An Academic's Foray into Fiction


Friends and colleagues often ask me why I started to write fiction (I'm supposed to be a researcher), or how did you come up with the plot? Or some variation of those two questions.

First off, I've always wanted to be a writer. I wrote short stories in grade school. I even took part in a writing competition in the seventh grade and took second place. The stories were pretty awful. I don't remember, but my second-place finish was probably in a competition of two. Then, in the ninth grade, I wrote for my junior high school newspaper, Cobra's Eye.

My story, "The Great Halloween Event," (my title was 'Hide and Seek', but my teacher changed it to 'The Great Halloween Event'; I still think 'Hide and Seek' was the better title) was a Children of the Corn Stephen King-esque horror story where those caught were murdered as part of some annual ritual on Halloween.

That story scared my teacher. She never said anything, but I could tell she was disturbed. A move between the 9th and 10th grades quite possibly rescued me from a teacher's recommendation that I see a psychiatrist.

Still, I remember being with a couple of friends in school where another kid I didn't know was hanging out with us. At some point he realized that I was the author of "The Great Halloween Event" in Cobra's Eye, and he blurted out "You're Mark James? You wrote that story!"

He loved "The Great Halloween Event".

It was a fleeting moment, but what a great feeling that was to be recognized for something I had written. And by a fellow student, no less.

But that was the end of my young writing career.

I would move two more times and enlist in the Navy right after high school. A few years after that, I would attend college and graduate school.

In grad school, I studied Geography and trained to become an academic. That meant a lot of reading and writing, but not fiction. This was research-focused writing with no room for anything but a brief but robust review of existing literature on the research subject, the presentation of data and methodology for analysis, the results, and a conclusion.

I thought I was a decent writer until I got to grad school. That delusion was quickly eradicated, and thank goodness. My writing would improve, though, since much writing was required, particularly in the form of a years-long research dissertation.

I began work as a Geography professor and would publish research in various academic journals in my field, journals like Journal of Urban Affairs, Regional Studies, Antipode, Growth & Change, and Southeastern Geographer. Again, not fiction writing, but I am pretty certain that my first work of fiction, Alter Road, could not have happened without the experience of writing a dissertation and publishing research articles.

I wound up at a teaching-heavy institution - by choice, mind you; I wanted to be closer to family after spending two decades in different parts of the country - and I was unable to sustain the pace and level of research beyond a decade with little institutional support.

So, I switched to fiction.