Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Author Interview ~ James P. Wilcox

Happy Tuesday and what a funtastic day it is for Mystery Writers Unite!
I was recently given the opportunity and pleasure to interview James P. Wilcox, author of The M-16 Agenda (see below) and Sex, Lies, and the Classroom (see below).  He has begun working on his third novel, which is due to be released (sometime in the spring of 2012, I hope).
James is a former newspaper photographer and writer and is currently a high school teacher in Kansas City, where is lives with his wife and three children. As busy as he is, he still managed to find the time to let me interview him for my blog and for that I thank him!
---- Interview
MWU: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer and what inspired you to write your first book?
James: I have wanted to be a writer since high school (and as much as I hate to admit it, I graduated over 20years ago), which is ironic because I wasn't a very good writer in high school. I was a reader though and a lover of stories.  I have to blame John Updike for finally pushing me to fulfill my dream of being an author.  I was reading Updike's Rabbit, Run when I realized that I could actually be a writer (and in no way am I comparing myself to Updike, he just got me going).  I think I was trying to make writing to hard before I read Rabbit, Run. This book showed me that an author doesn’t necessarily have to have multilayered and deeply complex plots and characters, and that I didn't have to have a bunch of flowery prose.  I just needed a good story, with characters who readers could relate to.  I guess it was just time.
MWU: On average, how long does it take you to write a book? It must be difficult to juggle between teaching and family responsibilities.
James: My first novel took roughly twelve months to write and at least as long to edit.  The second novel took even longer, almost 18 months, mostly because I have so many other things on my plate.  As a father of three and a high school Social Studies teacher, I just don't have a lot of time to write.  I try to squeeze writing in everyday, but most days I fail or I fall asleep with my writing notebook across my chest.  It has gotten worse as the kids get older because they are involved in so many activities.  I have trouble getting my grading and lesson planning finished each night and there just isn't enough time to write.  I am always thinking about my stories though, which helps me be productive when I find the time to write.
MWU: What does your family think of your writing?
James:  My kids think it is pretty cool that I am an author and they love looking for my books when we go into a bookstore.  In fact, my oldest son is trying to write a book of his own so he can be like Daddy (he is ten, so I know I only have a few years left of wanting to be like me).  My wife is very supportive although she doesn't always like giving up time together so I can tap away at the keyboard.
MWU: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
James: I am not really sure that I have any writing quirks because I simply don't have a writing routine.  I do know that I can't have anyone around when I am trying to write because there are too many distractions.  The only real quirk I have is that I often write ideas or lines of dialogue down on sticky notes (especially when I have to sit in a meeting).  I then struggle to keep track of my own notes.
MWU: Do you have a specific writing style?
James:  I don't think I have a style per say.  My books tend to be pretty bare-boned and straightforward (not a lot of flowery prose).  My books tend to be dialogue heavy because I want the characters to tell the story. Other than that I try to write realistic people in realistic situations with realistic reactions and realistic emotions.  In fact one reviewer called The M-16 Agenda creative non-fiction.
MWU: How do you come up with your titles? Do you decide on them first or do you let the novel grow and make that decision closer to the end of the book?
James: It has varied with each book.  My original title for Sex, Lies, and the Classroom was simply The Teacher, until I realized it was a dreadfully dull title for a book.  I then struggled for weeks to come up with a new title.  When I was writing my second book, The M-16 Agenda was the first thing I thought of and it stuck.  I usually try to come up with a title before I start a story, just to give myself a frame of reference.
MWU: Do you use any of the writing software solutions that are available? If so, which one and why (what do you most like about the product)?
James: Nope, I just write what pops into my head.  I haven’t used any writing software.  I just don’t have the time to research what is out there and I want my stories to be authentic, I want them to be true to the characters and the situations they find themselves in.
MWU: What books or authors have influenced your writing?
James:  I am not sure I have a good answer to this question.  I read a lot of books, but my interests are so varied that I don’t read the same author over and over.  Obviously, I credit John Updike for getting me going and I think Rabbit, Run influenced the way I approached writing Sex, Lies, and the Classroom.  I was reading Leon Uris’s A God in Ruins when I started writing The M-16 Agenda and it influenced my approach a lot.  Other than that I try to write good stories with strong characters.
MWU: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
James:  Surprisingly enough, I would have to say Stephen King.  His book On Writing provided me with a lot of direction, even though I don’t always follow his advice, when I finally decided to take a stab at writing.
MWU: Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you cope with it?
James:  Writer’s block has never been a huge issue for me because I don’t have a writing routine.  As I mentioned before, I don’t get the chance to write everyday, but I am thinking about the story everyday.  I try to think through the plot, the characters, dialogue, etc. so when I do get to write I can be productive.  With that said, transitions are hard for me.  When I am moving from one setting to the next, or finish one chapter, it is difficult to start the next.  This is what I struggle with the most and causes me the most trouble.  My writer’s block is in the transitions.
MWU: Do you write an outline before you begin to write your book?
James:  No, which is one of the things I love about writing.  I have a general idea of how the story will begin, who the characters are, and where I want it to go, but nothing is set in stone.  I was just as surprised as anyone on how Sex, Lies, and the Classroom ended because it isn’t how I originally pictured it.  As the characters came to life and grew though, this is where they took me.  When I write, I want to let the characters take me where they need to go.  I don’t want to force them down a path that isn’t genuine.
MWU: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
James:  Time and editing.  It takes a lot longer to write a story than I want, especially because I have so many story ideas floating around in my head.  I thought I was a pretty good editor until I had to try and edit my own book.  I learned that I need a lot of editing help.  It is a struggle to make sure that the ideas in my head make sense on the printed page.
MWU: Even though I write, I also read a lot and I was curious if you are reading a book at the moment and if so, which one?
James:  I am reading several books at the moment.  Currently, I am reading a collection of short stories called Blue by Wodke Hawkinson.  I am also reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  I just finished Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson with my boys.  I also have the Book Thief by Markus Zusak waiting in the wings.  Even though I don’t have a lot of time to read, I always have a book going, even if I only manage to get a page or two in a day.
MWU: Are there any new authors that have captured your interest?
James:  I have been reading a lot of Indie author recently.  I have really enjoyed Pilate’s Cross by J. Alexander Greenwood and Megan’s Way and Chasing Amanda by Melissa Foster.  Also, I am enjoying Blue by Wodke Hawkinson.
MWU: Do you have any advice for other writers?
James:  Be true to yourself and never give up.  It is such a unique time to be a writer and the publishing industry is changing so much.  Most authors want the traditional publishing contract with a big name publisher, but there are so many other avenues for getting your books into print today.  If you believe in yourself and your story, you can successfully publish your books.  It just takes a lot of hard work, persistence, patience, and marketing.
MWU: Do you have anything specific you would like to say to your readers?
James:  I just hope the readers will take a chance on reading one or both of my books.  I think I have put together two strong stories with good characters and I think you will enjoy them.
The synopsis for The M-16 Agenda is as follows:
A man is not apt to forget the instant he becomes a killer; that one fateful instant when he takes another’s life. It would not matter that Jack Granger has killed; all soldiers train to kill, except that he is the Democratic nominee in the presidential election of 2020. Having secured the nomination as Governor of Missouri and on the strength of his M-16 Agenda, his political platform developed in the killing sands of Iraq, Jack is days away from the White House when the situation in Iraq and in Washington D.C. changes everything. Now it is a race against time, and his own past, as he makes a last ditch effort to save his bid for the presidency, and possibly the world.
From the war torn battlegrounds of Iraq to the halls of power in Washington D.C., M-16 Agenda follows one man’s rise to the heights of political power, as he struggles to live up to the promises he made to his fellow soldiers, his family, and himself.

MWU: I wondered, if there was a message in this novel that you wanted your readers to grasp?

James:  Really, when I started writing this book I was looking for a way to vent my frustrations with the current state of politics in our country.  I also wanted to show people that it isn’t hopeless, that there are still people who are willing to serve and sacrifice for our country.  As the novel evolved though it became a story of personal struggle and family, wrapped around a political thriller, which I think is even better.  The message of the book is if you are willing to work hard, sacrifice and stay true to yourself, you really can change the world.
MWU: How much of the book is realistic?
James:  I think most of the book if realistic, in fact, one reviewer called it “creative non-fiction”.  I use contemporary issues and problems facing our world today and tried to write “real” characters.  Although it is fiction, I think it is pretty realistic.
MWU: Are the experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
James:  Most of Jack Granger’s (the main character) political ideas are my own and I would vote for him in a heartbeat, everything else is pure fiction.  I was never in the military and I have never run for political office.  It is just the story that Jack needed to tell.

MWU: Did you learn anything from writing this book and if so, what?
James:  Not everyone is going to agree with Jack’s politics and some people will actually favor Carlton Kincaid, Jack’s opponent in the book, over Jack.  I was a little surprised by this, but not every readers get what I hope they get from my books.  I also learned that it is okay to be controversial.
MWU: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
James:  Definitely the military jargon.  Having never served myself, I had to do a lot of research to get it right.  My father was a big help.
MWU: What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological or logistical) in bringing this book to life?
James:  Mostly research.  I had to do a lot of research about the military, as well as treating burns.  It was also challenging psychologically because Jack faces a lot of challenge.  It was hard watching one of my characters go through so much to live up to his promises.
MWU: Name one entity, outside of family members, that supported you to write this book.
James:  This is a tough question because I am very private about my writing.  I don’t talk about my books with a lot of people while I am writing.  It is a very private journey for me.  I do have a fellow teacher that I bounce ideas off and give sneak peeks to.  Her name is Cynthia Knight and she teaches English.
MWU: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about this book?
James: Honestly, I don’t think so.  I am happy with the book and the story.  I am happy with the characters.  

Get your eBook copy of The M-16 Agenda
Get your paperback copy of The M-16 Agenda
The synopsis for Sex, Lies, and the Classroom is as follows:
Nathaniel O’Connell thought he knew what it takes to survive at Southwest High School, a low-income, ethnically diverse, inner-city school. After seven years of teaching, he thought he had discovered how to get through to these children of poverty. That was before he met Tyreshia, Krysteal, and Ebony, who know how to inflict pain, both physical and emotional. After a confrontation on the first day of school, O’Connell finds himself fighting for his reputation, his job, his family, his very survival. With his wife, Alexandria, O’Connell must battle the school system, the justice system, racism, and his own weakness, as he seeks redemption. Faced with investigations by the school’s administration, the Department of Family Services, and the District Attorney’s Office, he must find the strength and the courage to reach out to these same students to save his very soul.
MWU: Again, I wondered, if there was a message in this novel that you wanted your readers to grasp?

James:  There are a lot of challenges facing our public schools today, but money isn’t the solution.  The problems run much deeper than people think, especially in our inner-city schools.  The students attending these schools face so many challenges and the deck is stacked against them.  Really, I want people to understand what actually goes on in our inner-city schools.
MWU: How much of the book is realistic?
James:  This book is very realistic.  I taught in the urban core for four years.  I worked very hard to portray the school, the faculty, and the students in as realistic manner as possible.
MWU: Are the experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
James:  The book is based on my experiences teaching in the inner-city, sort of.  Although none of the things that happen to Nathaniel O’Connell (the main character) actually happened to me, they could easily happen and most teachers in these schools live in constant fear of just what I described in the book.  Most readers assume that Nathaniel is me, but he isn’t, although we do have a lot in common.
MWU: Did you learn anything from writing this book and if so, what?
James:  Not everyone is willing to pull the blinders off.  People don’t want to believe that things are as bad as I portray them, but I am writing from personal experience here.  Also, some readers are put off by the language in the book, although it is authentic.  In fact, I was pretty nervous about this when my mother read the book.  When she had finished, the first thing she asked me was if the students really talk the way they do in the book.  I could only shake my head and tell her it is a thousand times worse than what is in the book.
MWU: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
James:  Not putting myself into it.  Although I was writing based on my personal experience, I didn’t want people to think all these things had happened to me.  Although Nathaniel and I have a lot in common, Nathaniel is not me.
MWU: What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological or logistical) in bring this book to life?
James:  Getting the dialogue and slang just right.  I listened intently and took a lot of notes so I could capture how the students talk.  It was the most difficult part for me.
MWU: Name one entity, outside of family members, that supported you to write this book.
James:  Matt Nevels.  He taught with me for three years in the urban core and he is one of the few people who got a look at the book while it was in progress.  He made a lot of helpful suggestions.
MWU: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about this book?
James: Again, I would have to say no.  I am happy with how the book turned out.
MWU: Was it easier the second time around? If so, do you think your second novel is better than the first as a result?
James: I don’t think it was necessarily easier to write the second novel, but I do think the writing is better in the second.  It is hard to compare the books though because the styles are so different.  It was easier in the fact that I had the confidence knowing I could actually do it.  I knew I could write a novel with the second one, because I had already done it once.
MWU: Do you hope to become a full-time writer and give up teaching?
Get your eBook copy of Sex, Lies, and the Classroom
Get you paperback copy of Sex, Lies, and the Classroom

James:  Honestly, I would love to be a full-time writer, but I don’t see that happening in the foreseeable future.  Even if I could, I would always be involved in teaching though, whether through teaching writer’s workshops or helping in a college writing department.  I think I would get bored if I never had a reason to leave the house.
MWU: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
James: Currently I am working on a sequel to Sex, Lies, and the Classroom, tentatively titled Sacrificing Tyreshia.  I never planned to write a sequel, but enough readers have asked me, “What happens to Tyreshia and Nathaniel?” that I have decided to explore their relationship further.  Hopefully, it will be out in the spring of 2012 (again, if I can find the time to write it).


Dean from Australia said...

Really good interview. I am relieved to read that James takes time with his writing as I do. I have read interviews with different authors who say that they can knock off a book in as little as 10 weeks which leaves me feeling really deflated. That James has similar sorts of life commitments as I do, I now feel not so bad.

Becky Illson-Skinner said...

Hi Dean,

Like you, I was also relieved to find out I'm not the only slow one that seems to take a bit of time to get a book written.

Don't feel deflated...we'll get there too :-)

Have a great day and thanks for the comment!!


kathleenshoop said...

Hi James! I have similar time constraints (who doesn't?!!) and it's nice to hear that you fit your writing into every empty crevice of your life--I'm not the only one. I also find that thinking about my story/characters all the time primes me for the times I am able to actually sit down and write. I also have written a book about urban teaching...coming soon! Maybe we can cross promote--mine takes place in an elementary school, so it could be interesting. I'll be sure to get that book and your newest--great work!

James said...

Kathleen, I would love to cross promote. Can't wait to read your book.

AR Silverberry said...

Great interview, James! Really reveals about you as a writer and what readers will enjoy in your books!

Best Wishes,

Writing as AR Silverbery