ABOUT JAMES HOUSTON TURNER
A native of Kansas, James turned to writing fiction as a result of his years as a smuggler behind the old Iron Curtain. He has been on a KGB watchlist, organized secret midnight meetings with informants, located hidden mountain bunkers, and investigated legends of forgotten tunnels buried beneath the cobblestones and bricks of some of Central Europe’s most venerated cathedrals. Department Thirteen, his debut thriller featuring former KGB informant, Colonel Aleksandr Talanov, was inspired by those experiences and went on to win the USA Book News “Best Thriller of 2011″ award, a gold medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher “IPPY” Book Awards (thriller/suspense), and a gold medal in the 2012 Indie Book Awards (action/adventure).
A former journalist in Los Angeles, James holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Baker University and a Master’s Degree from the University of Houston (Clear Lake). His 2011 “Too Ugly Tour” saw him drive 4500 miles across America promoting his books and speaking to thousands of students about not letting the hard knocks of life defeat you, which in his case included years of rejection, surviving cancer, and once being turned down for a customer service job because he was “too ugly” — a reference to the facial scars he still carries from his successful 1991 battle against cancer. He and his wife, Wendy, a former triathlon winner, live in Adelaide, South Australia.
You may visit him at www.jameshoustonturner.com.
James loves hearing from readers and bloggers. To contact him directly, click here:http://www.jameshoustonturner.com/contact.htm
Follow James on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jhoustonturner
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To order a copy of Greco’s Game on Amazon, click here: http://www.amazon.com/Grecos-Game-ebook/dp/B008PFCRTY
To order a copy of Department Thirteen on Amazon, click here:http://www.amazon.com/Department-Thirteen-ebook/dp/B005QSSMYM/
To order a copy of The Identity Factor on Amazon, click here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Identity-Factor-ebook/dp/B004TO5JLI/
Follow Greco’s Game on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GrecosGame
Follow Talanov on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aleksandr.talanov
Could you please tell us a little about your book?
The synopsis of Greco’s Game is simple (click link to read expanded synopsis): when a former KGB agent’s wife is murdered in front of his eyes, his vendetta to track down and kill the assassin becomes a journey of redemption with the help of two young prostitutes being held captive by human traffickers. So our hero, Aleksandr Talanov, becomes swept up in a deadly plot framed around a 1619 chess game, where the victims of a human trafficking ring are nothing but disposable pawns, and Talanov is pushed to his limits defending those victims while trying desperately to solve his wife’s murder.
Who or what is the inspiration behind this book?
Back in the 1980s, I used to smuggle cash, clothing, food, medical supplies, even Bibles, on humanitarian trips behind the old Iron Curtain. Almost a million dollars’ worth, in fact, and much of it went to hospitals where people were dying from needless infections from unsanitary conditions. But you can only carry so much in a secret compartment inside a vehicle, so I offered tons of medical supplies to needy hospitals providing certain European governments paid for the shipping costs. They agreed and I continued making trips behind the Iron Curtain, where I was followed everywhere by shady looking agents who looked like they were right out of a movie.
What I didn’t know was that I had attracted the attention of the KGB. My name was actually on a watchlist, and I was being followed in San Diego. Why? Because the Soviets could not accept anyone giving anything to anyone for humanitarian reasons. A person like me had to be CIA. I found all this out only because a good-guy agent deep in the KGB leaked word out of Moscow to me through a number of underground contacts that I was being followed. He took an enormous risk doing that for someone he had never met, and so that’s what gave me the idea of a good-guy KGB agent working for the West. I did a lot of research into what kind of person he might be and my signature hero, Aleksandr Talanov, is both a result of that research and a dedication to the heroism of that agent.
What cause are you most passionate about and why?
In the front of the book, you’ll see how it’s dedicated to the untold victims of black market human trafficking, whose names I may never know but whose plights I will never forget. So in a real sense, I wrote Greco’s Game for those victims, to give voice to the horrors they’re forced endure.
But as far as a specific “cause” that I’m passionate about, I think it’s a fundamental value that individuals — people — are worth fighting for, which is one of the subtexts of Greco’s Game. How many of us have someone who would fight for us? Someone who would go to hell and back? There has been a major paradigm shift today that says, “Why should I help you? What’s in it for me?”
This is important to me because I was once diagnosed with cancer, but having neither health insurance nor the $200,000 needed for an operation, was refused treatment. I remember the cancer specialist in San Diego saying, “Sorry, buddy, can’t help you,” and walking out of the room, leaving me alone in the examination chair. And so, with weeks to live, my wife and I flew to Australia where, for $17,000, a team of surgeons opened my face up like a book and removed a tumor the size of an orange from my face. I was given eighteen months to live; it has now been over twenty-one years.
Years later, when my writing career seemed to be going nowhere fast and I was on the verge of quitting, I applied for a customer service job with a large company. I was refused, not because I lacked skills, but because I was too ugly, a reference to the facial scars from my cancer operation. At the time, it was a kick in the guts. But it was also a blessing in disguise, for if I had been hired, I may not have persevered with my writing to become the published author I am today. Sometimes, the hard knocks of life are blessings in disguise.
Hence, my “cause” — my passion — is for people in the midst of struggle, where the odds look impossible and you feel alone and without a lot of hope. But I’m also passionate about happy endings. My life as a cancer survivor is one continual happy ending, ever since my victory over that horrific disease more than twenty-one years ago. But my own “happy ending” has come at a huge cost. Hence, in Greco’s Game, readers will get a happy ending amid plenty of action. But they will also be drawn into the emotion and suspense of what that happy ending costs Talanov and those around him.
What are you currently working on?
I am finishing Dragon Head (book #3 in my Talanov thriller series), plus outlining two Talanov stories about his early life, as well as outlining book #4 in the series (yes, I actually work this far ahead). I am also trying to fit in a research trip to Hong Kong while still puzzling over that mystery of all mysteries (lol): a grain-free pizza dough that behaves and tastes like bread.
What do you feel has been your greatest achievement as an author?
Growing up, I was never great at anything. I was average but never great. I wasn’t a great athlete. I wasn’t a brain. I wasn’t Homecoming King. I didn’t hang out with the popular kids. I was more of a geek. In one of my blogs — Three Women Who Changed The World (referring to Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and my mom, Vera Turner, all of whom died within weeks of one another) — I wrote that “whereas Diana was a passionate champion for the rights of the disadvantaged and people with AIDS, my mom was a passionate champion for a little fat kid with a wild imagination.”
That was me. The little fat kid with a wild imagination and an excitement for life. A kid who loved writing stories. And as I grew to love writing — I grew fairly adept at weaseling out of exams by offering to write a term paper instead — I realized I didn’t just want to be average. I had had my fill of that. I wanted to be good. Really good.
However, being a “really good” writer is a subjective label at best. One reader may love my work while the next guy thinks it stinks. No one can please everyone, least of all me. I will have my fans and I will have people who prefer a quick, painless death over the slow, agonizing one they claimed I put them through.
So, given the varied nature of tastes out there, what hope did I have of ever knowing (aside from what my mom and wife told me)? Obviously, if you make it onto the A-team with Lee Child, John Grisham, James Patterson, Dan Brown, John Locke, et al, you’re a “really good” writer. But what about the rest of us mere mortals? Well, here is what happened to me.
My publisher entered Talanov’s debut thriller, Department Thirteen, in some U.S. book competitions. And what happened still blows my mind. Department Thirteen was voted the “Best Thriller of 2011″ by USA Book News, after which it won a gold medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher (“IPPY”) Book Awards (thriller/suspense), as well as a gold medal in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards (action/adventure). That’s, like, three gold medals! For me, the kid who had never won a gold medal for anything his entire life!
That’s not to say the rest of my books will achieve that kind of recognition. I certainly hope they do, but they may not. But for one brief, shining moment, I was a “really good” writer. I had achieved my dream. And I am proud of that.
What do you feel is your biggest strength?
That I’m tougher, more pigheaded, persistent and scrappy than any editor or agent alive.
What do you feel sets this book apart from others in the same genre?
One complaint I hear a lot is how thrillers become too formulaic. Too predictable. That you know right away what is going to happen because it pretty much happened last time. Many readers prefer this. A lot don’t. So the hard question for me became what kind of a series was I going to write?
On one hand, it seemed an easy question to answer. “Formula” books are safe books. They are popular. You know right up front what to expect, and if the author is worth his or her salt, you get just what you’re expecting to get.
But was that me? I had to admit it was not. Why? Because my own life has been anything but predictable. It’s been a rollercoaster of highs and lows, of anguish and exhilaration. And “thematic” in that I have faced one challenge after another, against odds that seemed at times impossible. As you know, in my case that includes surviving cancer for over twenty-one years when I was originally given eighteen months to live. It includes being so poor I once had to live on jars of peanut butter given to me by a church. It includes being turned down for a customer service job because I was too ugly. Life has not been easy.
But it definitely has been triumphant.
So that is what I decided to put Talanov through. I did not want his predicaments to be, well, predictable. I wanted Talanov to tackle overwhelming odds. I wanted him to stand up and fight for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, which in Greco’s Game were the victims of a black market human trafficking ring being run by some of his old KGB buddies. Talanov will get it wrong sometimes, just as I’ve gotten it wrong. But in the end, he will get it right. And that means taking risks. So that is what I did with Greco’s Game.
What is the most important lesson you have learned from life so far?
Almost any endeavor today demands not only education and skill, but perseverance. A favorite quote of mine is from the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, who once said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
I’ve found this to be one of the most profound quotes I’ve ever read, and it has inspired me on numerous occasions. I would not have been able to endure all that I’ve had to endure if it weren’t for persistence and conviction.
Colonel Aleksandr Talanov — the “ice man” — is married to a woman he wishes he could love. But he can’t, and it’s an ugly consequence of his training with the KGB. Even so, no one should have to experience what Talanov experiences: the brutal murder of his wife in front of his eyes.
Wracked with guilt and suspected of plotting her death, Talanov spirals downward on a path of self-destruction. He should have been killed, not her. He was the one whose violent past would not leave them alone. Months tick by and Talanov hits rock bottom on the mean streets of Los Angeles, where he meets a hooker named Larisa, who drugs and robs him.
But in the seedy world of prostitution and human trafficking ruled by the Russian mafia, this hooker made the big mistake of stealing the ice man’s wallet. In it was Talanov’s sole possession of value: his wedding photo. Talanov tracks Larisa down to get that photo because it reminds him of everything that should have been but never was, and never would be because an assassin’s bullet had mistakenly killed his wife. Or was it a mistake?
The answer lies in Greco’s Game, a chess match played in 1619 that is famous for its Queen sacrifice and checkmate in only eight moves. In an unusual alliance, Talanov and Larisa team up to begin unraveling the mystery of what Talanov’s old KGB chess instructor regarded as the most brilliant example of how to trap and kill an opponent. The question is: who was the target?