Tag Archives: Jamie Fessenden

Jamie Fessenden interview, *By that Sin Fell the Angels* excerpt, and other stuff

Click the cover image for the buy link at the Dreamspinner Store.

By that Sin Fell the Angels is published by Itineris Press, an imprint of Dreamspinner Press that presents quality GLBT faith-based fiction.

It begins with a 3:00 a.m. telephone call. On one end is Terry Bachelder, a closeted teacher. On the other, the suicidal teenage son of the local preacher. When Terry fails to prevent disaster, grief rips the small town of Crystal Falls apart.

At the epicenter of the tragedy, seventeen-year-old Jonah Riverside tries to make sense of it all. Finding Daniel’s body leaves him struggling to balance his sexual identity with his faith, while his church, led by the Reverend Isaac Thompson, mounts a crusade to destroy Terry, whom Isaac believes corrupted his son and caused the boy to take his own life.

Having quietly crushed on his teacher for years, Jonah is determined to clear Terry’s name. That quest leads him to Eric Jacobs, Daniel’s true secret lover, and to get involved in Eric’s plan to shake up their small-minded town. Meanwhile, Rev. Thompson struggles to make peace between his religious convictions and the revelation of his son’s homosexuality. If he can’t, he leaves the door open for the devil—and for a second tragedy to follow.

Jamie Fessenden set out to be a writer in junior high school, but it wasn’t until he met his future husband, Erich, almost twenty years later, that he began writing again in earnest. Ten years later, with the legalization of same-sex marriage in their state, Jamie and Erich have married, rescued a black lab pup from the SPCA, and purchased a house together in the wilds of Raymond, New Hampshire. Jamie currently works as technical support for a computer company in Portsmouth, NH, but fantasizes about someday quitting his day job to be a full-time writer.

Visit Jamie at http://jamiefessenden.wordpress.com/

The Interview

Q: How important are character names, to you, and how do you go about naming them? What about titles?
A: Very important. I spend a lot of time on baby name websites, searching for names that resonate with the character. Often, I’ll narrow it down to a few and then spend a few minutes saying the names to myself out loud, while visualizing the character, to see which one fits the best. On more than one occasion, I’ve changed a character name while I’ve been writing the story, because he or she seemed to outgrow the first one I chose. Titles are extremely important, but I’m really awful at coming up with them. I often ask friends for suggestions.

Q: In what locale is your most recent book set? How compelling was it to set a story there? Do you choose location the same way every time? How?
A: I’m currently working on a cyberpunk novel set in a near-future Seattle and Vancouver. In a science fiction or fantasy novel, of course, the locale is often part of the story and can strongly affect the plot. Certainly the streets of Seattle and the surrounding countryside had a huge impact on the chase scene I wrote for part one! I’m also working on a contemporary psychological drama. For most contemporary stories, I prefer to use New Hampshire as the setting. This is partly because it’s what I’m familiar with, but also because I love the New Hampshire countryside and have a strong desire to convey the beauty of it in my work.

Q: How much power do you give your characters in steering the story line?
A: Quite a lot. If I write a scene in which the characters don’t seem to be acting naturally, I go back and rework it until it works for them, even if it means changing the direction of the story. It always improves the story to pay attention to what’s right for the characters.

Q: What is the most satisfying element for you in writing gay relationships, and why?
A: When I was a teenager, just coming to terms with my sexuality, nearly everything I read was about heterosexual characters. I felt extremely isolated, because it was almost impossible to find gay characters in fiction who weren’t miserable and alone. All I wanted was to read about gay characters who found someone to love and lived happily ever after. In early stories I wrote, I tried to write about straight characters, but it really didn’t feel right to me, so I eventually realized that I needed to write the type of stories I wanted to read: stories with gay protagonists that have a happy ending.

Q: Are readers involved in making your fiction—do they suggest stories or say what they’d like to read?
A: I’m afraid I have so many stories in my head struggling to make it out onto paper that I don’t really have the time to write what other people suggest. My usual reaction is to tell them, “That sounds like a great idea! You should write it!” (An exception to this might be requests for a sequel!) I do listen to feedback on my stories, though. If somebody tells me that something really didn’t work for them, I certainly give it serious thought and consider how I might do things differently in future stories. I don’t believe in turning my nose up at suggestions that will improve my writing, even if they sometimes sting a bit.

Q: Describe the ideal relationship between author and readers.
A: Ideally, readers will provide useful feedback for an author about what does and does not work for them, and the author will be responsive to that, taking into account things that pushed a lot of readers’ buttons, for instance, and learning to work with that. I’ve also had readers nudge me to get back to work on my cyberpunk story and I think that’s great! I love knowing that there are people out their interested in knowing how the story will work out.

Q: What do you find useful about reviews?
A: A useful review is one that points out flaws in the story or characters in a way that’s specific enough that it suggests a way to fix the problem. “The story was terrible,” isn’t particularly helpful, but “The ending was confusing,” certainly can be, and so can, “I wasn’t sure if they were really committed to each other.” One of the best reviews I ever received was from someone who pointed out specific details of the time period and culture I was depicting that I’d gotten wrong. They were things that only someone living in England might pick up on, and I just wish I’d received that feedback before the story went to publication!

Q: I’m well known for demanding to know an author’s opinion about which of their characters is the sexiest, and I’m making no exception for this group. Who, how, and why?
A: I think perhaps Josh, from “Saturn in Retrograde.” I grew up in rural New England and the guys I was attracted to when I was young tended to be a bit rough around the edges: crude, rugged, often dirty from working on cars or other manual labor, often sweaty. Josh is a college nerd, but he lives in a single room and he’sA: a slob, leaving his dirty clothes everywhere. (But of course, he’s still gorgeous!) When Patrick is caring for him, after Joshua becomes seriously ill, he ends up cleaning the apartment, in order to make it more livable. This sort of detail is unappealing to some readers, but to me it makes the characters real. They aren’t fashion models. They’re just regular guys. And it’s that extra level of reality that makes a character sexy to me. Judging from some reader comments, I’m not completely alone in this.

Q: What are the fifty hottest words (approximate the word count) you’ve ever written, in your opinion. (Be sure to include citation).
A: From the gym shower scene in “Saturn in Retrograde”:

While Joshua’s own eyes were closed, his face tilted up into the shower spray, Patrick took in the young man’s naked body and marveled at it. If Joshua had reminded him of a Roman senator when they first met in the lab… naked, he was a Roman god.

Too late, Patrick realized that Joshua had opened his eyes and was watching Patrick’s eyes drinking him in. Patrick glanced quickly away, embarrassed, but Joshua said softly, “It’s cool.”

“What’s cool?”

“I mean… you can look.”

Q: What are you doing now, what do plan to write next?
A: While I’ve picked up the cyberpunk story again, the one I’m really caught up in is a psychological drama about a psychologist who’s fallen for a man with repressed memories of child sexual abuse. I’m excited about it, because it gets very dark, but unlike my novel about teen suicide (“By That Sin Fell the Angels”), this one also has a romance at the core of it. The working title is “Billy’s Bones,” but I’m planning on changing that.

An Excerpt from By that Sin Fell the Angels

JONAH woke to the sound of his mother screaming. He jumped out of bed, grabbed his robe, and nearly collided with his mother’s twenty-six-year-old boyfriend in the narrow hall outside his bedroom door.

“Christ!” Bill snarled, though Jonah couldn’t tell if it was aimed at him or at his mother. The man rubbed his eyes, growling like a bear awoken from hibernation. “What the fuck is all the racket about?”

Bill was naked, though apparently too groggy to care. He staggered down the hall ahead of Jonah and stopped at the entrance to the kitchen. The boy had to stretch his six-foot-two frame to see over the man’s freckled shoulder.

Shirley Riverside was standing against the wall near the fridge, her gaze fixed on the floor, her mouth trying to say something. But no sound was coming out. Jonah had never seen her looking so frightened.

Pressing up against Bill’s back (but not too close) he was able to see that his mother had walked through a puddle of something in the early morning half-light. Her bare feet had left a trail of dark prints on the worn linoleum. Her hand was still on the light switch beside her, the one she’d turned on to see what she’d stepped in.

It was blood.

Somehow a large puddle had formed in the center of the floor. Jonah saw something small drop into the pool, causing ripples to spread on its surface. The boy looked up and saw that the blood was seeping through the suspended ceiling, spreading along the seams between the tiles and collecting at the corners to drip down.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Bill muttered, and it was an indication of how frightened Shirley was that she didn’t rip him a new one for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Never mind running around bare-assed in front of her son. “Call 9-1-1,” Bill ordered. Then, when she didn’t appear to hear him, he added impatiently, “Can you do that?”

Shirley was staring at her bare feet now, as if she wanted nothing more than to get the blood off them, but she nodded mutely.

Jonah had to flatten himself against the wall to let Bill get past him. The man turned on his way to the bedroom and pointed at the boy. “You’re going upstairs with me to check it out, soon as I get some pants on.”

Jonah didn’t see any reason to argue. “Okay.”

He was disgusted with himself for letting his eyes linger on Bill’s tight ass as the man turned to enter the bedroom. Jesus, forgive me for lusting after my Mom’s boyfriend. But Bill wasn’t all that much older than Jonah, and hours of putting up sheetrock had made the man lean and muscular.

A few moments later, Shirley was sobbing into the phone as she tried desperately to wipe the soles of her bare feet with a wet paper towel. Her hand was covered in blood.

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Out of Film: Leaving the Camera Behind

I began my illustrious writing career by writing screenplays, largely because I felt more comfortable writing dialog than prose.  I also had access to film equipment and local community actors, so I was able to turn some of these screenplays into microbudget films, and, in that sense, publish them.  However, some of the ideas I had were a bit out of my reach as a filmmaker.  It’s difficult to do a historical film on a shoestring budget, for example.  So I began to write out my ideas as short stories and novels.

One screenplay that I was never able to make into a film, due to technical constraints, was a werewolf short.  After about three years of trying to find a way to realize it on film, I finally decided it would be better to turn it into a story, rather than let it languish forever as an unfilmed screenplay.

My first attempt to turn one of my screenplays (about a boy battling an evil coven) into a novel, years before, had failed, because I’d approached the project as if all I had to do was “fill in” the screenplay — as if the dialog in the screenplay was most of the story, and I simply needed to add some description.  This turned out to be absolutely the wrong approach.

Now, coming at the werewolf project, I have a few novels under my belt and that’s given me some new insights into the process.

Let’s take a look as the opening scene from my werewolf screenplay:

EXT. CABIN – DAY

A rustic log cabin with a broad front porch sits at the end of a dirt road.  Behind the cabin is a deep forest.  Although nobody can be seen, at the moment, there is a beat-up truck parked near the cabin with “Jack of All Trades” stenciled on the side.

A car comes up the road, stops, and the driver climbs out.

SEAN is in his late twenties, blonde with a boyishly- handsome face.  He is wearing jeans and a t-shirt with his favorite rock band on it, which makes him look all the more like a teenager.

SEAN
Hey!  Jack!  You home?

There’s no response, so he moves around to the back of the car and opens the trunk.  As he’s retrieving his bags, a dark-haired man appears from behind the cabin, dressed in dirty jeans and a flannel shirt.

This is JACK, and although he’s the same age as Sean, he comes across as more serious and somehow a bit older.

JACK
You moving in?

This works (I hope) as the opening to a film, but the information is far too sparse for a prose story.  We have a brief description of the cabin, but only mentioning details that will be important later in the film, and brief descriptions of our two main characters.  The description of Sean might do, in a story, but the description of Jack is useless.  Frankly, it wouldn’t pass muster in a professional screenplay, either, but since I wrote the screenplay for myself to film, I didn’t worry that much about description.  Generally, the director doesn’t want too much description in a screenplay, anyway, because, unless it’s essential that a character be blond, or have blue eyes, there’s no point in restricting the choice of actors based upon those traits.

But character descriptions are much more important in a novel adaptation.  Here is the description I came up with for Jack:

     After a minute, the man came around from the back of the house, wiping dirty hands on a red checked flannel shirt he was holding.  He looked good, Sean couldn’t help but notice.  The last several years, working as a handyman around town, had kept him lean, and added some definition to his stomach and chest.  Sweat was running in tiny rivulets from his dark brown hair, streaking down his face and neck to pool in the hollows of his collar bones, before spilling down his naked torso.
     Jack looked at Sean for a long moment, before tossing the shirt over one shoulder and saying, “Hey.”

Since Sean is the viewpoint character, I worried less about describing him physically and more about what was going on inside his head.  And if we’re going to be listening in on Sean’s thoughts, we might want to start the scene just a bit earlier, because his anxiety about the reception he’ll get from his old friend certainly begins long before he pulls into the driveway.  We don’t want to go back too far, but a bit of him driving along the road, fretting can help set the story up:

     The old Mazda shimmied so much on the dirt road that Sean could almost forget that his hands were trembling.  But not quite.  It had been so long.  Would Jack be happy to see him?  Sean felt as if they’d had a fight.  But they hadn’t, had they?  Not really. Things had just gotten…weird.

The description of the cabin can more or less remain the same, but we’ll flesh it out a little, and add some atmospheric detail:

     Sean thought about turning back, as the road narrowed and the brush seemed to be closing in on him.  But just as he had decided he couldn’t risk going any further, he rounded a bend, and there it was: a log cabin with a broad front porch, just as Larry had described it.  The clincher was the beat-up, hunter green pickup in the yard with the words “Jack of All Trades” stenciled on the side in yellow letters.
     Cute.
     Relieved, Sean pulled his car up alongside the truck and stepped out.  The late summer air was hot and muggy, and his t-shirt was already clinging to his torso.  Now that he was standing still, mosquitoes began to savage his skin.

But by far, the most important thing to remember is that, in order for the adaptation to be more than a dull transcription of the screenplay, you have to breathe life into it, as a novel.  This means doing what you would do for a novel that you were writing from scratch — allowing the characters to live and breathe on the page, and act according to what motivates them.  In some cases, this can mean deviating from the dialog in the original screenplay.

In this scene, we have things spelled out fairly explicitly in the dialog, because, frankly, that’s the best way for the audience to learn about the characters’ history:

SEAN
(disappointed)
You’re making me sleep on the floor?

Jack moves past him, towards the bedroom, pausing in the doorway to look back.

JACK
Or the couch.

He sees Sean’s disappointed look and smiles wryly.

JACK
There’s only one bed, and I’m not sharing it with you.

SEAN
We used to share beds all the time, before I went off to college.

JACK
There’s more beer in the fridge.  Help yourself to anything you want to snack on.
(pause)
But stay inside.

But it isn’t necessary for characters to say everything out loud in a novel.  Some of this dialog can be made internal:

     The pleasant buzz Sean had gotten from the beer began to fade, as he realized things weren’t going to be that easy, after all.  Jack opened the door to his own room, clearly not inviting Sean to follow.
     “You’re making me sleep on the floor?”
     “Or the couch.”
     Jack hesitated in the doorway, and gave him a wry smile.  “There’s only one bed, and I’m not sharing it with you.”
     They’d shared beds all the time, before college separated them.  But clearly things were different now.  Sean tried to think of something to say that would restore the casual relationship they’d once had, but his mind was blank.
     “There’s more beer in the fridge,” Jack continued.  “Help yourself to anything you want to snack on.”  Then, just before he closed the door, he added, “But stay inside.”

I’m still in the process of adapting this screenplay, so no doubt some of these passages will be modified in later drafts.  But you get the idea.  The point is not just to adapt, but also to create something new.  Films have an advantage over novels, in that they can present events in a more active, visually exciting format, enhanced by sound effects and dramatic music, but the advantage novels have over film is the ability to delve more deeply into the characters and their emotions.

For more of my ramblings on the writing process, come visit me at my blog:  http://jamiefessenden.com

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