[Interview] James Buchanan

James Buchanan works as an attorney and writes gay romance novels and stories in his spare time. His most recent works include the novels Twice the Cowboy and Cheating Chance. He has also published a novella, My Brother, Coyote, and a collection of short stories, Bittersweets: A Taste of Halloween. His fiction includes mystery, thriller, horror, fantasy, historical and science fiction.

He spoke about his writing, his concerns as a writer and the influences that drive his writing.

When did you start you writing?

I don't remember a time when I wasn't writing. I was pretty sick as a kid, in the hospital a lot and at a time when kids' TV was two hours in the morning and PBS at noon. I started making up stories to entertain myself. At first it was picture books and then poetry and short stories.

I was on the literary magazines in high school and college.

There was a black period in my life, while I was trapped in an abusive relationship, where I didn't write at all. But over the past decade, I've gotten back into it.

Why erotic gay romances?

Blunt answer: I like guys. But, I also find that it allows me a broad range of genres to work in. If I feel like writing a detective novel, I can. If I am inspired to do a horror piece about fallen angels or silly fluff with ice-skating cowboys, somebody will buy it. Twisted fantasy/history with a bi-sexual, anti-hero who falls for his best friend, let's go.

The consistency is a romantic and sexual bonding between two men. You can play with the expectations and relationships. In heterosexual romances the characters must be the alpha guy and the woman he overwhelms… I find those types of characters stifling. Not that you won't find alpha males in my books, but they're likely to be head-to-head with another alpha male.

Also, some of my characters would not necessarily self-identify as "gay," which is why I use the term homoerotic as opposed to gay or homosexual romance. That and I put a lot of sex in my books.

Who influenced you the most?

Authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, Roger Zelazny... I devoured science fiction and fantasy as a teen and through college, even when I was supposed to be reading "real literature" for my degree.

Bizarre as it may seem, I adored Milton and I believe that a good deal of my tendency to hide biblical and mythological references in my books comes from him. I don't know if most people will ever see them, or understand them, but I do believe my stories, like “The Darkness”, are richer for it.

On a more modern level… Lovecraft for his ability to take mundane, everyday life and twist it, torture it and give you a story that leaves a little part of your brain saying, "well, it's not that outrageous."

Most of all, Ray Bradbury. The richness and depth of his storytelling still gives me shivers. You can almost see and feel what he describes. I try for that. I don't know if I make it, but I try for it.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

My life is in my books. Not autobiographical to any extent, but I take note of what's going on around me and how people react. I tend to write about places where I've lived, or been to countless times.

I've had some pretty awful things happen in my life, I can transfer the feelings from those into a different but similar situation for a character. Same for the really wonderful times. Sometimes it comes through strong, other times it's much more subtle.

There have been one or two occasions where my current partner was reading over a bit of a story and said, "What, were you writing our fight down?"

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Time, time and time. I'm not at a point where I can devote my life to writing. Student loans need to be paid, food has to get on the table, and the mortgage comes every month.

So I work full time as an attorney. It's a profession that is known for devouring people's lives. You're not expected to work for a firm… you're expected to live for it.

Sometimes my characters just won't cooperate. Other times I've gone blank and can't think of a story to write. Or I have a thousand ideas roaming around my head and I can't focus on any one.

How do you deal with these?

For all of it, taking what time I can and being pretty organized. I carry a personal tape recorder in the car and a spiral notebook in my briefcase. I'll get up at four in the morning when everything is quiet and try and knock out 500 words. Fifteen minutes waiting for the judge to take the bench is enough to do some character sketches.

I don't push myself. When it's not flowing on one story, I'll jump to another bit and write on that, at any one time I've got three or 4=four projects in the works.

Or I'll do research. I've got a stack of books with material I want for some story or another. Every time I get a "plot bunny," I write a brief sketch of it. That way I can go back to it at a later date.

What is My Brother, Coyote about?

At its most basic core My Brother, Coyote is a love story about two Navajo brother-cousins, Seth DelOro and True Yazzie - although not a traditional one. You won't find any sweeping speeches declaring what they feel for each other. True and Seth aren't those kind of guys.

They try to make their way being pulled between the modern white world and that of the traditional Navajo. Seth is in and out of prison. True attempts to span both cultures studying to be a medicine man while getting a college education. It is also about Navajo witchcraft, lore, sexuality and spiritualism. Coyote moves between the real and surreal. There are shamanistic dream battles and skinwalkers. I think it's a very powerful story on several levels… and the feedback I've gotten seems to confirm that.

I wrote it in response to a call for a series through Torquere Press for a line called Everyday Specters. It took me a little over two months to write, not including research time. Which is not bad for a book that length. Most of the time the words just seemed to flow. But there were occasions when it was beating my head on my desk trying to figure out how to do what I wanted to do.

I submitted the manuscript in late February and got a response shortly thereafter… that they couldn't use it for that line. But, the editor loved it so much he passed it on to Alex Draven, the editor who handles stand-alone works. Alex contacted me and said, "I want it and I want to get it out end of April." It was insane trying to get the editing and proofs done in that short of time.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the novella did you find most difficult?

Trying to keep the characters true and believable. While I grew up in the region and I knew people like those in Coyote, I'm not Native American. I had to learn it all. I drove a Choctaw friend nuts constantly asking her questions about tone and voice, and "do you think I'm being respectful with the culture?" I obviously couldn't ask her specifics about being Navajo, since she's not, but I did what I could.

And at times, I got too into the heads of my main characters. I'd find myself writing these very closed, minimal scenes and have to go back in and open it all back up. I loved the ability to go back and remember a place I loved while discovering this whole new world going on around it.

Because Navajo stories and storytelling play a big part in the book, it allowed me to relive my own family's storytelling history. In trying to recall the sense of wonder of an oral tradition, I also rediscovered tales about Poncho Villas' raids and the clock that stopped at the hour of my great-great aunt's death that my grandmother used to tell.

What sets the novella apart from the others that you’ve written?

I'd say that it goes far outside my usual comfort zone. I've never written that far outside my own culture before. I really tried to stretch my boundaries in and write something both sensual and eerie.

It is similar to other things I’ve written in that my books are books I'd want to read. Just because it's erotic doesn't mean, at least to me, that you should short-change the story. And the sensual nature should come from all aspects of the work, not just the sex. So I try and put that flavor into them… the ability to have all five senses going in a book.

I have to care why the characters are doing what they're doing. Even with a mainstream mystery… if I don't care about the characters, I'll toss it.

What is your next book about?

I'm working simultaneously on two full-length novels. One is a sequel to Cheating Chance (November 2006, Torquere Press), a mystery involving electronic slot cheating and international drug cartels. The sequel tackles Southern California Vietnamese gang involvement in illegal gambling and gets deeper into the relationship between Detective Brandon Carr (who's in the closet) and Gaming Agent Nicholas O'Malley (who's not). That adds a great deal of conflict and tension into their relationship and allows me to explore the world from two different perspectives.

The other is another cop story, The Good Thief, about an LAPD officer who gets involved with a burglar in trying to bring a child molester, a high-ranking officer within the force, to justice. The dichotomy between the harassment the gay officer receives as a marginalized "outsider" and the way the police force draws in ranks to protect what it believes to be one of its core members, I think will be very powerful.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I'm torn between getting published at all and my first piece of fan mail. Honestly, to read someone gushing about how wonderful they found the story and how much they loved the characters… I could ride that high for months. I put my heart into my work and I really try to bring my characters to life. To find that someone else feels as strongly for what I wrote makes it all worthwhile.

How did you get there?

I started playing with writing (after my hiatus) in fan fiction. It was something fun to do and blow off steam. The positive feedback I got there gave me confidence to try my hand at my original stories again.

Posting a few attempts on some free erotica sites got me more feedback. Some of it was useless, but a lot of people took the time to go over where I'd done it right or missed the boat. They gave me the confidence and encouragement to try a contest. My story did not get picked up that time, but the editor of the contest pointed me in the direction of Torquere.

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