Again I find it necessary to be thankful to Twitter and its ability to connect people. I stumbled across James Stryker on Twitter and fell in love with the concept of his then upcoming novel, Assimilation. I was eager to get my hands on it and found a generous author willing to give me a copy for a review, and so started my love for James’s work.
In addition to being kind enough to have furnished me with copies of his books in exchange for my thoughts, he agreed to spend some time to do a video interview with me to discuss his books and his own writing journey so far. He was also generous enough with his time and thoughts to read my own novel and willingly discussed it with me with interest, criticism, and praise.
So without further ado, my friend and colleague, James Stryker!
DM: Thank you again, so much, for being willing to do this (interview)
JS: Thank you very much for your time. It’s a pleasure, an honor. I love talking to other authors and having the chance to talk about my stuff and – I mean I know you sent me a list of questions but please feel free to talk about your stuff as well.
(The man is humble and truly enjoys discussing others’ work. I let him know that while I appreciated that, this interview was about him, so we tried to keep the focus on James.)
DM: So, I’m not sure which to ask about first, Assimilation or Boy: A Journey, but essentially I’m really curious about the same thing on both of them, and that is, what’s the first thing you remember as far as your idea, the seed of that idea?
JS: Well, I’ll speak to Assim first. I did a brief stint at a funeral home, and so I’ve always just been very interested in cadaver prep, like embalmings, cremations, and all that really good stuff has always been very interesting to me. And I was just researching one day, just reading about a lot of the new advancements and everything with the cryonic preservation theories and about the new challenges that they have and all that kind of good stuff and something that I ran across was that an inherent part of that invasive procedure is just the impact on brain tissue. Like, if it becomes successful, there is a very real possibility that someone could come back and have different personality traits. Also, just knowing that gender identity, possibility, and expression, the brain just plays a huge role in that, more so than just genitalia. So I had the image of a young man basically paralyzed in a hospital bed opening his eyes to a different man expecting his wife and child so, the story just kind of built itself from there. One of those, what if this were the kind of thing that could happen and it truly could.
For Boy, I’ve always just been really passionate about being an advocate for the transgender community. I have a lot of friends and am involved in a lot of the online support scene for it and something that’s just personally always bothered me a little bit, and I know it bothers a lot of other transgender people, is that there’s a lot of sensationalism around it. It’s constantly seen as something that’s very dramatic, it’s constantly erupting, it’s just this scarlet letter that will follow you for the rest of your life, and that might be true for some people, and I’m definitely not mocking that or knocking it at all, but I think there’s a segment of the transgender population where they transition and then they just carry on because they don’t see their true authentic self as being transgender. So, it doesn’t impact them on a daily basis and it’s so seamless that you would really just never know, and my idea was that if a transgender person that chose they wouldn’t have to reveal their past to anyone, and really under the right circumstance, I don’t think they would even have to reveal it to their children. When I brought that idea up in a few circles, several people kind of doubted that it was possible. I actually even had a psychologist tell me that there was no way it could be down so I just decided well, screw you guys, I’m going to write it because it is possible.
DM: I really loved the ideas. That was my first desire really, was to know where the spark of each of those came from because they were such interesting possibilities.
JS: Thank you, I really appreciate that. High praise coming from you.
After a moment of my patented awkward and extremely appreciative thank you, we delved further into a discussion about some of the elements in Boy: A Journey and how they relate to the transgender community.
JS: In my involvement with the community I’ve met a great array of people and there are some individuals where they identify as transgender and that journey is so meaningful and impactful to them that they always- that is how they prefer to be known and they are comfortable with other people knowing that, and not to say that the faction of folks that I write about is not comfortable telling people, obviously in Boy: A Journey is, but I think that what you see in the media all the time is all the drama and all the people that it’s just, sorry for lack of a better word, is just constant drama, constant upheaval, and it’s never just something that you move beyond where I think that the dream of a lot of young transgender people just is, I’m going to go through transition and then I’m going to carry out my life as if I were a “normal” man or a “normal” woman, that can be done. One of the, I know there’s the whole big thing about the bathroom issue and there so many great stories that were posted in light of that, of pictures of people who are transgender, and you walk by them every day on the street and you have no idea, but it’s not those people that you see in the media, or that you see in a lot of books and, in my personal opinion, I just feel like that’s where a lot of transgender folks really do fall and so I wanted to write about those people.
The other thing that I definitely do want to add is that, what I just love about gender expression and identity is that, you also then have a faction of people where they identify as they/them or both and that gender fluidity which is wonderful, that’s not the type of people that I write about it, but I just think that that’s incredibly as well. Just capturing everything. I really loved working with Nine Star Press because that’s what they do, they capture all of the binary or as much as one can.
Even if you pop into some of the transgender chat rooms and support groups, so much of it is upheaval. I’ve talked to a lot of teens and young people who are starting the process and the constant fear I see is you know, I’m never going to be normal, I’m going to be this freak, people are going to look at me and they’re going to know immediately, and it doesn’t have to be like that.
I hope that even though I kill Jay off immediately, that maybe that gives some kind of empowerment to folks who think that ‘I’m always going to be seen as weird or a freak,’ you don’t!
DM: Definitely. I do have to say that, Jay may have been killed off immediately but he was a huge presence throughout the book. You did such a good job of giving a character who wasn’t there, character.
JS: Thank you, I appreciate that.
On the subject of Jay, we discussed further some of the changes that can occur after someone dies, like that they almost become a different person to different people.
JS: It was great to explore how this man is seen in three different lights from three different people, all of his motives are questioned in three different ways, and I just, I really enjoyed that because I see that so often and have experienced that when someone does pass away.
DM: How long did it take you to finish writing Assimilation and Boy: A Journey?
JS: Well, actually for Assimilation it went very very quickly. I wrote that over the span of a couple of weeks actually, after the initial idea was completed. I’m a very fast writer and what I’ll do is I’ll take time off of work and I will write. I can write up to 15k, 18K a day because I’ll just go for hours.
JS: Really, Boy: A Journey was a challenge because I mulled that idea over and over, had dozens of false starts, like, several different ways I tried to go about it because I really, again, it was very important to me to represent that faction of the transgender community and I wanted to do a good job at it, so I started it several, several times. It took about seven years before that was finished, so I ended up finishing Assim first.
DM: How long did it take you to get Assimilation published, from when you decided you were done and going to start?
JS: I finished that in, oh…February 2014 and it took me over a year for me to get it published because after I finish writing I don’t immediately send it out, I do the editing, I let it sit in the sock drawer for a while, that kind of good stuff. I sent that query to, probably over a hundred agents and publishers and wasn’t really getting any bites until I went through #SFFPits on Twitter and it got picked up by Momentum Pan Macmillan. So, the entire process was probably, from completion, a year and a half to get that published.
DM: That’s pretty awesome.
JS: Yeah, it went well, I think.
DM: I have such a problem with that, a pitch is hard enough but especially when you’re pitching on Twitter it’s just….ahhh!
JS: Yeah, no, and there’s so many like amazing stories out there, to really make yours stand out, it can be quite challenging. There’s Twitter contests that I would enter that I would get tons of faves and then others where it just seemed like it got lost in the shuffle so, it all just really depends.
DM: As writers we all know that we put pieces of ourselves and our characters in our stories, what would you say is perhaps a trait or a characteristic of yours that you put into one of your characters? (in any novel you’ve written)
JS: Well, I think that kind of leads into one of the questions you were going to ask about my favorite book, I really think it kind of leads into that. Because normally I do try to separate myself somewhat. I mean I put in a little bit of how I act in to everyone but really try not to write me.
DM: Yeah, of course.
JS: However, while I really do love all of my books, a novel that I completed a couple of years ago that’s really meant a lot to me and I put a great deal of myself in that book. To be frank I was in a very dark place when I wrote it because my wife and I had been trying to have a child for a very long period of time and it was not happening. I was actually finding it even difficult to leave my house because seeing children was triggering me into anxiety and I happened to make a joke to my wife one day that I just need to find a place where there were not any kids and the perfect job for me would be the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That comment actually got the wheels turning and in doing some research I just discovered that there wasn’t really anything out there about his backstory and, I mean, this is a guy who, in 2005 he’s voted the scariest villain in children’s books and in 2008 Entertainment Weekly said that he was one of the 50 most vile movie villains but nowhere is there any explanation of why this guy does what he does. So, I really decided to try to take on that, and I reimagine him as a person who wasn’t evil but was suffering through some severe depression and just trying to cope with the inability to have children. Really, writing that book helped me to work through a lot of what I was feeling and it’s probably the most the most personal piece of writing that I’ve done. It’s difficult for me to read that over. It’s been difficult for beta readers who know me personally to read it because there is a lot of my feelings and anger and incredibly frustration in that. So, I do hope when that does get out there, that it’s able to help someone else feel not as alone. But I would say, in a long winded answer to your question, that’s where, of all of my books, I really wrote about me and my struggles and so it’s very meaningful to me.
DM: Gotcha. Wow. I really appreciate you sharing all of that with me. That was definitely one of the books I saw that you had that would be coming out that I was like, ‘I have to have that, I have to read this, I really want to know!’
JS: I would very much love to get your thoughts on it. It’s the only one right now that is not actively doing anything, it’s just hanging out there. Again, it’s a difficult one for me to read through and it- I have queried it before. I had some people that were interested, but it’s something where- you know, you have writers say, ‘this book is my baby’, and the other books, they are very important to me, but this one is my baby. So it’s been really hard to…let it go.
DM: Oh, I can completely understand that one. I mean, that was one of the depression issues I was having with The Foretelling Spark is because I’m like, it’s not bad, but it’s not my baby. It’s not the book I’m going to hold up as being the proudest of and say that I’m so glad I wrote this book. I mean, it was the first thing novel-length I was able to complete and I didn’t throw into something and set it afire, you know?
JS: Well, and it was great. I mean, I saw, and again I know we aren’t super bffs but, just in speaking with you and, you know, looking at your Twitter and things that are important to you and how you view the world, there was a lot of you in it, but you could tell that there was, you had also taken that editorial eye to where you’re not just writing every thought that comes into your head. I see that so much in other writers, where there’s just not that filter; not to say that thoughts aren’t important, but every one doesn’t need to be written down.
We continued down this slight detour of discussion concerning my own novel, which James was kind enough to read and give some feedback on. There was much blushing and giddiness on my part from James’s praise and thoughtful critique of my work. But this interview is about the talented James, so back to topic!
DM: So, what would you say your publishing experience has been like so far?
JS: Uhhh….*heavy sigh* a whirlwind! I mean, as I said, Assimilation was picked up non-traditionally through a Twitter pitch on #SFFPit. And then Boy: A Journey was picked up through #Pitmad from Ninestar, so that was again, another non-traditional being picked up there. They also asked to then see any of my other LGBT work and that’s how they ended up publishing The Simplicity of Being Normal. They offered me based on that, and then, while all of this other stuff was going on I was still out there, still trying to find a literary agent, and I received an offer on my YA manuscript. And I sent out that standard notice of offer of rep and I was just beyond ecstatic that my dream agent actually offered me! So now I’m out of the querying, Twitter paryting scene.
DM: Ah! Wow! Congratulations!
JS: I’m super excited. It’s nice to not have to worry about that anymore, it’s just a relief. It’s also an honor to really be working with someone as talented and awesome as she is.
DM: Sounds like a good match, then. So, what would you say has been the most difficult part of the entire writing process? The writing, the editing, the querying, publishing, whatever part of it?
JS: I mean, querying is, as I’m sure you know, frustrating as hell, oh my god! So that was very difficult, but really, I mean, in just my personal experience, I feel like the publishing has been more difficult, but that really could be, it seems like every time I start the process of publishing there’s also something else going on. So, what ends up happening is that I end up procrastinating, and ultimately I feel super rushed and super stressed out about it. So even though querying is super frustrating, at least it was, okay, I send out this query, there’s nothing else I can do about it, and I let it go. But with publishing when there’s all the deadlines, it has to go through like eight different people, and I don’t want to be the hold-up, so the rush is very stressful, so I would could that the most difficult part.
DM: Do you have a favorite writing spot?
JS: It really depends on what I’m working on and how deep I need my concentration to be. When I’m at home I usually just write at the dining room table which is where I’m at right now. But if I really need a chunk of time and I need to focus I will go down to just a local coffee shop; it’s kind of hard to get distracted there, I don’t have kids running around and dogs running around. So it depends on what I’m working on.
DM: Makes sense. How do you balance your writing and the rest of life necessities?
JS: Oh god…uh…I wish that I really did have two other mes, that would be nice. Um, I mean it’s, I try to carve out writing times at night. I mean, I do have a full-time job that I’m very dedicated towards there, I’ve been a foster parent for a couple of years now, so caring for any children in the home is a hugs priority for me. So I usually write when everyone else is asleep! Luckily I have insomnia so I’m up all night.
DM: Ah, a tell-tale sign of a writer, too often. Too many of us anyway.
JS: That is true.
DM: What are some of your interests outside of writing?
JS: Um, well, my nine month old little guy. Nothing really brings me more joy than he does so he’s probably my main interest. I’m also really passionate about my full-time job, I’m part of a leadership team at a call center and I find that very rewarding. I have the opportunity to use a lot of my creativity, I design presentations, photoshop stuff, as well as mentoring other people. So, those are my main things.
DM: I know you’re a fan of Sci-fi, so for the record, do you have a favorite writing or reading genre?
JS: I actually, even though Assim is sci-fi, it actually shocked me because I don’t know that I’m a huge huge fan of sci-fi/fantasy. I really like, uh- like, I’m so excited to get my hands on whatever you’re working on that’s dystopian, so kind of like that soft sci-fi, because I’m very much character driven; that’s very important to me. Again, this is just my personal taste as a reader, sometimes with a lot of sci-fi or fantasy novels, the world building and descriptions and all that, I want to move and know what’s going on with these characters, that’s what grabs me. I more go for literary fiction. I really love books that have beautiful prose, which again one of your strengths! Really, I like things that have a purpose beyond just merely entertainment. I want to walk away being a little bit different. I’m not saying I like to read inspirational, and I don’t want to be ‘fundamentally changed’, but to walk away with even just a new idea, new perspective. So yeah, I really am more literary.
DM: That’s exactly why I fell in love with Assimilation and your characters in general because that is definitely one of your strengths. As I said in my reviews and before, you really know how to grab a reader with your characters and not let go.
JS: Thanks. That’s what I like to read, so.
DM: You definitely write it well, so I understand why you love to read it too. I definitely enjoy very character driven work. I mean, who else are you investing in?
JS: I definitely agree. I don’t know why, I’ve always found that, from a very young age, that I read a book because I want to be somewhere else, I want to walk in someone else’s shoes. But you know, the other thing that I think is very interesting to that too, and that I’ve tried to convey in my books, is that I don’t necessarily think that that person has to be super likeable; I really enjoy reading about characters that are flawed, that are deeply flawed because I think that’s so much more approachable. I can’t imagine myself being in the shoes of some saint, but people who are affected by their surroundings, who make very poor decisions, who can be very cruel, as cruel as they are kind, I feel like that’s part of what sucks me in as a reader, and so I try to convey that in my writing as well.
DM: I definitely say you do that quite well.
I mentioned that this was something I needed to work on in some ways with my own work; I have a problem understanding or having a character do something that could be considered mean or cruel without having a purpose or a deeper reason, and sometimes characters need to do those things, or have them happen to them.
We discussed my characters and the notes James made about my novel, which led to an interesting and important thing to consider while writing certain characters.
JS: What it reminds me of is the book I’m working on with my agent right now. It has a main character that…he’s an asshole. A major, major asshole that keeps everybody at arms’ length, and that’s a problem because, even though there’s a reason why he is an asshole, and there’s a reason that he keeps everyone at arms’ length, keeping the reader at arms’ length, it was then a struggle for the reader to connect with him. It’s been something that I’ve had to go back through and think about, okay, I know why he’s doing this, I know why he is just very standoffish, and why he is the way he is, but we’re in his head. So, he can be that way to the world around him, but not to the reader.
He then related this back to my own novel and how it is something to take into consideration. It was helpful and great to discuss these issues so that I can attend to them, not only in revisions for The Foretelling Spark, but something to take into future projects as well.
Then I turned our conversation back to James.
DM: Okay, we kind of talked about this before, so just to clarify, what is your favorite book that you’ve written? Is that The Child Catcher, or another?
JS: No, it really is. I love all of my books and there’s, you know, a message behind all of them and a reason why I wrote them. I did go into some depth with Child Catcher and why that one is really the favorite book, the most personal. However, a close second would really be Boy: A Journey. I wrote that, even though I did write that a lot for the transgender community, the portions of it with Tom’s death were very difficult for me to write because I dedicated the book and wrote it with my grandmother in mind. That was something that, a lot of what happens there at the end when he actually does pass, that was very personal to me in that I was, that I went through similar situation and so I would say, after Child Catcher, Boy: A Journey is very very personal to me because it was me saying goodbye to her all over again so, reliving that.
After a moment of sharing condolences and brief discussion about writing and encapsulating the loss of a loved one, we turned to slightly fuzzier topics.
DM: So, I know you mentioned your pugs so, I’m going to ask you to tell me about any writing helper/minions or furry distractions you have, if you don’t mind.
JS: I do have the pugs, and like I said, I also have a nine-month old little boy. He used to be in the ‘help’ category when he was smaller. I actually edited Boy: A Journey standing up at the drafting table with him like, in a snuggie on my chest. But now he just wants to be into everything including the laptop so, he now falls into that cute yet distracting bucket. That’s also kid of where the pugs are usually, they like to pile around me when I write on the couch. In most of my profile pictures is my senior girl, Binky. I look better when I have a pug. So those are the minions, distractions, ‘helpers.’
DM: How would you say your writing community has affected you?
JS: Oh I mean, tremendously. Besides that I wouldn’t have published anything or really found literary rep without Twitter, like I said, I went the traditional querying route and it didn’t really get me much of anywhere. But I’ve also met awesome people like yourself, sharing best practices, and it helps to make me a better writer, honestly. I’ve met some really great friends, again yourself included. I’d also like to think that I’ve helped a lot of people too, or I’ve tried to. If I could give a small shout out to Elizabeth Hamill,who has an awesome LGBT sci-fi that’s releasing in July, and J.M Sullivan who just published Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles on May 16th, they just, they rock. I love Beta Reading for them and helping them, or I like to think I helped them. They were awesome without me, but maybe I helped just a little bit. If nothing else, just the self-esteem boost of telling them that they’re awesome, sometimes that really helps, in a sea of rejections.
DM Definitely! And how would you say you found or created your writing community? Did you just get on Twitter, start tweeting and find some people, or was there something else along the way?
JS: My wife actually was doing it first. She’s also a YA author and she was just very much into it for a time and was telling me all about these Twitter parties and everything. At first I thought it was just crap and then I finished my books and considered giving it a whirl. I really started doing it a lot because of her and the Twitter parties and everything, just participating in that, I had the opportunity to be a slush reader at #70pits last year where I’ve met a lot of super awesome people to connect with.
DM: For writing tools, do you have a preference for Word, Scrivener, old-fashioned handwriting?
JS: I like just, Microsoft Word. Sometimes I will get an idea, usually it’s dialogue, like dialogue will pop into my head at 2 in the morning (I’m sure you understand), and I have to, you know, turn over and write it in my notebook by my bedside but, normally I do like Microsoft Word because like you, I do agonize over word choice and structures and I can’t imagine doing it hand written because I would be be crossing things out, whiting things out. I like being able to type out a sentence and then switch it around fifty different ways.
DM: Which author drink stereotype would you say is your biggest vice, if at all, coffee, tea, or alcohol?
JS: Coffee all day and wine all night. Lots of coffee, and I like wine. There’s a lot of good wineries around here I frequent. I’m not a drunk, but I do enjoy a glass of wine while I write.
DM: So I know I asked you about the most difficult part of the entire process, but what would you say is the most difficult part of novel writing for you?
JS: I’m really crap at beginnings. I really am crap at beginnings. You’ve read things so far where I’ve edited and edited the beginning and believe me, everything you’ve read, that’s not where it originally started. And I’m still, I’m…happy with how they start now, but I always have to redo beginnings. I feel like in everything it doesn’t really start to get good until 15-20 pages in, and that’s not good. So beginnings, I really struggle with. I don’t know why.
DM: Okay, I promise we’re nearly done! So, The Simplicity of Being Normal is your most recent release, is there anything you can tell us about it?
JS: Sure. It’s more similar to Boy: A Journey than it is to Assimilation. It is told from three different points of view like the other two novels are, and of course it has LGBT elements in it. It follows the story of an underage transgender young man as he is living in a very conservative community and there’s a lot of bullying and abuse that is going on at school. He does find allies in a couple of teachers at the school but just how he navigates and of course, because we’re in three different perspectives the other two main characters, the teachers, they also do have some secrets that they’re hiding and struggles they’re going through as well.
DM: Well, I really can’t wait to read more. I’m only a few pages in and already, just oh, Sam!
JS: It’s a struggle. Again, I wrote Boy to show that there doesn’t have to be that sensationalism and that is also what I hope comes across with Sam; that this is just a young man who wants to be seen as normal. He’s not out there hurting anybody, like he’s not out there doing drugs, or anything like that, he just really wants to be normal, and people are just fighting him the entire way. That’s what a lot of young transgender people go through. Especially in communities like he’s in where they don’t have the support, they [lack] the ability to receive treatment so they’re kind of just stuck in limbo until they hit 18.
DM: Which by then is just…the difference between being able to start before puberty hits, to be able to, it just…how is that so hard to understand?
JS: It’s incredible. And besides the fact that the changes to the body are just so much more effective the younger that you start. I mean the teenagers, we all know it, cisgender, transgender, what may have you, those are building blocks to the person you’re going to be and spending those formative years constantly fighting who you are, being so depressed, so anxious, hating yourself, that is so destructive to a persons’ self-esteem, self-confidence. I’m very excited to see your thoughts, but I would imagine that even though Sam is going to be feeling those things, even after transitioned for years to come as many transgender individuals do so, the earlier that you’re able to start getting treatments, it’s just so much better on many levels. So I hope you enjoy it.
DM: As I said, I definitely cannot wait to sink in further. Okay, the last question I have is, what is your next novel coming up and what can you tell us about it?
JS: The next novel is the one that I’m working on with my literary agent. It’s a contemporary YA, so I would imagine that’s going to be the next one to come out, unless everyone hates it and I have to work on something else. I would say that it’s kind of like a YA twist on Fight Club. It follows a young man with medically induced dissociative identity disorder and he’s basically fighting to maintain control of the shared body. So it’s kind of like YA Fight Club if you were rooting for Tyler Durden. It’s pretty gritty, reads kind of similar to The Gospel of Winter, so it’s not like a super deviation from my other work in the literary realm, but it’s also not told from multiple points of view, unlike the other novels. So that’s what’s next.
From there our conversation turned to my own work, once again. We discussed a WIP of mine that’s I’ve been slowly piecing together over this past year or so, and it was a wonderful and lively conversation. I enjoyed myself immensely.
I highly recommend you snag yourself one of James Stryker’s fantastic books. I will be finishing up The Simplicity of Being Normal, and you can expect a review to come after. I will also be eagerly waiting for more stirrings about his novels to come.
Another huge thank you James for his time and doing this interview with me, and of course, for his thoughts, criticisms and praise of my own work and willingness to share his thoughts. Thank you, James!