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James W. Hall, poet and bestselling author says you can learn to write well

by Mary Yuhas

photo James w. HallJames W. Hall started out his writing life as a poet. He published four collections of poetry, three of them with Carnegie-Mellon University Press. His poems appeared in Poetry, American Scholar, North American Review, Antioch Review, Poetry Northwest, and many other literary magazines.

Hall is also the author of eighteen novels. Thirteen of which, like his most recent Going Dark, (December, 2013), feature a hardcore loner named Thorn, who makes a meager living tying bonefish flies.

His non-fiction work includes Hot Damn! a collection of personal essays he wrote for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s Sunshine Magazine, as well as some he wrote for the Washington Post and The Miami Herald. His most recent non-fiction effort is Hit Lit (Random House) which is an analysis of twelve of the most commercially successful novels of the last century and the dozen features those books have in common.

Hall authored two collections of short stories. Paper Products (W.W. Norton), and Over Exposure, an eBook that contains his Edgar Award winning short story, “The Catch.”

Several of his novels were optioned for film and Hall wrote the screenplays for two of those projects, Bones of Coral, MGM-Pathe, Gruscoff-Levy Producers. (Co-writer, Les Standiford) And Under Cover of Daylight, (screenplay), Nelson Entertainment, Red Bank Studios Producers. He also wrote a television series pilot for Renfield Productions.

LitVote: Over the years, you’ve had a lot of jobs. Can you tell us about them?

James: I spent many years in school, earning a B.A. in literature, an M.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing. But between stints as a student I’ve been a bartender, a landscaper, a marina worker, a summer camp dining hall manager, a lifeguard and a restaurant manager and a handyman.

I once had the distinction of digging post holes and building a fence for Robert Redford at his Sundance ranch.

LitVote: Did those varied work experiences enrich your writing? If so, how?

James: Those jobs were a great source for collecting exotic characters. Seems I was lucky to work alongside some very rich and complicated people and I find those characters from real life have migrated into the stories a great deal. The work itself isn’t particularly memorable except for the marina experience. I did learn a lot about barnacles and boat hulls during that time.

LitVote: You were a poet before you were an author. “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too,” ─ a poem about Spiderman ─ is your best known poem. I love it. It’s incisive, poignant and is used in classrooms to help teach a variety of subjects. Do you still write poetry?

James: I don’t write poetry anymore, but the disciplines I learned from decades as a poet still linger and not always in positive ways. For instance, I find that when I write prose sentences I still sound out the words and listen for the cadence and rhythm of the language much as I did when I wrote poems. That can produce a lyrical sounding phrase, but it also slows me down greatly and I’m always questioning how much the musical writing matters to crime novel readers.

LitVote: Character development is key in your books. What techniques do you use to build character?


I think of characters as onions. I peel them away layer by layer as the novel goes on.

I don’t always know who they are when the novel starts, so writing the book is a process of discovery in terms of plot as well as characters. I’m always interested in how a character rationalizes what they do, especially the bad guys. Frequently I find myself going back to some one particular shaping incident from their past. It’s an old Freudian habit, I suppose, but I do think we are all products of major moments of our history. Usually something traumatic shapes our thinking in profound ways. A loss, a surprise, a failure, things like that.

LitVote: You are an organic writer. Without an outline for your books, how do you keep from getting lost?

James: I get lost all the time. That’s why God created the Delete key.

LitVote: Do you think some people are natural writers?

James: Not really. Some people prepare themselves better to be writers, by reading a lot, by being attentive to people and empathetic and by being introspective. But writing is a skill and a habit of thinking, so training can be of assistance.

LitVote: Can those who are not innate storytellers learn to write well?

James: Yes. I believe studying models is the most important learning device. Finding a book you love and analyzing it carefully, chapter by chapter, and using that as a paradigm. Before there were creative writing programs, writers managed to learn their craft quite well but studying the masters and copying their techniques. I’m not talking about outright plagiarism, of course, but about absorbing someone else’s work and using it as a reference point.

LitVote: For over forty years, you taught writing at the university level. What did you tell your students is the most important element in writing?

James: Keeping their butts in their chair.

LitVote: What are your suggestions to first time authors?

James: Find another line of work. If you absolutely can’t do something useful and you must write, then give yourself 10 years to finish your apprenticeship before you rush something into print on Amazon or elsewhere.

LitVote: Your future plans include…

James: Trying to keep my fingers nimble on the keyboard, and leaving the writing room a bit more regularly so I can actually have a life.


Mary Yuhas, is a journalist and has contributed to Sun-Sentinel, USA Today, China Daily USA and Washington Times among others, creator of Baby Boomers the first reality blog and the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother,  featured three times on Scribd.


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