By Ian Walkley
This taut, intelligent, and emotionally gripping new thriller from master storyteller Steven James introduces readers to a new character, expose’ filmmaker Jevin Banks. While investigating a controversial neurological research program, Jevin is drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy involving one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms. After giving up his career as an escape artist and illusionist in the wake of his wife and sons’ tragic death, Jevin is seeking not only answers about the questionable mind-to-mind communication program, but also answers to why his family suffered as they did. Rooted in ground-breaking science and inspired by actual research, PLACEBO explores the far reaches of science, consciousness, and faith.
Steven James is the author of more than thirty books including the critically acclaimed Patrick Bowers thriller series. He has a master’s degree in storytelling and has taught writing and creative communication on three continents. When he’s not writing or speaking, you’ll find him trail running, rock climbing, or drinking a dark roast coffee near his home in eastern Tennessee. Visit him online on his website, blog and Facebook.
PLACEBO will be released in November 2012 through Baker Publishing Group.
Steven, after six Patrick Bowers stories, where did the motivation for Jevin Banks come from? Why a medical thriller?
Over the years I’ve had some story ideas that just didn’t seem like they would fit in with a crime novel or police procedural. I suppose that’s true of all writers—we get these orphan ideas and look for a home for them. Well, I had a contract with my publisher for a couple new books, and it was the perfect time to launch this new series. I was intrigued by telling a sweeping conspiracy story and the science/medical field felt like the right place to plant it. So in the end, all of those factors came together and Jevin Banks was born.
Jevin is a former illusionist and escape artist, turned documentary filmmaker. I’m thinking David Copperfield meets Michael Moore?
Ha! That’s not quite the character I had in mind, but that would certainly be an interesting approach. Jevin is more like Criss Angel than Copperfield, and the shows he ends up doing are more exposés in which he debunks psychics by reproducing their tricks through sleight of hand and mentalism. The story starts with a flashback of Jevin at the shore when the divers are bringing out his wife and two sons—all of whom drowned in their minivan. When Jevin finds out that his wife drove the van off the pier on purpose, he is shattered and loses his nerve on stage—which leads him to the TV series. He’s searching for the next chapter of his life to swing open, and when he goes in to expose some controversial mind-to-mind research, he finds there is much more there than he ever imagined and the story rockets forward from there.
Did you need to see lots of illusionist shows in Vegas as part of your research (LOL)?
Actually, I have always been a fan of illusions, mentalism, sleight of hand, etc… And, yes, I admit it—I did fly to Vegas for research and attended a big stage illusionist show there. But it was all research. I swear it was.
I’m guessing Jevin is going to find himself in some restrained situations that his escape artist skills will be useful for?
He was a great character to work with when writing the story because he has all these amazing skills—he can pick your pocket and you’d never know it, he can escape from handcuffs in seconds, get out of locked rooms, hold his breath for over three minutes, etc . . . So it was a blast brainstorming the kind of dilemmas to stick him in. I can’t give too much away, but I will say that he has to use all of his skills—and then some—to stop the villains in this story.
The pharmaceutical industry is a favorite bad guy for conspiracy theories. How did you scope your research here?
Honestly, I did as much research on this novel as I’ve done on any of my previous books—if not more. I wanted to get past the surface-type conspiracies that other authors have dealt with. So, I interviewed people in the pharmaceutical industry to get their view on certain lines of research. I learned a lot, and I empathize a lot more with the people in the industry than I did when I started the book.
One thing readers occasionally ask, how do authors go about naming characters? Do you have a method? Is there anything significant in the name Jevin Banks?
You know, I’ve been asked that before and I don’t really have a system. I will page through baby name books, the phone book, programs from graduation services and school attendance rosters to get ideas. I do purposely avoid gimmicky names that are supposed to represent something or have a “hidden meaning” or something along those lines. It bugs me when writers try to do that, for example having a good guy named “Goodman,” or amorphous characters named “Gray,” or female antagonists named “Natasha” (Ah, Satan, spelled backward), or other ridiculous things like that.
It really annoys me when writers do that. To me, it demeans the characters and is distracting to getting into a story. I stumble across a name, I like the way it sounds or the images it brings to my mind, and I go with it.
Your stories have complex plots – to what extent do you outline and plan before you start writing?
I think one of the most detrimental things an author can do is outline his story. I don’t plot out my stories, I don’t outline them, I don’t try to follow any particular pattern (for example, having three or four acts, or whatever). I’m a big believer in listening to the story and following where it goes. I begin with ideas, scenes or dialogue that grab my attention. I think about the characters’ dilemmas and then plop them into intriguing situations and see how they respond. Some authors write from the perspective that they’re in control of their stories, but I write with one ear to the direction the story is leaning and then try to uncover it. My novels never end in the ways I expect them to, and I think that’s one of the things that readers like—the twists.
It’s similar in regard to the characters I write about. I try to listen to them and respond to them. I know that to someone who is not a writer, that might sound weird, since we’re supposedly making up the characters, but the more I get to know them (from spending so many hours writing about them), the characters emerge and actually inform me on the direction the story needs to go.
You are incredibly prolific as a writer. How do you manage to produce so much?
I’m actually a very slow writer compared to many of my peers who pump out thousands of words a day. Instead, I tend to be pretty persistent and just plain put in a lot of long hours. I don’t take too many days off—maybe a dozen or so days a year in which I don’t write at all. But I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way.
You have a Master’s in Storytelling. What made you want to study the craft of writing as an academic pursuit? What would be two things you gained most from that study?
Great questions. I have always loved stories. Ever since I was a young child I’ve been addicted to hearing, reading, and telling stories. Before becoming a storyteller and a writer, I pursued another career as a camp program director. But in the end, I realized that I love making stuff up so much more than managing people that I let that direct my future. I think that studying story for so long helped me to understand what makes a story work and, in the long run, has helped me save time in shaping stories that really impact people. I think the two most important things I learned are (1) prepare your story with your audience in mind, and (2) never fall in love with your first draft.
What are you doing to promote the new book – Virtual Blog Tours, store signings etc?
As always I’m doing some speaking, some blog tours, guest blogging, and contests and giveaways on my Facebook page.