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JAMES W. HALL: ROUGH DRAFTS AND BODY LANGUAGE
By Scott Nicholson

James W. Hall has had two careers: the academic professional in the hallowed halls of teaching literary writing, and best-selling crime-thriller novelist. Hall has written ten crime novels set in Florida, many featuring his somewhat crusty but endearings series character Thorn. His latest is ROUGH DRAFT, featuring a crime writer and one of Hall’s typically-nasty villains.

Q: How did you make the transition from poet to mystery writer?

Hall: The life of a poet really looked interesting and colorful. So I did that for about fifteen years, getting published in magazines. I published four books of poetry, which was good, but it’s mainly useful in America for tenure. The sales for a book of poetry are usually so small that no one actually lives off their poetry.

I just thought it might be interesting to get paid to write, since it’s such hard work. I’ve always loved these kind of books. I read them on weekends, and little by little, as I was working on the first one, I realized how difficult it is to write something that has all the elements of a mainstream novel and also has of suspense.

It must be compelling and interesting. Every page along the way should pull it along. It’s a hard level to achieve. It was challenging to all my literary skills. I don’t miss writing poetry. I consider what I do now more difficult and flexes more muscles.

Q: How do you feel about such popular writers as Carl Hiassen and Elmore Leonard are praising your work?

Hall: I got to know them personally, and I appreciate it. Especially Elmore Leonard, who’s been tremendously generous over the years. He gave me a blurb for my first novel. In Carl’s case, it’s the same. He has a very wide readership.

Sometimes I suffer from being judged in the same way that Carl Hiassen is. I don’t write the same way he does. So it’s a tricky issue to be praised by someone, and fans of Carl Hiassen may come to my novel expecting the same things. There are some humorous things in my books, but it’s not the slapstick that Carl does.

So there’s a down side to who you’re praised by, but at the same time, it’s fun. It’s a blast getting to know these people who are my idols.

Q: Your new novel "Rough Draft" was sparked by an actual incident concerning one of your books?

Hall: I saw a copy of the first edition of my third book, and I was going to buy it because I didn’t have any. As I was taking it to the check-out, I noticed all these markings in the margins, just page after page after page. Somebody had just gone nuts with this book, or they already were nuts, and this is what they did.

I didn’t buy the book, I just left, the book gave me a strange feeling, like it was radioactive. I kept thinking about it afterwards, wondering how I could use that. So I spent a long time working out how this writer could use the markings to decode these messages that lead to the solution of a crime, in this case, the murder of her parents.

Q: You have a great sense of place in your novels. When you characters in Florida are out on the water or in nature, they are at peace and sane, but Florida’s civilization is insane.

Hall: That’s an interesting observation, because that is the way I feel. I think that’s true in general. Being in that urban, stressful, crazy world does push people over the edge. But nature is calm. Most of my books have that issue.

Q: What are you working on now?

Hall: I’m just about finished with a book called KILL SWITCH. I’ve done research on marlin fishing, about a fish who did this man wrong long ago. But it’s also got a high-tech terrorist weapon involved. I’ve spent a lot of time on boats, I’ve spent some time in the Bahamas researching there.

Thorn comes back, and meets up with a woman and her father. I’m going to stick with my franchise. I’ve been away for two books, so I decided it’s time to come back.

Q: What would be your advice for those interested in writing crime-thriller-suspense fiction?

Hall: The most important piece of advice I could give would be to take one book, not a bunch of books, of the type you want to do. Then study that book, analyze it, break it down chapter by chapter. From things as simple and stupid as "How many pages are in this chapter?" and "How many characters are in each chapter?" to how much setting, description, dialogue, and action.

And I’m going to take that architecture and insert my words and my action, at least until I get a sense of how this feels. I think it’s crucial to find a book you like, to steal from someone who’s successful, and then add your own self to it.

Q: What about the great Literary vrs. Genre Writer debate?

Hall: I used to worry about it, that "I used to be on the high road and now I’m on the low road, and this is all sort of shabby." But, you know, I’m writing the best damned book I can, whether it’s a genre book or a mainstream book. So is everybody else.

The reality is these books sell better than mainstream, so-called "literary" novels. I make a very good living writing these kinds of books, whereas the chance of my making the same standard of living writing mainstream books is not likely.

The main test is whether or not I’m having fun. This is extremely challenging and difficult. I’ve taught poetry for almost 30 years and been published in some good literary magazines, so if anybody has reason to be snobbish, it would be me. I certainly don’t feel like I’m doing something down the ladder. It’s not easy to write any kind of book.

Hall's other novels include Body Language, 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 www.jameswhall.com.

 -Copyright 2000 by Scott Nicholson

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