Local novelist releases eighth and final Bowers Files book this week
Published 9:20 am Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Just days before the release of his newest novel, “Checkmate,” best-selling fiction writer Steven James was relaxing at The Coffee Company, greeting other regulars and cafe owner Lisa Bunn before settling in at a quiet corner table for a quick photo and an interview.
This seems like a second home for James, who lives in Johnson City but often sneaks away to the coffee shop in downtown Elizabethton to write.
“It’s become a favorite hangout,” he said.
James begins his days writing at home, but he rarely stays put for long.
“I would go batty at home after a while,” he said. “Usually by afternoon, I find myself slipping out for coffee.”
If you’re picturing him in his home office, sitting in a cushioned chair behind a big desk, erase that image and conjure this one: James stands when he writes — “just like Ernest Hemingway,” he points out.
This habit began simply enough. James would sit to write — either longhand or keying it into his computer — then he would carry paper copies of what he had composed to a music stand, where he would edit.
What he found through this ritual was that he thinks more creatively when he’s standing up, so now he stands at a custom-made wooden desk when he is crafting a new scene for whatever work is in progress.
A friend made the desk for him, one can assume tailoring the height to fit his tall frame.
It takes James six to 18 months to write one of his 500-page thrillers — the new one took about nine months, he said — so that’s a lot of standing. So much for the leisurely life of a writer.
“I sometimes write dozens of drafts until I get a scene just the way I want it,” James said. “One time, I counted 50 drafts of a particular scene before I stopped counting.”
He also does a lot of legwork beforehand, researching the setting and other particulars of a story before he writes it.
For “Checkmate,” James spent time in Charlotte, N.C., the scene of a terrorist plot being investigated by his protagonist, FBI agent Patrick Bowers. In the novel, clues lead Bowers to long-buried secrets beneath Uptown Charlotte, where dozens of abandoned gold mines lie.
The 1849 Gold Rush in California is common knowledge, but certainly fewer have heard of the North Carolina Gold Rush of 1799.
“For 50 years, Charlotte was the gold capital of the United States,” James said.
Research into these mines took James to the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, library, where he found a map detailing the location of each of the 64 abandoned mines near what is now Panthers stadium in an industrialized area of the city.
When James wrote the first Bowers Files book, “The Pawn,” more than five years ago, he knew there would be a few books featuring Patrick Bowers and that the books would be named after chess pieces. So after “The Pawn” came “The Rook,” “The Knight,” “The Bishop” and “The Queen.” Before publishing “The King” last year, James decided to write a prequel, which he called “Opening Moves.” Now comes “Checkmate,” the eighth and final installment in the series.
“I’ve written millions of words in eight books, and I’m still fascinated by the character,” he said. “Physically, I’ve never described him. I wanted readers to picture him as whatever a hero looks like to them — Christian Bale, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, whatever.
“Patrick Bowers is a man of action but also a man of intellect. He’s like Sherlock Holmes meets an action hero.”
Bowers is surrounded by a cast of supporting characters, but the one James says has resonated most with readers is the FBI agent’s stepdaughter, Tessa.
“When I began writing ‘The Pawn,’ I knew I wanted him to be mourning the loss of his wife,” James said. “Then I decided it would be interesting if she had a daughter that he felt he needed to care for.”
He describes Tessa as a “surly teenager, depressed over the loss of her mother,” who was married to Bowers for only a few months before dying of cancer.
“Emotionally she’s 13, but intellectually she is in grad school,” James said. “I was fascinated by the dichotomy of the emotional versus intellectual maturity.”
What’s even more interesting is the affect Tessa has on Patrick Bowers.
“She brings out the human side to this character,” James said.
Publisher Signet Select, an imprint of Penguin, released “Checkmate” Tuesday. To celebrate the book’s release, James invites fans to be his guests at a party Thursday at The Coffee Company.
“This is the sixth time we’ll have a book release party at The Coffee Company,” he said. “It’s my way of thanking people who have supported me over the years.”
The party will begin at 6 p.m. All of James’ Bowers Files titles will be available for purchase, and he will be there to sign copies.
At about 7:20, James will talk a little about “Checkmate” and his writing process, after which there will be a drawing for the Become a Victim contest.
The drawing has become a tradition at James’ release parties. The prize: James will name a murder victim after the winner.
“I will write the winner into the next book and kill ’em off,” James said. “They can be murdered and live to read about it.”
So what’s next for James? He plans another Patrick Bowers series, with a new story arc and new characters.
“If I compared it to a TV series, this new series would be like the second season,” he said.
After the release party, James is flying to Tampa, Fla., for a 10-day, solitary writing retreat. Look for his new book sometime next year.