Writer and journalist James Steel is the author of the recently published December. An utterly compelling and thrilling ride through the new ‘European cold war’. He has very kindly filled in the Killer Reads author questionnaire…
Killer Reads: When did you start writing?
James Steel: I first put pen to paper roughly ten years ago but began writing my current novel, ‘December’, in 2005.
KR: Where do you write?
JS: Mainly at home. In the garden, weather permitting, as it reduces the general sense of claustrophobia and cabin fever when you are spending long hours working on your own.
KR: What are the pros and cons of being a writer?
JS: Seems like mainly pros so far, as I wrote as a hobby and have been lucky enough to make it work. My books are all ideas based plots about aspects of current affairs and history that I am interested in so I really enjoy having a reason to investigate them in depth.
KR: What writers have inspired you?
JS: Tom Wolf, DH Lawrence, Jack London, Robert Louis Stephenson, Jack Kerouac. I am also very into Russian writers – my book ‘December’ is an homage to them, all the characters are named after famous writers and people in their books, for example Raskolnikov is the hero of Crime and Punishment. I like realists like Sholokov, Chekov and Vasily Grossman, who really get the detail of life right, which slips you into the skin of a character without you noticing it.
KR: How important is a sense of place in your writing?
JS: Not hugely. With thrillers, one can paraphrase Clinton and say, ‘It’s the events stupid.’ Stuff has to happen, lots of it. You don’t have time to dwell on place. You have to be more of a street sketch artist who can really get someone or a location using a few deft strokes of the pen.
KR: Do you spend a lot of time researching your novels?
JS: Yes. Usually takes me three years to write one. I want to tell stories that are as real as I can make them and that reality is best communicated by detail. The problem is that you then have to edit out 90% of all your wonderful research, which is painful but it should mean that you are left with key details that are meaningful rather than lots of irrelevant facts that just make the book longer and bore the reader.
I do a lot of reading and thinking about the political and historical context for my books. I also try to run through the five senses for my characters in any situation – what can they see, hear, smell, feel and even taste. Smell is particularly good for drawing the reader into the action because it is a very close up sense in humans.
KR: Do your characters ever surprise you?
JS: Yes. You really know you are into them and that a scene is working well when they start forming lines of dialogue themselves. Characters can then come out with the most random things and that adds to the authenticity of the dialogue. Humans often do not communicate in a very direct way – especially when we are discussing tricky subjects. Conversation is often very nuanced and elliptical and you need to be into your characters to get that authentic texture.
KR: How much of your life and the people around you do you put into your books?
JS: Not much. That’s why I enjoy doing it because it is complete escapism – a chance to run around Moscow or the Congo blowing things up.
KR: How did it feel when you saw your book in print for the first time?
JS: Great. There is a huge sense of achievement. I had been writing for about ten years by the time it came out, which is quite a long time to work on a solo project.
KR: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing now?
JS: Hmmmm. Well, my long-term ambition is to become a high-end lounge lizard but I think it might take a while to get there.
December is out to buy now from Amazon