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Interview with Clarice G. James

“Get thee to a critique group!”

Summoning her inner Shakespeare, author Clarice James shared advice for aspiring authors in our recent conversation about her new release, Manhattan Grace. In fact, she credits being active in multiple critique groups as a significant part of her publication journey.

Importance of working with others
“We can’t do this journey alone. We need input from other writers with different strengths. My critique partners have kept me motivated, sharp, and humble.”

James agrees that finding the right partners can be problematic for writers who are just starting out. She says, “Don’t be shy!” A couple of times she sent letters out to churches in the area inviting writers to join her in a critique group. She eventually started a Word Weavers chapter and headed it for two years. Then, five members of the group who were working on novels starting meeting at her house. Her perseverance to form a group paid off, and she had a writing tribe she could encourage and who would encourage her in return.

Manhattan Grace, which was released by Elk Lake Publishing this May, is her third book. It took about a year for her to write. She submitted 2,500 to 3,000 words per week to her critique group, and then worked on edits.

Like all of her books, spirituality is an integral part of the story. Manhattan Grace explores the faith journey of Gracie in an entertaining and suspenseful story set in a colorful backdrop.
“I cannot leave my faith out of my stories. And I don’t want to. My whole purpose in telling any story is to bring glory to God. I usually have one character who mirrors me before I began following Jesus.”

New York, New York! James showcases the people, buildings, theater district, and restaurants of Manhattan throughout her book. In addition, the story was very multicultural.

“My first real introduction to New York was when my oldest son married a Jewish-Italian-Irish girl from Brooklyn. Seeing New York from her family’s deep point of view was eye-opening, outrageous, and amusing. (Some of the experiences in Manhattan Grace are not fiction!) Research and personal interviews with members of the theater community helped me fill in the blanks.”

The book contains many wonderful details about the Jewish faith/life/culture and the work of the mohel (person who performs the Jewish rite of circumcision). James drew on a previous conversation with a friend, as well as input from her husband, to come up with the idea of using a Messianic Jewish mohel in her book.

“A missionary friend of mine served in the poor hills of Israel. She told me about the mohel in their village who only had one eye. Well, that tidbit got me going. My husband named him ‘Seymour,’ and we were off! My second son married a Jewish girl, too. When my grandson was circumcised, I had the story firsthand.

Also, my pastor embraces the Judeo history of our Christian faith, and we’ve had many Messianic Jews in to speak. With my Jewish family members, I relate to them through the Old Testament. My 10-year-old grandson is studying Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah. I'm thrilled he’s learning about the Bible.”

The inspiration for the character of Temperance, the grandmother, came from friends and family members, also. “Tempie” is a conglomerate of the many people who influenced me: my father for showing me the power of dreams; my mother for teaching me the value of working for them; a high school English teacher who loved words and made writing seem exciting; my friends who encouraged me; and my husband who said, ‘Go for it.’”

Using quirky characters is not new for James. They have shown up in all her books. “So far I’ve used quirky characters. perhaps because in real life that’s the way I see all people. I love studying human nature and find humor in our behavior.

My friends know I love to laugh, and I will find something funny in most everything. They know to look to me to keep things light.”

Two important relationships in the book center on Gracie, who serves as a nanny, and the two children she cares for. James used her own precocious grandchildren as models. In the book, Gracie and her two charges entertain at local children’s hospitals. James drew on both research and her personal experience to add authenticity to her story.

“Miles and Leighton are based on my two youngest grandchildren, Max and Margaux. Max is now ten going on thirty, while his sister Margaux, eight, will probably remain as sweet as her mother for the rest of her life.

The information I gathered on nannies or children’s hospitals is secondhand or through research. When my husband was ill, we spent time near Boston’s Children's Hospital and we saw how parents are affected by taking care of the sick children.”

James’ writing has the elements of several genres.
“Since women are my main audience, the main genre is women’s fiction. Within the genre of women’s fiction, I like to add a thread of romance, mystery, and a good dose of humor. Women’s fiction is an emotional, personal story that brings you through a situation that you can relate to. It's cathartic.”

The deeper meaning
“The theme of Manhattan Grace is that God always has a better plan for our life. Gracie's journey is based on Jeremiah 29:11:

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. (KJV)

We decide what we want and there are twists and turns. Seymour gets excited over closed doors because he believes that something even better is coming.”

Some of the storyline was preplanned, and some was not. “Writers talk about seat-of-the-pants writing and outlining. I fall somewhere in between. I have a general idea and a brief outline, but the story takes me where it wants to go. I tell my quilter friend who’s in my writer’s group that she does need to use a pattern. She can’t seem to stop writing the same story. The quilt can't go on forever. You have to put in the final stitch.”

The multiculturalism in the book required the use of several foreign dialects and expressions.
Her editor asked for a glossary that would be helpful to the reader. In her final review, James looked up all her foreign words to create a table at the end of the book.

Will there be a sequel?
“I’m not sure yet. The first novel I wrote, Party of One, was a prequel to my two next books, Double Header and Manhattan Grace. My character Grace had a sizable role in Party of One.

I’ve finished a fourth manuscript, with only an obscure connection to a few of the characters in Party of One and Double Header. My fifth manuscript, so far, is not connected … but who knows what will happen?”

Are there challenges for James to balance her writing time with other responsibilities?
“If you’d asked me this question a few years back, I would have had legitimate challenges like my job, children, and household duties. Now, in retirement, I have only myself to blame if I squander the hours away.”

Writing routine
“Routine? Didn’t I tell you I was retired? (smile)

If I have a tough night sleeping, my husband lets me sleep in. Also, I lost my first husband and my second husband went through two years of chemo. Now, when I want to spend time with him I don't feel guilty for not writing. We are thankful he's doing well now.”

Coffee with an author whose work she admires
“I’d love to sit and chat with author Cynthia Ruchti because I love her voice, style, and stories.”

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
“I enjoy organizing multiple author events and home decorating projects. If I set up a book signing, I invite other writers to join me. I don't mind event planning. Some authors are shy about self-promotion. I tell them that not being able to promote your own book is like the parable in the Bible of the servant burying his talent in the dirt.”

Books on her nightstand
Peace Like a River by Leif Ender.
Songs of Silence by Cynthia Ruchti.
The Hidden Side by Heidi Chiavarol.


Teresa Haugh, a graduate of the University of Montevallo, is a recently retired public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. She and her husband enjoy life in Alaska, the Last Frontier. She takes pleasure in talking with other authors about their writing journeys, and is completing her first full-length novel.

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