It took mystery-fiction author James W. Hall more than 20 years and four unpublished novels before he finally got his big break in the publishing industry with Under Cover of Daylight. Fifteen published novels later, Hall is a humble author living in South Florida, enjoying his career as a writer and professor at Florida International University, where he is a semester away from retirement.
In the fall 2008 semester, Hall spoke to undergraduate English majors and students in the graduate writing program from the Farquar College of Arts and Science (Nova Southeastern University) about his unusual pathway to publication, his inspirations, and his predictions on the future of the industry.
Forum: how did you get your first book published?
My situation is fairly unusual. It’s not a guideline on how you would do it these days because things are very different now than they were back then. I still think the right way to answer the question is “write the best book that you can.” That gives you the best possibility to get published. But in my case, I had published a story in a literary magazine and an agent in New York wrote me a letter.
But in this environment, no one sends book directly to publishers. You have a literary agent. You have to figure out, buy looking at the marketplace, what’s working in the world and what feels compatible to you, and let that be your guide.
Forum: What’s the difference between your first four novels and the fifth one that got published?
I ask myself that a lot. While cleaning out my office at the university in preparation for retirement, I’ve come across fragments of stories I’ve written that didn’t publish and now I can see why they didn’t publish. They were wretched! I didn’t even remember how wretched they were, but they were terrible.
I tried four times and it didn’t work out. So I said, “I’m going to give it one more shot, but this time. I’d going to do something because I like it—not because I think it’s good or other will admire me.”
Forum: Did you feel more pressure working on your follow-up books since someone else set the timeframe?
It’s actually just the reverse of that. I think one of the reasons I wrote at first – and why I believe a lot of people write – is to have people love me and have people say, ”Oh I love your characters, I love your book, and therefore, I love you, whoever you are who created this thing.” After Under Cover of Daylight was published, they already “loved” me, so I was not trying to win then over at that point.
Forum: What inspires you to write and continue writing your stories?
So many thing go into that question. At any given moment, for one, the psychological issues that drives the story is biographically relevant to me at that point in my life. My mother died last year. So the topic of dealing with grief and losing a parent is a subject that’s big enough to wrestle with while writing. I always say that I’ve got to have something that is psychologically and emotionally at stake.
I also have to have a nonfiction subject, something that I have to do research on to learn about. The way I know what the subject is, is when I start to get really excited and engaged about it.
Forum: How do you write about South Florida in a way that’s more interesting than maybe it actually is?
Well, that’s pretty hard to do (laughs). I frequently watch the evening news, and I turn it off and say, “Oh man, I didn’t work hard enough today,” because there’s stuff that’s more extreme, more weird and bizarre and wonderful and wrenching than what I managed to come up with. So, in a way, South Florida sets a very high bar for any writer.
I think the right answer for each of you – and this is part of your job as writers to figure out – is that you have some unique knowledge set. You know stuff about South Florida and about your community, forums your own viewpoint, which others don’t know. Park of what learning to be a write is about is learning what that unique perspective is. Some people cal it your “voice”. It’s also the way you see things around world.
Forum: You said, you’ve tried to ignore the business side of writing, but you’ve probably seen a lot of changes in publishing during the last 20 years.
There have been a lot, but the big one that probably affects you all more than anything else is the Internet. The “digital age” is hitting publishing. What is the way people are going to be reading their books in the next 20 years? I think its [electronic devices like] the Kindle. I have a Kindle, and I love it. It’s a great device. Being romantically connected to the book as a piece of paper and ink is irrelevant because the world is going to leave you behind.
Forum: What is your dream book to write?
I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’m very happy. I’ve reached my dream, really—and beyond that dream, I’m about to write.
By Brandon Bielich from the Farquar College of Arts and Sciences booklet.
Here is the link to the school: The Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences at Nova Southeastern University