School of the Ages


author interview -- the well-travelled Nathaniel Dean James

Posted by Matt Posner on June 16, 2014 at 12:05 AM

Thriller author Nathaniel Dean James is relatively new to the book market, but he is far from new to life -- I enjoy talking to well-travelled people, and this gentleman and I have a lot of places in common to talk about. Oh -- and we talk about his book as well.

You were born in Cuckfield in the UK. Is Cuckfield more of a rural, small-town, or small-city type of environment? What is there to do there?

Although I was born there, I never actually lived there. I was two when we left England for Sweden. I have been back through once or twice since and can tell you in no uncertain terms that it's a village with no pretensions of anything more grand. I have it on good authority that the hospital itself is long gone. So to answer the question, the only thing I know from experience that you could do in Cuckfield is be born, and that now appears not to be an option either.

I recently got to visit Sweden for the first time, but didn’t make it to Stockholm (I was briefly in Malmo for a little sightseeing). What are your top five adjectives to describe life there?

Steady, cold, safe, expensive and beautiful. Although I was only ten or so when we upped stakes and headed out for Denmark, I have a lot of vivid memories of life in Sweden. We lived in a nondescript apartment block overlooking the water that surrounds much of the capital. We were what you might call Scandinavian poor, which is to say, wanting for no essentials, but enjoying few luxuries. I spent a lot of time wandering around the buildings of the old dynamite factory down by the water, oblivious to the irony that it once belonged to that champion of peace, Alfred Nobel, and pretending to by anyone but myself. I think the genus of my eventual drive to exercise my imagination on paper may well be hiding in the shadows of that dreary place. Sweden, like Scandinavia in general, is a paradox of that dull sense of security that often defines life in a super-taxed welfare society. That said, it's a largely uninhabited and very beautiful country and my fondest memories are of flying across its great expanse of lakes and woodland with my grandfather, who was a pilot well into his seventies. 

Let’s talk Copenhagen a little bit. Tivoli Gardens, three gorgeous palaces, overpriced food, everyone tremendously fit and happy – what did I miss?

Again, I was very young and we weren't there for long. My mother, by the sheer accident of fate, now lives in Copenhagen again. We recently traveled there with the kids and visited Tivoli. You're not wrong about the food, it's borderline fraud. I have read somewhere that Denmark is one of the happiest places in the world. I don't know what statistic model was employed to reach this conclusion, but I think it's safe to say that it probably makes a lot of assumptions that don't quite pan out in the real world. It certainly isn't a conclusion you would reach by general observation.

I’m originally a Floridian and have been to Clearwater and found it pretty much a snooze. How’d you keep busy there?

Well, Clearwater is where I grew up and I've always thought of it that way. For most of my time there I was in an after-school program that put on all kinds of activities, from sailing to trips to the parks in Orlando and down to the Everglades, and much more. We raised all the money for this ourselves, selling cookies, local newspapers, and even collecting cans, which I think brought in a nickel a piece back then, or it might even have been a dime. The town (city?) itself is quite a slow going place, but I can't say I had all that much time back then to notice. But I've been back a few times since, and no, it's no carnival.

You were in Mexico City at a particularly bad time in its history, but just overall, what are the ups and downs of life there? Did you have to make a lot of paradigm shifts compared to growing up in the UK?

We were there for just over six months. Setting aside the devastation - the city was practically in ruins -  what really caught me out was the disparity between the US and its southern neighbor. It took me a while to get used to the heavily armed police positioned on every street corner, and the disproportionate number of VW Beetles. I've since learned that these were made in Brasil, where they continued to manufacture them long after the Germans had moved on. However, all of this was overshadowed by the seminal event of our stay. I walked in to a toy shop one day, and on a dusty display rack somewhere at the back of the store I found an original Snake Eyes, a G.I Joe action figure long since discontinued in the US and practically a legend by then. I think it was going for around fifty cents.  

You didn’t go to high school, but you attended Cambridge. That must have involved some culture shock, or something. Talk about it a little.

Let me clarify. I didn't actually attend Cambridge, but an affiliate of the university who certified graduates in their name, so to speak. That said, it took some doing - some innovation with the truth - to get on board. Everyone else on the course had degrees from this and that school. At the risk of sounding immodest, I'd read a lot by then and had little trouble passing myself of as a member of the club. The truth is, the cliches about college degrees and higher education in general are, like most cliches, based in truth. I'm not saying that people who attend college are necessarily wasting their time. Had things been different, I'm sure I would have done it myself. But it's no "be all and end all". Life, experience, independent study; these things can emulate much of what goes on in the halls of higher learning.

Your first novel, Origin (U.S. link), is about a government assassin who develops a conscience. Knowing this, I have a few questions related to writing that type of book.

To what extent would you call the book (U.K. link) realistic and to what extent fantastic? Do you think professional assassins exist in real life the way they do in fiction?

Well, there were several hundred attempts made on the life of Fidel Castro during his time in power, most of them sponsored directly or indirectly by organs and affiliates of the US government. And that's just one man. I'm inclined to believe that for the most part people hired to kill are neither as professional nor as resourceful as most of the assassins featured in popular fiction,my own included. But that such people exist I have no doubt. That said, my book isn't really about the protagonist, if that makes sense. It's about something far larger in scope, and more sinister. I guess you could say I use him to introduce the reader to the bigger picture by having him stumble face-first into it. We basically have a guy who's just come to terms with having worked for the armed wing of the Whitehouse, so to speak. He spends two years planning an audacious rouse to deep-six the entire damn thing only to find tone the goal posts had been moved. Consequently, he kicks the proverbial ball straight into the back of his own net and the world is suddenly a far more confusing and dangerous place.

As for realism, it's a very apt question. The central premise of the book - the whole series in fact- is a fantastic one. Nevertheless, I found myself going to considerable lengths to make it as plausible as I could. My efforts got quite surreal at one point. In a nutshell, the idea for this whole project was born of a daydream in which I found myself pontificating on the hypothetical existence of something way out there in the depths of space. I started sending emails at one point to various people at NASA trying to figure out if my idea was even remotely plausible. I didn't expect anyone to reply, but one day I got an email from an engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Institute. What ensued was a lengthy and bizarre exchange in which we effectively worked out how and by what means my imaginary object might be spotted and identified. I say, we worked out: he worked it out and I made notes. 

The real departure from convention in this story lies in the fact that the people who end up getting their hands on the golden goose have no government or national affiliations. This was important because it allowed me to exorcise a popular cliche from the equation, but it also presented a problem because in order to do anything but gloat they were going to need some serious financial backing. I'm as skeptical of employing the deus ex machina as the next man, but I can live with the gods whispering in the ears of mortals every now and then, provided it isn't a blatant and desperate attempt to circumvent a disaster of the author's own making. I think it worked. I hope it did.   


The idea of a former killer who has developed a conscience has become iconic in popular entertainment. Why do you think this type of story – a violent person redeemed by turning violence against the bad guys -- resonates with both creators and audiences?

I think the idea that people are capable of turning themselves around resonates in the popular imagination. You often hear it said that there are really only a few essential "stories" one can write, and that what we do as authors is pick one or more of these and tell them again. If so, the "coming of age" or the "birth of conscience" story is probably one of these. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as an evil person by design or birth. People fall from grace by any of a thousand means and the descent into moral decline can easily become a self-perpetuating spiral under the right circumstances. In an unconscious attempt at justification one ill deed often begets another, and then another, until a person loses all sense of perspective. Killing is no different. When a person finds the strength to extricate himself from this vicious cycle and seeks to redeem himself we all feel a little bit better about the world, even if it's not real. And because most of us live in a society where you rarely get to take an eye when you lose one, watching someone else do it can be liberating. It let's you blow a little steam, so to speak.

Reflect upon these popular thriller characters and series in any way that illuminates your ideas about characters and storytelling:  Jason Bourne; Lizbeth Salander; Jack Reacher; Jack Bauer; Lincoln Rhyme. 

I'm a big fan of Robert Ludlum, god rest his soul. Jason Bourne is the quintessential bad ass. When I saw your list the first thing I wondered was how long it would take him to kill the rest of them. No, I'm kidding. Francis Moore,  my own one-time hitman, was definitely influenced by Ludlum's character, minus the amnesia.

I'm also a fan of Stieg Larsson, both the man and the writer. His death was a real tragedy. I recently read that his estate ended up in the hands of his estranged father and brother because he never married his girlfriend in order to protect his identity as a journalist. Not cool. As for Lizbeth - that was my grandmother's name - I think she's a breath of fresh air. I read the original books, although not in Swedish because that would have taken too long. I also saw the Swedish TV production which was right on the money. Why Hollywood thought it could do one better I'll never know, but their attempt was a dog's breakfast by comparison. It's just a shame Larsson never had a chance to witness the amazing success of his novels.

I'm not a big fan of Lee Child, although I certainly admire his success. My father-in-law is a Reacher fan of the hard-core variety, but all his efforts to bring me around have thus far failed. As for Jack Bauer, I must confess, I've never watched a single episode of 24 and don't think I ever will.  I hadn't heard of Jeffery Deaver's books until now, but I'm going to make a point of getting one of his books and giving it a shot.

Characters make a book, no doubt about it. In my view breathing life into a character is one of the most vital disciplines of fiction. I would break this art down into: mannerisms, reaction and dialogue. The physical description of a person is not hugely important. You give the reader a few pointers and let them paint the person for themselves. Most readers will end up doing this anyway. But to really animate a character you have to make them sequitur, you have to imbue them with a persona and bring these things in line with it or you end up making a monster instead. As a reader, you've lost me the moment one of the members of your literary entourage opens their mouth and says, "I brought the drugs, now where's my suitcase full of money", or gets a hard on brushing their teeth. Okay, maybe a case could be made for the latter under the right circumstances, but you know what I mean.

Let's talk about the state of publishing today. Some have been predicting the situation is dire for authors as Amazon is in the process of seizing control of the industry from the Big Five publishers. These pundits predict that when the Big Five are beaten, the 'Zon will strip indie authors of their present commercial position. I acknowledge this to be a realistic fear, but I am pretty deeply in Amazon's camp, because without Amazon, I would not be in the marketplace at all. I am of the view that traditional publishing in the early 21st century, before Kindle Digital Publishing, had become a narrow, bestseller-driven, winner-take-all affair. So maybe the self-publishing author has no allies? You are shrewd and well-travelled, so what do you see as the near future and long-term potential of our business?

I agree, the future is anything but certain. The timeworn adage about power breeding corruption is an apt one. Put a man in a position where what might have been a forgivable oversight yesterday is amplified by influence into a virtual if not literal crime, and the spiral is a short and violent one. I remember watching the election of the new millennium gods in Silicon Valley and wondering how long it would take them to fall prey to history. I recently read an article chronicling the rise of Jeff Bezos and his garage start-up. Talk about the road to hell being paved with egalitarian sentiment, he's got all the makings of a bona fide monster in the pipeline, doesn't he? In the other corner, as you rightly point out, sits the ancient temple on the hill, just as formidable, and perhaps more so now that its divine right to grant immortality to the chosen few is under siege. It's all but impossible to find a morally palatable affinity for either camp, but like yourself, my dog is in the Amazon hunt. I guess as an author I'm hoping to reach cruising altitude before the storm breaks. But as a member of the Indie movement I'm inclined to believe that our only real chance at fair play in the long run will lie the our ability to present a united front. In what form? I don't really know. It's a bitch kitty isn't it? Even if we mustered the fortitude and willpower to put enough people in one room and get them all signing the same tune, how long would it take an organization like that to morph into the next big problem. Maybe you and I should follow in the footsteps of Shawn Fanning and start Bookster, the world's largest collection of free pirated eBooks. It would certainly make things a bit more interesting. No but seriously, my gut says the way forward for Indie authors of the future is going to lie in cultivating and managing their own audience. That's already happening now, of course, but it may become more important, especially if the middleman starts squeezing you out. At least until Amazon start encoding their eBooks to stop people from loading un-purchased material onto their apps and devices.

I'm not in favor of DRM. I used it at first, but I soon realized, from the lesson of the music industry, that it doesn't help and just drives away customers. People who pirate wouldn't buy anyway. But please continue your remarks.

I don't know exactly how all this is going to go down, but no matter what happens, I think we Indie authors are going to have to get smarter. Maybe that's the silver lining. There are a lot of serious and dedicated writers on the Indie scene, writers who put in the hours and do it right. But there are also a lot of people hanging around the clubhouse whose attitude and approach is less than admirable. If the events unfolding now turn into a wake-up call to us all to get our house in order, so much the better. Time will tell.  


Important, but solemn words we exchanged there. Let's lighten the mood:  can you tell a funny story from your personal experience.

A funny story? Well, it wasn't very funny in living color,  but I once hitchhiked from Vienna to Venice. I was drinking in a bar in Budapest with a buddy of mine, as you do, and we took things a little further than was perhaps prudent. we decided to up stakes and go somewhere and Venice seemed as good a place as any. I don't remember if either of us had anywhere we needed to be, but by this time it didn't matter. Somehow we reached the train station - I seem to recall pulling open the side door on a cargo wagon at some point and watching with stupid wonder as several tonnes of coal poured out onto the tracks - and we used his parents credit card to buy to tickets to Vienna. It's a short trip and we hadn't come even close to sobering up by the time we arrived so we found the motorway and began to hitch. You wouldn't think so, but Austria is hitchhiker heaven. I don't think we ever waited more than half an hour for a ride. At one point a woman with two children in the car picked us up. I remember telling her as we got out that as grateful as we were, she shouldn't ever do that again. The good times ground to a halt when we crossed the border into Italy. Not only do Italians not stop for hitchhikers - we were actually warned about this by a German couple who dropped us off at Trieste - but within fifteen minutes the carabinieri had kicked us off the highway into an open field in the middle of nowhere and told us we would be arrested if we didn't stay off the road. I met a platoon of them in Sarajevo a few years later - by this time I was a military policeman myself - and complained about the incident to no avail. Anyway, we ended up walking for a whole day and I had a really bad case of the shits because we'd stopped in an orchard on the way and eaten our fill of unripe apples. We finally reached a train station and made our way to Venice by rail. When we arrived the first thing we did was buy two bottles of cheap tequila and drink ourselves into a stupor. I woke up in a hospital the following day with a headache so bad I think I begged the doctor on call to have mercy and kill me.  Of my friend there was no sign so I spent a week exploring Venice as an honorary member of the local homeless community, went to few parties and lived on water and cigarettes until I ran out of willpower, found the nearest American Express office and begged my parents to buy me a ticket home. it was an experience, but I don't recommend it. 

Tell an interesting story from your writing life.

My first attempt at fiction was a short story called Hurricanes and Butterflies. It was about a troubled plumber living in Vegas who develops an unhealthy obsession with a Hispanic hotel cleaner at the Golden Nugget. When he finally musters the courage to make an advance, her sharp rejection sends him into a psychotic spiral that culminates in his determination to kill someone. The girl is gone by then so he spies out an alternative, a woman of similar ethnic origin and build who he spots several times out on a run. To cut a long story short, he kidnaps her one evening and drives her out into the desert. Only when he unties and tries to rape her she beats the loving shit out of him and leaves him there to die. The story ends with the woman driving his van pack into the city and passing a billboard featuring a picture of herself standing in a boxing ring, gloves raised and teeth barred, because she's in town to defend the her title as the female middleweight champion of the world.

I suppose the idea wasn't all that bad, but the writing was a total mess. I wrote a lot of stories like that, stuff I would never show anyone, before I eventuality decided I'd spent enough time in boot camp to give it a real shot. Something a lot of Indie writers these days don't seem to have any time for.

Tell an interesting story from your non-writing life.

Well, I almost got killed once by a black bear. Is that interesting? When I lived out in Palmdale in California, we used to go camping up in the Sierra Nevada. On one of these trips I went with a friend of mine and his dad and we spent a few days on the trails. when we got back to the jump-off point our ride was nowhere to be seen so I volunteered to stay behind while they headed down the mountain to make a call. When they weren't back by nightfall I headed back up the trail to the nearest camp site and bedded down for the night. I woke up several hours later in pitch darkness to find a bear cub standing next to my sleeping bag. In that moment I failed completely to make any connection between the cub and the likelihood that it wasn't alone. By the time the pieces came together it was too late. I couldn't see the mother but I could hear her easily enough. I remember grabbing the .357 magnum inside the sleeping bag and setting off stark naked to meet my destiny. I don't know how long I ran for, but it was quite a distance, and by the time I stopped I had lost all sense of direction. I must have made quite the spectacle standing there in my birthday suit with a giant revolver in one hand and my wedding tackle in the other. Luckily the sun crested the horizon before I had a chance to freeze to death and I found my way back without being spotted. There's a lot to be said for the great outdoors, but you're always taking a gamble when you leave civilization behind and make for the mountain.

Thanks for a long and enjoyable talk. Keep those books coming, and be sure to visit here again when your series continues.

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