A Conversation With James -- 2006
Q: " Pay me what she's worth."
Why is this kind of demand more frightening than the usual ransom demand? What kind of fear does it trigger?
A: It triggers all of the fears of a traditional ransom demand, but it’s so much worse. It’s as if the kidnapper is holding both spouses hostage. One is bound and gagged, while the other is held at a kind of emotional gunpoint to confront all the demons in the relationship that affect “what she’s worth.” Can we live with the guilt if we offer too little? If we offer less than everything we own—all those things that really aren’t supposed to matter— does it mean that our love is not true? For some, merely asking these questions forces the realization that their spouse is worth less—perhaps far less—than everything. That’s pretty scary.
Q: You start GOT THE LOOK with an attempt to rescue a kidnapped woman from an aquifer that is like a deadly house of mirrors. Does this place exist? What inspired you to use it?
A: The Devil’s Ear at Ginnie Springs is a real place, and the danger is also real. Just this past summer, a diver from Michigan lost his life there. There actually are prison-like bars that prevent divers from going into caves that, over the years, have proved too deadly. I’m not a cave diver, but I spoke to divers who know the caves, and I studied underwater photographs to make sure my descriptions of the most dangerous parts were dead-on accurate.
Q : For each of your Jack Swyteck novels you have had a moment, an experience that prompted you to extrapolate out into a giant " what if" you hand off to your character. Did you experience this before you became a writer? Do you think the ability to imagine what the worst case scenario looks like is something that lawyers need to develop?
A: The “What-if” game is one of those essential lawyering skills that translates well into suspense writing. As a lawyer, I would prepare my clients for trial by playing the role of opposing counsel, and it was always gratifying to hear my client say that the prep session was ten times tougher than the real thing. Asking “what if” always plays into the development of a good trial strategy, and it requires you to step into the shoes of not only your opposing counsel, but of your client, his family, the jurors, the judge, the witness, the victim, and anyone else who is affected by your decisions as a lawyer. Switching hats and changing perspective is something I continue to do as a fiction writer, with one major difference . Now, if I don’t like the outcome, I just change the facts.
Q: Your reviews always talk about the fast pace of your plot--how do you keep control of that as you write? Does the pace change the characters and the decisions you have them make? Why is it important?
A: If your thriller is going to be thrilling, you have to develop a feel for pacing. I once saw a great quote from Elmore Leonard about pacing: “I tend to leave out the parts that people skip.” The wisdom in this statement is that pacing is in large part about self-editing, and self-editing means making tough decisions about what your reader wants and needs to know. I did a ton of research about Florida ’s aquifer for GOT THE LOOK. All of the information I uncovered was fascinating, but only a tiny fraction of it ended up in the novel. It’s a constant balancing act, trying to keep the story moving but at the same time providing enough details to make readers feel like they’ve been to the places described in your book and know the characters as well as their own friends.
Q: Jack's background is multi-cultural--Anglo and Cuban. With each book in the series Jack learns a bit more about his mother and her culture which his father and stepmother had hidden from him. It is an interesting choice to make about a character--to make his own history partially obscure to him. What impact has that had on how you write about him? How important is the issue of race and identity to Jack and to the way he sees the world he is in?
A: I’m not Cuban-American, but to a large extent I identify with Jack’s efforts to understand Cuban culture. I’ve had the same best friend since college, and he was born in Cuba . I first met my friend’s parents, Kiko and Amparo, in 1978, some seventeen years after they'd fled Castro’s Cuba . My Spanish was quite bad, and their English was even worse. I had never tasted black beans or plantains. I had no idea that the Cubans made better rice than the Chinese, or that a jolt of Cuban coffee was as much a part of mid-afternoon in Miami as thunderclouds over the Everglades . Whenever I visited Kiko and Amparo, I was welcome in their home, embraced by them, loved by them. By the time I graduated from college, they referred to me as their " otro hijo," their other son. In short, I was the gringo who suddenly found himself immersed in Cuban culture. I made Jack the same way, but I took it up a notch: Jack really is half Cuban, but he has no idea what it means to be Hispanic.
Q: California is identified with noir literature, and the South with a kind of gothic novel-- South Florida is as much a character in GOT THE LOOK as Jack and his best friend Theo--what kind of role does it play in the American imagination? What has its landscape and culture fed into your fiction?
A: Miami evokes all the right buzz words—smart and sexy, young and beautiful—but it also has a self-destructive quality that triggers the kind of fascination we have with a reckless youth. It is blessed with natural beauty, but it’s threatened by developers. It has the gift of cultural diversity, but is plagued by ethnic tension. Its nightlife is unrivaled, but the threat of violence is never far enough away. There’s glitz, there’s money, there’s the see-and-be-seen—and then there are neighborhoods that seem straight out of the third world. You often hear it said that truth is stranger than fiction, and nowhere is that more true than in south Florida . Where else could the United States Attorney lose his job after losing a big case, getting drunk, and biting a stripper? But it’s where I live, it’s where I practiced law, and it will always be so much more than just the backdrop for my novels.
Q: From Judge Judy to the legal cable shows--why are Americans hooked on witnessing the legal system? Do you think this is a new interest--has the average American's relationship to the system been changed in some way? What is it about the process that makes it a rich source of material for fiction?
A: I don’t mean to minimize the importance of what goes on in a courtroom, but people watch because it’s entertaining. The setting is theatrical. The drama is real. The mishaps and surprises can be both shocking and hilarious. A trial appeals to the voyeur in all of us, satisfying everything from our fascination with celebrities to our prurient interests in the bizarre and criminal. Courtrooms are windows into everything from the mind of a serial killer to your neighbor’s bedroom. Lawyers ask the most personal and probing questions imaginable, and sometimes people have to answer, for all the world to hear. None of this is particularly new—there have always been “trials of the century”—but I do think that interest has escalated in recent years, largely due to the ability of television to compress lengthy trials into entertaining snippets. It certainly makes my job as a writer more fun. The more sophisticated the audience , the more complex and multi-layered I can make the plot.
Q: How has the dozen years you spent as a trial lawyer changed the way you see the world? Has writing about it from the other side--creating criminals not just heroes--given you insight into the system you might not have had otherwise?
A: As a trial lawyer, you see the best and worst of people. You see victims of crimes who have the courage to come into a public courtroom, look their attacker in the eye, and work through the emotional pain of telling a jury exactly what happened. Just as courageous, you see third parties with no personal stake in the case come forward—sometimes at the risk of their employment or personal safety—simply to make sure that justice is done. So, in some sense I see the world as filled with unlikely heroes. On the other hand, you deal with the snakes who can’t give an honest answer to a simple question, who have to be tricked into telling the truth. You deal with some lawyers who think litigation is just a game and that the rules are for losers. As a writer, I now have the time to reflect on these things, so I would say it has given me more perspective than insight. After quitting the practice of law in 1996, I’ve recently gone back to it on a very limited basis—just enough to gain those insights that can’t be gained any other way than by doing it.