Robert James is a high school English teacher and author. Since childhood, he has been fascinated by tales of the macabre and fantastic, stories that shine a light where we are afraid to look. For him, stories are about character – characters we love or hate – and their travails through the extraordinary, the harrowing. A story is at its best when it reveals how an ordinary person deals with something inexplicable, and the journey to enlightenment or madness that follows. “In Dark Places” marks his Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths first commercially published short story, but he has been writing most of his life. For him, a good story is one that snatches you away for a time. It might scare you, might challenge you, but it always returns you home safe, likely sound, and certainly entertained. He was educated at Seton Hall University, where he received a Master’s Degree in English, and has been a teacher since 2011. He is currently working on a novel that twists the classic ghost story, but that is just one manuscript in his desk, waiting, brooding. His stories range from the hellscapes of horror to the dreamscapes of fantasy. He lives in Bayonne, NJ with his wife, Danielle. You can learn more about Robert James, his storytelling endeavors, and what he’s currently reading at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertJ.
Featured Author: Robert James Interview
LHP: How long have you been writing?
Robert James: I’ve been writing since I was ten years old. At first I wrote stories to extend whatever fun, imaginative thing I was doing at the time or to emulate authors I was reading. In high school, writing became a welcomed outlet to that unavoidable and much-storied teenage angst we all experience. It wasn’t until late in my undergraduate career that I dared to write a full-length novel. The piece was rough-edged, somewhat pedestrian, and entirely unmarketable (it was about vampires), but it was a finished work and it was mine. What I took away from that experience was an understanding that I could do this, I could be a writer, and, more importantly, I wanted to be a writer.
LHP: What/who inspired you to be a writer?
Robert James: At ten years old, I was playing with some of my toys—I’d built an entire imaginary world for some action figures and was in the process of letting a rather melodramatic plot unfold—my mother stopped in my room (or maybe she’d been standing in the doorway listening; I can’t be certain) and said, “You’re pretty good at creating these stories. You should try to write them down.” Write? I thought. For fun? The idea was so novel I decided to give it a try. Several months later, I had three marble notebooks filled with my close, childish penmanship, the days marked by changes in paragraph color—lead, blue, black, red. These stories were not the first etchings of some child prodigy. They were doors. My mom had opened a new avenue within my mind, and I’ve been walking those streets, cutting through back alleys, and meandering along untrodden paths ever since.
LHP: What genre do you prefer to write in?
Robert James: I’ve always had an affinity for horror. As a kid, I was an avid fan of the Goosebumps book series, but it was twenty years ago, when my parents bought me Carrie for Christmas (a questionable choice considering I had a terrible fear of the dark), that I became a fanatic. But I also enjoy fantasy. Currently, I have my first book in a dark fantasy series that needs to go through the final revision process.
LHP: Describe your writing process. What comes first–character or plot? Do you “pants” it or outline?
Robert James: I never outline. For me, stories are born out of hypotheticals. I think up a scenario and then I wonder how a person, a character, might react to or within that situation. This mental exercise doesn’t go very far before I sit down and start writing, watching my characters develop and reacting to the choices they make. I like to pretend I’m telling myself the story first, and to outline the entirety of it would spoil the surprises. I hate spoilers. Once the entire story has been completed, I allow myself to go back and look at what needs to be fixed, expanded, or reworked, and I repeat this process several times.
LHP: What is your daily/weekly routine as a writer.
Robert James: When I’m writing, I invest myself entirely into moving the story forward. After my day job, I sit down at my laptop, read the last few lines I wrote the day before, and plough ahead. The fear, I think, for most writers is that the story will stagnate. There is this constant compulsion to maintain a productive pace, to stay ahead of that pitiless and unrelenting killer of stories: doubt.
LHP: Are there any software tools, resources, or websites you use often while writing?
Robert James: I favor Apple’s Pages software primarily for the clean user interface, but most publishers and agents prefer Microsoft Word. Concerning resources and websites, the Internet is a powerful tool, but it’s also a powerful distraction. I can’t count the number of times I’ve navigated to Wikipedia to conduct a quick search of some historical fact only to find myself reading about indigenous birds of New Jersey, the Manhattan Project, or medieval torture methods. Still, Wikipedia is an underrated tool—not for its content but for the external sources it provides.
LHP: What are some of your biggest challenges you feel like you have to overcome in your writing career?
Robert James: The greatest challenge is getting noticed, convincing an agent or publisher to take a chance on an unestablished writer. The writing market is more competitive than ever, and there are fewer and fewer publications willing to hedge their bets on unknown writers. So, I am very grateful that Left Hand Publishers saw fit to publish my story in their anthology, Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths Vol. 1.
LHP: Do you have a set number of words per day you target? or do you set other goals to meet?
Robert James: When I’m working on a novel or short story, I always have the standing goal of two thousand words per day. On days when I’m deeply immersed in the writing, when the hammer’s hitting its mark over and over, I fly past that target in a couple of hours and land somewhere around ten thousand. But under no circumstances do I allow myself to fall short of that initial goal.
LHP: How much time is spent on “the business of writing”—queries, seeking an agent or publisher, marketing/sales?
Robert James: When it comes to the business aspect, I feel like a peewee quarterback trying to get drafted by the New York Giants. It’s the one area of my writing career where I’m still unsure and a little intimidated. But I continue to do my due diligence: building up a social network platform, learning the nuances of querying publishers and agents, understanding the ebb and flow of the market. Simply put, I dedicate time every day to the business—an hour or so—and reserve the rest of the time for creating new stories or editing finished ones.
LHP: Do you prefer short stories or full length novels in your writing?
Robert James: I prefer writing novels, but I deeply enjoy the challenge of a short story. A novel is a journey; a short story is a jaunt. With novels, a writer has room to roam, to ruminate, and readers anticipate this fact; they’re wayfarers primed for a hike and all the peaks and valleys therein. A short story, on the other hand, is a red-eye flight (or maybe it’s the in-flight movie), and it takes a different skill set to create an immersive story that draws readers in and convinces them that their time was well spent.
LHP: Can you give some us some insight into your story, “In Dark Places” in Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths Vol.1?
Robert James: I wrote the story in June as a warm up for the novel I’d planned to work on over the summer. As I continued writing, though, I found that I was touching on something at once intriguing and terrible—a question: Do we ever really know the people with whom we share our lives? I was afraid of what the answer might be, and that fear proved the story was more than a mere “warm up.” It was something relevant, something powerful. I hope readers are as equally disturbed and fascinated by “In Dark Places” as I was.
LHP: What advice can you give other writers?
Robert James: I can answer this question by rote, because I’ve heard other writers answer the same question a thousand times. If you truly love writing, if you can’t imagine your life without it, then never stop doing it. Clichéd, yes, but I’ll add this: Don’t wait. Put your pen to paper or fingers to keyboard just as soon as you can, because waiting allows doubt, that detestable killer of stories, to enter your head. If you have an idea for a story, a screenplay, a poem, an op-ed piece, a classified ad, a grocery list—write it. Write it and share it with the world, because there’s no image more tragic than a writing desk stuffed with stories that no one has ever read.
Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths Vol.1
Robert James: recently authored “In Dark Places” for Beautiful Lies Painful Truths, going on sale in November 2017.