Interview with Paula Gail Benson
James M. Jackson has written seven books featuring his financial crimes investigator, Seamus McCree. In Ant Farm, Seamus uncovers who poisoned thirty-eight retirees at a Labor Day picnic. His own home in Cincinnati is a crime scene in Bad Policy, and secrets about his father’s involvement in the IRA come to light. He retreats to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Cabin Fever only to discover a naked woman on his porch during a blizzard. Doubtful Relations finds him taking a road trip to Savannah to investigate his ex-wife’s missing current husband. In Empty Promises, he loses a witness he was hiding, his granddog finds a buried human bone, and the police uncover a dead body. He returns to Boston in False Bottom where, while serving as executor for his uncle’s will, he learns more family secrets.
In his latest adventure, Granite Oath, Seamus agrees by “pinkie swear” to “work” for his eight-year-old granddaughter and her best friend in order to find the best friend’s missing mother.
When he realizes he will have to provide refuge for the best friend and her grandmother, who speaks little English, Seamus consults his ex-wife Lizzie, who tells him, “One of the most lovable and most frustrating parts of you is your willingness to take on other people’s battles.” Further, she says, “You damn McCrees turn a pinkie swear into a granite oath that nothing less than a glacier can crush.”
Has Lizzie’s description accurately described Seamus character or is she simply expressing an ex-wife’s dubious perspective?
A little hyperbole never hurt anyone, right? But Lizzie has put her finger on one of Seamus’s core beliefs: his word is his bond. He’s imperfect, and he suffers greatly when he does not live up to his own expectations
Most people wouldn’t think about illegal immigration being a problem in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Where did you get the idea for this book?
I wanted to write a story that involved Megan because that girl is going to change the world some day. She’s eight; how would she get Seamus involved in an investigation? What “problem” would be large enough to justify a novel. A friend’s missing mother worked, but then why involve Seamus and not the police?
Because the friend wouldn’t go to the police if they were afraid of them, which sadly is the situation in many places where bashing immigrants makes good political theater, and the threat of deportation is real.
What types of research did you do to learn about United States’ immigration law and policies and the problems faced by illegals in this country? What did you learn that surprised you?
I believe I first met illegal immigrants when I was working a summer job after high school supporting VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in migrant labor camps in Upstate New York. I have been interested in understanding how throughout the course of US history, in a “representative democracy” the wealthy have maintained a stranglehold on the reins of power. One of their levers has been to exploit cheap labor.
The cheapest labor comes from those with no ability to affect the political process and who have little legal recourse. In early years, businesses could utilize slaves, indentured servants, and child labor. Now they prey on illegal immigrants and often inmates (current through prison labor or former through restrictive laws).
I can’t say anything surprised me after seeing the horrific images over the last decade from our southern border and watching an ineffectual national political response. I had forgotten, though, that Massachusetts passed the first deportation Act in 1794 after it “suffered” a rush of poor Irish immigrants.
Seamus has a lovely relationship with his granddaughter Megan. Is that based on relationships you’ve had with grandchildren?
I get to claim Jan’s grandkids as mine. The youngest is a rising senior in high school. Their parents have raised independent-minded young people of whom I am proud. Whenever I could, I took it as my responsibility to stretch their boundaries in ways that brought no harm but may not have been kosher.
Many strong women, younger and older, inhabit Granite Oath. What inspiration do you use to write female characters?
You stumped me, Paula. I’ve never thought about how I write female characters. I think I treat all my characters the same: each is an individual with desires and goals, strengths and weaknesses, varying ways of dealing with obstacles. That said, I can’t imagine Seamus wanting to be friends with anyone who didn’t have their own opinions or who followed three steps behind their partner, eyes focused on the ground. As a result, to become a continuing character (male or female) you must be strong.
Your setting is very much a part of your story. In the acknowledgments, you mention that you have created a number of the locations and businesses referenced. How do you determine what factual details to include and what to fictionalize?
I love reading stories that use real settings, especially if I have knowledge of them. My inclination is to use actual locations and businesses whenever I can, but not to allow geographic “facts” to hamstring the story. When I use real businesses, I make sure nothing bad happens in them, and that I never diss an owner. If an enterprise is at all controversial, I’ll create a fictitious one and locate it at some distance from any similar real enterprises.
As your editor, you call Jan Rubens your “first, last, and best reader.” What is your practice for working together? Does she see early drafts of your manuscripts?
The first time Jan sees a manuscript is after I think I have solved all the plot and character issues. That’s usually draft two, sometimes three. She puts on blinders to ignore my lousy writing and tells me what does not work or where action c-r-a-w-l-s. I make those changes, semi-polish, and send the manuscript to an outside developmental editor for an independent review. After I address whatever issues she finds, I polish, and then Jan copyedits. I take 90+% of her suggestions, and then we independently proofread. My faithful eagle-eyed readers then find all the stuff I missed (because when you are too close, you read through errors).Then comes the relationship-challenging part of the process. I fix those typos, layout the book for print and Jan proofreads again—and finds things that need improving. By that point I want to be done, done, done with the book. After swearing I will never write another novel again, wondering what made me think I could write one in the first place, vowing that I’d rather drink lye than deal with one more improvement, I buckle down and make the changes. We both proof again (and find a couple more typos – and still there will be at least one in the book, I know).
One lovely part of your series is that you allow Seamus to experience parts of the country and world where you have lived or visited. Since you are taking a trip to Iceland, do you imagine that Seamus may follow in your footsteps?
I have no plans to take Seamus abroad. Although I have traveled to many interesting places, the thought of dealing with foreign laws is enough to squash any thought I might have. My plans for the next book in the series (assuming this one sells well enough to justify a next book) is to have Seamus and his nemesis the Happy Reaper meet and compete one last time.
|James M. Jackson|