My guest this week is James Roby. Born in Detroit, James is a veteran of the USAF and served in many locations across the USA from Florida to Alaska, and traveled beyond America’s shores, too. Now he’s back in Detroit, a city that he loves and that is the setting for a series of novels featuring a team of investigators he calls the Urban Knights. We began by discussing his love for the city of his birth.
“ Thanks Frank for giving me the opportunity to spread the word about the UrbanKnights novel series. Well, Detroit IS home. I feel Detroit had a, pardon the pun, driving force in my early development. Good or ill, it’s made me who I am today. We’re all the product of our environment, of the things we’ve seen and done. Detroit for me, is a big part of that. Traveling the country, I encountered a lot of negative feelings about Detroit – a lot of it off base. I tried to be a representative of my hometown and help disperse some of the rumor and flat out lies about her. That’s why so many of my characters are based on real people I grew up with. Not everyone in the city is someone’s ‘baby momma’ or an ex-con. Some of them went to college, raised a family…the same things people everywhere do. That’s Detroit to me.”
Detroit is famous internationally as the USA’s “Motor Town” and fast cars feature in the UrbanKnights novels. I wondered what James drives himself.
“ I’m a Mustang man myself. Blame Steve McQueen in Bullitt. I’m on my third one and my next car will probably be another ‘Stang. I had a Chrysler and a Saturn in there too, but I’m a diehard Mustang fan.”
The American motor industry has suffered many set backs in recent years but James believes its future holds promise.
“ I don’t think it’s dead, by any means. I still see a lot of domestics around…and some of them are electric and hybrid. I hope this technology grows and becomes more widespread, if for no other reason, than to provide the market a choice.”
Detroit, too, has suffered – from a loss of population and some recent political scandals. At the same time the ratio of Black to White residents has reversed, suggesting the exodus was mostly of White people. That is something that inevitably features in James’s novels.
“In a lot of ways, Detroit is a microcosm of America in terms of race. You can see it clearly at the Detroit – Grosse Pointe border, one of the city’s more affluent suburbs. It’s like someone hit a switch. It’s a burden that has impacted the city and by extension, the country. Race and racism is like a big heavy weight around the leg of someone trying to run a race. Bad part is, no one but us is making us wear it. I lived through a lot of those changes, and it breaks my heart. There is, I feel, enough blame to go around.
With race so ingrained in the recent history of Detroit, it’s hard, if not impractical, to write fiction there and not at least touch on it. In the UrbanKnights, sometimes it’s subtle like a conversation. In Pale Horse, the main character, Jordan Noble and an old military buddy discuss why there are so few resources in Detroit to aid in their mission. Sins of the Father and my newest novel, Favorite Son, tackle gentrification, which in part, is driven by race.”
James went on to reveal a little more about this latest work.
“ A new casino is just opening in Detroit and instead of enjoying the grand opening, tragedy strikes. The owner is murdered in his office by persons unknown. The UrbanKnights are on the case and they quickly discover murder is only the beginning and this case will put them in conflict with powers far beyond Detroit’s borders.”
James’s stories are driven far more by characters and their motivations than by a preconceived plot.
“ I heard Dan Brown recently say the ‘story’ has been done. Basically, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s up to the writer to make it interesting. I mean, whether it’s the latest action thriller or a historical drama, the setting may change but the elements are the same: Characters, conflicts, resolutions, etc. So, I feel character and motivations are the primary elements. You want to go on the ride with someone you like and are interested in. I often have an idea, not necessarily a plot, and the first question is, What would the UrbansKnights do? I would hope that’s what would make readers come back too.”
James writes early mornings and at weekends
“ I get up an hour earlier during the week for that quiet time to work on my books. I usually do catch up on the weekend.”
His stories are backed by lots of research.
“ I’m definitely a ‘pantser’. I get an idea and run with it. For example, I was walking down the street after seeing something on the news and the idea struck me – what if there was a terrorist attack in Detroit? What would [my leading character] Jordan Noble do, given his history in counter-terrorism? I just went from there. During the writing, after the thrill of a new idea wore I started asking questions: Why would a terrorist attack Detroit? How would that impact on the large Middle Eastern population in and around the city? Then there was the question of what agents of government would respond? What equipment would they use? You get the idea. So yeah, I have to research. A lot. I love Google. There is a ton of information out there. I also have some personal resources – people I met in the service, Police officers back home, that sort of thing.
It’s almost like an onion, each layer reveals another. My latest book, Favorite Son, took so many changes after the research started, it’s not even the same story! Research created a connection between me and the story. I go deeper and the story becomes more real.”
Like most of us indie authors, James wishes he could afford more professional help, especially with regard to marketing.
“ I fought this long and hard and finally gave in. I am currently working with an artist to redesign my first three covers. I’ve had a lot of ‘it’s ok’ responses to the covers I’ve designed. ‘It’s ok’ doesn’t sell novels. I’m also looking at some marketing services. If I had to give advice it would be, what you can do yourself, do. Otherwise, hire someone who is good at it. Also, unless you have a few thousand dollars just laying around, you’re going to have to prioritize. For me it was covers and marketing because that’s what gets the books in folks hands. You can also bypass some costs by tapping into different writing communities. I can’t put a price on how useful my writing group is. Check out social media for groups in your town. It will be worth it.”
(Images of the old covers are alongside, so you can judge for yourself whether they qualify as “okay” or “special”, FP)
James’s favorite writers are Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Fleming, and Walter Mosley. but the one he would most like to meet is Walter Mosely.
“ Just to hear the story of how he brought Easy Rawlins, to compete in a media where there are so few African American heroes. And how he connects with his audience, what worked best for them in their marketing…that sort of thing. I have seen writing good and bad but the mystery I struggle with is the marketing. I truly believe that’s the difference between a sold book and a stack in your basement is the marketing.”
An ideal day for James would be different depending on whether or not he had won a lottery prize.
“ I guess in the real world, waking up late, watching the Saint (starring Roger Moore, of course) with the wife and my dogs. And being in Detroit, of course, I have to get a couple of coney dogs at Kerby’s. Throw in a steak for dinner and man, that’s a day. But for a fantasy, I’m seeing a cruise ship, a beach and long days of doing nothing.”
Asked to name something about him that might surprise his readers, James reveals his love of dogs.
“ My wife and I have fostered over 20 dogs. We volunteer with a local organization that spare dogs from being destroyed. Once they’re rescued from shelters, we provided them a home and help socialize the little rascals, until someone adopts them. Well, except for the two dogs we ended up keeping!”
I hope you have enjoyed reading about James. You can discover much more, and links to his books, on his website.