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Interview with Jessica James, Author of Shades of Gray

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Jessica James is the author of the historical fiction novel Shades of Gray, which has won two Best Regional Fiction awards and was named FAVORITE BOOK of 2008 across all genres on two book review sites. The novel has also been nominated for the 2009 Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction and has climbed as high as #3 on Amazon in the romance/historical/U.S. category, trailing behind a book it is often compared to, Gone with the Wind.

In its review, the BookConnection said, “if you only buy one book in 2009, make it this one.”

Because of the strict attention to language used in Shades of Gray, James has been asked to review a script for a proposed Civil War movie to help with the flow and authenticity of the 19th century dialogue.

It's great to have you here, Jessica. Do you have another job besides writing?

For 18 years, I was a journalist and newspaper editor, which, when combined with writing a novel, resulted in a pretty sedentary lifestyle. In 2006, I quit that career to become a spotlight operator for a Broadway show that came into town. When the show ended after a three-month run, I stayed on as a part-time stagehand – which is anything but sedentary. The flexible hours and the physical aspect of the job meld perfectly with my writing life, and I have the added bonus of getting paid to see a few hundred shows each year.

Tell us about your book. What inspired you to write it?

Growing up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, most people think I’ve been a Civil War buff all my life – but that’s not exactly right. It wasn’t until I moved to northern Virginia in the '80s and learned about a Confederate officer, Colonel John Mosby, that I really got hooked. Mosby is every writer’s dream of a great leading character: gallant, valiant, handsome, and chivalrous. My main character, Colonel Alexander Hunter, is based on his legendary life as a Confederate officer.

Once I caught the Civil War bug, I became enthralled by how committed the common soldier was to God, country, and honor. The more I read about the war, the more inspired I became to put a story down on paper that reflected the values and principles of that era, as well as the affection and devotion that existed between those who vowed “’til death do us part.”

Shades of Gray is the result, telling the story of a time in our nation’s history when “honor was as precious as the blood spilled to earn it.”

Did your book require a lot of research?

In a word, YES! I don’t think there is a group of people more knowledgeable or more critical than Civil War buffs, and I figured no matter how careful I was, they would find some small inconsistency in fact. Fortunately, that has not happened. I’ve managed to satisfy the historian with the amount of factual information in Shades of Gray – and have pleased romance readers by weaving a love story into the fabric of history.

What was your goal?

My goal is to educate and to entertain. I want readers to not only feel like they’ve read a great love story, but to also gain an understanding of the great conflict of emotion that tore at the hearts of those thrust into the War Between the States. The title Shades of Gray was chosen for just that reason — to show that the issues that caused the war were not black and white, or right and wrong — but shades of gray. I really hope that through this fictional story, readers also develop a better understanding of the passionate debate on both sides, and can learn to appreciate and respect those who value that heritage today. The extraordinary valor and devotion of the Confederate soldier is, unfortunately, often maligned and misunderstood in today’s politically correct society.  

Who is your target audience?

In a wide sense, my target audience is anyone who wants to be inspired by the strong principles and morals of the 19th century, while being entertained with a poignant love story. Civil War buffs, of course are a part of that audience, but it is not simply a Civil War story. It’s a story full of hope and heartbreak, as the loyalty and love of the two main characters clashes with honor and conviction.

Readers who cherish good, old-fashioned, classic, romantic fiction are as much a part of that audience as historical fiction enthusiasts.

What will the reader learn?

Many readers are not interested in reading a dry book about the Civil War, so it became a mission for me to weave a story around the facts, create characters with real feelings, and make history come alive. If readers are entertained and fall in love with the characters, they won’t even know they are learning something. With that said, I think readers will learn a little more about the issues that led to the War Between the States, and how far we’ve moved away from the strong morals and principles that were once such a vibrant part of our culture.

Describe you working environment.

I have a beautiful office in a pre-Civil War home with a huge antique desk that I really love – but rarely use for actual writing. I do most of my writing on a chair in my living room with a computer on my lap. I have a wild bird feeder, a butterfly bush, and a humming bird feeder within my direct line of vision, so when I lift my eyes, I always have something interesting to watch. I have read that this is actually a beneficial exercise because it engages a different part of the brain, giving the creative side a rest. If I get stuck, I watch the birds for a few minutes, and when I get back to work, the problem often solves itself.

Do you have a website or blog?

Yes to both. My website is authorjessicajames.blogspot.com, and my blog Life in the Past Lane is www.jessicajamesblog.com .

Do you have another book in the works?

Yes, I have another Civil War novel in the works, though I’m finding less and less time to work on it. The heroine in Above and Beyond is not based on any real person in history, but I have read of accounts such as hers. In a nutshell, she is so convincing at pretending to be a strong Unionist while living in Virginia, that all her neighbors, and even her own brother, believe the ruse. By allowing Federal soldiers to camp on her land and stay in her home she becomes an outcast and a scourge in her own community, but all the while she is passing on valuable information to the Confederacy.

One can only imagine the courage and strong will it would take to be despised and maligned by family and friends while you are nobly serving a cause. It could be argued that it would take more fortitude than fighting an outright battle with hundreds of your comrades surrounding you.

As an author, what is your greatest reward?

My greatest reward is having readers tell me that Shades of Gray made them laugh one minute and cry the next – which I really love to hear! That means they are emotionally involved in the story and that is a great compliment.

Perhaps even more gratifying is to have readers blame me for lack of sleep because they ‘couldn’t put it down.’ That’s a reward for all the sleepless nights I spent writing it!

Thanks for the interview, Jessica!

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.
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