to find my way to that first big moment I had in mind.  And from there, I write my way toward the next one, then the next one, and finally to the end.  And though I usually know the ending before I get there, now and then it changes on me and I tweak what I had originally planned.  I usually start each day reading my work from the day before, or at least some of it, and giving it a quick polish, just to get that day’s creative juices flowing and to immerse myself again in the world I’m creating.  Then I write new chapters until I run out of time that day.  I almost never run out of steam, just time.  I write first drafts fairly quickly, then take my time with the rewrites.  As for how I come up with plot twists…that’s hard to say.  They mostly just come to me.  Sometimes I ask myself what the reader would expect to happen and then do something very different.  As for the ending, I want something fitting and satisfying, something that ties things together well and answers the questions that need to be answered while, when appropriate, leaving a few tantalizingly unanswered.

Will:  Where did the idea for SHADY CROSS come from?  What was writing it like?  Did it flow easily or did you have any hiccups along the way?  Are there any elements of your personal life that leak into your stories or influence them?  From the synopsis, it sounds like Stokes has some huge internal questions he has to answer.  Has to figure out what kind of person he really wants to be.  I love stories where the main character is faced with a dilemma and internal conflict arises from it.  Is this something you’d say is present in all of your stories?  How do you go about turning the heat up on the conflict to keep people burning through the pages in the middle of the night?

James:  So far, all four of my books have been fairly different from each other.  For BROTHERS AND BONES, I wanted to try a book in the first person.  For JACK OF SPADES, I wanted to try my hand at a police procedural.  For DRAWN, I wanted to write a book with several protagonists who all come together late in the book and see if I could hold it all together, and I came up with an supernatural story to try it with.  For my next one, SHADY CROSS, I decided I wanted to write an antihero.  It’s a bit risky, I know.  But I’m pleased with the result.  And Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, which is fantastic, and Booklist gave it a glowing review, too, so I’m hopeful that my readers will like it, as well.  There are certainly elements of my life that leak into my stories – little details that find their way in – but there were far fewer than usual in SHADY CROSS.  I don’t have much in common with Stokes, my protagonist.  As you note, it’s nice when a character struggles internally as well as with external forces.  The characters in my books all have internal struggles of one kind or another that they have to face while battling mob guys, serial killers, and other bad folks.  Internal conflict can be as important as external conflict, and it’s great when the two play off each other.  Finally, how do I keep the conflict heating up?  I try to think of things that would be terrible for our hero if they occurred at that moment, then I make them happen.  Somebody wise said something about getting your hero up into a tree, then throwing rocks at him.  That’s great.  You could turn things up by switching from rocks to a gun.  If that doesn’t work, light the tree on fire.  Now our hero’s in really big trouble.  If it looks like he might be able to leap to the next tree over, start cutting that tree down…and so on.  You have to think about pacing, too.  You want to keep ratcheting up the tension and sometimes the action, but you also need to let the reader, and maybe the character, breathe now and then, and sometimes that brief respite gives whatever big moment follows all the more impact.

Will:  Last and most important question, I’m a tax accountant by trade and have worked on many estate tax returns.  Why are wills and trusts so damn boring and complicated?  It’s like reading Latin, literally, half of it IS Latin.  I’m sure you’ve had to write some of them as a lawyer, either while in school or during your years practicing.  Is it so people will have to pay lawyers and accountants huge hourly billable rates to decipher them?

James:  My memory of law school is that, other than criminal law, there is no area of law that exposes the ugly side of humanity more than wills and trusts.  The case law is replete with stories of families torn apart by the selfishness and greed of their own family members.  Siblings literally killing siblings, brothers sneaking behind other brothers’ backs to get signatures from mentally incompetent parents, adult children having parents committed to institutions so as to take over control of their finances, etc.  It’s horrible and all too human.  So to prevent those kinds of evil shenanigans, the law requires a boatload of language designed to make crystal clear the intent of the person whose will or trust is being created.  The more definitive the document, the less doubt there is as to which of her nieces Aunt Gertie meant to leave her poodle-shaped diamond-encrusted brooch.

Will:  James, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me and my readers.  Thank you for the advice and words of wisdom and I wish you all the best with your new book.  You’re welcome back anytime and I hope you stay in touch.

James:  Thanks for having me.  It’s been fun.  And to your readers, thanks so much for listening.

Can’t thank James enough for his words of wisdom and sharing them with everyone.  Be sure to get your copy of SHADY CROSS and go follow him on his various social media accounts below to stay in touch with him.  I wish him the best with SHADY CROSS and all of his future endeavors.  Hopefully, we’ll have him back again in the future.

shadycross

click here to order

Bio:  Bestselling author James Hankins pursued writing at an early age. While attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he received the Chris Columbus Screenwriting Award. After career detours into screenwriting, health administration, and the law, Hankins recommitted himself to writing fiction. His first three books each spent time in the Kindle Top 100, while one of them — BROTHERS AND BONES — received a coveted starred review from Kirkus Reviews and was named to their list of Best Books of 2013. Additionally, both JACK OF SPADES and DRAWN were Amazon #1 bestsellers. His next thriller, SHADY CROSS, which has already received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, will be published by Thomas & Mercer on February 24, 2015.

James lives with his wife and twin sons just north of Boston.

Contact James:

website:  click here

facebook:  click here

twitter:  click here

goodreads:  click here

 

 

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