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An Interview with James Houston Turner, Author of The Identity Factor

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When I recently read and reviewed The Identity Factor, I was quite impressed by the background of the author, James Houston Turner, and the background of the book. The first chance I got I asked Mr. Turner for an e-mail interview on the occasion of the publication of his book on 1st October 2007.

The Identity Factor was finished in 2001, but the publishing was delayed due to the events on 9/11. As an author, what was your reaction to the delay, and has the story changed in the years?

I was extremely frustrated and discouraged by the delay. I had an agent in New York. I had a film company interested in the story. Then, almost overnight, I was off everybody’s Christmas card list. I was so discouraged I took time off to write a film script I had been thinking about for years. I then wrote another film script, which earned me some recognition in Hollywood because of its high placement in several competitions. I then returned to The Identity Factor and began the massive job of editing and polishing and rewriting it literally dozens of times. And what started out as a 145,000 word manuscript ended up 106,000 words. Writing two movie scripts played a big part in making me a leaner writer.

I even tried taking out anything controversial — i.e., the tablet portion of the story — but it was like taking out the story’s heart and soul. I hated doing it but felt I had to, although some good friends from the University of Houston badgered me into putting it back in. It was like breathing fresh air to put the story back as I had originally written it. But this time, it was a lot more efficient and powerful. It also took television shows like 24 and The West Wing to open the door on Middle Eastern issues, and so I believe the time is right for this book.

You have been credited (by Barnes and Noble) as being the first author to use video as a promotional tool for your novel. How did you get the idea?

When you find yourself up against a brick wall, it’s amazing how creative we can be. My brick wall was name recognition — or lack thereof — and I knew I needed something different, a “hook”, to attract people to my novel, The Second Thirteen. Because much of the story was set in Australia, and knowing the appeal Australia has for much of the world, I asked one of the local television stations if they would help me make a short video about my book’s Australian settings. They loved the idea and donated a cameraman and equipment to my project. We filmed in and around Adelaide, where I live, then used stock footage of Sydney to finish it off. Next, I got two newspaper critics to offer their review comments, then enlisted Logie award-winning Australian television legend, Anne Wills, to introduce the video. Qantas Airways then offered to sponsor my promotional trip to the United States in exchange for promotional credit, and Jacob’s Creek furnished wine at several of my high profile functions. It was a fabulous experience promoting that book!

And I learned a lot. This time, for instance, my promotional trailer is much shorter — the old one was seven minutes; my new one is two — and of course the internet is now letting people around the world see it, whereas I was limited by my actual tour route before (which took me over 4000 miles in an old jalopy I purchased for $1000).

Your fiction has been inspired by your own experiences during the Cold War. You have been "shadowed by KGB, organized secret midnight meetings with informants", drove vehicles with secret compartments carrying Bibles and medical supplies, among other things. I know I am sounding a bit callous, but can you tell us any particularly memorable (a.k.a. thrilling) moment among all these?

There are many thrilling moments, ranging from exploring hidden tunnels beneath the cobblestones of one of Central Europe’s most venerable cathedrals, to people in the Tatra Mountains killing their only chicken — the chicken that furnished their near-destitute family with eggs — just so we could have a meal. It would have wounded them deeply had we not eaten this sacrificial gift to us. I have been hungry before — so hungry and poor I lived on jars of peanut butter and bread I took from the church I attended (actually, the cooks smiled and turned their backs) — so I know how much that meal meant to those who were giving it to us. It was a gift of immense gratitude for our having come so far with food and money… and a Bible.

Other thrills include being stopped late at night in Budapest by the secret police. In the trunk of our car was a printing press. If we had been caught transporting a printing press, we could have been executed. But instead of making me open the trunk – they focused on an irregularity with my visa. They kept pointing at my passport and talking in rapid Hungarian. I kept asking them if they spoke English and where we could get beer. Back and forth we went. Finally, the officer handed me back my passport and waved me on. The last officer (who had tried opening the trunk, but found it locked) then told me — in perfect English — to have a pleasant visit but drive carefully.

And finally, there was the phone call after my visit to an East European embassy in Washington regarding my offer to transport free medical supplies to needy hospitals (which I did). I had been followed from the embassy but gave the agent the slip in a Virginia shopping mall. Then, once I was back in San Diego, a man calls several days later and asks if I want to make good money with beautiful women from Russia. I told him no and never to call me again. He said he knew where I lived, that I had better listen to him and cooperate. I told him if he ever threatened me or my family again, I would make sure he never threatened anyone again — ever — and hung up. I never heard from him after that. I subsequently was told by Dutch friends, who had contacts inside the KGB, that I had been under surveillance – in California, where I was living! The reason: they suspected my medical relief activities behind the Iron Curtain was a cover for the CIA.

Every interview with an author must have The Standard Question. Although your last three novels have been thrillers, you started writing at the age of 10, and also have written a cookbook, magazine articles and screenplays. Can you give us a glimpse of what are you working on currently?

I divide my time between blogging (on Myspace), and my next book (out of three possible choices, which at this writing is still undecided). My blogs range from social commentary to poking fun at myself. I recently had a scheduled interview, for instance, but my publicist forgot to confirm it with me. Because of the time zone differences and International Date Line, morning talk-back radio in Los Angeles meant middle of the night for me in Adelaide. It was dark-thirty and the phone rang. “One moment for the Maria Sanchez show,” a voice said. There I was, in the dark, in winter in a brick cottage with no central heat, sitting without a stitch of clothing on, waiting for an interview I didn’t know was coming. My wife laughed and thought: do I help him out here? She got up and brought me her fluffy pink bathrobe. “My life as a cool dude writer,” I wrote tongue-in-cheek in my blog. “In a fluffy pink bathrobe. Someone always discovers the truth.”

As for my next novel, one choice is the sequel to The Identity Factor. Another is the sequel to my previous novel, The Second Thirteen. The third is a stand alone story. All three are thrillers and all three are bursting to get out. I wish I could write all three at once! If anyone has a suggestion or feedback, I would love to hear from you!

You just turned “sweet 16” after your successful cancer operation in 1991. Can you tell us what pulled you through during that time, and what message would you like to pass on to other fighters and survivors?

I guess my message would be this: don’t ever give up. Surround yourself with friends and family — and hope — and persevere. I had family and friends who loved me through what was a VERY scary time. My face had been deconstructed and then reconstructed in a major way. I was disfigured and people stared. I cannot overstate the value of love and acceptance from family and friends. Miracles also occurred. The cancer had spread but miraculously didn’t come back. Radiation had also cooked parts of my face. My skin should have stayed brown, but it healed. I should have had little or no saliva in my mouth, but I’m back to normal. The doctors couldn’t explain it. Needless to say, I believe in God and I believe in miracles. But I also did my part with permanent lifestyle changes, and to this day I continue to take care of my health. Finally, I had a sense of purpose… that my life was not yet supposed to end.

That enduring belief translates today into my writing. I want my thrillers to be more than pure action and adrenaline. I want to infuse them with something positive and significant. So I sent a review copy to Rabbi David Rosen, Chairman of the IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee that represents world Jewry in its relations with other world religions. He is Director of the Department for Interreligious Affairs and Director of the Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding of the American Jewish Committee, and is an Honorary President of the International Council of Christians and Jews, and an International President of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. In November 2005, Rabbi Rosen was named a papal Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great for his outstanding contributions to promoting Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. He had this to say: “Dear James. I love a good thriller when I get the opportunity. Your book has a hopeful, reconciliatory subtext. It was a fun read! Thank you! I am sure you have considered this, but I think it would make a very good movie.” As much of the story takes place in the Middle East — including Jerusalem — and is built around an ancient stone tablet that makes a declaration about ownership of Palestine, I knew I wanted to handle the scholarship on which it is based — as well as the action — in a positive, non-stereotypical manner. Reviews like that give me a measure of hope that at least to a degree, I have succeeded.

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