Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, James. For those who haven't yet had a chance to give The Vanishers or Dangerous Latitudes a read, please tell us a little about yourself.
Hi Bob, thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here. I’m a freelance writer, editor and author. In terms of my travel writing, I specialize in European travel. My travel writing work has been commissioned and published in nationally distributed publications including The New York Examiner, World War II Magazine, Aviation History Magazine, Writers Weekly, Renaissance Magazine, Global Aviator Magazine, and Weider Publishing Group among others. I’ve also written European-based travel guide material on popular websites/blogs including Travel Addict, Vagabondish, Backpacker, InTravel, Compass, and Writer Abroad.
Earlier this year I published my first two novels, a dark suspense/thriller set in Prague called The Vanishers and an adventure about a travel writer on the hunt for a legendary lost city in the Amazon called Dangerous Latitudes.
I’ve also just finished my MA in clinical psychology with existential-phenomenological emphasis at Seattle University.
Not a bad background from which to write! Whether you're talking journalism or narrative fiction, the journey from 'aspiring' to 'accomplished' can be a long one. When did you begin writing, and how did you feel when you first saw your work in print?
I’d always had a knack for writing; it’s what came the most naturally to me. I was always good at painting a picture with words and telling a story. When traveling I kept a journal (something I recommend to all writers and travelers). One thing that marked my travel experiences was a tendency to have encounters with interesting people, to find myself in strange or funny situations, and to observe a lot. So before I knew it I was writing down some of my stories for friends back home. They liked them and told me I should try to get published. I submitted some of my reports from various places, and to my surprise, they found interest. It was a pretty big thrill to see my name and my words on a printed, glossy page while standing in a large book store! I realized then I was in the extreme minority—a writer that actually got published and paid for it.
Not a bad way to get started, indeed! In terms of your novel writing, what comes easiest for you, and where do you struggle the most? Is it the title? The first paragraph? The last chapter? The cover blurb?
Mainly just making sure that the story works. The first paragraph has to really hook the reader and invite them in; and the last chapter is key too; it had to tie everything up and give the story and the characters the sort of closure they deserve. It has to be satisfying. So, that’s a struggle too. The blurb is a nightmare—trying to distill the essence of the story and the characters and why the book is good into a paragraph is really, really tough.
Sometimes, characters can take on a life of their own, pulling the story in directions you hadn't originally anticipated, especially when writing about time travel and magic. Have there been any twists or turns in your writing that surprised you, or really challenged your original plans?
Absolutely. Some writers, who are better with words than with life, have trouble creating textured characterizations; they have their characters act. But humans don’t act; they behave. They’re incredibly complex and often have conflicting motivations they’re not even consciously aware of. Their little tells—which are unique to every person—give them away. So I try to paint the picture using those little details to inform your understanding of them and where they’re coming from. I try to ply them with as many layers as I can, because people are multilayered. I also do it to increase the suspense—I want readers to keep guessing as to what the characters will ultimately do or feel. It’s not really hard to achieve that effect; we humans are subject to so many competing drives and desires and impulses, and that in itself creates lot of suspense, and I try to convey that while still keeping a tight, fun, suspenseful story going.
I like that line about behaving, as opposed to acting - great point. I suspect, given your background in travel, the answer is 'no' but do you have a soundtrack to your writing, a particular style of music or other background noise that keeps you in the mood?
I can write pretty much anywhere, having learned how to do it in noisy train stations and youth hostels on the road. That is a great skill to have, as solitude and quiet are not always available.
In terms of reader reactions, what is the strangest or most surprising reaction to your work that you've encountered to date?
People have responded incredibly well to the stories and the characters, so that is deeply satisfying. Also, people really dig the settings and atmospherics, which is really gratifying, since that element is so much a part of the experience of the books.
For example, The Vanishers is a suspense/thriller/heist story with an international setting. The action spans from Rome to a Scottish castle to the French Alps to Prague. The title refers to the main characters, an elite heist team known as the Vanishers. They’re a team of four former Special Forces vets (and one female cat burglar) from around the world. They’re experts in espionage, disguise, and cutting-edge technology. No one knows who they are, what motivates them, or where they are headquartered. Finally Interpol assembles special team led by a legendary Inspector to track them down. The story begins in a museum in Rome, the scene of latest heist. It also happens to be the new Inspector’s very first day on the job. The chase moves through Europe as the story progresses. We move to a mist-shrouded castle in Scotland, then to the sunny, snowy, French Alps from a major action sequence and to introduce a key character. The final part takes place in Prague.
For me and a lot of other travelers, Prague has always possessed a unique allure. The atmosphere is evokes a sense of mystery like few other places in the world, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite places to visit and write about. This also made it the natural choice for the final act of the story to play out; the cobbled alleyways, the vague feeling of danger you get when strolling in the narrow lanes under the church spires at night—especially if it’s a little rainy or misty—all epitomize that enchanting, Eastern Europe ambiance. I’ve tried to capture that atmosphere in The Vanishers.
With Dangerous Latitudes, the pattern is similar; we move from New York City to the dusty libraries of Europe in search of clues to a legendary Lost City in Amazon that was written about by the Conquistadors. Then the action moves to the jungles of South America. I wanted the reader to smell the old paper and dust of the European archives, and feel the heat and lurking danger of the jungle along with our hero, travel writer Matthew Hunt. From all the feedback I’ve received, it seems like I’ve succeed, which is incredibly gratifying.
I really like writers like Ken Follett, who really knows how to craft a story in multiple genres and historical eras. They know their craft and understand that character and story are the fundamental drivers regardless of the time period the story takes place in or the subject of the narrative. I like the adventure/thriller writers like Robert Ludlum and John Le Carré too. Also, I love Clive Cussler, Steve Berry, Joanna Penn, and James Rollins, who often tie their suspenseful stories to a historical mystery of some kind. The non-fiction travel writing of Bill Bryson and the late Pete McCarthy really inspires me too; they’re funny and insightful and make me want to pack a bag, grab my old leather journal, and catch a plane somewhere.
Nice. It's been a while since I've read any Ludlum or Le Carré but Cussler and Rollins are always on my TBR list. Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there a project on the horizon that you're really excited about?
I’m about to begin my next book, and am in the planning process. Since my stories involve lots of different locales and usually a historical mystery of some sort, there’s lots of research to be done! So that’s where I’m at right now. But it’ll be worth the wait. In the meantime, I write a weekly blog post for http://www.vagablogging.net/ and will be having travel articles published in Renaissance Magazine, Travel Post Monthly, and Writers Weekly in the next few months.
A huge thanks to James for stopping by!
by James Ullrich
Priceless works of art are vanishing from Europe’s greatest museums, and the culprits are a shadowy team of experts in espionage and cutting-edge technology who can make anything vanish from anywhere—for a price. They are allied in an elite heist team known as the Vanishers, and their exploits have electrified the continent, giving them near-mythical status. They seem beyond capture.
With an elite Interpol unit on their trail, the team considers quitting while they’re ahead—until a mysterious collector seeking a precious relic offers them the challenge of a lifetime. The Vanishers embark on a treasure hunt across Europe even as one member harbors an explosive secret that could doom them all.
An elaborate game of cat and mouse ensues as their nemesis, a determined Italian detective with a secret of his own, closes in. The detective soon finds his life threatened by an enemy operating deep within his own ranks, while the Vanishers realize their new assignment is more than they’d bargained for. After a stunning discovery and a tragic death, an alliance is forged between the adversaries to unmask the mysterious figure manipulating them all from the shadows.
Racing from the museums of Rome to the dark alleys of Prague, no one is quite who they seem to be as the Vanishers attempt pull off the heist of the century—and survive.
by James Ullrich
Travel writer Matthew Hunt has covered stories, people, and dangerous destinations all over the planet. But nothing has prepared him for his latest assignment.
A call from a young woman with an incredible claim sets him on a once-in-a-lifetime quest for a fabled Lost City in the darkest reaches of the Amazon jungle.
The woman, a beautiful young historian named Elena, claims to have received a letter from her father, long thought to have perished while researching the fate of a sixteenth-century Conquistador. Held against his will deep in the jungle, he makes a desperate plea for help.
Armed with a cryptic warning and a set of clues, the worldly travel writer and the youthful historian begin a desperate quest to find the truth behind the man’s disappearance—and the mysterious object of his pursuit—before it’s too late. Their search for the truth will take them from the dusty archives of Spain to the furthest depths of the Amazon.
With each new revelation, another piece of the puzzle emerges, and other questions are raised. Along the way, the pair finds that some allies are not who they seem, and make a deadly enemy who intends to keep the spoils for his own.
All of Hunt’s resourcefulness and determination will be needed to stay alive and solve the mystery. What secret really lies in the heart of the rainforest? A glimmering Lost City, a Fountain of Life, or something more sinister than they can imagine?
He’s also contributed European-based travel guide material on popular websites and blogs including Travel Addict, Vagabondish, Compass, Backpacker, InTravel, and Writer Abroad. He contributes a weekly blog post to Vagablogging ( www.vagablogging.net ).
In addition to writing, James has given talks on affordable independent travel to audiences interested in getting more out of their travel experiences for less cost.
Originally from Chicago, he’s previously worked as the Chief Managing Staff Writer for the Chicago Music Guide and served graduate internships in the Political Affairs Office of the US Embassy in London and the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence.
In his free time he enjoys wandering through Europe with a backpack and a journal. He hangs his rucksack in Seattle.