Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Julie Eberhart Painter interviews Jim Woods

Julie: Welcome, Jim. I see you are “out of Africa,” for a while. How many times have you been to the Dark Continent?

Jim: I think I’ve been to southern Africa eight times, and have stayed for as long as six weeks at a time. The first two trips were work assignments when I was Field Editor with GUNS magazine of San Diego. The first was at the invitation of SATOUR, the South African Tourism Board. They invited a total of seven outdoors writers and broadcast media hosts from the U.S. and Canada to report on the recreation opportunities in the country. I was one of only three magazine editors on the junket. The next opportunity came two years later, this time to Zimbabwe, an advertiser–sponsored safari with the purpose of reporting on the sponsor’s new products. I was one of four selected because of our following or popularity in our respective magazines.

After that I was hooked on Africa and went back several times later, on my own dime, and with my wife. Wives don’t go along on press junkets. We’ve also visited other locales across Africa—Morocco, Egypt, Kenya, Zanzibar, Zambia, and Botswana—but South Africa is my preference as a destination.

Julie: It’s certainly the most unusual. I see that guns play a large role in your books and have been part of your life. When did you first pick up a gun, and how have you used this knowledge throughout your career?

Jim: As a Kentuckian, guns just came naturally to me; at least I like to think of it that way. I shot alongside my father as a youngster, but I actually bought my first gun, a .22 rifle, when I was about fifteen. I made a handshake deal with the gun shop to pay it off over time; my parents were not involved. It was the first contract of my life. It couldn’t happen today with the laws governing firearm purchases, and it certainly couldn’t happen between the dealer and a minor.

Julie: Where did the idea for Assassination Safari originate? Were you involved in any hairy moments while traveling in southern Africa?

Jim: Having spent considerable time with South Africans of various cultures, I learned about some of the inner workings of the country that never made the newspapers. In fact, a South African Indian who has immigrated to the U.S. and lives in Oregon, traveled to my home in Arizona just to meet me as author of Assassination Safari. His comment at leaving our house, with his forefinger to the side his nose was “You know things.” It was an acknowledgement, not an accusation.

Julie: This meant you had special knowledge or powers?

Jim: I think he implied insider information, and I admit to having conversations with South African political dissidents, and hearing opinions expressed that were intended to stay unpublished.

My most harried African moment occurred in Angola, en route to Zimbabwe on my second press junket. We American journalists were taken off the plane by Cuban mercenaries and held at gunpoint (a nasty AK-47 directed at each of us) for several hours before release came through some unheralded diplomatic channels.

Other hairy moments include encounters with dangerous game, a charging Cape buffalo, and a myopic white rhino, but at least at those times I had the gun.

Julie: Or I wouldn’t be interviewing you. Why did you feel compelled to write this book—gorgeous cover, by the way.

Jim: Assassination Safari was step two in my becoming a novelist. After several safaris to South Africa, a story generated within me about an American becoming the driving force behind the modern day safari industry in that country. I met a family of South Africans who actually is credited with that accomplishment, and with their approval, I borrowed the recognition of his efforts. That novel, still in work, is Gemstone, and is the story of the fictional Gemstone Safaris, and the character is Jim Stone. I intended the novel to be an important work; however, I also recognized that I had no training as a novelist. I set out to self-educate me by writing a training novel.

My first novel was The Outlander, but being new to the craft, I wrote it too short, falling as it did at the cusp of novella and novel. That was the criticism from a few publishers who liked the idea but not the page limitation, but I also ran into bias against anything South African because of the apartheid politics of the country at the time. But politics change with time and I amended the book’s length by surrounding the centerpiece, The Outlander, with a handful of short stories. The resultant collection, Gunshot Echoes, is published by Champagne Books. Having learned from that first effort, I broadened Assassination Safari to a full novel length, by delving deeper into the details that make a character come alive and the plotting believable.

The Outlander, Assassination Safari and my WIP, Gemstone, while all set in South Africa, are not prequel and sequel. However there is a character, Jim Stone of Gemstone, who appears in all three. In The Outlander, he was a background character, alluded to in relation to the safari clique, but had no part in the story. In Assassination Safari, Jim Stone has a voice and point of view that contributes in a small but key way to the story. Gemstone is his fictional personal and professional story.

Julie: Tell us more about your writing career. You’ve been on both sides of the desk with the production and editing of books and magazines. Elaborate on that and tell us what you found the most challenging.

Jim: My publishing career began long before my books became reality. My first job related to the industry, an after school and Saturday job with a magazine distributor, was stripping covers from outdated magazines for return to the publisher for credit, and assembling orders of new issues for the route men to deliver to the newsstands. But up to my getting into writing novels, I had written and edited nonfiction for much of my life. In military manuals, I explained to U.S. Air Force technicians with tenth-grade educations how to remove a live warhead from a Maverick missile (I had to do it myself in order to write the procedure), and how to test and service a dual-gyro stable platform at the heart of supersonic aircraft inertial navigation systems.

Julie: What educational preparation did you have for this?

Jim: A writer’s education comes from many sources, not the least of which is his/her interaction with the street. Mine is supplemented with formal academic studies in engineering and journalism. I’d like to brag that the engineering courses I took at the University of Southern California (USC) makes that school my alma mater but I spent more time at a small and only locally recognized college in Moorpark, California, where my major was journalism. I added to both those courses of study at Pierce College in California and later at the University of Arizona. The U.S. Navy put me into extensive electronics training and that was the start of my engineering studies upon my discharge. However, engineering for me turned into more writing than building, and writing won out.

From my positions as engineering writer/technical editor in the defense and aerospace industries, I moved to commercial publishing. I answered an ad in Guns & Ammo magazine for a junior editorial position, and with a couple of freelance gun articles already accepted by that magazine, I was invited in for an interview. My portfolio was slim so I fattened it with an impressive-sized engineering report that I had ghosted for the department manager. After explaining my part in the voluminous report, that I actually had written it to go out under the PhD’s signature, that I had directed the typists and artists in preparation of the book, I was hired, but not for the junior position. The company was looking to replace their books editor, a separate function from the magazine, and found my editing and personnel handling capabilities right for the job. Over the years I served as Editor, Managing Editor, and Editorial Director for the books division but also for Guns & Ammo and Petersen’s Hunting magazines.

With a personal move to Arizona, I contracted with GUNS magazine as Field Editor, supplying my monthly feature article and specialty column from my home office. That assignment lasted several years, ending only because I succumbed to a personal request from a manager and friend at Hughes Missiles in Tucson to take over and overhaul the engineering publications department. That promise of “just two years” turned to ten before I left them on their own.

Trying to re-enter the freelance magazine fraternity, I found that all the editors I knew had moved on and the new ones, who recognized my past work, did not see me as the answer to their current needs. But I had books simmering on my back burner. My first success was a quick-reference writing tutorial, Two Dozen Lessons From An Editor, which was little more than an accumulated collection of my monthly columns in a club magazine. The same publisher also took my collection of short fiction, Journeys, after my sending him a bound copy of the self-published edition.

Still more at ease with nonfiction, the changeover to fiction being my most interesting and challenging career move, I worked on my memoir of world hunting experiences, and that book is published by Champagne Books as Parting Shot. But, I’ve also co-authored a collection of short fiction, Olla Podrida, with Champagne Books author, Carol Costa (but not as a Champagne Books title); and I have contributed to various fiction and nonfiction anthologies.

Julie: Is Olla Podrida in Spanish?

Jim: Spanish, Mexican anyhow, for “spicy stew.”

Julie: What do you read when you’re not writing or editing another writer’s work?

Jim: My library holds approximately 1000 volumes, an equal mix of fiction and reference books. I’ve read most of them but have one short shelf set aside for books yet unread. I have close to 100 reference books on historic and current firearms; maybe 200 history texts, and at least 100 volumes related to some aspect of Africa, including fiction by my favorite author, Wilbur Smith. He’s written thirty fiction novels set in Africa and I have all but his latest two, which are on my list to do. I have a handful of novels that I re-read from time to time; Doctor Zhivago comes to mind. There are others, like the Wilbur Smith stories.

Julie: Thank you so much for stopping by to share your adventures with our readers. It’s time to wind up this conversation, but before we part, how can our readers reach you?

Jim: Thanks Julie. My e-mail is, and my website is

Interview contributed by Julie Eberhart Painter. Email Website:, author of Champagne Books newly released Mortal Coil.

1 comment:

  1. Julie, What a great interview and what an interesting author. His books must spark with realism. This was such an enjoyable and informative read.