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Julie James

Julie James and the Art of Interviewing

Julie James and the Art of Interviewing

I saw Julie James make a reference to interviewing different individuals for her books. It struck me as something I hadn’t heard of before even though I am sure that other authors have undertaken this task.  You often see thanks to various individuals in the acknowledgments but I’ve never seen any one write about the interview process.  Often readers forget that no matter what the genre is research is an important component of writing. I asked Julie James if she would write an article about her interviews and she agreed. You can find out more about Julie James books at her website: http://juliejames.com/


I remember being asked, after the release of my first two books, if it was fun to write about lawyers since I am a lawyer.  In both of those books, the main characters were civil litigators at large firms, just as I had been.  And in response to that question, I used to say, rather enthusiastically, “Yes! Because it means I don’t have to do any research!”

Well, that couldn’t last forever.

Julie_JamesWith my third book, Something About You, I decided to branch out into the world of criminal law.  The book features a heroine who is an Assistant U.S. Attorney and a hero who’s an FBI agent.  When it came time to write the first scene at the heroine’s workplace, I realized that I was kind of . . . well, faking it.  In law school, I’d taken several criminal law/procedure courses, and afterward I’d clerked for a federal appellate judge, so I was familiar with the types of cases federal prosecutors handled.  But I didn’t know the daily minutiae of that world as well as I had known the law firm environment depicted in my prior two books.

Luckily, a law school friend of mine is an Assistant U.S. Attorney, so I asked if I could interview him for the book.  I think he’d braced himself for some sort of in-depth, investigative journalist-type interview, but instead I asked him questions like: “How many other lawyers do you share a secretary with?” and “When you meet with FBI agents, do you go to their office, or do they come to yours?”  It was the little details I was after, those things that would make the scenes in my book feel more authentic.

On top of adding authenticity, I’ve found that doing interviews can inspire new ideas.  For example, in A Lot Like Love, the heroine owns a wine store, so I asked the owner of my local wine shop if I could interview her and shadow her for a day.  In addition to becoming more familiar with her daily routine and picking up great anecdotes, I learned that the store had a panic button underneath the main bar that connects directly to the police department—a detail I used in the climax of the book.

To date, the most substantial research I’ve done for a book was for my current release, About That Night.  This is my third book set in the world of the Chicago FBI and U.S. Attorney offices, and when plotting the story it occurred to me how helpful it would be if I could actually see the offices I was writing about.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know any FBI agents.  So instead, I simply looked up the phone number for the Chicago field office and cold-called the Special Agent who handles media inquiries.  I explained that I was a local author writing a series about Chicago FBI agents and asked if I could have a tour of the office.  Of course, I fully expected him to say no, but figured there was no harm in asking.

He said yes.

Actually, his exact response was, “Sure! When do you want to come in?”

Emboldened after that, I called the Chicago U.S. Attorney’s office and asked if I could take a tour of their offices, too.  The media rep there was more cautious at first, and asked several questions about what I wrote and what kind of information I was looking for, but in the end he very kindly agreed to give me a tour as well.

About That Night by Julie JamesNow, this is the part where I could spend a long, long time talking about how incredibly gracious both the FBI and U.S. Attorney media representatives were during those tours—I saw the command room, toured a bank robbery floor, had an interview with the First Assistant U.S. Attorney (the second in command at the office), toured press rooms, met with division heads, and filled an entire notebook with everything I learned—but since this article is not titled “Julie James’s Ode to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Offices—aka ‘It’s an Interview Room, Not an Interrogation Room,’” I’ll simply say this instead:

None of it would’ve happened if I hadn’t asked.

Just recently, for the book I’m currently writing, I interviewed the former General Counsel (now CEO) of a major restaurant/sports & entertainment corporation.  I’d known that I was aiming high with that request, but figured, heck, it couldn’t hurt to ask.  After all, the worst someone can tell you is no.

And shockingly, they might actually say yes.

I’ve refined my interview technique, and now I ask about more than just the environmental details. The heroine in About That Night is another Assistant U.S. Attorney, and since being a federal prosecutor is such a large part of who she is, I wanted to really get to know her world.  So, I re-interviewed my AUSA friend, and also interviewed another AUSA who used to work at my former law firm.  This time, I asked questions like, “What’s a really bad day for you?” “What’s a good day?” “What’s the moment in your career that you’re most proud of?” “What are some of the most memorable cases you’ve worked on?”  I’d like to think that having a better understanding of my character’s environment, goals, and ambitions makes the world that I’ve created in the book seem all that more real.

Bottom line: no one will ever criticize your writing for getting something “too right.” Talking to someone who’s walked in the shoes of your characters can provide you with a wealth of information that will make your story that much richer.  Generally speaking, I’ve found that people like talking to authors.  And if they don’t?

The worst they can say is no.

What Jennie’s Been Reading

What Jennie’s Been Reading

Since last I wrote, I read and reviewed Patricia Gaffney’s Crooked Hearts. Here’s what else I’ve been reading:

The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852  by Ciarán Ó Murchadha: Because apparently one book about innocent people starving to death just wasn’t enough for me. Actually, it wasn’t until I started this book that I realized I had inadvertently grabbed it just after finishing the book on the Siege of Leningrad. This is a well-written book, but too dry and scholarly for me. There are some human moments and personal anecdotes, but they are a bit too few and far between. At the same time some of the details are powerful enough that as a reader I was appalled at the neglect and cruelty forced upon the victims of the famine. The logic of the powers in England is a thing to behold, as when reports that potato crops would fail for a second year in a row prompted closure of relief measures, to avoid the poor becoming too “dependent” on aid. (Not a problem once they are dead of starvation or disease!) I saw some disturbing parallels between the callous attitudes shown by the privileged class in 19th century Britain and similar attitudes found in some quarters in the United States today.

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At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran: I have really liked every Duran book I’ve read, and this was no exception. At the same time I think maybe it was…slightly forgettable? I don’t know; somehow I just feel like it hasn’t stayed with me the way a really good book should. But sometimes that has more to do with my mood or what’s going on in my life at the time I read a book. Anyway, I should be doing a review of this; maybe I’ll resolve my feelings about it through that.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: I wasn’t sure I would be interested in this book, Pulitzer Prize or no. It looked like it might be either too women’s fiction-y for me or too literary fiction-y for me. But my sister read it and liked it, and so I gave it a try. Set in small-town Maine, it’s not so much a novel as a collection of stories. Olive Kitteridge appears either as the main character or a minor character in all of them. Olive, a retired school teacher who is large, terse and often unlikeable, anchors the stories and serves as a sort of anchor in the community as well. Over the course of the book, I came to find her strangely loveable even when she wasn’t likeable. The other characters are interesting as well, usually in a quiet way – Strout’s strength is in insightful characterization, not flashy prose or plotting. I ended up liking this quite a bit.

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Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers: I grabbed this one on a whim; the elements that aren’t my usual cup of tea were made up for by elements that intrigued me. This is an alternate-history/fantasy hybrid featuring a heroine who is a sort of handmaiden/assassin for the saint of death (!). I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and it’s pretty good, though there’s a slight lack of sophistication to the writing that may be due to the fact that it’s at least nominally a YA book. Also, I would like to see the heroine become a bit more kickass. I plan to review this.

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Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte: I believe this was recommended to me in the comments after my review of the clusterfuck of insanity that was Wuthering Heights. Agnes Grey could not be more different. I’m about halfway through it, and so far it’s a very quiet tale about a young woman who leaves her family to work as a governess, which turns out to be a largely thankless task, at least in the case of the two families she ends up working for. Agnes has some interesting observations about human nature, though she’s occasionally a bit superior and even martryish in her detailing of how very mean everyone is to her. But she’s the classic sensible 19th century heroine: kind, down to earth, humble and devout. So far not a lot has happened, though the much-telegraphed romance between Agnes and a country pastor seems like it’s just about to get off the ground, if the two of them would stop acting like 7th graders at their first dance and actually talk to each other. So far, so good.

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: It was the miniseries of this book that got me started as an Elizabeth Gaskell fan; I went on to watch and enjoy the miniseries of her Cranford and eventually the book version of that story. I’m finally getting around the reading this one, and I’m glad I started it. North and South is a more serious and complex than Cranford, but I’m enjoying it so far, and especially like the ambiguity of the characterizations (I’ve mentioned it before but somehow I’m always surprised when pre-modern novels have characters that aren’t black-and-white).

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A Tryst with Trouble by Alyssa Everett: I have a review of this that should run closer to the release date. I’ll just say this: meh.

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Her Husband’s Harlot by Grace Callaway: I actually bought this after reading Dabney’s review. It had its moments (the sex scenes were quite hot) but overall I thought it was pretty mediocre.

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About that Night by Julie James: I’m not a big reader of contemps, and this is only the second book I’ve read from this author (the other was the related Something About You). I kind of just fell into reading this; I opened it up and then couldn’t quite put it down. That sounds like a strong recommendation, but it’s probably just a reflection of the fact that I find contemporaries the most readable of romances; it’s pretty easy for me to fall into reading one. It’s a decent enough read but I’m not sure I understand the fuss about this author. But again, not a big reader of contemporaries, and I find that what makes them readable also makes them a bit forgettable and interchangeable, at least for me.

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Wow, that was a lot of books! I should do these more often.

Until next time,

Jennie