Monday, June 17, 2013

An interview with James M. Jackson

Today I'm interviewing James M. Jackson, author of Bad Policy.

1. Give Us a brief bio—where you grew up, went to school, the kind of work you did before you became a writer or still do.

I grew up in the Rochester, New York. I attended Lafayette College in Easton, PA. then transferred to the State University of New York at Albany because I thought I wanted to be a high school math teacher. Instead, I stumbled into a job as an actuarial trainee and thirty years later I retired from the profession. The firms I worked for consulted with large corporations, not-for-profits and governments. I designed and determined the funding for retirement plans and post-retirement medical plans.

2. When did you start to write fiction? Why a murder mystery?

After retiring, I took six months to decide what I wanted to do. Writing kept popping up to the top of the list. They say to write what you know. As a life-long lover of crime novels that was what I knew.

3. Tell us about your novel, Bad Policy. How did you c
ome to write that particular book?

I enjoy the mental challenge of figuring out how to game a system, and financial systems are the most fun. If I had been born a generation later, I would have been hacker. Fortunately, the moral code Mom instilled (and being chicken about being caught) kept me on the up-and-up.

The bad policy in Bad Policy has to do with insurance products sold by a crooked insurance agency. The main character, Seamus McCree, comes home from a business meeting and finds cops swarming his place because someone has stored a tortured body in his basement. He was acquainted with the guy (who owned that insurance agency), and consequently he’s the main suspect. Since the police are focused on him, Seamus needs to find out who is setting him up and why. Seamus uncovers secrets about his father’s death many years earlier.

I was interested in exploring how an event years ago affected different people and what happens when those people intersect in present time. I also wanted to discover how a basically decent person would react once his family is threatened. How far would he go to protect them? What lines would he cross or refuse to cross?

4. What is your connection to bridge?

I was writing my “practice” novel and playing a lot of online backgammon when a neighbor called because she needed a bridge partner for that afternoon. Though I hadn't played for 35 years, I didn’t embarrass myself. Another player asked me to play at the local duplicate bridge club. I had been looking for a bit more social outlet than online backgammon provided and this fit the bill.

I loved bridge and began to play tournament bridge shortly thereafter. After a few years, I realized I could write a helpful book targeted at intermediate players, out of which came One Trick at a Time: How to start winning at bridge. Happily, the world’s largest bridge book publisher agreed and published the book to excellent reviews.

5. Is setting important to your book? Why did you set the book in Boston?

In the sequel, Cabin Fever,  the setting and its attendant winter weather is almost a character. In contrast, Bad Policy could have been set elsewhere and been equally effective. The story starts in Cincinnati, where I lived at the time of its writing, and moves to Boston because of the link to the death of Seamus’s father, who was a Boston cop.

I lived in the Boston area for two years, so I knew and liked the area. I wanted a place where Seamus could grow up Irish Catholic and Boston fit the bill.

6. What do you like to do in your free time?

I love to read both fiction and nonfiction. I still play tournament bridge, which can be a big time suck. I enjoy being outdoors, whether it’s taking a hike, bird watching, improving my photography skills or simply relaxing.

7. What do you do when you get writer’s block or have a difficult plotting problem?

With plotting problems I think hard about the problem and then tuck it away and work on something else. My brain continues to work on the problem without my encouragement and minutes, hours, days or weeks later it provides at least one answer.

I always have multiple projects going, so writer’s block is rarely a problem. When I hit a stumbling block I let it sit and pick up something else. Again, my brain comes to the rescue with alternative solutions to the problem.

I believe strongly that I can be most creative when I have done my research and then let it percolate. Answers arrive on walks, long drives, in a hot shower. The key for me is to give things time and not press the resolution.

8. How do you market your book?

Not as well as I’d like. I have participated in a number of blogs such as this one to spread the word. I did a Goodreads giveaway and garnered a good deal of interest. I am waiting for the next royalties statement to determine if it resulted in any sales. I have and will continue to participate on panels at mystery conferences to gain exposure, and I spend some time on various social networks.

I ask everyone who tell me they’ve enjoyed the book to tell their friends. Ultimately, satisfied readers will be my best marketing. To better connect with my readers, I redesigned my website and now write a quarterly newsletter in which I provide extra features such as character interviews not otherwise available.

9. What is your next writing project?

Cabin Fever, the sequel to Bad Policy, is with the publisher, with an expected publication date of March 2014. Seamus retreats to his cabin deep in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan woods for the winter and ends up tangling with the Michigan Militia after a woman who suffers from frostbite, amnesia and Legionnaire’s disease shows up on his stoop.

I am about 30,000 words into the first draft of the third book in the series with a working title, Doubtful Relations. The current husband of Seamus’s ex-wife has gone missing, and she enlists his help in uncovering the real story.

10. What advice would you give to a new writer? What writing group helped you the most?

Earlier this month I wrote a blog for Writers Who Kill about my best writing advice titled Two Secrets to Writing Success. A synopsis is Read and Write—a lot. Without a reading foundation it’s difficult to know how people write well. Without actual writing time, you can’t learn to write well.

New writers also need appropriate feedback. When I started writing I lived in Cincinnati and was fortunate to discover the Cincinnati Writers Project, a weekly critique group. In retrospect, I probably learned as much by critiquing others as I did from the critiques I received. Writing critiques forced me to think about why something did or did not work, and if it didn’t how it could be fixed.

If a critique group is not meeting your needs, find another. These days online critique groups can be very successful.

Thanks very much for inviting me to your blog, Marilyn. I appreciate the opportunity to meet new people and I’ll happily answer any questions your readers pose.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Jim,
I agree with your statement that you probably learned as much from giving critiques as getting them. For several years my writing group held a writing contest and critiqued entries. It was the best possible writing school.

Good luck with your writing.

Palmaltas said...

Your books sound very intriguing and I love to find mysteries in unfamiliar (to me) settings.

James Montgomery Jackson said...


I had a similar experience when I was a reader for Poisoned Pen Press. Gave me a good education on how those first few pages are critical.

~ Jim

Morgan Mandel said...

Great cover!
Yes,critique groups are essential unless a writer is a complete genius.

Morgan Mandel

Morgan Mandel said...

Great cover!
Yes,critique groups are essential unless a writer is a complete genius.

Morgan Mandel

Paula Gail Benson said...

Great interview, Jim and Marilyn. Jim, I'm looking forward to reading more Seamus adventures.

Shari Randall said...

Thanks for sharing your writing advice here and on Writers Who Kill blog, Jim. I've found the guidelines you posted for improving a first chapter to be very useful.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Great to see old friends and meet new ones. I am traveling and will check back in late this afternoon.

~ Jim

Kaye George said...

Thanks for the interview, Marilyn and Jim. I was an early-on crit partner of Jim's and I'm so happy that his series is getting out there! I don't think everyone could get mystery material out of a career as an actuary. Kudos for being able to do that, and to keep it exciting, Jim!

Terry Shames said...

Nice to get this introduction, Jim. I love the names of your books. It's so hard to find names that not only stand out, but also key into the plot. Bravo! Looking forward to reading BAD POLICY.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

An interesting interview, full of good insights.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I'm glad to read all your comments, and that you've enjoyed reading Jim's interview.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

I am mourning the death of my computer. The power cord stop working and so I am now at a motel using my cell phone. However, it does allow me the opportunity to try using the voice recognition software, which is working.

Thanks to all who commented I appreciate your good thoughts and hope those of you who will read bad policy enjoy it.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

I've enjoyed blogging with Jim. I addition to writing a great book - one I highly recommend - he's been a great editor for my sometimes hastily written blogs. :-)

Ricky Bush said...

I agree with Gloria. BAD POLICY is a great read.