James Carol: ‘The story comes first, then the facts’

Brought to Book Q&A: Scottish author of the Jefferson Winter thriller series on the influence of Stephen King and Thomas Harris

James Carol: Stephen King’s The Dead Zone was ‘the signpost that led the way for everything that followed’.

James Carol: Stephen King’s The Dead Zone was ‘the signpost that led the way for everything that followed’.


James Carol is the Scottish-born author of the Jefferson Winter series of thriller novels - the third, Prey, has just been published by Faber. He lives in Hertfordshire.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. I read it when I was 11 … which might explain a lot.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I read loads of Enid Blyton books as a kid, but there isn’t one that stands out. Reading The Dead Zone was a real eye-opening experience. The good guy died in the end; what was that all about? You didn’t have things like that going down in The Famous Five books.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Without wanting to sound like the lead cheerleader for the Stephen King Fan Club, my all-time favourite book is The Stand. It’s an awesome piece of writing. King kills off 99 per cent of the population in the first 400 pages. For most writers that would be a book, but King’s just getting warmed up - there are still another 800 pages to go!

What is your favourite quotation?

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon (Beautiful Boy).

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Hannibal Lecter. He is truly despicable, yet you end up rooting for him. Thomas Harris pulled off a brilliant sleight of hand there. For the record, Hannibal is my second favourite book … I don’t just read Stephen King books!

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

I don’t know if he’s under-rated, but I’ve just started reading William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department. It’s a great piece of writing. Ryan has transported me back to 1930s Moscow and I’m totally there. The atmosphere and attention to detail is incredible. Captain Korolev is a wonderful lead character.

Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?

Print every time. eBooks definitely have their place. They are convenient, and the idea that you can hold a whole library in something that’s smaller than a paperback is mind-blowing. However there’s nothing better than settling down on the sofa with a cup of tea and turning the pages of a physical book. I like the idea that I’m on page 351 rather than being 81 per cent of the way through - the first describes a journey; the second feels like you’re in too much of a hurry to reach the destination.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

A first edition signed copy of Stephen King’s On Writing.

Where and how do you write?

I write at the dining table in the middle of our living room. I have two young children, so, as you can imagine, it’s not a quiet, contemplative writing space. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though. I work on the books during the morning, and aim to write 1,500 words a day. Some days are easier than others, but I usually manage to meet my word count.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The construction of the book was unique and a breath of fresh air. It showed that when it came to writing there really are no rules.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

It’s difficult to say since I tend to research the books as I’m writing them - I’m convinced the internet was invented solely to benefit writers! As far as I’m concerned, the story comes first, then the facts. Any major research happens between the first and second drafts. For instance, 15 Minutes (Jefferson Winter Book 4) is set in Berlin, so I’m planning on going there soon. Wherever possible I like to visit the locations used in the books. The internet only gets you so far. Like the late great Robin Williams said in Good Will Hunting: “Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.”

What book influenced you the most?

Again, it’s got to be The Dead Zone. This book was the signpost that led the way for everything that followed.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

That depends very much on the child. Reading is such a personal thing. If you were giving a gift like this, it would need to be the right book.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Lord of the Rings. I’ve tried to read it a few times but just couldn’t get into it. Most of the people I know who rave about it read it as teenagers. Maybe it’s one of those books you have to read when you’re in your teens. If that’s the case then it looks like I’ve missed the boat.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

You need to write. It’s no good talking about it, you need to sit down at the keyboard and hammer those words out. You might have the best idea for a novel ever, but if it’s stuck inside your head then it’s no use to anyone.

What weight do you give reviews?

Because reading is so subjective, it would be unreasonable to expect to wow everyone. It’s not going to happen. That said, reviews are a good barometer of how well a book is doing; they enable you to see the big picture. If most people are saying that you’re doing a good job then you can breathe a sigh of relief. However, if most people are saying the book’s lousy, then you need to get back to that drawing board pretty damn quick.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I think the eBook will continue to go from strength to strength. If that means more people are reading then that’s got to be a good thing. Books only exist because of readers - it’s a symbiotic relationship - so anything that gets people reading is okay with me. The other side of the coin is that sales of physical books will invariably be affected. And I do wonder how much longer hardback books will be viable for. It would be sad to see them disappear altogether. They really are works of art.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

I don’t tend to be particularly concerned with trends. For me a good book is a good book, regardless of genre or when it was written. The bottom line is whether or not it has a story that grabs you and characters that captivate.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

The biggest thing is that it’s good to get off the merry-go-round every once in a while. Modern life can get hectic. Things move at a frenetic pace, and everyone seems to want everything yesterday. Books are the perfect escape. They work in a different time and space. Open one up and you can escape to a different universe for a while. There really is nothing better than losing yourself in a good book.

What has being a writer taught you?

Tenacity and perseverance. When you sit down to write a new novel, it’s a long road ahead. It would be easy to quit before you’ve written a single word. The way to beat this is one word at a time. Get enough words and you’ve got a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter … a book. Except that’s not the end of it because now you’ve got to redraft, then redraft again, and redraft again.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Stephen King, Lee Child and Jodi Picoult. These guys are my favourite writers; they really are the best in the business. I’d love the opportunity to thank them in person for writing all those wonderful books. Oh, and Thomas Harris could come along too, so long as he did the cooking. Seemingly he’s an amazing cook. That said, if he served up liver and fava beans with a nice Chianti, then I might want to reconsider that.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

The scene in Hannibal where Lecter lobotomises Starling’s old boss and serves her his brains for dinner was amusing … uhm, reading that last sentence back makes me wonder if I should be checking in to see a shrink.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

The '60s fascinate me. It was incredibly turbulent and there was so much change going on. Most of all, though, I love all the great music that was written and recorded then. A story that involved Hendrix would be a lot of fun. The guy was a genius and did so much in such a short space of time. It was a tragedy that he died so young.

What is your favourite word?

Micropachycephalosaurus. My daughter is mad on dinosaurs and learned to say this phonetically when she was three. The micropachycephalosaurus might have been small but it has the longest name of any dinosaur. A great word, and a great memory.


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