Monday, February 22, 2016

A Conversation with the Authors Who Write as Curtis J. James

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Curtis J. James

We are delighted to welcome the authors who write as Curtis J. James to Omnimystery News today.

Their new international thriller is titled High Hand (Copper Peak Press; February 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had a chance to talk with them about it.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead characters of High Hand.

Curtis J. James
Photo provided courtesy of
Curtis J. James

Curtis J. James: Frank Adams is an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Register. Reporters are a natural for the mystery and thriller genre. They investigate and try to solve the hidden or unknown. They frequently get into difficult and even dangerous situations due to the questions they ask and their refusal to be stymied. Frank is a talented but flawed reporter and a recovering alcoholic who gets duped by his friends and lovers but who returns to a key site from his past and ultimately unscrambles a bizarre conspiracy that hits close to home.

Lisa Hawkes is Frank Adams's ex-wife and a CIA agent working under Non-Official Cover. Her rarefied covert status places her in the field in a treacherous foreign country while maintaining little contact with the Agency and having no legal protection from the US government if apprehended. We wanted Lisa to be a dramatic and emotionally complex connection between her father, Thomas Hawkes, and her former husband, Frank Adams. She is also a brilliant linguist with deadly fighting skills — a female James Bond.

Thomas Hawkes is Lisa's father, publisher of the Los Angeles Register; and Frank's current boss and former father-in-law. His loyalties are divided among his roles as the doting father of a remarkable woman, an old-school newsman trying to keep his ace reporter sober, and a one-time CIA recruit who has long-standing ties to the Agency.

OMN: Tell us something about High Hand that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

CJJ: Russia is central to our novel. The story couldn't have happened if it were set in a country that has friendly relations with the United States. Political events are crucial to the narrative. Russia had been somewhat lost in the awareness of the American public and its political leaders for a number of reasons, not the least of which were the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the United States' post-9/11 focus on terrorism and the related wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the erosion of democracy under Vladimir Putin, Russia's territorial grab in Ukraine, and the Kremlin's posting of military forces and launch of a muscular air campaign in Syria have changed the political dynamic. We are reminded that Russia is indeed a major player on the national stage. High Hand is a well-timed tale that reflects this reawakening by Americans to the ambitions and might of the Russian Bear.

OMN: How would you tweet a summary of High Hand?

CJJ: A one-time ace reporter who's now a recovering drunk returns to #Russia, only to uncover jarring truths about the #USA and his family

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in the book?

CJJ: The main characters in High Hand are entirely fictional. They were selected to complement our collective knowledge and experience. All three of us have traveled extensively in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. James Rosen is fluent in Russian and was based in Moscow as a correspondent covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. Curtis Harris has collaborated with scientists around the globe. James Ellenberger enjoyed a long, colorful career at the upper echelons of the American and international labor movements. Our composite experience lends authenticity and complexity to the venues and cast of prominent people from foreign countries whose lives collide in High Hand.

OMN: Describe your writing process? How did the three of you agree on who would do what?

CJJ: The three of us have known one another for many years. We all were experienced writers of nonfiction, and writing a novel seemed like a most interesting challenge. Harris wrote the initial storyline, which centered on the triad of characters we mentioned earlier. Working from that storyline, we hashed out a detailed outline during a long weekend at an isolated cabin in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. From that foundation, we wrote a screenplay with more than 50 scenes. While we toyed with the idea of trying to sell the screenplay for film rights, we set our sights on expanding it into a novel. We divided up the writing of chapters with the understanding that Rosen, the professional writer among us, would edit everything to ensure a consistent voice throughout the novel. The drawbacks of this approach were surprisingly minimal. Instead, we benefited enormously from weaving the vast differences in our backgrounds into a cohesive story.

OMN: How did you go about researching the plot points of the story?

CJJ: We fact-checked High Hand with multiple sources in the intersecting worlds of journalism, intelligence, science, and the military, along with a wide range of material on the Internet and our firsthand experiences.

OMN: Was there any particularly challenging topic to research?

CJJ: High Hand has an intriguing blend of cutting-edge technology in the information realm and old-line technology from the oil industry. Harris used his expertise to not only come up with a futuristic device called the bioWave — and its classified version, the xWave — but also to explore the science behind it. While the xWave appears to lend High Hand more than a hint of science fiction, the device is based on real science drawing from a strange stew of neuroinformatics, video games, and technology to aid tetraplegics. At the same time, the novel is steeped in the smell and feel of petroleum rigs and oilfields. Ellenberger leaned on his background with the AFL-CIO and the affiliated United Steelworkers to refine the portrait of Big Oil in America, and Rosen employed his foreign reporting experience to describe the more recent rise of the Russian oil industry.

OMN: And what about your most exciting topic?

CJJ: Mikhail Gusov, the Russian presidential candidate who once played poker with the boys at Frank and Lisa's flat in Moscow, represents the oligarchs, a small group of obscenely rich Russians who helped light the fire of capitalism from the ashes of communism in scarcely a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of the oligarchs have survived by playing by Vladimir Putin's rules; others were forced into exile — or worse — when they tried to stand up to the Kremlin strongman. Using his deep familiarity with the country and the culture, Rosen helped root High Hand in a still-mysterious land that is struggling to emerge from its haunted past into an uncertain future.

OMN: How true are you to the settings in the book?

CJJ: High Hand is based in two of the world's major metropolises — Los Angeles and Moscow. Both cities are the scenes of crucial action in the novel. We tried to be true to the geography of each city. In particular, Moscow is depicted in some detail, from its broad avenues branching out from the Kremlin to the smaller streets and alleys with their hidden mayhem. Beyond these two urban hubs, exotic locales add allure to the book, from the Afghanistan-war-torn cobblestone alleys of Kabul to the oil boomtown of Atyrau on the Caspian shores in the once-staid former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

CJJ: We have received dozens of generous testimonials from a prominent group of literary, journalistic, military, and intelligence men and women, all of whom were kind enough to read the advance galley of High Hand. In addition to their praise of the overall plot, actions, and characters in the book, we especially value their delighted shock at its detailed authenticity of how espionage operates at high levels of government in both the United States and foreign nations. Several readers asked us if we were spies!

OMN: What's next for you?

CJJ: In addition to promoting High Hand, we have sketched out a sequel and a prequel that will again be based on real events. We will develop the triad of main characters to reveal more about the complexity of their interaction, emotions, and motives. Each of these core characters will take turns at the forefront of action in foreign lands and at home, while engaging with a changing cast of figures from the United States and beyond.

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Curtis J. James is a pseudonym for three distinguished Washington, DC-area professionals: Curtis Harris, a world-renowned cancer scientist; James Rosen, an award-winning political journalist; and James Ellenberger, a former senior official of a national labor federation. Harris delivers lectures and collaborates with researchers around the globe. Rosen has covered the major stories of our era, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the post-9/11 wars and the current military campaign against the Islamic State. In a long and colorful career full of travel and adventure, Ellenberger worked and hobnobbed with heads of state, labor leaders and hard-nosed union organizers. The three men became friends years ago while playing squash and brought their diverse, fascinating backgrounds to the unique task of writing an international thriller together.

For more information about the authors, please visit their website at and their author page on Goodreads, or find their on Facebook and Twitter.

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High Hand by Curtis J. James

High Hand by Curtis J. James

An International Thriller

Publisher: Copper Peak Press Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)

Is there a connection between a bomb blast meant to kill the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and a group of prominent men who played poker in Moscow years ago? What is Operation Long Shadow, and what does it have to do with the xWave — a new high-tech device that can receive and transmit data via brain waves?

Frank Adams must discover why he and his former poker buddies are being targeted for assassination and finds a surprising ally in his ex-wife, Lisa Hawkes, a brilliant Russian linguist and CIA covert agent, to learn the truth in this international thriller.

High Hand by Curtis J. James. Click here to take a Look Inside the book.


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