How does a former children’s entertainer and professional storyteller become a bestselling author of adult suspense? Being a “natural born storyteller” helps, and for Steven James writing is a natural extension of storytelling. His latest thriller, Synapse, takes on Artificial Intelligence and challenges readers to explore faith and what it really means to be human. James, who has a master’s degree in storytelling from East Tennessee State University, has spoken on four continents and has had more than 2,000 speaking engagements. He’s the author of both the Patrick Bowers and Jevin Banks series, as well as The Blur Trilogy. He’s also the author of two award-winning, non-fiction books, Story Trumps Structure and Troubleshooting Your Novel, and is host of The Story Blender podcast. On his website, fans can find “The Inside Scoop” on each novel.
Currents: In Synapse, set 30 years in the future, humans are living side by side with cognizant robots called Artificials. These robots have been a part of our imagination for a long time, from Lost in Space to Star Wars. However, the essence of their existence and how that impacts humans’ basic beliefs isn’t usually the cusp of the story. Please explain how using your protagonist Kestrel Hathaway enabled you to do this.
Steven: Kestrel is a minister in the story struggling with her faith in God. As she asks difficult questions, her Artificial, named Jordan, ends up asking questions of his own. I had the idea that AI has been explored in lots of different books and movies, but I’d never run into artificial belief. In other words, when machines have consciousness and free will, what will they choose to believe? The journey through Jordan’s and Kestrel’s questions led me into realms I’d never imagined I would visit in the book.
Currents: Borrowing your words, “In striving to challenge your characters and readers, you must constantly be challenging yourself.” How do you push yourself to stretch your creativity?
Steven: Thanks for this question. I wrote a series of 11 novels featuring a protagonist who is an FBI agent who tracks serial offenders. In a sense, after a while, the books were safe for me to write. I knew the characters, the situations, and I thought that if I continued to write that series, the stories might become cookie-cutter or bland. So, I detoured from police procedural type stories to the science fiction realm. Currently I’m working on a new series of espionage novels. Part of the creative journey is taking risks, and as frightening as that is sometimes, I feel like it’s an essential part of the process.
Currents: While writing Every Wicked Man, FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers’ last case, you’ve said you became fascinated with some cryptic symbols on a gravestone and had to decipher them. How did you do this, and were you able to discover what was the story behind the message–why were the symbols there?
Steven: Yes, this is in reference to a gravestone in New York City with an encoded message that remained secret for many years. As it turns out, the code was similar to one used in the Civil War and the words in the gravestone spell out “remember death.” Regarding the reason behind the symbols, I suppose that’s a mystery none of us will ever be able to fully apprehend.
Currents: In your Jevin Banks series, you write about an illusionist. I’m reminded of the quote by Charles Addams, “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” Magicians, like the spider, are notorious for guarding their secrets. Please tell me about getting to experience a little of this secretive world from the inside through your research.
Steven: I actually flew to Las Vegas and met with some magicians and illusionists, even one man who designed effects for one of the big-name magicians in the city. I basically told them what I had in mind for the story and without asking them to give away any of their secrets, I asked them to brainstorm with me how the illusion could play out in the book. I found everyone I met with very helpful. I have always been a big fan of magicians, and it was a privilege to write a couple of books about an escape artist.
Currents: You have an unusual body of work: the Patrick Bowers (FBI special agent) and Jevin Banks (illusionist) series, the Blur (teen) trilogy, your non-fiction books, Quest for Celestia (a reimagining of The Pilgrim’s Promise published more than 300 years ago), and now Synapse (Artificial Intelligence). Anyone would be hard-pressed to say they know what to expect from Steven James. What do you expect from yourself?
Steven: Truthfully, in my heart of hearts, I’m a storyteller. Sometimes I have a story that is suspenseful, other times more introspective or speculative. Rather than try to pigeonhole myself into only one genre, I try to explore the stories that find me and see where they lead.
Currents: Your love of storytelling has been in your family for generations. How did this start, and how are you continuing it?
Steven: I was inspired to become a storyteller after listening to stories that my uncle told when I was a boy. I started telling stories to children at summer camp while I was in college. One thing led to another, my stories began to get longer and longer, and then when we had children, rather than travel and tell stories and be gone, I turned to writing them down instead. I feel like everyone is a storyteller even though some people might not think of themselves as such. I think that the most powerful way of passing on our values and morals is through storytelling, whether that is written stories or ones you tell aloud.
Currents: What are you writing now?
Steven: Actually, I have a number of projects on my plate that I’m finishing up. The first in a series of spy novels, another book on writing, a couple of inspirational books, and a project on storytelling. Even though, in an ideal world, I might be able to work on one project at a time, I find that in the real world my projects end up getting shuffled around and reprioritized because of changing circumstances in my life.
To learn more about author Steven James and his books, go to www.stevenjames.net