Monday, December 8, 2008

Interview with Jessica James

We're delighted to have as our Featured Author, Jessica James, author of Shades of Gray. All this week, we'll be featuring Jessi and her wonderful writing. Ms. James will be giving away a copy of Shades of Gray, so please leave a comment. The winner will be the person who leave the best, most intriguing blog comment.

Please tell readers about yourself and your background.

Hello and thank you for having me! I live in a pre-Civil War house in Gettysburg, PA, and have a writing background in journalism and public relations. I started my professional career as a reporter for a local paper before moving on to a larger paper as an editor. I suppose there are a lot of journalists who have made the switch from writing straight news to fiction, but personally, I found it very difficult. Writing a novel uses a different part of the brain than turning three hours of notes into a 10-inch story in 45 minutes under deadline pressure. I was a good deadline writer, but I am a very slow fiction writer. I tell everyone that that part of my brain muscle is still in training.

Besides writing, what are your other hobbies and interests?

Reading, reading, and reading.

Okay, I do have a few other interests. I have always had a love of animals and horses, and actually have a degree in veterinary technology in addition to my journalism degrees. My current part-time job at a theater also reflects my interest in performing arts. (And has allowed me to see about 900 live shows from backstage—a nice perk). I also love traveling on back roads, especially in the South, and touring old mansions.

How long did it take you to research and write Shades of Gray?

I get asked this question often, and my quick answer is “a long time.” The more complicated answer is that I began writing down tidbits and scenes when I was in college, but it never really occurred to me to turn it into a historical fiction novel. As I began to research a little more, I began to write more, and eventually discovered that I had an entire story. Once I had it all down on paper, I took another two years re-writing the dialogue to make it true to the era.

The setting of your novel is during the Civil War. How did you re-create that past for your readers? And how do you develop your plots and characters?

I re-create the past by pretty much submersing myself in the era. I read diaries, newspaper articles, obituaries – anything I can get my hands on to get a feel for the language, the traditions, and the ideals. I also visited the places I wrote about in all seasons, in all kinds of weather so that I could adequately describe the setting.

As far as developing the plot and characters, I’ve found that once the characters are clear in my mind, they pretty much take over and write the story.

What inspires you about the hero or heroine in your book? What makes them memorable for the reader? What motivates the hero or heroine?

What inspires me about both the hero and the heroine in Shades of Gray is their devotion to their beliefs. Each, of course, has opposing views, but both are willing to defend them with their lives. Their dedication and their strong moral values are what motivates them and makes them memorable. They are just ordinary people thrust into almost impossible circumstances, and I think the reader can relate to the choices that each has to make.

Who or what is the main villain in the story? Is there a specific character, or is it the war itself? Tell us about what or who it is and how that contributes to the story.

I think the villain is indeed the war itself and I tried to show the emotions, the challenges, the heartache and the tragedy that go along with that. From what I remember of learning about the Civil War in school, it was a very bland, uninteresting topic. In Shades of Gray, I tried to make it an emotional experience for the reader and present it in such a way as to make them care about what happens to the characters. Everyone has heard the “brother fighting brother” theme many times, but when you put real faces and names on those brothers, I think it drives home the passions that impelled those who fought on both sides.

I also chose the title Shades of Gray to show that the issues that caused The War Between the States were not black and white, or right and wrong – but shades of gray. It’s important to me that readers develop a better understanding of the passionate debate on both sides of the war, and learn to appreciate and respect those who value that heritage today.

What do you enjoy most about your heroine, Andrea Evans, and your hero, Alexander Hunter, in this story?

Andrea is, to say the least, impatient, impulsive, impetuous (wait a minute, she’s beginning to sound a little bit like me). Anyway, what I like about her is that, despite her faults, she has a strong moral compass that guides her and a patriotic devotion that I wish there was more of today.

Alexander Hunter is pretty much the perfect man – handsome, gallant, courageous, courteous. He is the epitome of the perfect Southern gentleman, and is, at the same time, a daring, dauntless soldier.

If your works were made into movies, whom do you envision playing the hero, heroine, and other important characters?

That’s a tough question. There are some older actors that I wish were 30 years younger, like Harrison Ford, for instance. Otherwise, I see Hollywood types as so out of touch with what these characters portray – honor, integrity, strong moral character – that I just can’t picture any of them in the roles.
I guess it would have to be a low budget film with young, unknown actors from the heart of America. LOL.

Do you write other eras, or is the Civil War of specific interest to you and why?

I think the Civil War does have special interest to me, probably because I’ve been surrounded by it all my life. But I think another part of it is that I enjoy writing about honor, courage, patriotism, chivalry, gallantry—all the qualities and traditions that are a rich part of our nation’s past. The more I read about the Civil War era, the more inspired I became to put a story down on paper that reflected these values, as well as the affection and devotion that existed between those who vowed “’til death do us part.”

I would like to try my hand at the Revolutionary War, and I also have a couple of contemporary novels started as well, one of which revolves around a newspaper reporter and a homicide detective.

What do you enjoy most about writing in this genre? What challenges have you found?

I love the language most of all. I find it hard to believe sometimes that our language has changed so much in such a short amount of time – and it is a short amount of time. When I was a newspaper reporter, I interviewed a man whose grandfather fought in Pickett’s Charge!
The challenges are getting the facts right in general, and also, I had a lot of trouble trying to squeeze my story into the timeline set by historic events. That constraint took a lot of time to work out and is always a major obstacle for historical fiction writers.

What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

If I hit a rough spot or have written myself into a wall, I will go for a drive through the battlefield, sit on Little Roundtop, or visit a museum or bookstore. Just walking away from it pretty much works every time. If I really feel drained of all creativity, I take a drive to Virginia to get “filled back up.” There’s just something about Virginia that gets my creative juices flowing again.

For my everyday routine, I write from a chair facing a large window. When I lift my eyes, I am staring at a butterfly bush, a wild bird feeder and a humming bird feeder. There is always something to see or watch, and, from what I’ve read, this simple act switches on a different part of the brain.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

Truly, the biggest stumbling block for me has been finding the time to write. There’s that thing called paying the mortgage which requires working, which puts a squeeze on everything else. I’m not the type of writer that can just sit down and write if I have a half hour – I need to know I have a whole afternoon, or preferably, a whole day. (A week would be great)!

How did your interest in writing develop? How and when did you decide to write your first book?

I think writers were born to write. I have always been a writer… I just didn’t figure out that I wanted to be a fiction writer until I became fairly miserable at my editor job. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

How do you balance your writing and research with family and other pursuits?

Writing is such a solitary occupation – balancing the rest of your life with it is hard. I actually like that component, however, and pretty much have to be dragged out of my chair for family events. As for the research, vacations are planned around historic houses, libraries, battlefields and cemeteries that I want to visit.

What is your favorite book, and who is your favorite literary character?

Every time I read a good book I say, “this is my favorite book!” So, needless to say, I have too many “favorites” to mention. I’m going to say my favorite literary character is Sir Percy Blakenley from the Scarlet Pimpernel. His character is one that shows that self-sacrifice can come in many forms – and, of course, shows to what extreme true love can prevail.

Do you have a favorite comment or question from a reader?
I’ve received lots of wonderful comments, but one that stands out in my mind is a reader who said that Shades of Gray made them laugh and made them cry. That is a great compliment for an author because it shows the reader is emotionally involved with the characters. Another reader compared it to Cold Mountain, so, of course, I will never forget that one.
What is amazing about both those comments is that they came from men!

Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book.
One of the best, and perhaps unusual, things I did was to contact the International Equine Artist Guild to see if there was an artist who wanted to work with me in a cross promotion regarding my main character’s horse, Justus. (I figured starving artists must be a lot like starving writers, right?) I found the perfect artist, Kristen Queen, who happened to already have a piece of art that resembled the physical description of Justus. She began promoting Shades of Gray and Justus on her website and at art events, and I added her marketing information to all of my promotional materials like postcards, bookmarks, etc. It put my book in front of people I otherwise would never have been able to reach, and did the same for her. At the same time, I made a great new friend.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

I’m not sure most people understand what an excruciatingly painful occupation writing is. Writers are, for the most part, insecure people, so my advice is to just keep writing and have faith in the story you are writing. No one in this whole wide world can tell your story the way you can.

What do we have to look forward to from your pen/computer next?

The novel I am working on now is called “Above and Beyond.” Although it’s another Civil War novel, the character are completely different from Hunter and Andrea.

The main character is Colonel Douglas Benton, who is a flamboyant womanizer and somewhat of a braggart. The heroine is a quiet, cautious woman (definitely not Andrea Evans), who teaches Benton that there is more to being a good soldier than leading heroic cavalry charges.

The female lead character is not based on any real person in history, but I have read accounts such as hers – especially during the Revolutionary War. She pretends to be a strong Unionist in the heart of Virginia, to the extent that all her neighbors, friends, and even her own brother, believe the ruse. She becomes an outcast in her own community since her home is almost constantly filled with Union soldiers. Of course, secretly, she is passing on valuable information to the Confederacy – but her identity is known only to General Lee and President Davis, and later, Colonel Benton.

One can only imagine the courage and strong will it would take to be despised and maligned by family and friends while you are nobly serving a cause. It could be argued that it would take more fortitude than fighting an outright battle with hundreds of your comrades surrounding you.
The book will feature strong Christian themes, and like Shades of Gray, I believe it will take readers on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

How may readers contact you?

The best way to contact me is through email at I encourage any questions or comments!

Any closing thoughts you would like to share?

I just want to thank you for having me! Authors write because they believe they have a powerful story to tell. Trying to convince readers of that fact is a whole new ballgame, and I really appreciate this opportunity to share my experiences.


wisteria said...

I really enjoyed this interview. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and advice.

What made you decide to cast Andrea as the elusive Union spy who whisked about on horseback, disguised as a young boy, yet exhibiting the courage of a seasoned soldier.

Obviously, this is not the typical image associated with the Southern women of the Antebellum Period. Andrea is a complex character and I believe her role as a spy was crucial to the plot of your book. What comments do you have about this?
Thanks again, Wisteria

©Hotbutton Press said...

I'm editing a post-Civil War novel right now, and your comment about language changes really hit a nerve with me. Staying in the vernacular of the time is so important to maintaining the tone and integrity of the novel. If the language becomes too modern, it pulls the reader right out of the story. So there's a lot of responsibility on the part of the writer to stay in the correct time period. It's not an easy job!

Nice interview. Is there a tour schedule somewhere, so we can follow along to the next stop?


Jessica James said...

Hello, Wisteria,

Thanks for your comment!
You are right about Andrea being a complex character. But I think her work as a spy is not so much that she is courageous as it is that she is impulsive.
There is no doubt that the things she does take a lot of courage, but I don't think she even realizes that. It's more a matter of her following her heart and her moral compass.
When I began to write this story, the image of a female dressed as a male was really the only picture I had in my mind. As I did more research I found out that this did actually happen during both the Civil and Revolutionary wars. (In fact there was a woman soldier killed at Pickett's Charge here in Gettysburg - but they didn't know she was a female until they were burying her)
Thanks again for the question!

Jessica James said...

Hi Dani,

Yes, writing prose that is true to the era and yet does not bog down the modern reader is a fine line to walk.

I have my full virtual tour schedule posted on my website and blog at and

I've also posted it on the BookBlogTour group site (if I've done it correctly).

Thanks for the comment!

Helen Ginger said...

Really interesting interview. You said the title pertains to all the shades of gray in the reasons for the war. It also seems like it could relate to Andrea's double identity in the war.

The book sounds very interesting!

Jessica James said...

Hi, Helen -

Never thought of that but it definitely fits the title and the plot!

Katie Hines said...

I'm impressed that you can write with the voice of those times past. When I was working on my current book, there was a section I totally deleted because I didn't have the right voice for the characters (late 1800s). So, the fact you can write with voice and accuracy is impressive to me. Good luck with your book!

Anne Whitfield - author said...

Great interview, Jessica.
I'm so pleased your book has done so well.
I remember when you first posted it to HisFic Critique. Hasn't the time flown since then?