# Please introduce yourself and your book!
I am former fighter and stealth bomber pilot who was blessed with the opportunity to work some interesting, classified assignments outside the flight deck. While I can’t write about those experiences, the relevant program security offices allowed me to write fiction in the form of military and spy thrillers. My stories, like The Paris Betrayal and the Clandestine Service series with Talia Inger, push the boundaries of technology and take the readers into the minds of covert operatives and their teams.
# What is the real-life story behind your book?
The Paris Betrayal is special to me, because I drew heavily from my own mentors, experience, and training. Ben Calix is a spy cast out into the cold, forced to survive on his wits and limited contacts. By presenting Ben with that challenge, I challenged myself as a writer and as a tactician. Let’s be clear—I’m not a spy. But I worked with and learned from some . . . interesting folks and units over the years. They taught me a lot. Through Ben, I poured out several lessons in tradecraft and survival for the readers. I’ve received letters asking, “Are you sure none of this is classified?” Yes, I’m sure. You won’t be arrested for reading The Paris Betrayal.
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
When students ask me this question, I tell them creativity needs fuel. You have two tanks: Knowledge and Experience. Work hard to keep them both filled up if you want to be ready when inspiration strikes. I think many people get inspired, but few take that inspiration somewhere. Those who let inspired ideas fall by the wayside do so because they didn’t have the fuel in their Knowledge and Experience tanks to power that inspiration forward in the creative process.
I have tons of knowledge and experience to help me write in the military and spy thriller genre. But I keep filling those tanks when I can. Experience requires travel and taking on challenges that push me outside my comfort zone. Knowledge is easier. There are so many resources available. For instance, if you want to stay current on the latest technology trends with military applications, follow DARPA’s social media feeds and get the DoD contracts newsletter.
# How do you deal with creative block?
I walk. It’s that simple. When I’m blocked, I stop what I’m doing and go for a long walk. I’m eleven books into my career, and walking hasn’t failed me yet.
# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
The biggest mistake I see from young writers is ignoring the beats of a story that connect with all of us. The Hero’s Journey exists for a reason (along with other similar constructs). Those beats are part of who we are, and consequently they find their way into our stories no matter where we are or where we come from. Knowing those beats on a deeper level enables an author to connect with readers. Ignoring those beats will leave you with a story that feels off or flat. Don’t use them as a formula (that’s the other big mistake), but understand them and how they relate to your story. Otherwise, you’re working against yourself.
# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
My publishers always choose my titles and covers. I give input, but the marketing folks get the final say, and they should. That’s their job and area of expertise. In one case, even though I successfully “chose” my title (sort of), it wasn’t really my choice. I submitted twelve possible titles to my imprint at Penguin Random House. The marketing team rejected them all. Grudgingly, I replied with one title I’d been holding back because it was my dad’s idea. The response I received said, “That’s the one!” I will never live that down.
# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
Depends on the review and the feedback. If the feedback is constructive, I take it into consideration. If the review is just mean, I ignore it. Early in my career, I received a threat of violence in an email from an Amazon reviewer (apparently leaving a bad review wasn’t enough). The person had figured out where I lived at the time—not cool. I forwarded this email to Amazon and received a form letter that said, “this does not violate our review policies.” If Amazon won’t address that, they probably won’t address any review, so put those bad reviews out of your mind.
# How has your creation process improved over time?
This comes back to story beats. Great conferences like Thrillerfest, Killer Nashville, and the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference have enabled me to meet and learn from masters like Lee Child, DiAnn Mills, Frank Peretti, David Morrell, Brian Bird, Steven James, and many others. My process improves every single time I sit down in one of their classes. There is always—ALWAYS—something new to learn to make you a better writer.
# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book?
Deadlines are the worst. They’re also the best. Without deadlines, I’d keep tweaking my work forever. I’ll offer one story for surprising. When writing The Gryphon Heist, I set out to write a story that explored morality in espionage. But as Talia Inger’s character came to life, I realized she was carrying a lot of anger and needed to learn about forgiveness. She would need to learn to forgive the man who killed her father. Just as I realized this, my day job called and required me to fly to Amsterdam. I was mad, because I’d felt inspiration strike and all I wanted to do in that moment was write. But the man I spent the next three days flying with was a counselor who helps assault survivors and the families of murder victims learn to forgive. So much that I didn’t even know I needed to learn was given to me. How awesome is that?
# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
There’s no balance. I aim to serve my readers. That’s my job, right?
# What role do emotions play in creativity?
If the results of the creative process aren’t causing emotional reactions, then you probably ought to go back to the drawing board. If your inspiration doesn’t give you joy, get you excited, or break your heart, move on to the next thing.
# Do you have any creativity tricks?
Walking. Reading nonfiction sources in my genre (go dig through the declassified files in the CIA’s online library). Coffee.
# What are your plans for future books?
We have a new mystery set on Maui coming out. A vacationing neurosurgeon must come to grips with the illusion of control when a woman dies in his arms. His obsession with finding her killer will make him a thorn in the side of Maui detective who recently returned to the island. She’s dealing with issues of her own, trying to overcome a troubled past and mistakes made on the other side of the badge.
We also have a fantasy story, Wolf Soldier, coming in October. This is the first novel set in a realm originally created for a 1980s adventure game. My favorite part of the Wolf Soldier process is that we’ll be introducing multiple games on Kickstarter set in the same realm. We’re also doing an online reader-directed origin story right now. Everything is interconnected. The first of the games, First Watch, hits Kickstarter in mid July.
# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.
I have synesthesia—an intersection of the senses. I see and feel sounds and smells and hear and feel flashes of light. For instance, the smell of roadkill looks and feels like walking through a black and yellow sandstorm. A strobe light sounds like a machine gun and feels like someone repeatedly slapping me in the face. But the smell of fudge is blueish purple, and a string quartet is a vision of sparkling silver and gold lines that lightly tickles my skin. So, there’s bad, but the good is awesome. As a kid, I learned to deal with it, because nobody knew to tell me others didn’t experience the world in the same way. As an adult, I used this phenomenon to my advantage in hunting bad guys.
Learn more about James and his projects at https://linktr.ee/jamesrhannibal