James L. Haley on coffee shops, ‘The Boxcar Children’ & his favorite photo of Mark Twain

James L. Haley stops by the store tomorrow, November 14 @ 7 PM to discuss A Darker Sea, the second book in his Bliven Putnam Naval Adventure series. Below, we chat with the writer about his process, his reading list, and his earliest influences.

james haley

BP: What are you reading these days?

JH: I once asked James Michener that question, and he said, “Young man, I sometimes go eight years without getting to read anything for pleasure,” and now I know what he meant. I am committed to producing a tall-ship sailing adventure for Putnam, one a year. I also write a juvenile series for the Texas State Bar about law and order in early Texas, and there is one remaining long-term academic contract for Texas history that still haunts me – plus new projects that I want to undertake for my own art. If it ain’t research, I ain’t reading it. Happily, I am excellent at combining business with pleasure. For the third Putnam novel I am exploring Davida Malo’s Hawaiian Antiquities, John Papa I’i’s Fragments of Hawaiian History, Laura Fish Judd’s Honolulu Sketches, and of course Bingham’s Sandwich Islands. For the series generally I am re-absorbing both Moby Dick (whales figure in Book 6) and Two Years Before the Mast. For the at-home New England base of the story, I am loving Timothy Dwight’s Travels in America. 

BP: What books did you love as a child?

JH: My first book might have been Little Brown Bear – which I still have! In elementary school, during story time in library period there was a class demand to hear The Boxcar Children at least twice a year. Here is a mystery: the version that the teacher always read was set in Hungary, and now I can’t find any reference to it at all, anywhere. Does anyone know what that was? On my own reading, I was a nut for biography from the very start – Genghis Khan and Catherine the Great stand out in my memory. Maybe that’s why I love writing them.

BP: What’s the hardest thing about writing?

JH: Trusting my instincts. When I was writing Final Refuge, I went to Los Angeles to explore Chinatown, its back streets and traditional apothecaries where, with the right connections, one can still buy endangered species products like shaved rhinoceros horn. What I saw there shook me to the core, it was such a forbidding alternative world. On the flight home I started doubting myself – did I really see that? Surely it is not as dark as I perceived it. I wouldn’t dare write what I thought I saw. Luckily, a book was published that same year, a journalism piece about Chinatowns, that confirmed chapter and verse my two days of impression. That was when I learned – pretty much – to stop doubting my instincts. Both in fiction and nonfiction, my hunches are generally pretty good ones, but I still struggle with prevaricating.

BP: What’s the best thing about writing?

JH: Knowing that I will leave behind to society culturally useful testaments that, but for me, would not exist, is very satisfying. Now, cultural utility can take different forms. Uncovering new history, or interpreting history in a new way or setting a record straight, contributes to social enlightenment, and that is fine. What I have learned from my Putnam fan mail, though, is that just giving people a really entertaining experience has its own value – and if I manage to sneak them some history they weren’t aware of, so much the better.

BP: What’s your favorite word?

JH: Oh, good heavenly days. Which is your favorite child?

BP: What’s a sentence you’ve loved and remembered from a book?

JH: “There was a leopard in the road, a tapestry creature.” Karen Blixen was a native Danish speaker, but she did her own English versions of her stories and Out of Africa. Her ability to create an image with the fewest conceivable words was breathtaking. (Hemingway admired her, that says a lot). I started to read Out of Africa as research when I was writing The Lions of Tsavo for Bantam, but I put it down instantly because her style was so overpowering that my own book would have ended up sounding like her. She was also a writer who made demands upon her readers—she required their trust, their attention, and above all a certain level of literacy. In the sentence I chose, Blixen and others were traveling through a section of forest, and rather than waste words describing dappled sun and shadow and the leopard’s colors, in that one word, “tapestry,” you see precisely what she wants you to see. But it’s lost on you if you don’t know what a tapestry is. I have been accused of being a demanding writer, and it is true.

BP: Do you have any weird writing habits?

JH: I think all writers are a little weird, and need to be. I do harbor some superstitions. In the “old” days when printing a final manuscript, it would freak me out to have to change paper brands in the middle of a book. Office suppliers stock whatever comes off the truck, and having to switch from Neenah to Capitol in mid-print was like opening the portal of doom. Of course, that was probably more OCD than weird. Today, many works only ever see digital life, and they will be ephemeral. They will disappear when the technology changes. I still print mine – suckers. (Is that weird enough?)

BP: Who are your literary influences?

JH: I write both fiction and nonfiction, and they are different worlds. In nonfiction, clarity is style. When I was writing Sam Houston, I began every day reading a few pages of Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra (how to shape massive research into a narrative); Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde (how to pick what to tell when there are tons more details being left out); and Elizabeth Jenkins’s Elizabeth the Great (how to whittle down to a readable length). In fiction, I think most publishing trade novelists may be good architects but not good stylists. Pat Conroy was a stylist, and able to put himself on a page in a way that would not work in nonfiction. Genre fiction is different still. In preparing to write the Putnam series, I read enough of C. S. Forester (the Hornblower books) and Patrick O’Brian (the Aubrey-Maturin books) to get an idea of the audience expectations, but not so much that I would get glued to their template. We (editors and I) wanted to take the genre in a newer and more American direction, and I was left to my own devices for that.

BP: What’s your favorite place to write?

JH: My favorite photo of Mark Twain shows him in his nightshirt, in his great mahogany sleigh bed, surrounded by books and papers. I am aiming toward that, but until then, I have a soft-as-down chaise lounge in my study, on which I make my “laptop” live up to its name –until I go get a cup of coffee, come back and find my 17 year old cat sound asleep in the warm hollow where my butt was. Then I’m on my own. I do spend way too much time alone, so I sometimes patronize coffee houses, only to discover everybody sprouting ear buds, and texting. No one speaks or shows any curiosity about what others are doing. Our coffee houses should adopt the German tradition of the Stammtisch where regulars and strangers alike are allowed to speak to each other.

BP: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

JH: I would be doing one of two things: First, I would run a zoo. Environmental destruction will go down as the greatest crime of our generation, and zoos are the only chance for many species’ survival. They aren’t what they were fifty years ago. Today zoos are about education, research, and keeping endangered species present on earth as they go extinct in the wild. I would love to be part of that. Or, I would be an archaeologist, on my knees with a whiskbroom. Our understanding of the human story becomes more complete, or even changes, with every new discovery. I imagine that we know only a fraction of what we will eventually.


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