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A Conversation With James Stevens-Arce
An interview with Lisa DuMond
November 2001

© James Stevens-Arce
James Stevens-Arce
James Stevens-Arce
James Stevens-Arce works as a writer/producer/director of film and video in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Asimov's and Aboriginal Science Fiction. The novella version of Soulsaver shared the 1997 UPC Prize for Science Fiction.

James Stevens-Arce Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Soulsaver
Excerpt from Soulsaver


Everyone interviews authors when a new book hits the market, when it's critically acclaimed, when it wins major awards -- all things that apply to your debut novel Soulsaver -- but no one checks in during the months of hard work between publication. Would you mind being our author-on-display? (Just keep working so the visitors can see what the writing life is really like.)
Huh? What? Where is that voice coming from?

Soulsaver was an exceptionally strong first novel, with some potentially inflammatory subject matter. Did you receive any vehement feedback supporting you or hanging you in effigy?
None hanging me in effigy, oddly enough. I say "oddly" because I had been concerned that some readers might mistakenly think the novel attacks religion, when, if it attacks anything, it's those who use -- and abuse -- religion to further their own agendas.

But all I've received so far have been positive responses to the book, as you can see in the comments that have come in via e-mail posted on the Readers' Comments page on my website.

Has the reception of Soulsaver by critics and readers influenced the fiction you've written since its publication, either in subject matter or in viewpoint?
I can't say that it has. I've always tended to try to write the kind of story that I would enjoy reading myself. However, folks who read both Soulsaver and what I'm hoping will be my next book to see publication, a 19th century historical novel with elements of the fantastic currently titled Blind Man, Preacher Man, may notice that both are coming-of-age stories that pit a young man who is searching for himself against a corrupt evangelist. Of course, I'm hoping they'll also notice that they're vastly different in style, structure, storyline, texture, and theme.

Short story sales have been a big part of your career, ranging from the top magazines in the genre to major anthologies. Do you prefer the short form over novel length? Or is it a case of how the ideas come to you?
I used to write only short stories, but I think that was because I didn't have anything to say that couldn't be expressed in 3,000-15,000 words. Now that I've finally succeeded in achieving a novel-length work with Soulsaver, I find almost every idea I get wanting to be a novel.

When you aren't turning out speculative fiction, you're producing/writing/directing television, film, and radio commercials. It seems a natural segue to see a screenplay from James Stevens-Arce, either based on one of your existing fiction pieces or an entirely new project. Are you leaning in that direction? Is there anything in your existing body of work that seems a natural for dramatic production?
Funny you should ask. Interestingly enough, before it was a novel, Soulsaver was a spec screenplay. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Soulsaver started out as a short story about a young true believer who begins to question things. Asimov's Science Fiction published it in September 1983, despite a theme that then-editor Shawna McCarthy characterized as "controversial." At that time, I had no idea I would ever want to develop the topic further.

Jump ahead to 1988. Pat Robertson is making a run for the Republican presidential nomination. Around this time, too, Assemblies of God minister Jim Bakker's sexual shenanigans with then-teenager Jessica Hahn got plastered across the front pages of publications as lurid as The National Enquirer and as staid as The New York Times.

Rival preacher Jimmy Swaggart condemned Bakker -- and then got his own picture in the paper for getting arrested while being "ministered to" by a member of the oldest profession.

Even Oral Roberts popped his venerable silver-maned head up on television to plead for large cash donations, tearfully confiding that the Lord had threatened to take him to His Bosom (apparently church-speak for "Jehovah gone whack you, sucka"), if Oral's flock didn't pony up $8 million pronto. (The good minister failed to specify whether the Lord required that the collection plate be filled with small, unmarked bills only.)

And on CNN, a disenchanted former manager of Pat Robertson's television station revealed the existence of a very special production manual. Station personnel were training to follow its step-by-step instructions for the upcoming live broadcast of the Second Coming, the End of the World, and the Rapture. This triple blockbuster mother-of-all-sweeps was scheduled, according to some celestial TV Guide, to kick off at the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1999.

That's when I decided that Soulsaver could be a novel. But to make the long leap from short story to novel-length less daunting, I decided to turn the original piece into a screenplay first. Typically, these run no more than 20-25,000 words. That done, I could more easily shoot for the 50-80,000 words that make up a novel.

I discovered a couple of interesting things along the way. Writing for the screen focused me primarily on plot, visuals, and dialogue, very little on description or internal feelings. By contrast, when I began adapting and expanding the completed script into a novel a year later, my focus switched to the interior life of the characters. That was also my chance to "direct" the movie I'd written, since now I could describe the settings in detail and provide the characters with appropriate facial expressions and reactions, along with revelatory bits of business.

With Blind Man, Preacher Man, I went in the opposite direction -- that is, I wrote it first as a novel, which I then adapted into a screenplay. This exercise forced me to dramatize scenes that were originally presented only as summary narration in the novel and eventually led me to restructure the story itself. (All these changes I subsequently incorporated into the novel version.) I entered the script in the 2001 New York International Latino Film Festival's original screenplay competition and was fortunate enough to be one of the semi-finalists.

More recently, I've written a screenplay for a contemporary noir-ish detective story that I hope to produce and direct myself, assuming we can raise the necessary funds. In the meantime, I'm adapting and expanding the script into a novel which I hope will be the first in a series about Homicide Detective Sergeant Nico de León.

As an author with a "day job," you have to make time for your fiction writing. How do you work out the time for your second job?
I'm fortunate in that I work out of my home and make my own hours. When I'm swamped with advertising work, the fiction writing has to simmer on the back burner, but when I'm not, I can dedicate a good deal of time to writing.

Since my schedule is nothing if not highly variable, though, I've learned to take advantage of whatever time presents itself for writing, whether it be early in the morning, late at night, or anytime in between, and to make my time do double duty (for example, by editing and revising manuscripts in a doctor's waiting room while awaiting an appointment, which in Puerto Rico can run to several hours).

At PhilCon we discussed the amazing fact that you are the only SFWA member living in Puerto Rico. Is there a supportive speculative fiction fan base there to keep you going? If you move, is it up to you to train a replacement to hold down the fort?
Two words. Or, rather, the same word twice. No. And no (with a smiley thrown in right after, for good measure). Although they tell me at the local Borders that science fiction sells very well here, I don't know any of these readers, fandom as such does not exist on the Island, and no SF cons have ever been held in Puerto Rico. I am, therefore, alone and toil solitary and distant from any kindred spirit. Thanks to the Internet, however (I went online in 1997), I now can interact with other writers on a daily basis instead of maybe once a year at WorldCon (those years that I could attend), as was previously the case.

Now that Soulsaver has been on the shelves for awhile, do your promotional efforts continue? Is it difficult generating interest in a novel that is not hot off the presses with so many new titles coming in every day?
My promotional efforts continue unabated, because the book remains on the shelves and continues selling steadily. Though Soulsaver is no longer hot off the presses, it continues to pique the curiosity of readers because of the award and the accolades it has received:
Winner of the 1997 UPC Prize for Science Fiction, awarded annually by the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, which renowned writer, historian, and Science Fiction Grand Master Brian Aldiss has called "the most prestigious science fiction award in Europe."
Named Best First Novel 2000 (Science Fiction and Fantasy) by The Denver Rocky Mountain News.
Included in The San Francisco Chronicle's Tops of 2000 book list (Science Fiction and Fantasy).
Named a New and Notable book in the October 2000 issue of Locus Magazine.
Named one of the Best First Novels of 2000 by Locus Magazine.
Recommended by The New York Times Review of Books' prestigious Readers' Catalog.

Potential readers are also intrigued by the review excerpts and comments from readers they can access on my website.

And folks can even test drive the book by reading the first three chapters online and decide whether they want to invest their money to find out what happens next.

James, you're a success in the entertainment industry and working toward greater prominence in the fiction world. What is a typical day like in this time between best-sellers, when the real work is done?
I'm usually up early, say between 6 and 7 a.m. If I have any advertising-related work to do -- copywriting, print ad design, production meetings, new business presentation, commercial shoot, etc. -- that takes precedence over anything else.

Once the decks are cleared of the mundane stuff that puts food on the table, I focus on the writing. I work on a number of projects simultaneously, so if it becomes slow going with one, I can switch to another while I let my subconscious gnaw away at the first one.

At the moment, for example, I'm incorporating feedback from several writer friends into Blind Man, Preacher Man, I'm adapting my noir-ish detective screenplay into what I hope will be the first novel in a series, I'm writing down ideas for subsequent books in that series, I'm taking notes for a half-finished science fiction novel I'd like to complete, I'm revising and polishing a couple of short stories, and I'm working on the music and lyrics for some songs.

At the same time, I'm finishing up a critique of Jim Morrow's work-in-progress, The Last Witchfinder (he's been sending me manuscripts for feedback since Only Begotten Daughter and he was kind enough to critique Soulsaver for me), reading Connie Willis's Passage and re-reading Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty.

Three or four times a week, I try to make time to exercise, so if today is one of those days, I'll do a two-mile walk-and-jog, along with thirty regular push-ups, thirty reverse push-ups, thirty regular curls, and thirty reverse curls.

In the evenings, I watch some television with my wife Tita and daughter Tara (our son Ian moved into his own place last January). The women are hooked on an Argentinian soap opera called "Provócame," which stars Puerto Rican singing star Chayanne (last seen on the big screen in the U.S. opposite Vanessa Williams in "Dance with Me"), so I watch it with them. Some other boob tube favorites, in no particular order, are "Inside the Actors' Studio," "The Reporters," "Sunday Morning," "Jeopardy," "Sports Center," "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Frasier," "Scrubs," "The Sopranos," and "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" as well as the occasional "Dateline," "60 Minutes," "20/20," "Biography," "Hopkins 24/7," and "The E! True Hollywood Story."

After that, I usually try to work a bit longer on my writing projects, perform my nightly computer back-up, read a little, and [yawn] sack out.

Hasta mañana. Zzzzzzzzzz.

Copyright © 2002 Lisa DuMond

In between reviews, articles, and interviews, Lisa DuMond writes science fiction and humour. DARKERS, her latest novel, was published in August 2000 by Hard Shell Word Factory. She has also written for BOOKPAGE and PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. Her articles and short stories are all over the map. You can check out Lisa and her work at her website hikeeba!.

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