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James W. Hall: Fishing For Clues
By Scott Nicholson

James W. Hall is a creature of the sea at heart, setting most of his best-selling mystery-thriller novels in South Florida. But he's also found a second home in the North Carolina mountains, and time will tell of some of the rocks, rivers, and trees make it into his work. Either way, readers can be assured that Hall will keep them up nights through his books.

Hall followed an unusual career path for a genre writer. He had published four books of poetry over fifteen years and taught Creative Writing classes for Florida International University. Rarely do the academic and mainstream fiction realms overlap, but for Hall, the career shift was both an evolution and a revelation.

"I'd been trying to write a serious literary novel, something like the novels I taught during the year at the university," Hall says. He wrote four failed novels that he calls his "apprenticeship," but stuck with it. "I reached the point where I thought, 'I can't write a serious literary novel, so I think I'll write the kind of novel that I secretly and sinfully read on the weekends,' the sort of crime-mystery-thriller novel that I'd read since I was a kid, starting with Hardee Boys."

That led to his first novel in 1987, Under Cover of Daylight, and introduced the character of Thorn, who has since made appearances in several of Hall's books. Thorn is a tough loner, based on the real people that Hall observed while pursuing his hobby of fishing in the Florida Keys. Hall describes Thorn as "who I'd be if I didn't write books for a living."

Hall doesn't quibble with whether his novels fall into the categories of mystery, thriller, or suspense. "Labels are more useful for booksellers than they are for writers," he says. "I'm trying to write an exciting story that also has some meat and meaning." Hall combines his literary background with his love of such mystery writers as Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, and Dashiell Hammett.

Hall also has a unique perspective on what many people characterize as "evil," making his villains interesting and even sympathetic. "They're certainly more fun to write," he says. "They take you to places that are a little scarier and more unknown. Where the good guys come from is the conventional reality that we know so well. We all want peace and order and justice, but it's those people who are extreme and wild and don't play by the rules that keep things interesting. We don't like them, and we don't want to be around them. They create a lot of pain and terror in the world, but they do keep the world interesting. They keep the pot boiling."

He also sees a little of that "bad guy" when he looks in the mirror. "It scares me how easily these people's voices come to me," he says. "It's a little creepy. Others, like my mother, are a little worried about how easy it is for me to create these creepy bad guys."

While Hall has brought Thorn back for sequels due to the character's popularity, he is careful to not fall into the lull of grinding out books to fit a formula. "The books that I do largely have to do with the past, and the way that the past has an impact on people's lives currently," he says. "Once you've done Thorn's past once, it's hard to go back and do it over."

Much of his work is set in Florida, but he took a trip to Borneo and Singapore several years ago and used the research in his novel Gone Wild. He usually returns to Florida, though, as much for the scenery as for his beloved snapper: "It's a beautiful, strange, and wonderful place. One of the characters that I come back to over and over again is the place itself."

Hall's latest novel is Body Language. He just completed Rough Draft, which will be out in January, and is thinking about his next novel. "Right now, what I want to do is enjoy North Carolina and take a break," he says. "Long-term, I'd like to keep doing this as long as possible. The books are very fun to write. I've got to find a way to write them and have a little more fun, because they're a lot of work to write."

Hall's other novels include Red Sky At Night, Buzz Cut, Mean High Tide, Hard Aground, Bones of Coral, and Tropical Freeze. For more on the author, visit his site at

 -Copyright 1999 by Scott Nicholson


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