Q & A with Syrie James and Ryan M James
(Click on the question to reveal the answer)
SJ: Ryan is extremely talented and imaginative, and had always been a voracious reader, but he'd never written a book before. However, in his work as an editor
in the video game industry, he was a storyteller by profession. And for years, Ryan had been giving me such detailed, perceptive, and incredibly insightful notes on every book
I'd ever written, that I had learned to never turn in a manuscript without first addressing his feedback.
When I came up with the initial idea for Forbidden, and Ryan suggested we write it together, I was intrigued. We had enjoyed collaborating on two screenplays, but we'd been in different physical locations, and the only way I was willing to co-write a book was if we actually sat together in the same room and wrote. I wondered: could we pull it off? If so, how and when?
Suddenly, the timing to write Forbidden appeared as if by magic. I had turned in the manuscript for Dracula, My Love and had an opening in my schedule. Ryan's employer closed down operations, and he had the promise of a terrific new job that wouldn't start for six months, giving him a window to work with me. We decided to go for it!
RJ: I enjoy telling stories, regardless of the medium. After we'd already written two screenplays together, my mother switched years ago to writing novels, and I saw she was having a blast. When the opportunity came for me to join her in writing one, I jumped at the chance that maybe we could have that much fun together. Oh, and also because I was excited that we had a great story to tell!
SJ: About five or six years ago, an idea began percolating in my head to write a book about a teenage girl who begins getting psychic messages from a mysterious source.
I could visualize the secret identity of the person behind those messages. The idea fascinated me. I decided I wanted the girl to enlist the aid of a boy at school to solve
the mystery, that a deeply felt romance should develop between them, and that this young man should prove to be far more involved and invested in the mystery than she ever
I put the idea on the back burner when I became busy writing and selling other books. Flash forward a few years. I was standing in line for a movie at a film festival, pondering an independent movie I had co-written a few years earlier with my son Ryan, and thinking about what I should write next... when inspiration hit. The movie we'd written and produced, entitled REAL, is about a young man named Alec--a lonely, supernatural action hero in a dark world, whose heart's desire is to be human and lead a normal life. What if, I thought, I combined my idea of a psychic girl with a character similar to Alec? What if he left his supernatural "job" forever, and tried to pass as human--but although he was over a century old, he looked so young that he could only fit in at a high school?
RJ: At that instant, my mother called me from the line at said film festival and asked my "permission" to use Alec in her next book. I immediately loved the idea, but insisted that we write the book together. Though she was [understandably] hesitant, as we'd never written anything as complex as a novel together, I'm glad she did. I was too invested in making sure Alec's story was told "right"--a super-powered being who wanted to give that up and live a normal life, that was the essence of him--and I wanted the opportunity to re-tell that story with no limits. There were so many things that the film we'd made couldn't quite achieve, and the chance to come back to Alec once again, to "fix" him and his world into something more fully fleshed out, I couldn't pass that up.
Also, tempering Alec's story with Claire's made for greater intrigue: a 16-year-old girl's life begins to implode when she comes into unusual psychic powers, which turn out to have a heavenly source ... and the new guy at school with whom she falls in love, may be her only true ally in a confusing and increasingly dangerous world.
SJ & RJ: After writing Dracula, My Love, Syrie developed such a soft spot in her heart for vampires that she didn't want to write about a vampire hunter, as Alec originally was in the film.
Ryan happily suggested that Alec could be a different kind of action hero--a heavenly one--who was suffering from the same kind of identity crisis as the character in his film.
The Biblical/historical implications of the Grigori and the Nephilim are huge. When you're dealing with angels, suddenly anything is possible. And what could be more fascinating than an angel gone AWOL? Especially if these aren't your typical do-gooder angels, but are angelic beings empowered with far more serious responsibilities. By going back to the sources of the myths, we were able to conceive of a different world for our angels, giving them diverse, X-men-caliber powers.
We created a world based on the idea that every creature of myth and legend could be traced back to the family of these types of beings, which literally opened up the universe to us. It also means that even vampires and werewolves were possible for us to explore in future books, should we ever choose to do so.
SJ & RJ: The school is more than inspired. It's more of a direct mirror of Ryan's middle/high school, Brentwood School in Los Angeles, which has had a very lasting, positive influence on both our lives. The school was filled with dedicated and nurturing faculty who not only challenged their students and gave Ryan and his brother a wonderful background in both arts and sciences, but gave us some wonderful specifics for the teachers in this novel. If we're ever lucky enough to make a movie of this, we hope they'll let us film it on campus!
SJ: Claire's abilities came from my long fascination with the notion of psychic power. Thomas Edison once said that we only use 10% of our brain, and I believe that.
Our minds are capable of so much more than
we realize or understand. For many years now, I myself have been getting occasional, out-of-the-blue messages and helpful warnings which have come true. Where do they come from? What does it mean?
Every now and then, I wonder: do I have an angel sitting on my shoulder, watching over me?
RJ: Alec's abilities were inspired more or less by his previous incarnation in the film we wrote. Back then, he had to be capable of taking down vampires, so speed and strength were a must. His telekinesis, however, was new, and comes from my lifelong desire to have that power for myself. To move things with my mind, including/especially myself, would be nothing short of a dream come true. Almost every night my sleeping brain conjures up situations where I can fly or move things without touching them.
SJ & RJ: Vincent is a different situation. When we created the character of Alec for our film, Ryan had always wanted to introduce a person with the power of illusion--something he'd not really seen realized in the film world to his satisfaction-- but there was no budget for such a thing. In the limitless possibilities of a novel, however, we had free reign to introduce a character who could make people believe they were seeing whatever he wanted to, which was great fun.
SJ: Actually, Forbidden was written first! Through the different schedules of different publishers, Nocturne simply came out a year earlier. But no, from the beginning Ryan wanted us to try telling the story
from both the male and female points of view. This isn't unheard of in this genre, but it seems to be less common. It was great fun getting into the heads of both of our main characters. I love the way it turned out, and hope that readers do, too.
RJ: I was certain that we could do great things by showing both character's points of view. So often, you see a story where the intrepid hero or heroine is on the outside, slowly uncovering layer after layer of the supernatural world they've gotten themselves into. By telling the tale through Alec's eyes from the start, we could tease his world from the very beginning, playing with that delightful balance where sometimes the reader knows more than the characters, or vice versa.
SJ & RJ: With a few exceptions, everything was written with the both of us sitting in one room, crafting all the material together. Sure, sometimes Syrie insisted "I don't believe a girl would ever say that," or Ryan would implore that Alec "be a little more reserved here emotionally," but it was all in the name of balance and compromise. Ultimately, we both wanted a book that both men and women would appreciate, regardless which perspective each chapter was from.
SJ & RJ: It was a blast. We began by writing a detailed storyboard and outline, hashing out characters, plot, and all the details of the world we thought we needed to make sense (and then some).
Then, three days a week for six months, from 9AM to 6PM, we sat together at Syrie's computer and wrote the first draft. We set the story at a fictional version of the unique private high school Ryan attended,
and this novel became a love letter of sorts to that wonderful school.
Once we sold the book to HarperTeen, several additional months of hard work went into the revisions. We both loved working together. We challenged each other to explore new ideas, and often found ourselves finishing each other's sentences. It has been a remarkable and very rewarding experience, and we are thrilled to share the novel with readers.
SJ & RJ: When we wrote our two screenplays, Ryan was at college in San Diego while Syrie was home in LA. It mostly involved long phone conversations, each person writing sections, and editing each other's work digitally. Though we tried to incorporate our love of some screenwriting techniques (see below), including the structure of our outline, this was our first time sitting in a room together, drafting one word at a time. There is no substitute for that level of interplay in the creative process.
SJ & RJ: Ryan suggested we try something as an experiment for this book: wherever we could describe something through action or dialogue, as you would do in a screenplay, rather than internal monologue,
we should try it. And any scene that would end up "on the cutting room floor" should go, to keep the pacing lean like a film.
We ended up with a book that we hope emulates some of the best qualities of film while still incorporating the strength of a novel--including a character's inner thoughts, emotions, and sensations firsthand.
SJ: That part wasn't difficult at all. Not only is my most recent novel, Nocturne, a contemporary piece, but many of the screenplays I wrote were set in modern day.
Historical novels require meticulous research; every detail and even the language must be historically correct for the time period. It was very freeing to be relieved of that responsibility while writing Forbidden--and great fun to get into the mind of 16-year-olds, and revisit high school again!
SJ & RJ: Not at all. We wrote the novel with the intention and hope of appealing to people of all ages. Adults went through the experience of high school too, and we believe they can just as readily relate to the situations and emotions
experienced by Alec and Claire as can anyone under 18.
Teen audiences are very sophisticated--and if our story can be appreciated by a teenager and their parents--and grandparents--that will give them all more things to talk about!
SJ & RJ: It's not easy to engineer a brand-new, mythical world and combine it with reality. We spent several weeks ironing out the story and world of Forbidden before we sat down to write it,
but we could've easily spent double that length of time or more.
Sometimes it's not until you have a character asking another "why do you X?" that you realize it's impossible to think of everything. When all else failed, we were fortunate to have a very wise and patient editor, Kari Sutherland, who combed through our manuscript with enthusiasm and attention to detail, to make sure the merger was seamless and consistent.
RJ: The scene where Claire and her friends discuss whether or not Alec is a vampire was one of my favorites. We got to make our characters do what few others in paranormal stories seem to do:
acknowledge their familiarity with other-worldly creatures, and compare the strange things they've noticed with the culture we're all familiar with. It was fun to let our main characters bounce
ideas back and forth touching upon all sorts of pop culture lore--from Dracula to Edward, Obi-Wan to Superman, Bourne to Buffy--in their questions of Alec's true nature.
SJ: For me it's a tie between the scene on the rooftop where Alec and Claire hover and spin in each other's arms, and the Ferris Wheel scene where they share their first meaningful kiss. What can I say? I love romance!