By Linda Davies
James O. Born has had a long and distinguished career as an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and is still employed as an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement where he has worked in a number of areas, including the Special Operations Team. This has given him experience that many writers would die for (figuratively, and probably literally too, if we ever stumbled into the path of clear and present danger!)
After years trying to get published, Born hit the big leagues when Putnam published his first novel Walking Money in 2004. This year marks his ninth book, SCENT OF MURDER. It focuses on the use of canine units in law enforcement and detection:
Two years after being tossed from the detective bureau for his questionable tactics catching a child molester, deputy Tim Hallett’s life is finally on track. Assigned to a special K-9 unit with the best partner in the world, a Belgian Malinois named Rocky, Hallett has finally learned to balance police work with his family life. But that all changes in the heat of a Florida sugarcane field.
The wealth of Born’s experience shines through in the novel in a way that is never allowed to bog down the narrative. He manages to combine background detail with a gripping and compelling plot that speeds along. I particularly enjoyed passages from the dog’s perspective.
Born also manages to create a very real and powerful microcosm of life with all the characters extremely well drawn and the dialogue snapping along with the ring of authenticity. This is a class act.
Born very kindly found the time to answer some questions.
You are a living example of ‘write what you know.’ In your early career in law enforcement, did you ever dream of being a writer? Did you process events after the fact as a writer would or were you utterly caught up with the rigours and demands of what must have been an extremely challenging job?
I was always interested in writing and met Elmore Leonard through a mutual friend in the 1980s. I consulted with him on a number of novels and he helped me formulate my early plots. I can’t tell you how much I learned from him.
All of my books take elements from my law enforcement career. It’s not even the action because in reality that never plays out the way people want. TV and movies make action much more interesting than it really is. They tend to cut out the fear the cops feel and the blinding speed in which events usually occur. Surprisingly, it is the dialogue I hear on the street from both cops and criminals that I find most useful in my writing.
How do you combine a career as a full-time law enforcement officer with your writing?
The two careers work well with each other. I hear and see things during my regular job that I incorporate immediately into the novel I happen to be working on. There is a surprising amount of flexibility in my police schedule. Since I am in an unusual position, I work 160 hours a month through any schedule that is effective. When I go on book tour I am able to utilize my annual leave and so far the agency has been extraordinarily supportive of my writing career.
One early incident I recall was arriving at the scene of a police-involved shooting. I saw a lieutenant I knew who I expected to brief me but instead asked, “How are the books doing?” This happened two or three more times until I reached the edge of the crime scene where a reporter I knew turned with a microphone and looked at me. I was prepared to mumble the standard “no comment,” when he said, “Do you have another book deal?” All I could say to him was, “I’m happy to talk about the books, but not in front of dead people.” Things like that come up now and then.
You have a Masters Degree in psychology and as a former US Drug Agent and SWAT team member you have been exposed to the dark side of human nature more than most of us. Do you believe in the concept of evil, or do you subscribe to the view that our actions are largely predetermined by our early experiences and upbringing, and that as a result, our free will and arguably accountability are limited?
It’s easy to say most people are a product of their environment, but there are those outliers. That two percent which screws it up for everyone else. If you consider a psychological condition as “evil,” then I do suppose some people are just evil. Or crazy. Or whatever you want to call it. But for your average lawbreaker, they are just a product of poor parenting and stupid choices. It’s simple but true.
You obviously have no shortage of material in terms of action and characters. How do you safely navigate writing fiction when the facts in your memory bank are so rich? Ever tempted to score a bit of revenge on the page?
I always score a bit of revenge on the page. Mostly I make my good guys say the things I always wished I would’ve said in certain situations. They’re fast and witty and cool because they’re not worried about someone punching them in the head or stabbing them when they’re trying to come up with the cute quip. My books are always “what if,” scenarios from my real life.
The challenge facing some full-time writers can be that they spend so much time in an office typing away that real life can sometimes bypass them. Your skills and work ethic allow you to combine jobs. How do you fit the writing fit in?
I no longer work overtime or some of the details I did when I was younger, but with my own kids out of the house, I find I need to be engaged in things aside from writing. Even when I take long periods of time off, I find I can only work a certain amount of time each day on a book. If I go too long, I see where the dialogue goes flat and the plot tends to lag. I need time to edit. I find that on the weekends and evenings.
What comes first, character or plot?
Character always comes first. The plot is dependent on what the character might do. I have a certain, “type,” that I like to use as the main character. I always model a character after a cop that I know. Sometimes I will mix a physical description of one person with the attitude and mentality of another.
Tell us three things that your readers do not know about you…
I am probably the happiest writer they’ve ever heard of. I struggle to contain a germ phobia that has blossomed in my later years. I am essentially lazy but I’m driven by guilt to get things done. All things being equal, I would rather chill out and read or go for a swim than any type of work. Ever.
Location would appear to be very important to you. Are you going to stick to Florida or might you roam?
SCENT OF MURDER is set entirely in Florida. I like to bring unusual use of Florida to readers. Everyone thinks of Miami but they don’t think of the dirt poor areas around Lake Okeechobee or even the rural areas that surround Miami. It is a wild and interesting state that you could write about for your whole life and still never show people the variety and wonders of swampland turned into metropolises.
What made you want to write a separate series—your James O’Neil novels—set in the near future?
The name change was essentially to not confuse my crime fiction fans. I love science fiction and have never regretted blending crime fiction and science fiction in the series. I probably get the strongest positive feedback from these books from cops who read them. I enjoyed the research to see how things could be twenty years in the future. It was just an idea I had after visiting the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle. I literally started the book my flight home that night.
Many writers have a guiding philosophy that inspires their novels. In my own case I have a belief that we are unwittingly, unknowingly, very often walking a tightrope in our lives, with safety and normality on one side and howling chaos on the other. Do you have a guiding philosophy that motivates or lurks behind your writing.
You can make mistakes, but generally there’s only one path to do the absolute right thing and you shouldn’t be swayed from that. Hard work and determination can overcome most obstacles.
In addition to your work, you are a marathon runner, competitive swimmer, a Black Belt twice over, a white water rafter, a scuba diver, a wind surfer, a mountain biker, and an avid sailor. How do you pack them all in?
It helps to be in my mid-50s and had all that time to do a little bit each year. At any given time I’m only focusing on one or two of my hobbies. Right now one of my favorite hobbies is eating. That means my next hobby better involve some physical activity.
What’s your writing routine? Do you have any odd habits associated with it?
When I was first published and found myself on deadline, I generally would work at a computer in my home office. I would wait until my kids were in bed and things were quiet, usually after about ten o’clock at night. Now, since I do all my work on a laptop, I greatly prefer to sit on my patio looking out over the water. I tend to make notes all day long as I think about what I want to write and I find that makes the actual time behind the computer much easier. I tend to set aside the weekends for editing.
What’s your favourite part of the writing process? I know some writers love that terrifyingly blank screen that sits in front of them when they begin a new book. Others love holding the physical book in their hand. That’s my joint favorite combined with starting on draft two when all the hard work of wrestling the plot into shape is largely done. What’s yours?
I love to think about characters and plot before I even start to write a novel. I feel like I’m incredibly efficient if I’m riding my bike and at the same time figuring out a plot. Often it will consume me and I find I can really focus.
You are a great example of perseverance. You stuck at the writing process honing your craft for fourteen years until you got published. What advice would you give to aspiring writers or those just starting out?
Read, read, read and then read some more. Read novels, books on writing and prepare yourself as best you can. I went in completely blind and learned on the fly. That was one of the reasons it took me over ten years to get published. I don’t regret it but there was a more efficient route.
James O. Born is a former U.S. Drug agent and State Law Enforcement agent. Each of his novels is based on some aspect of his career. His third novel, Escape Clause, won the inaugural Florida Book Award for Best Novel. Currently, Born is coauthoring novels with TV commentator Lou Dobbs and his newest novel, Scent of Murder, about a specialized K-9 unit, is due April 7. This is his ninth published novel. He continues to actively consult with other authors as well as movies and TV shows.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.