Today we’d like to introduce you to author, screenwriter, and producer, James Houston Turner, of Ruby Rock Films.
Hi James, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today.
When the fog of anesthesia began to lift for me in the ICU of the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia, the first sound I heard was the metronome of the heart monitor. My operation had taken eleven grueling hours. “Grueling” for the team of surgeons tasked with the removal of an aggressive tumor the size of an orange from my jaw. Grueling for my wife, Wendy, who sat alone in an empty hospital corridor, waiting and wondering what the outcome would be. Grueling for my son, who remained in the United States while I was forced to seek medical help in Australia since we could not afford the $200,000 needed for an operation in San Diego.
Half of my mandible was removed and replaced with a new jaw bone carved out of the hip bone. Veins were stolen from one arm and used to vascularize the area. Skin from the other arm was grafted into my mouth, where teeth used to be. One jugular vein was removed, as was my TMJ and numerous muscles and nerves. It was a time of immense loss. It was a time of digging deep against the futility of digging deep because my odds of survival were not good: eighteen months. That was more than thirty years ago, in 1991.
That singular event affected my writing in ways I could never have imagined back in my early days of “yarn spinning,” which had been inspired by adventure stories I’d been told around the family dinner table. Then came my years as a smuggler behind the old Iron Curtain (medical supplies, food, Bibles, clothing), which had the unforeseen consequence of landing me on a KGB watchlist. But an actual Russian agent leaked word out of Moscow that the secret police were following me. His act of heroism – he could have been executed for what he did – gave me the idea of a good-guy Russian agent who became a spy for America during the Cold War and who now wants to live a quiet life of retirement in America but of course cannot, thanks to old and new adversaries who always seem to come calling. Thus was born a series of action thrillers featuring my brave hero, Colonel Aleksandr Talanov, who continually risks his life for others like a Russian agent once risked his life for me. Years later, when my series reached the desks of Wonderfilm producers Jeff Bowler and Bret Saxon, I landed a deal with a talented Hollywood team who appreciated Talanov’s unique character and background. In a very real way, the birth of Talanov was not simply a matter of me choosing to write his story but of him choosing me as a Russian agent risking his life for someone he’d never met. I wrote it – and am still writing it – because I couldn’t not write it, with my latest Talanov installment, Into The Eye, due out in early 2024.
We all face challenges, but looking back, would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Years ago, I created a “Too Ugly Tour” of speaking engagements around the country, where I would talk to students about the hard knocks of life and how they were sometimes blessings in disguise. The name of my tour stemmed from an occasion in Australia, where my wife and I lived for nearly twenty years. At the time, my writing career was going nowhere fast. I was deeply discouraged, and we needed money after my costly operation. So I applied for a customer service job with a large company. My application was rejected, not because I lacked skills, but because I was considered “too ugly” for a job requiring me to interact with the public. “Unpresentable” was the word used, referring to the facial scars I still carried from my operation.
On my tour years after that incident, I would tell students how pivotal that moment was. Because if that company had hired me, I would have quit writing and not be standing before them that day with a bestselling novel. I would then ask how many of them had been laughed at or rejected because others regarded them as ugly, too fat, too short, too nerdy, or too whatever. Most hands went up. Bottom line: we cannot control the hard knocks of life. We can, however, control our response, and that response can make one either become a victim and quit or become a victor who learns to dig deep. In my case, I converted those hard knocks into assets because they made me determined not to quit and appreciate the people who loved and supported me through the proverbial “thick and thin.” So I gave Talanov what I experienced because I wanted readers to feel and fear what he fears, which hinged on some threat to the people he loves. Action cannot do that on its own. A love story must reside at the story’s heart, and the future of that love story has to genuinely be in peril, just as my own marriage and family relationships had been placed in peril by my cancer. That’s why I put Talanov through many of those experiences. When he’s pushed beyond limits, I’ve been there. When he bleeds, I’ve been there. When he’s ripped apart from loved ones, I’ve been there. When he faces death, I’ve been there. Those threats give a story the emotional “grip” it needs.
Do you have any advice for those just starting?
Drawing on Beatitudes language from the Bible, Pastor Chuck Smith (portrayed by Kelsey Grammer in the blockbuster movie, “Jesus Revolution”) once gave us some advice in a training seminar in Costa Mesa. He said, “Blessed are the persistent, for they will inherit everything.” To me, the importance of persistence cannot be overestimated because rejection is arguably the greatest challenge facing an artist.
But an equal threat is burnout, and I have learned from bitter experience to take a total break each weekend from the constant demands of my career. In my case, I head out into my garage workshop, where my wife and I get covered in sawdust from our woodworking hobby, where we saw and sand raw lumber into pizza boards and other useful items. Being lost in the enjoyment of a hobby is as important as time away from the laptop, and my M-F productivity as a writer has increased. Plus, having fresh homemade pizza on those boards only adds to our enjoyment. Favorite pizza toppings include:
- Jalapeno popper disks (stuffed with cream cheese and bacon)
- Lamb picadillo
- Goat cheese with caramelized onion
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jameshoustonturner
- Other: IMDb https://www.imdb.me/jameshoustonturner
Author photo of James Houston Turner by Bill Rich