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James Wade lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter. He is the author of River, Sing Out, and Beasts of the Earth (winner of the 2023 Spur Award for Best Contemporary Novel) as well as the critically-acclaimed debut novel All Things Left Wild (winner of the MPIBA Reading the West Award for Debut Fiction, and the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel). James’s work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, and his novels have been featured by publications such as PopSugar, BookBub, Deep South Magazine, and the New York Journal of Books.
Your novels – All Things Left Wild, River, Sing Out, and Beasts of the Earth – seem to share a common theme: the loss of innocence in characters swimming amid a pool of evil. In your view, is that the inevitable dilemma of the human condition?
I think so. Mostly. Maybe. It’s certainly the dilemma of those humans who have been cursed with awareness and ambiguity both. I think the central characters (Caleb, Jonah and River, and most recently, Harlen) in each book are those types of people. They’re weighed down with guilt, but they’re also weighed down with this longing for inner peace. Their primary struggle is whether or not they can be okay with things not being okay. Ignorance is bliss, and none of these characters are ignorant, so they have a tough time finding solace– not just from the world, but from their own thoughts about it. It’s a great way for readers to connect with the characters and something you do a wonderful job of with the Laws and Zarkans in Seventh Flag, showing readers the tension and anxieties that exist within these families and the world they inhabit.
Your central character(s) survive this crucible, a happy ending if you will. How do you square this in the nihilistic worlds you create in your novels?
Not to spoil things, but they don’t all survive. Some of the central characters make it. Some don’t. To your point, it speaks to what some folks would consider nihilism or randomness. I think it’s just realism. There’s a desire to create realistic outcomes, which means the main character can’t always survive dangerous situations. However, there’s also the goal of the novels, which in large part is to show how a character is changed by the circumstances they come up against. That’s tougher to do when you kill them off. But even for the ones who do make it through, there’s not always a happy ending waiting on the other side.
God, or a divine force, is the one character that seems missing from your novels. Of course, writing a novel is an act of pure faith and folly, prima facie evidence that all novelists must have some form of faith. How does your faith, or lack thereof, impact your stories?
I’d argue that there is a God in my novels. Maybe a different God for each one, or maybe not the God most folks are used to seeing, but it’s there. The desert, the river, the Watchmaker. Wise old men and women. Innocent children. Love and grace and the hurt it takes to be human– to be alive.
The truth is I struggle with this world– with all of it, not just its religions and politics. And faith, or lack thereof, is certainly a part of that struggle. Because I often write about the things I struggle with, it makes sense that faith and religion would make their way into my novels pretty frequently. I’m also a regional author, with all of my novels being set in Texas, and it’s only natural that the dialogue and worldview of many of my rural-Texan characters is centered around God.
I worry that I write too much about that stuff, or maybe use too much biblical allegory. That’s just part of who I am as a writer and as a person. I was raised Southern Baptist. I’ve read the Bible in its entirety several times and still reference it regularly. But because I approach it now in a literary context rather than as holy scripture, I’m able to access the storytelling techniques and beautiful prose without being beholden to a certain viewpoint. And ultimately writing a novel takes faith in yourself more than anything else. If outsourcing that faith to a deity makes you a better writer, then I’m all for it. But in the end, divine intervention or not, you still have to put your ass in the chair and get it done.
Only a ‘real’ Texan like you, as opposed to a Houston transplant from New York or LA gallivanting around Marfa in a shiny new pair of cowboy boots and a crisp Low Crown, could write about their state with such authenticity and gravitas. What is the ‘it’ about Texas that infuses your life and writing?
Texas is the perfect character. It has a little bit of everything, from a terrain or cultural or culinary standpoint. I grew up in East Texas where we’re more culturally aligned with the southeast than we are with the southwest. To think El Paso and Beaumont are in the same state seems ridiculous. Or Marfa and Gun Barrel City. Or Dallas and Fort Davis. So many places in Texas are unlike anywhere else, including the other places in Texas. I’ve worked at newspapers in rural Texas, worked at the State Capitol during the legislative session. I’ve driven across the state to cover high school football, to lobby for water conservation, and even to deliver beauty supply products to rural salons while I was in college (there’s a book in there somewhere). We’re as diverse a state as exists in this union, and no matter how much Texas is talked about, there’s still always more to say. I’ve been asked if I’ll ever write anything set outside of Texas and the answer is always, “why would I?”
Tell us a little about the book you’re incubating, and why your editor wanted a rewrite. An inevitable part of our process, but how does that make you feel. Do you push back, or simply go back to the drawing board?
I’m working on a prohibition/great depression era novel set in a fictional East Texas town. The basic theme explores what folks will do to survive when put in precarious situations, and how our psyches are shaped by tragedy.
My biggest weakness as a writer is plotting. I like characters and landscape and conversation. If I could sell a novel where two characters sit in the woods and talk to each other about pain and anger and beauty and loss for three hundred pages, I’d do it. But my publisher, rightfully, wants action, pacing, plot, etc. so I tried to give that to them with the first draft. Get all the elements out there and let them decide which ones to develop more and which ones to cut or revise. That’s basically where we’re at now.
As for how edits and revisions make me feel, it’s twofold. First, I have incredibly thick skin. I’m lucky and grateful to be a writer, and I accept criticism as a reality of my very fortunate position. Second, I have to look at it as a business decision. My publisher is paying me. They have to sell the books in order to make any money back. I have to put them in the best position I can for them to succeed, and they let me know when I haven’t done that. That’s the business.
If I feel incredibly strongly about something, I’ll definitely push back, and they’re great about being receptive. But I have such severe imposter syndrome, that I usually don’t feel that strong about my work to begin with. That’s a confidence that I believe will come with time and experience. In my opinion, I’m still learning how to write. There’s no critique I can’t benefit from. Even if I don’t agree with something, it helps to see it through another person’s eyes.
Ego can be a difficult thing to manage. You have to have a certain amount of ego to write anything in the first place, but then you have to immediately discard it when it comes to feedback and reception.
Ellen Whitfield is senior publicist at Books Forward, an author publicity and book marketing firm committed to promoting voices from a diverse variety of communities. From book reviews and author events, to social media and digital marketing, we help authors find success and connect with readers.