James D. Bell is an award-winning author and retired Judge who received the highest bar association approval ratings ever given to a Mississippi Circuit or County Judge. He is listed in Preeminent Lawyers, Outstanding Lawyers of America and Top 100 Attorneys of North America.  He is the author of two novels, Vampire Defense and Maximilian’s Treasure.  His short story, The Adventures of Sherlock Hound, was published in Dog Stories for the Soul, alongside stories from Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Willie Morris and others.  The son of a Choctaw mother and a Mississippi businessman, Judge Bell is devoted to his wife, Joanne.  They live in Brandon, Mississippi and have four children.  Judge Bell practices law in Jackson, Mississippi, but is frequently called back to the bench by the Mississippi Supreme Court for short term assignments. 

INTERVIEW:

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Maximilian’s Treasure. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?   

A:  It’s based upon an encounter I had with an elderly Choctaw gentleman who told me that Mexican gold intended to help the Confederacy was hidden on his farm.  I helped him search his farm.  In Maximilian’s Treasure rumors of hidden gold fuel a battle over possession of a Choctaw family farm.  Two young lawyers, John Brooks and Jackson Bradley, agree to help the family keep their farm.  Early legal success prompts the drive-by murder of the patriarch of the family.  The grandson chases the suspects whose bodies are found on the farm, scalped.  At the same time, clues to a vast treasure are found on the farm.  Jackson, pursued by fortune seekers, adventurers, an exotic beauty and a homicidal maniac follows the clues to a Caribbean reef and then to the Chiapas jungle.  John stays behind to defend the grandson and continue the fight for the farm.  His efforts are complicated by arson, murder, race riots, and the realization that he lost his one true love.  The adventures of John and Jackson rush toward an intertwined triple climax that proves that what happened long ago and far away matter here and now.

Q: What do you think makes a good legal thriller? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A:  We have an innate desire to see and experience justice.  We are offended when the rich and powerful destroy lives and trample the rights of others.  We hurt when we see the innocent harmed.  Everyone has an inner voice, a sort of lawyer, that alerts us when justice is threatened.  If justice fails, the whole world is out of balance.  That’s why I became a lawyer.  That’s why I became a judge.  That’s why I write.

A great legal thriller must incite the reader’s inner lawyer to join the author’s quest for justice.  To do that, the reader’s inner lawyer needs a deserving client who has all the odds unfairly stacked against him and an opponent with overwhelming unfair advantage.  Justice itself must be at risk if you and the reader don’t find a way to overcome the odds together.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: I know the beginning and the end of my story when I start.  Knowing the end helps me plot an interesting course filled with mystery, action, suspense, comedy and romance.  I make an outline and work my way along the outline from one scene to another.  Sometimes the story takes on a life of its own, and things occur that I did not expect.  That may make me re-write the beginning or change the outline.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A:  My best friend and I were young lawyers defending citizens charged with crimes in Mississippi.  We attracted a bit of attention because we kept winning cases.  Jack was a loyal friend, an intrepid investigator, and a great researcher.  Together we regularly accomplished what at first seemed impossible.  Jack died twenty years ago; too young; too soon.  I miss him.  I brought him back to life in my novels, Maximilian’s Treasure and Vampire Defense.  He and I were polar opposites on issues that divide people today, but that’s what made us a great team.  I recreate that dynamic between John and Jackson.

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A:  I encountered real villains during my career.  I interviewed scam artists, serial murderers, paranoid schizophrenics, devil worshipers and just plain scary people.  I draw from that “frightening well” to come up with my antagonists.  They’re a bit too real to me.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A:  I love action-adventure.  I feel like I’ve done something wrong if I don’t have something exciting happening every few pages.  I want the reader to have an “I can’t put this book down” experience. I try to create suspense by having multiple simultaneous intertwined storylines.  I interrupt an episode at a critical moment and jump to another storyline, leaving the reader hanging.  I want the reader to hurry through the interrupting episode to get back to the suspended scene.  My goal is to get the reader hooked on the interruption and suspend it at a critical moment.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A:  Write what you know about.  I use my hometown along with the woods, rivers, jungles and lakes I have explored.  I write about adventures I have lived.  In Maximilian’s Treasure, I dove the reefs, crossed the river, climbed the cliff, hung by my fingernails over the precipice, entered the cave behind the waterfall and …

You don’t have to do everything you write about, but describing things you know is a good way to bring life to your story.

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A:  In the past, every book and movie had a “moral to the story.”  I feel we have lost some of that.  I write to put the moral back into the story.  The themes I explored in Maximilian’s Treasure include: 1. What happened five hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, and last year matters today.  2. What happens in distant places matters everywhere.  3.  Things are not always what they seem.  4.  There are many kinds of treasure, some far more valuable than gold. 5.  Christians can work with and be friends with people who do not share their faith without being “judgmental”.  6.  God actively intervenes in our lives.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: Storytelling is both craft and art.  Craft comes from study and experience.  Art is an act of creation springing from the mind.  Editing should refine, not redefine, your work.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A:  Success is in the eye of the beholder.  Make sure that you are judging your success on your own scale.  If I had to limit my comment to three measures of success; 1) Envisioning a story that has positive impact on the life of a reader; 2) Completing the story you envisioned; 3) Observing your story having positive impact on a reader.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. Thoughts?

A:  Yep.  Use every opportunity to learn more about your subject, and write, write, write.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A:  As I was finishing my first novel, I took a night course at Millsaps College titled, “How to Sell What You Write.”  I encourage every writer and aspiring writer to study how to sell your work.  You may have to be just as creative selling your work as you are when you create it.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A:  Set aside dedicated time to write.  You will come up with a hundred bad excuses to put off writing.  Write anyway.  Don’t wait for inspiration, just write.  My experience has been that after a couple of pages of hard work the story starts telling itself and writing comes easy.  I can always delete the first two pages if I don’t like them.

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