Today I have the pleasure of interviewing James Hampton, author of the novels TO A FAR COUNTRY, TREASURE HOUSE, FOUR CLOCKS and short stories THAT’S ALL THE TIME WE HAVE and SWIM WITH ME, amongst his many works, and welcome him to my blog.
Thank you, Marcia. I’m very glad to be here.
Q: Have any life experiences inspired you to write your books?
A: In every story I write there are echoes of the past. Some of those echoes are loud and some are faint, but I can always hear them. I‘ve been blessed to grow up in a region of my home state with a rich heritage of ghost stories and old legends, so maybe it was inevitable that themes of wandering spirits, ancient maps, and shadowed forests full of danger and magic would be prominent in my work. But I frequently draw on real-life experiences as well. The trick is to modify and disguise those experiences just enough to gain some needed detachment, while staying true to their essence. To put it another way, I change names and circumstances to protect the innocent (and the guilty, especially if I’m one of them), but I work hard to ensure that the emotions I felt, and the lessons I took away, remain intact. TREASURE HOUSE is a good example of this. It has a failed high school romance, an older gentleman incapable of changing with the changing times, and two young people (who happen to be the principals in that failed high school romance) trying to figure out where they fit into the world. Real life experiences of mine, to varying degrees, form the basis for these plot elements, even though the storyline of TREASURE HOUSE is pure speculative fiction.
Q: For how long have you been writing?
A: I’ve enjoyed creative writing since way back in elementary school, although there were too many years during which I engaged in it sporadically or not at all. Starting in late 2004 I decided to get serious about writing again, so I’d say about eight years now.
Q: You have a prolific output of both short stories, and longer works. Do you have a writing program which works for you?
A: I do. No matter what, each week—and each day if possible—I try to write something, anything. I believe every writer should do this. It doesn’t matter what gets written as long as it requires a little imagination. If an author began a story with great zeal, but now finds he or she has run out of gas, I think it’s fine to set that story aside for a while—but I also think the author should find something else to work on, and quickly. Start a new story, or, better yet, return to an old story left unfinished. I do this all the time. Thus far not one of my longer works (more than 20,000 words) has been written in a single continuous stretch of time. I began, and abandoned, TREASURE HOUSE in 2006; in the summer of 2008 I came back and finished it. But in between I was writing short stories like THE WAY OF ALL THINGS and SWIM WITH ME. I think of Writers Block as being selective in nature. My experience has been that it blocks certain stories from completion but not others; so I just work on those others until the blockage clears. I find this to be a good way to achieve a high level of output, while keeping your enthusiasm fresh at the same time.
Q: Do you have any favorite book genres which you love to read?
A: I enjoy reading all kinds of stories, just as I enjoy watching all kinds of movies. I may lean a little bit toward reading the kinds of stories that I write (or maybe I write the kind of stories I commonly read) but over the years I’ve been entertained by everything from science fiction and political thrillers to fantasy epics and contemporary fiction (ordinary world stuff, as I call it). I think compelling plots, high drama, and fascinating characters can be found in any genre.
Q: Are there any favorite books and authors who have been influential upon you and your writing?
A: I have been most influenced by three authors: Ray Bradbury, Pat Conroy, and Madeleine L’Engle. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, by Ray Bradbury, is a darkly glinting jewel of a novel that combines poetic prose, creeping terror, and poignant observations about friendship, growing up, and getting older. THE PRINCE OF TIDES, by Pat Conroy, is an epic family saga that melds beautiful writing with dramatic power, set in a geography that’s virtually identical to the one in which I was born and raised. Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME, which I first read twenty-five years ago, introduced me to some frankly stunning scientific concepts in the course of a whimsical, provocative, and occasionally horrific science fiction book that doubles as a fine coming-of-age tale. Any story of mine can trace its ancestry to at least one of these three writers, all of whom I consider masters of language, though I like to think the finished product is fully my own. I also enjoy the works of Judy Blume, Judith Guest, Roald Dahl, Robert Cormier, and Stephen King, and I see some of their writing genes in my work as well. If I can ever get half as good as any of these writers, I’ll be happy.
Q: Your stories are intimate examinations of human relationships that get to the heart of their characters’ inner core, tearing away at surface superficiality, and exposing their lives for the reader to ponder. Your short story SWIM WITH ME reminded me of the Burt Lancaster film THE SWIMMER, especially, the character’s bittersweet odyssey looking back over his life. Has your interest in human nature been something which you have had for a while, or, something which has emerged for you at a certain stage of life?
A: I think my interest in human nature, and in the myriad ways humans relate to one another, has always been present. But I had to write a lot of stories in order to see that it was there. Reading over my stuff months and sometimes years after completion, I’ve found that people’s emotions, longings, fears, strengths and/or weaknesses nearly always play a significant part in the plots I develop. For example, SWIM WITH ME was largely inspired by a terrific movie from 1970 called I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER. Based on a play of the same name, it stars Gene Hackman and the late Melvyn Douglas. Hackman plays a son in early middle age trying to cope with the ups and downs of life while at the same time looking after his increasingly frail parents. At the end of the movie Gene Hackman’s protagonist reflects on the passing of his father (played by Douglas) with the observation that while the old man is dead, their relationship is not. SWIM WITH ME is built around this idea. Death has come between the narrator of SWIM WITH ME and his son—just as death has come between the characters portrayed by Hackman and Douglas—but their relationship, with all of its unresolved questions and bittersweet complexities, goes on. The supernatural element of SWIM WITH ME merely underscores some very human feelings. And human feelings are really, I think, what my work is all about. I write primarily science fiction and fantasy at this stage of my life, and I’m very proud to write in those genres. But my main interest lies with the relationships between people: between men and women, parents and children, young and old, steadfast friends, blood enemies, and so on. Granted, I like to add in liberal doses of weirdness: melancholy ghosts, country ponds full of monsters, magic timepieces, and storms that feed on human sadness. But in the end these are just props and set pieces: little devices I’ve made up to better explore the wonders and failings of the human animal.
Q: Do you have any favorite TV shows, either from the past, or still on the air?
A: As far as writing is concerned, I would say Amazing Stories, Wonderworks, and The Twilight Zone (both classic and 1980s series) are the most influential. Each episode of these programs was like a little mini-movie with its own unique cargo of delights, surprises, and scares. That’s the model I try to use for my stories: a mini-movie. Now, when it comes to television viewing for pure enjoyment, my all-time favorite sitcom of the past is All in the Family, followed closely by Cheers. Here in the present I’m enjoying The Big Bang Theory, though I have no idea what Penny sees in those guys across the hall.
Q: Do you have any hobbies you like to participate in when you have spare time?
A: I like to be outside: walking on the beach, throwing a cast net in a tidal creek, anything that gets me out in the fresh air.
Q: Are there any other writing projects you would like to mention?
A: This weekend I’ll be unveiling Island Travelers on Amazon.com. It’s the first part of a romantic fantasy trilogy called The Eternity Papers. Set in the summer of 1971, Island Travelers introduces Caroline Richards and Wesley Ingram, two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood who meet and fall in love on an island off the Georgia coast. Both Caroline and Wesley are eager to escape home environments they consider stifling, but there is an important difference: Caroline lives in the modern age, while Wesley hails from an enchanted town called Eternity, a place where Time flows quite differently from the way we know it. It’s been a nice change of pace for me to do a love story. I hope people will enjoy it. I have definitely enjoyed writing it.
I am certain that you will join me in thanking James today for his time, and that we look forward to reading more of his works in the future. If you wish to contact James, he is available on:
James’ books can be accessed by clicking on the covers below: