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Interview with Brian James

By Thomm Quackenbush

I first discovered author Brian James's books while in his wife's shop in Beacon, New York, though with a title like Zombie Blondes, I like to think I would have crossed paths with him eventually.

  1. How do you react, if at all, to negative reviews?
    Sadly, negative reviews are a part of the job. There's always going to be somebody who doesn't react well to something you've written, and you have to accept that. For me, writing is such a personal experience, and something that I've always done first and foremost to please myself. As long as I'm satisfied that I accomplished what I set out to do, I can handle negative reviews.
    Some writers I know avoid reading all reviews. I'm far too curious for that, so I do read them. And while a bad review initially hurts, as long as it is well-informed and thought-out, I find that I can actually learn something from the criticism. It's the mindless negative reviews that really bother me, or ones that take personal jabs at the author. But in the age of internet opinion, it's impossible not to encounter those. You just got to take it in stride, I suppose.
  2. You've said in other interviews that you didn't much care for reading as a child. What changed this? Was there a specific book that hooked you as a kid?
    As a young child, I was read to a lot, but I didn't like reading on my own. I didn't struggle as a reader, I just never connected to the text in the same way as when I heard a story. Reading Watership Down at the age of eleven is the experience that changed things for me. For the first time as I read, I could visualize the story. The characters, the setting, everything came to life in my mind and that's when my eyes were opened to reading and they've never closed since.
  3. What are you reading now?
    Recently I've been reading mostly Middle Grade novels. I read both of Colin Meloy's Wildwood novels, which I thought to be instant classics. I'm currently reading the second book in Paul Crilly's The Invisible Order series, and I just finished the second book in the Mysterious Benedict Society series. Lately my imagination has been drawn to these kind of stories, not just in my reading, but in my writing as well.
  4. Who are your inspirations or literary idols?
    My earliest inspirations, the writers who I adored when I first started writing as a teenager, were Lewis Carroll and William Burroughs. Imagery has always been one of the main aspects of my writing, and those two are masters of it. Since then, there have been many writers that have influenced my work, among them Alain Robbe-Grillet, Irvine Welsch, John Fante, Richard Brautigan, Louis Ferdinand Celine. Because most of these are not authors you'd typically find on a list for YA writers, I think my prose has always stood out as being remarkably different from my contemporaries. I'm always starting from a very different place stylistically. I think it's also why some readers are turned off by my work. It's unfamiliar.
  5. You've said you are a music junkie. What are you listening to now?
    Yes, that is accurate. As of today, my record collection is hovering somewhere around 4,500 albums. Music has always played a huge role in my writing process. I always try to create a rhythm and flow to my language. As this very moment, I'm listening to the song "Witches" by Low. It's a phenomenal song from a few years ago, with this amazing verse that goes, "One night I got up and told my father there were witches in my room/ He gave me a baseball bat and said here's what you do." Such a powerfully haunting image.
  6. What advice would you give to yourself as a teenager?
    Probably to be more understanding of other people's struggles. As teenagers, we're so wrapped up in our situations and frustrations, that empathy is in short supply. I think that's why most of my novels focus on bringing to light outsider characters and trying to give the reader some level of understanding for what others are going through.
  7. I read that you were trying to quit smoking. Were you successful? If not, what do you think impeded your success? If so, what method did you use to kick the habit?
    I'd say half-successful. I'm a casual smoker these days. It's still a habit I wish I'd never started, but at times it brings me joy. There's a line in a Spiritualized song that goes, "If I were good, I could add years to my life, but I'd rather add some life to my years," I suppose it's sort of the way I've always tried to live my life.
  8. You never knew your biological father and you moved around a lot as a kid. How do you feel this influenced your writing?
    It's true that I never knew him growing up. A few years ago, he did reach out to me, and at that point, I decided that it wasn't a relationship I neither wanted or needed. But the distance I felt growing up is a thread that goes through a lot of my writing. There's a sense of drifting that a lot of my characters seem to share. We're all trying to find ourselves as teenagers, and the fewer anchors you have, the harder it can be to find your way.
  9. What is the most important thing you learned during your internship with a publishing house in college?
    I learned the difference between writing and publishing. There's a certain level of expectation that qualifies a work as publishable. It was immensely helpful in allowing me to hone the craft into something others would want to read.
  10. What are you working on now?
    I just finished working on a Middle Grade adventure/fantasy novel. As I mentioned, that's where my imagination has been wandering lately. It's a genre that I haven't tackled before, though have been exploring over the past several years. This book involves secrete universes, ghouls, flying serpents, and a few spirited twelve year olds who are trying to save the world.
  11. Do you have an agent?
    Yes. The wonderful Rosemary Stimola is my agent.
  12. Do you believe your experiences with mental illness have informed your literary career, outside of Life Is But a Dream?
    Growing up, one of my biggest fears was that one day I'd go completely insane. This can be seen even in my first novel Pure Sunshine. The theme of mental illness runs through many of my books, showing itself clearly in Perfect World and Thief. It's something that fascinates me, particularly in that we all struggle with it from time to time, or have encountered it in others, yet it is still something that very few people openly talk about.
  13. Do you find it challenging to write from a female and/or teen perspective?
    The majority of my books are written from a female perspective. One of the reasons I do this is because it allows me to become some one other than myself. When I write from a male perspective, I find that too often the voice is just my own. As for assuming the other gender, I think as long as you stay true to the character and their motives, it will sound genuine. We all experience joy, pain, sadness, and anger in the same way. The key is to express the emotions honestly. Luckily I've always had really close friends who were female, so it's not a completely foreign experience for me.
    Writing from a teenage perspective is the same. You just have to stay true to that side of yourself. What I find most disturbing are YA books that are written from an obvious place of reflection and revisionism. I always try to connect with the confusion and uncertainty that I felt at that age.
  14. What are your guilty pleasures?
    I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If something gives you joy, then there is no need to feel guilty about it.

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