Today we're honoured to welcome a brand new author to Sinfully...James Oliver French...with his wonderful debut novel Return To Me. A novel of love, loss but ultimately hope. I persuaded him to join me on the Sinfully couch where he agreed to tell us a little about himself, his writing and thought processes. Do not miss this poignant book but do make sure you have plenty tissues handy...one box may not be enough...
Macky Interviews James Oliver French
Macky: Hi James. Welcome to Sinfully, it's lovely to have you here. You've brought your debut book Return To Me with you, which I've just had the pleasure of reading. I LOVED this book. Congratulations on its release. How are you feeling? Excited...or nervous... Or both!
James: Hi, Macky. Thanks for inviting me to chat with you. I’m thrilled to hear that you loved the book, and even more pleased to hear that the story resonated with you. A year ago I could not have predicted that I would be only days away from publishing my first novel. I will admit to being both excited and mildly terrified. The thing that scares me most is readers’ expectations. I think when readers see a story about a romance between two guys they automatically assume M/M, which has very defined rules about HEA. Return to Me is not that kind of book.
Macky: Can we be a bit nosy and get you to tell us a little bit about yourself. Any juicy gossip? HaHa...
James: Haha. Where’s the mystery if I go sharing all my secrets. But seriously, I’m currently studying towards a major career change, and between that, writing Return to Me, and hanging out with my boy, there are very few opportunities to get myself into any trouble. I’ve become a total introvert since hitting my thirties.
Macky: This is your first published book James, but have you always wanted to write, and how difficult have you found the journey from writing to publishing?
James: I’ve always loved writing stories and I’ve always wanted to make movies. I devoted nearly every holiday during my high school years to writing movie scripts, even landed myself an agent. But selling a movie script is like taking shots at a target in the dark, you’ve got to be extremely lucky to get a sale. When I started at university, studying towards a double major in Computer Science and Psychology, the screenwriting took a back seat, but by that stage I had amassed countless stories in various stages of development. Ten years flew by where I wrote remarkably little. It was around this time last year, after I’d read a book (The Atlantis Gene by A. G. Riddle) for the first time in about three years, that I realized just how much I missed writing stories, and began brainstorming ideas. I had begun working on an epic supernatural series in December 2013, which I abandoned after the idea for Return to Me popped into my head. I made a decision early on that I was not going to attempt the traditional publishing route. I spent weeks researching every aspect of self-publishing, and felt confident that with the right team of beta readers and a great editor, I could produce a professional product that would stand out. I hope that I have achieved this and I’m proud of the final product. The biggest challenges for me have been learning to take criticism (I had some tough beta readers) and the huge amount of time and effort that goes into the publishing and marketing of books.
Macky: I know it's a bit of a cliche question, but who inspires you as an author?
James: It’s probably easiest for me to tell you who inspired me most recently. I’m going to say A. G. Riddle again. If I remember correctly, he quit his job to focus entirely on writing his debut novel. This guy invested everything in becoming a writer. He self-published the novel on Amazon and it took a few months, but his work climbed to the top of the charts. Not because of mass marketing, but because he’d written an amazing story that deserved to succeed. That kind of talent and focus inspires me.
Macky: What's waiting on your TBR (to be read) list at the moment James, are you an avid reader as well as a writer, and do you have any favorite authors in the m/m genre?
James: I feel like a complete traitor answering this question. I’ve never read a romance novel in my life. *James hides his head in shame*. I’m currently reading a rather entertaining novel named Atlas by Becca C. Smith, and slowly working my way through World War Z by Max Brooks. Next up on my reading list is the highly anticipated Orbs: Stranded by Nicholas Sansbury Smith. Other books I’m looking forward to reading are: I Am Number Four: The Lost Files by Pittacus Lore, Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells, and Insurgent by Veronica Roth. You can probably tell that I’m a YA, sci-fi, horror, thriller junkie from that list.
Macky: This is such a heartbreaking story. Where did the idea come from and did you do much research into the subject, because it felt so authentic?
James: The basic storyline came to me about five minutes after I started brainstorming ideas for a gay romance novel. However, it had a very different ending. When I told my boyfriend the basic storyline he rolled his eyes and told me it was unoriginal drivel and that I should work on something else. But there was something about the story that I found intriguing, so I took some of his advice and spent a few hours plotting out the novel. The most notable difference from the original story was the ending, which went from an HEA to something more dramatic. I’ve always been the kind of person who other people feel comfortable sharing their personal stories with, and being gay myself, I think I have a fairly good idea about what the majority of young gay men experience coming out, coming of age, and in relationships. I’ve also got a background in psychology, as I mentioned before, so I hope I’ve represented the profession in a good light in this book. The hardest part for me was Americanization of language and locales. I’m sure there are still going to be a few pieces of dialogue that grate on American ears, and I apologize in advance.
Macky: I broke my heart reading this book, in fact I don't think I've ever cried as much. It's really hard to ask questions about this awesome story without giving anything away, but did you know before you started which direction you were going to take Todd and Kyles story in. The way you plotted it was so clever. When you started, did you have the plot twists set in stone or was it a matter of the book telling it's own story once it took shape?
James: Interestingly enough, the major plot points of the story were pretty much finalized from day one. However, I really struggled with the epilogue of the book. It went through three iterations until I was happy with it as it stands today. A few of the tinier details, like the hummingbirds and the text message came at a later stage.
Macky: I was fascinated by the experimental medical procedure used on Kyle. It was quite futuristic in its concept! Is it actually something that's being researched or is it purely from your own imagination?
James: The transcranial magnetic stimulation that happens earlier in the novel is something that is being actively researched at the moment. I sat down and thought to myself - What would be the next iteration in science after simple stimulation? - and the Moneta device was what sprung to mind. It’s a plot element that my beta readers either loved or hated. My editor warned me that it might alienate some romance readers who find the sci-fi aspect too out there. But it allowed Todd to do what he had failed repeatedly to do – to step inside Kyle’s mind and see through his eyes. Whether the device actually unlocked something in Kyle’s brain is hinted at, but I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide.
Macky: I was brought to tears often throughout the second half but sobbed solidly for the last 10% of this beautiful story and when people read this they'll realise that's a fair time to be blubbering! As their 'creator' you must have come to love Todd and Kyle even more, so how emotionally affected did you get writing their story?
James: The story is written in first person POV stream-of-consciousness, so I really had to put myself in Todd’s shoes throughout the creative process. But subconsciously – and I’m guessing this might be a guy thing – I became quite numb to Kyle’s character. My beta readers picked up on this and all demanded that I flesh out the romance in the first half of the novel. When I wrote the very last line of the novel I couldn’t help myself from getting teary eyed. And every time I look at the text I get a lump in my throat. I don’t know why I chose to construct the story in the way that I did, but I wanted Todd to have the closure he deserved.
Macky: So what's in the pipeline next. Are you working on anything new at the moment, and how long will we have to wait for more from James Oliver French?
James: During the past few months I’ve come up with more storylines than I could possibly write in a lifetime, but I’ve settled on two stories. The first is a twisted dark-comedy short story Ms. Milden and the Bodysnatchers about a class of children who are tormented and terrorized by a cruel and sadistic teacher, and the revenge they have on her one night while she has them sitting detention. Ms. Milden will be out in January. The other is a YA novel I started brainstorming eight years ago. It’s about four teenagers who embark on the adventure of a lifetime when they discover a secret that has been hidden away for thousands of years. Expected release date is late 2015. There will be a sequel to Return to Me at some point in the future. It’s going to be just as unconventional, this time told from the perspective of one of the other characters, and I’m very excited about how the story is evolving as I plot it out.
Macky: James, thank you. It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you, so we'll keep a reserved sign on the Sinfully Sofa for you if you promise to come visit again! Just next time don't make me spend so much on the Kleenex!!! LOL.
Return to Me by James Oliver French
Title ~ Return to Me
Author ~ James Oliver
Publisher ~ Kaituhi Press
Due for Release ~ 23rd November 2014
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Bittersweet Romance, Mystery.
What would you do if the man you loved vanished without a trace?
Kyle and Todd meet at a party in their freshman year at college. They fall in lust at first sight, then deep in love. In spite of Kyle’s melancholy past, their future together looks bright. Then Kyle disappears, leaving Todd heartbroken and alone, and their dreams in ruins. Fifteen years later, Todd is a successful but lonely psychiatrist. He still hasn’t come to terms with the loss of his first love. When a dangerous amnesiac arrives at the hospital, Todd is forced to confront the past, and is driven to find answers to the questions that have haunted him all these years.
How do I review this beautiful, bittersweet book without giving anything away? That's the question I've been pondering since I closed my kindle down, sobbing so much that I could hardly see to read the last couple of chapters! All I can say is that I finished it feeling so moved that for a day or so after, I found myself welling up just thinking about its heartbreaking content. In fact now that I'm finally putting my thoughts down in this review I can feel myself spilling over again. I know we always say "This book will stay with me for a long time", but I truly believe that Todd and Kyle's story will be one that lives up to that statement and one I'll remember forever. I went into it tentatively as I knew the nature of the story was going to be thought provoking and poignant but I didn't know just how much I was going to end up loving James Oliver French's debut novel, despite how much it shattered my heart into little pieces.
It's not that long ago that Mark reviewed a book that dealt with the same subject, albeit a different background storyline, but he had the same intense, emotional reaction as I did to this and I think it's because if we put ourselves in the same position as Todd, the MC; who's beloved Kyle vanishes without a trace one day, and imagine it's one of our loved ones disappearing abruptly and without warning, then that thought becomes so distressing your mind doesn't want to even go there. We all take it for granted that every time someone goes out to do normal, everyday things like popping to the local shops for ten minute to do a quick errand, they will always come back...but what happens if those ten minutes turns into hours...then days...weeks...months...years! The person you thought you knew and loved has disappeared of the face of the earth and you're left with no closure; no way of putting the pain of never knowing to rest. How do you cope with that type of loss and what questions must frantically haunt you every second that there's still no word from them! Why have they not come home? Where are there? Are they hurt? Why has this happened? Have they been taken? Was it planned? Is it something I did? And of course the most dreadful thought...are they dead? So many worries, so much anguish. Why? Why? Why? ...I just can't comprehend the pain, grief and heartache of living with all that on a daily basis. Just thinking about it now makes me feel physically sick...but then what happens if after fifteen years that person does turn up again under circumstances that are extremely upsetting in themselves, and the only way to get answers is as distressing as the years spent hoping for them to come home. How do you cope with all that?
This really is a story of two halves. The first sets quite a lot of seeds, dealing with how Todd and Kyle meet and become a couple, and it's this half of the story that because you know exactly what's going to happen, sort of lulls you into a false sense of security as you watch their romance grow quickly, and happily, into a love that you just know under normal circumstances would be the stuff of soul mates and happy ever afters. They encounter some conflict both inside and outside of their partnership but you never doubt that these two young, innocent men are destined to be together. They lose their virginity to each other, making their bond even more special and settle quickly into a deep loving relationship. This half is lighter, more reminiscent of a general, contemporary romance but of course as the reader we know that the 'lightness' is going to be short lived and I found myself constantly wondering if every time Kyle was away from Todd, was this going to be the time he doesn't come back...but every time he did, and their relationship just got tighter and more loving and I found myself even more on pins, because the anticipation of what was to come, was always hanging over the happiness they were experiencing, and when it did finally arrive, even though it wasn't particularly a total shock, it was still a heartbreaking moment and my own heart bled for Todd as he was left helpless, not knowing, and grieving.
Fast forward fifteen years and Todd is now in his thirties, a psychologist, functioning but still affected by the loss of Kyle. His love for him has never diminished, but life has to go on and in its own way it does, but understandably he's never been able to form a lasting relationship with anyone outside of casual hook ups, to satisfy the sexual urge's he gets every now and again. There's a hole in his life and it shows. His best friends Felix and (his wife) Georgina, who also knew Kyle when they were all friends from their college days, are the one constant in his life that keeps him anchored but they worry about him too. We see him going through his daily routine, meet some of his patients, get to know their hang ups and we also learn that outside of his own practice he's brought in to consult on outside hospital cases. Some of them violent enough to need guarding while Todd is treating them and it's one of these calls to an amnesiac John Doe, that brings Todd's world crashing down all over again; just as he's decided that after meeting a man who, for the first time in years, has stirred up feelings he thought he'd buried long ago, and is wondering if perhaps it's time to open his heart to the possibility of love again.
'My stomach churns and I come within an inch of vomiting as I recognise his face. Is this Kyle? This gaunt figure sitting in front of me? Not the same Kyle I loved, but a ghostly pale, emaciated, weathered version. I want to leap over the table and wrap my arms around him, but he doesn't recognise me in the slightest. Could I be imagining this? I watch for the most subtle change in his expression, but it's painfully clear that I'm as much of a stranger to him as any person off the street. All this time he's been alive. What happened? Where was he?'
I honestly don't want to tell any more of what happens after that because it was this part of the book that after Todd is reunited with a very broken Kyle, started to slowly connect the dots, bringing in experimental medical procedures that almost seemed like the stuff of Science Fiction as Todd and Kyle's poignant but gripping reunion started a countdown to the outburst that left me an emotional wreck! This was such a clever, clever story. Things are fed to us throughout the course of the book that on their own just appear to be separate incidents; sub plots that once introduced play out, get put to rest and are pushed to the back of your mind as the main focus of course is on Todd and Kyle's meeting, time together, estrangement and consequential reuniting. However nothing that goes on in this story, from its inception to its conclusion, is wasted knowledge and it's only when that final piece of the jigsaw is clicked into place that you realise just how smart and profound the plotting of this story is, and of course that's all testament to the amazing voice of its author. I was pretty much blown away by his ability to both surprise, confound and move me the way he did!
James Oliver French bravely casts all convention aside and takes this in directions I personally never saw coming and that's why I loved it so much. Yes, everything about its premise is heartbreaking but this is NEVER a gloomy, morose or depressing read, and you'll probably only understand how Mr Oliver stops it from going into those realms when you read it. This is a beautiful love story, with elements of crime, mystery, past misdeeds, medical conundrums and a thought provoking, unimaginable predicament. From the moment of starting, I was held fast by Todd's first person narration as he told, and swept me into, his and Kyle's story. Like him I fell for the utter charm of Kyle, felt their joy at finding each other, experienced the love they so obviously felt for each other, grieved with Todd at his loss, endured the pain of not knowing with him, and finally embraced the hope with him that he's given as the book closes, with its beautiful, bittersweet epilogue. Will this resonate with every reader the same way it did with me? I truly can't say because we all have our own emotional limits...mine broke down in this at a very specific, significant point and it was like the floodgates opened for me. All the pent up emotion I'd gathered as I read, just let loose and that was it ....I was a snivelling goner. Up to that point I'd had some teary eyed moments, and a couple of little 'hot eyed' weeps but about fifteen percent from the end I had my 'moment' and I swear I cried solidly from that point on. But it was a good cry and I came away feeling emotionally wasted but strangely contented too. Just an awesome read and I'm now in awe of this talented new authors writing skills. Bravo Mr French! If I could have doubled my stars I would.
Meet James Oliver French
James grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Christchurch in Aotearoa several years ago, where he lives with his wonderful partner. He has been a writer since his early teens, and has written numerous screenplays and short stories for his own enjoyment. When he isn’t hard at work writing, he’ll either be trying to seeking inner zen at a Body Balance class or trying to satisfy his insatiable appetite for good film and television.
James will be gifting one lucky reader an e-copy of Return to Me, all you need to do is enter the Rafflecopter below for your chance to win.