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Interview: James Houston Turner, Author of Greco’s Game

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James Houston Turner has an interesting past–a past that has helped him write. He grew up in Kansas, but turned to writing fiction as a result of smuggling goods behind the old Iron Curtain. He has been on a KGB watchlist, organized secret meetings with informants, and helped investigate forgotten tunnels buried amongst some of Central Europe’s cathedrals. Department Thirteen, his debut thriller featuring former KGB informant, Colonel Aleksandr Talanov, was inspired by those experiences. It won USA Book News “Best Thriller of 2011″ award, a gold medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher “IPPY” Book Awards (thriller/suspense), and a gold medal in the 2012 Indie Book Awards (action/adventure).

James holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree, and in 2011 he toured across America promoting his book on a tour he called the “Too Ugly Tour,” so named due to a bout with cancer that resulted in facial scars.  He used this to let students know that you can’t let life defeat you, but you keep fighting for what you believe in.

He currently resides in Adelaide, South Australia, with his wife Wendy.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

I knew I was writing a controversial book with Greco’s Game (click link to read synopsis). In its predecessor, Department Thirteen, my signature hero—former KGB colonel, Aleksandr Talanov—now retired and living in Australia—finds himself happily married to a woman he does not love. But when a group of assassins from his past narrowly miss killing him and his wife, he discovers he has broken the first rule of survival by unwittingly falling in love with the woman he must now fall out of love with in order to save her.

Judging by the amount of mail I’ve received, Talanov and his wife resonated with a lot of readers. So the surprise of his wife’s death in the opening chapter of Greco’s Game was a risk that made me nervous. How would people respond?

One complaint I hear a lot is how thrillers become too formulaic. Too predictable. That you know right away what is going to happen because it pretty much happened last time. Many readers prefer this. A lot don’t. So the hard question for me became what kind of a series was I going to write?

On one hand, it seemed an easy question to answer. “Formula” books are safe books. They are popular books. You know right up front what to expect, and if the author is worth his or her salt, you get just what you’re expecting to get.

But was that me? I had to admit it was not. Why? Because my own life has been anything but predictable. It’s been a rollercoaster of highs and lows, of anguish and exhilaration. And “thematic” in that I have faced one challenge after another, against odds that seemed at times impossible. In my case, that includes surviving cancer for over twenty-one years when I was originally given eighteen months to live. It includes being so poor I once had to live on jars of peanut butter given to me by a church. It includes being turned down for a customer service job because I was too ugly—a reference to the facial scars I still carry from that battle against cancer. Life has not been easy.

But it definitely has been triumphant.

So that is what I decided to put Talanov through. I did not want his predicaments to be predictable. I wanted Talanov to tackle overwhelming odds. I wanted him to stand up and fight for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, which in Greco’s Game were the victims of a black market human trafficking ring being run by some of his old KGB buddies. Talanov will get it wrong sometimes, just as I’ve gotten it wrong. But in the end, he will get it right. And that means taking risks. So that is what I did with Greco’s Game.

When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?

When I was ten, and that first book was a collection of short stories. My first professional writing assignment, however, was for the Dr Pepper soft drink company in Dallas, Texas. It was a booklet entitled, “Ecology and You.” I then self-published The Earth of Your Soul, a book of free-verse poetry about growing up in eastern Kansas. It was overly sentimental in parts, but some of those poems can still be heard on late-night radio in some parts of the state. This was followed by The Spud Book (St Martins Press, New York), where I found myself cooking potatoes for television hosts and their audiences across America, including Regis Philbin and Pat Boone.

But if we’re talking fiction, which I found to be far less fattening than potatoes, it would be my archaeological thriller, The Search for the Sword of St Peter, where the good guys, bad guys and terrorists are racing across Europe searching for the sword once carried by the apostle Peter. I’m not surprised no publisher wanted the manuscript, because I made a lot of structural errors in that book. So I published it myself, although it is mercifully out of print now. However, had I not gone through that experience, I would not know what works and doesn’t work in publishing and promotion today. As the old saying goes, good decisions come from wisdom, wisdom comes from mistakes, and mistakes come from bad decisions. So bad decisions are not always a bad thing, because ultimately they can lead to good decisions.

Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published.

Quality, pure and simple. There’s no magic formula for getting published. A good story is always a good story just as a bad one is bad (and I’ve written some of those), although if you’re a trend follower rather than a trend setter, you may miss out. Look at all the vampire books now getting published today. Be a trend-setter, not a trend follower.

For my signature hero, Talanov, for instance, I was told again and again by many all-knowing agents, that readers did not want to read a book about a Cold War relic like Talanov, that he had too many things going against him—his age, his KGB past, his name—and that I should write something else. Funny, because many of those agents are now out of work and Talanov is going strong (his debut thriller, Department Thirteen, was voted the “Best Thriller of 2011 by USA Book News, after which it went on to win a gold medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher (“IPPY”) Book Awards (thriller/suspense), and a gold medal the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards (action/adventure). This just goes to show how many of the so-called experts don’t know as much as they think they do. That’s not to say they’re always wrong. It does go to show you never can predict what readers will and will not like. There is always a market for a good story. The challenge is staying true to yourself, writing that story and not giving up.

As Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States once said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Have you written a book that you have not been able to get published?  If so, can you share a little about it with us?

I’ve written a book that should not have been published. Does that count? As I mentioned before, The Search for the Sword of St Peter should never have been published. It was rejected by every agent and publisher I sent it to, so as you know I published it myself.

In looking back, and judging by the letters of rejection I received, it was turned down not because the storyline was inferior. It was—and remains—a good storyline. I simply wrote it poorly. Which happens a lot—especially today, with the rise of self-publishing—by writers who don’t want to go to the trouble and expense of getting their manuscript edited by a professional. NOTE: moms and BFFs don’t count. You need someone qualified and experienced in your style of writing to give an honest critique of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. And that means hiring a professional to edit your manuscript before submitting it to a publisher. Otherwise, a really good story could be turned down.

I once hired an editor who only highlighted the negatives of my manuscript, and it came back looking like a slaughterhouse mat, it was covered in so much red ink. Talk about being discouraged! When I phoned, she asked why I was so glum. I told her she’d had nothing good to say. “But I loved your story!” she exclaimed. “I think it has huge potential. I thought you wanted me to critique it for weaknesses.”

Lesson learned: make sure your editor knows you want both the strengths and weaknesses highlighted. That way you know not just what you did wrong, but what you did right.

How did you come up with the title?

Greco’s Game uses chess both as a backdrop because Russians love chess like we Americans love football and baseball. And they’re good at it! So I built an assassination plot around the very first recorded chess match, played in 1619 by Gioachino Greco, against an unnamed opponent, which is where the book gets its title. That game is famous for its queen sacrifice and checkmate in only eight moves, and is regarded as one of the most brilliant examples of how to trap and kill a hasty opponent.

Which is how Greco’s Game opens—with the assassination of Talanov’s wife. The question is: was the bullet really meant for Talanov? Was it the death of his wife an accident? Or was it a carefully planned strategy? And if so, why?

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

My 2011 promotional tour for my was called the “Too Ugly” tour, and as you’ve probably gleaned already, it was so named because I was once turned down for a customer service job for being too ugly. My writing career seemed to be going nowhere fast, I was on the verge of quitting, we needed money, and so I applied for this job, only to be rejected for being too ugly (“unpresentable” was the word used, referring to my scars). At the time, it was a kick in the guts. But it was also a blessing in disguise, because if I had been hired, I may well have not persevered to become the published author I am today.

So instead of wallowing in a poor me/victim mentality, I decided to make this my platform and take my message about not letting the hard knocks of life defeat you into the public schools.

My point in mentioning this, is that writing is one of the hardest careers  person can choose. It is rife with rejection and indifference. And yet it is filled with helpful, understanding colleagues and readers who know what it’s like to struggle. And it is a struggle. But the greater the struggle, the sweeter the reward. I cannot articulate how good it felt to prove all those agents and editors wrong when Department Thirteen won those gold medals. But I could not have done that without my readers and fans and other writing colleagues who encouraged me along the way.

So if you’re discouraged, want to chat, or want me to speak in your school (I never charge, btw), drop me a line at http://www.jameshoustonturner.com/contact.htm.

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About Tracee Gleichner