[Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with author and writing coach, James Scott Bell.]
James Scott Bell on Conflict, Gritty Suspense, Legal Thrillers, and Zombies
by Donna Brennan
Jim Bell is an award winning suspense author and the creator of the Zombie Legal Thriller genre. But where does he get his ideas?
Donna Brennan: You were a successful lawyer in L.A, even owned your own practice. Did any of your story ideas come from your experiences as a trial lawyer?
James Scott Bell: Some of my early books employed actual experiences. But I think the great benefit was that the law and courtrooms are such natural arenas of conflict. It was great training in the recognition of story material.
D: So many writers dream of quitting their day job and writing full time. Was it hard for you to leave a lucrative law practice for the uncertain world of writing fiction? How many novels did you have published before you decided to take that giant step?
J: I didn't just quit. I transitioned, and as the fiction area grew for me, I gave up more of the law practice. I am not a big advocate of quitting a day job without having a foundation for the future. I think a writer should have some royalty income and a contract in hand. Or, in these new times, a year or two of proven self publishing income. A day job keeps you from writing “desperate.”
D: All of your suspense novels and thrillers take place in L.A. What is it about that city that seems to draw you, and your characters, to it?
J: If I was smart, I would've set my stories in Hawaii and taken a tax deduction for research travel. Seriously, Los Angeles is such a fabulous noir city. It's not just one vibe. It's a collection of incredible neighborhoods and people and hopes and dreams and scams and restaurants and cultures. On and on. It's where I grew up and it just calls to me. You can never exhaust the story possibilities in a Los Angeles setting.
D: In your suspenseful whodunit series with L.A. attorney, Ty Buchanan, you successfully manage to show the gritty nature of the world Ty is thrust into after his fiancee's "accident" (or was it a murder?) without using bad language or extreme violence. Is there a secret to how this is done?
J: Some of the best crime novels ever written were done in the 30s and 40s. Movies too. Did they use offensive language? Overt violence? I think they were the better for not using those. They created pictures in the reader's mind. I mean Double Indemnity has so much sexual tension you can cut it with a knife, and you don't need to show every detail. I just don't see the need for it.
D: Is Ty Buchanan based on any particular lawyer you know? Is he a composite of different lawyers you've worked with or squared off against in a courtroom? Are there elements of your own personality in there?
J: He's mostly me, or the me I would like to think I would've been in that situation. When I was an actor, I learned the great secret of acting from reading about Spencer Tracy. He said the secret was to be himself in whatever role he was playing. He would be Spencer Tracy as a priest, or Spencer Tracy as a fisherman, or Spencer Tracy as a father of a bride. He was so natural, so convincing. In a way, Ty Buchanan allows me to “act” in a certain way, and that's one of the fun things about writing fiction. Or acting, for that matter.
D: From Inspirational to gritty suspense to zombies. Is there no end to your writing interests? And what was the motivation to publish your Mallory Caine zombie thriller series under the pen name of K. Bennett.
J: I don't want there to be any end to my writing interests. I love being able to explore whatever canyon or cave I happen to stumble upon. That's what art is all about, or should be. If you just repeat yourself it gets boring.
The main reason I chose to do the zombie series under a pseudonym was to distinguish it for the benefit of the readers. I don't hide behind a pseudonym, I'm very open about it, but it's just a simple way to alert people that this is a different kind of book.
In reality, I think readers of all my work will see similarities in theme and style. But mainly I'm having so much fun with it. I bust out laughing a lot.
D: Okay. Is the character, Mallory Caine, Zombie at Law, based on any particular lawyer you know? And, be honest, are there aspects of you in that character?
J: I think Mallory Caine is sort of a picture of my ideal lawyer. In point of fact, she is probably modeled more on my dad than on me. My dad was a great Los Angeles lawyer who represented poor people a lot, and that's what Mallory does with the oddballs who come to see her. She believes passionately in the Constitution and the presumption of innocence, and my dad did, too. He passed that passion along to me and in many ways that seems to be the theme of most of my novels.
James Scott Bell will be the Keynote speaker at the Write Stuff conference. He will also be teaching a 1-1/2 day pre-conference workshop: "Novel and Screenwriting Intensive."