Monday, May 20, 2013

Author Interview #182: Brothers and Bones by James Hankins

Before we turn to our interview with James, here’s a description of Brothers and Bones (4.3 stars, 324 reviews): Charlie Beckham, a rising star among federal prosecutors, feels his world turn upside down when a deranged homeless man calls him by a secret nickname known by only one other person in the world—Charlie’s brother Jake, who went missing thirteen years ago. Charlie has a hundred questions but the homeless man disappears before Charlie can ask a single one.
So begins Charlie’s search for answers, and for his brother, a search that leads him down Boston’s darkest streets, into its blackest alleys, and, finally, into its criminal underworld. But if Charlie wants answers he’ll have to get them from some of the most feared and ruthless people in the city.

Interview with James Hankins:

1. Why did you choose to write Brothers and Bones over other stories you may have conceived?
It wouldn’t go away. That’s how I decide which of my stories to write. Ideas come to me all the time and the most persistent ones—the squeakiest wheels—become books. Those are the ones that I can’t shake, the ones that keep running through my mind when I’m behind the wheel, in the shower, while I’m trying to fall asleep at night. If there’s something in my mind that keeps pushing it into the spotlight, I pay attention to that.
For Brothers and Bones, it started when I used to see the same homeless man every day, near the same street corner, and he was always talking to himself as though he were arguing with someone only he could see. He’d be very focused on whatever he was saying and to whomever he imagined he was saying it. One day I wondered how strange it would be if, as I passed, he interrupted himself, looked up at me, and said—very clearly and lucidly—“Hi, James,” before resuming his argument with himself. It was an odd thought that I couldn’t get out of my head. Then I thought it would be even stranger if what he called me was something secret, something he simply shouldn’t know. What would that be? How could he know it? These questions led to more until it was a mystery I wanted to solve.
2. You used to write screenplays and later you practiced law. Now you’re an author. Does your experience in these different occupations help your writing?
One of my main goals as a writer of thrillers is to write in a way that makes my readers want to keep turning pages rather than to put my books down. To the extent that I’m successful in that regard, I have to believe that my filmmaking/screenwriting education and experience at NYU film school and in L.A.—experience that helped me learn to tell stories “cinematically”—have helped me a great deal.
As for my work as a lawyer, that’s an easy one. The protagonist of Brothers and Bones is a lawyer. It felt natural to draw on my experience for a book. Of course, Charlie Beckham is a federal prosecutor while I was an employment lawyer—and those are two very different animals—but I knew what it was like to be a lawyer in Boston. I’ve been to the federal courthouse where Charlie works. I might have chosen to make Charlie a lawyer even if I hadn’t been one myself, but I’m certain that writing him was a little easier because I had been.

3. Brothers and Bones is a thriller, as are your other books, though Drawn is a supernatural thriller and Jack of Spades is a police procedural. Why write such different kinds of stories? Is it difficult for you to switch from one subgenre of thriller to another?
I like writing thrillers, but there are many, many kinds of thrillers. I read and enjoy many subgenres. Suspense, mysteries, supernatural, police procedurals, and more. When an idea comes to me that I really like, one that I can’t get out of my head, I wouldn’t want to put it aside simply because it doesn’t fit into a particular subgenre. There are challenges, of course. Because the books can be quite different, they often require different kind of thinking, organizing, etc. And there’s a danger, too, that a fan will like one subgenre but expect something very similar when they read my next book. That could theoretically lead to disappointment. What I hope, though, is that they enjoy the storytelling and the characters and realize that a thriller will still thrill, whether it does so with cops or ghosts. I’ve been very lucky so far that, for the most part, people have enjoyed that fact that my books are a bit different from each other.
4. What comes first for you – the plot or the characters?
I generally come up with the plot first. It starts with a small idea, a seed of a story, something that gets me thinking or wondering. When I have an idea of something interesting that could happen to someone, or an unusual situation a person could be thrust into, then I start to think about the kind of person who could impacted in the most interesting way by whatever that is. This probably comes from my screenwriting days, when story was always king, at least for the kinds of scripts I was writing. High concept stories that can grab you in a sentence. The hook for most thrillers can be boiled down to a sentence or two. That hook is usually what comes to me first, then I develop appropriate characters. That said, I work very hard on characterization, because the last thing I want is to write is a really interesting story populated by cardboard characters.
5. Were you a voracious reader growing up? If so, who are the authors that resonated with you and perhaps even influenced your own writing style as an adult?
I was definitely a big reader when I was young. I loved Richard Adams’s Watership Down. I read it as a kid and I’ve read it three or four times as an adult. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. I also loved Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I read the Narnia series, dozens of Tarzan of the Apes books and other Edgar Rice Burroughs adventures, Ray Bradbury’s science fiction, Jack London’s books. I’m not sure their styles are reflected in my own, but I do see a pattern. I gravitated toward adventure stories, as so many children do, and I write thrillers today. My love for suspense and action is deep-rooted.
6. What do you want readers to gain from your books?
Other than a burning desire to make sure they’ve read all of my books? I hope that I help readers escape—for just a while—to a new place, a new life. I want to give them a chance to walk around in someone else’s shoes for a bit, maybe to visit a place they’ve never been, to find themselves in a situation they’ve never experienced, to feel a few tingles up their spines, to feel excitement and thrills and a sense of mystery and discovery, as well as a sense of satisfaction that causes them, when they reach the end of the books, to say to themselves (and hopefully to all of their friends and family) that reading my books was a worthwhile way to spend their valuable time.
7. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
First, a word of thanks to Digital Book Today for this interview opportunity. And to readers, thanks for reading this interview. If you’ve already read any of my books, thank you so much. If you haven’t, I hope you’ll give them a try. Here are links to their pages on Amazon:
Brothers and Bones
Jack of Spades
Please visit my website, James Hankins Books, and my Facebook author page.

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