Originally from London, James T. Bartlett is the author of Anthony Award-nominated The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story that Shocked America, a true crime book reexamining a scandalous 1953 murder that began in Alaska and ended with a suicide in Hollywood.
As a travel and lifestyle journalist and historian, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, BBC, Los Angeles Magazine, ALTA California, High Life, Hemispheres, Westways, Frommers, Crime Reads, American Way, Atlas Obscura, The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Real Crime, Variety, Whitechapel Journal, Sunday Life, History Ireland, and Bizarre, among others.
He also wrote the Gourmet Ghosts alternative guides to Los Angeles and has appeared on Ghost Adventures and The UnXplained, while his short story “Death Under the Stars” features in the recent Sisters in Crime Los Angeles anthology Entertainment To Die For.
The Alaskan Blonde: In October 1953, Alaskan businessman Cecil Wells was shot dead in what his badly-beaten wife Diane said was a home invasion turned deadly, but then the police got a tip she was having an affair with Black musician Johnny Warren, and the murder became a national sensation. Seventy years later, The Alaskan Blonde reexamines this unsolved cold case.
My main job is as a journalist covering travel and lifestyle, but I have managed to carve out a small niche in true crime, as it was initially a big part of the two alternative Gourmet Ghosts guides I wrote about Los Angeles in 2012 and 2016.
I have only written one mystery short story, but I get to live vicariously in that world through my wife, Wendall Thomas. She has just finished Cheap Trills, her fourth book in the Cyd Redondo Mysteries series, and I am in awe of people like her who can create fictional stories out of their imagination.
Working in true crime means there is usually no need to create a killing, a suspect, evidence, or the complex machinations of how it gets solved by the end of the book. Life is not that simple, but history is bursting with real examples of murder and mayhem, lots of them unsolved or unresolved.
Also, as I am sure many PSWA members know, things happen in actual criminal cases that you could never write as fiction because people would not believe it. I came across a number of those with my recent book The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story that Shocked America, so buy me a beer one day, and I will tell you about them!
What brought you to writing? My paternal grandfather Jim – who died before I was born – was a respected daily newspaperman in England, where I come from, and that may be where the seed of my being a journalist/writer began.
Otherwise, it comes from being naturally curious. I like to meet people and want to know how things work – the stranger or more obscure, the better. To that end, I always try to write like I talk, with enthusiasm, and I try to write about things I am interested in and would want to read about.
That curiosity certainly led me to The Alaskan Blonde, which reexamines a sensational murder case that happened in Fairbanks in 1953 and ended with a suicide in Hollywood six months later.
What kind of research do you do? For The Alaskan Blonde, I came across a brief article about the murder in the Los Angeles Times archives while I was writing Gourmet Ghosts 2, and had thought: “Well, what happened next?”.
When I couldn’t find anything more substantial about the investigation on Google, I was hooked, so I initially requested police/FBI/archive files as a jumping-off point and then tried to track down living family members to ask them what they remembered about the case.
Being a complete outsider – not family, not from Alaska, not from America, not even born when the murder happened –helped, believe it or not. My English accent did too, but after meeting initial skepticism about why I cared about something that happened so long ago, I was astonished to find out that no one I talked to really knew what happened in 1953. It was simply not talked about and had even been brushed aside as Alaska fought for statehood.
Assembling as many pieces of evidence as I could, I went down many rabbit holes on the internet and, as is necessary, became somewhat obsessed with it all, but by the final chapter of the book, I felt that I could write what I think happened on the night of the murder.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? For The Alaskan Blonde, the hardest thing was interviewing family members and friends and then deciding what was necessary to go in the book, which, after much structural re-arranging, I felt needed a chronological narrative.
Most of the interviewees had been children in the 1940s and 1950s, and almost without exception, the shock waves from the murder still affected them today and had affected their entire lives – and that of their children, too. As such, I often felt uncomfortable and wondered why I was bringing up something so many of them still found it difficult to talk about who I was.
How long did it take to get it published? It took five years of work before the book was ready for people to read. After publication, I was relieved and pleased to get several supportive emails from those family members, thanking me for what I had done: they felt they could finally talk about something that had been a black hole in their history.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? The everyday life of a journalist is about finding and researching ideas, then pitching them in a way that intrigues an editor. The research and writing are the fun part; getting a paying gig is a challenge!
I tend to write at home, as I don’t like to be too far from teabags, milk, and a kettle, but just as often, you’ll find me at the library. Sometimes I’ll listen to music, as it can give me an energy boost and make me write like a demon, but just as often, I’ll wear noise-canceling headphones so I can have silence. I don’t have a set schedule, but I like to work late when the mood takes me. My wife prefers to write in the early morning, and we often pass each other like ships at night.
What are you currently working on? Most recently, I published a Gourmet Ghosts (Pocket Guide) featuring some wild Los Angeles true crime stories about a Catalina Island pirate, a 1930s “Bonnie & Clyde,” and the rumor that Jack the Ripper was in the City of Angels before he bought death to London.
As for my next book project, it may be another Fairbanks story (a suspicious suicide from the 1970s), but that depends on whether my friend at Fairbanks PD finds anything on microfiche that was in cold storage – literally.
You can find out more at www.thealaskanblonde.com and www.gourmetghosts.com and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
I was born in London, England, a few years after World War II. I watched London being patched back into a vibrant commercial center. Sights of bombed-out buildings and devastation still linger in my memories.
At age 26, I moved to Saudi Arabia to work for Aramco (an oil company.) I worked there for four years and traveled widely in the region. I grew to love and be intrigued by the local people and their culture.
Years later, as I neared retirement, my family requested I write down some of the many stories I had told over the years. One theme kept appearing in these pieces, my driving a Chevy Blazer from London to the eastern province of Saudi Arabia – a journey of 5,500 miles in 15 days. That became my first book, a memoir, Journey to Self, published in September 2019 – available on Amazon.
While working on that book, I said I had no idea how to write a novel. It seemed overwhelming. However, after one workshop, I saw I had the basic framework for a fictional story. Having never been one to shy away from a challenge, I started work on it. My story is set around a Syrian family and covers themes such as:
- most Syrians, most Muslims, like ourselves, want to live in peace – that is not fiction,
- how to counter a ruthless dictator,
- the roles of men and women in Syrian society,
- how to hold grief, love, and fear while fighting for your life,
- how people, despite their dire circumstances, can imagine a hopeful future.
In the past few weeks, I have received feedback from a group of beta-readers, and so far, there have been no show-stoppers but plenty of words of encouragement. While working through the multiple drafts of this first novel, I started work on the sequel: Syrian Rebirth – Ahmed’s World. This is now a completed initial draft. I have in mind the third and final book in the series, Syrian Rebirth – Fatima’s World.
Syrian Rebirth – Rashid’s World. Rashid wished his family to be safe. He joined the fight against Syria’s brutal president. How would that affect him, his family, and his country?
What brought me to writing: Writing is a way for me to purge demons that hindered me for too many years. I learned to read as a child, but I truly hated and, in some ways, feared it. I read my first book for pleasure when I was 26 years old. To many people, that may sound horrifying, but it was my world as a youngster. Numbers and logic were my saving graces. I became a computer software engineer for a career. Reading never became a pleasurable activity for me. I missed reading the classics, much to my detriment.
Over the years, I have displayed some competence in various artistic mediums: drawing, painting, woodcraft, story-telling, and cooking. Then I started writing, and it became a passion. I have taken many classes, and some teachers have had a profound impact on my writing.
Tell us about your writing process: I arise early each day and make my wife’s coffee (a survival technique I learned early.) Depending on the priorities of the day, I make time most mornings to review and edit what I worked on the previous day. I try to dedicate an hour or two each day to writing new material or making revisions to pieces that are my focus at that time. If I do not manage to find time, I do not judge myself but try to use my sense of frustration as an impetus for the following day.
Do I kill popular characters? Yes. My novels are thrillers. I think in my first novel, more characters are dead than alive in the end. And several of the dead are good/popular characters. One of my favorite characters in that first novel is among the dead, and I still grieve their loss. Reading that section still causes my eyes to tear up. A few beta-readers admitted they cried when that death happened.
How do you raise the stakes for the protagonist? One of my teachers frequently tells me to keep winding up the tension and never let it go. I understand this and try to do that. But I do find when a sub-plot comes to its termination, then along with that, some of the protagonist’s tension is released. So in my novel, the tension is more like waves with spikes along them. Even though some tension may be released at times, it still adds to the overall tension.
How did I come up with Character Names. Most of my main characters are Arabic. So names like Joan, Paul, Marge, and Randy are inappropriate. Thankfully, lists of Arabic names can be found on the web. I have selected names with which I am comfortable, and I hope readers will not trip over. I have tried to have each name start with a different letter for easier recognition. In the forward to each book, I have listed out the main characters and their relationship so that readers have a quick reference, e.g. Rashid is married to Fatima.
Do I outline, or am I a pantser? At heart, I am a pantser, but I will admit that I have my thoughts reasonably outlined in my head before I tackle a section. What fascinates me is how my mind conjures up a scenario that appears on the page/screen without me consciously thinking about it. Sometimes, as I fathom out how to write a section, I will realize in my wordy/ugly first draft I left a hook or a character that will allow for a smooth continuance of the current storyline.
Sources of Expertise / Advice. I have read posts, articles, and books about the book’s locations, particularly from current day journalists. Also, I found a local Islamic Center and talked with one of the leaders about these novels. He gave me some useful information and encouraged me to continue working on them. He agreed that, basically, Syrian refugees are people who have been forced out of their homeland by violence and intimidation. They are desperate to find a safe environment in which to raise their children. They are no more inherently violent than we are.
Going forward, I have plenty of work integrating the comments that I received from beta readers and improving the readers’ experience of the novel. After that, I will reach out to a few agents and publishers. If those connections raise no interest, I am prepared to self-publish, which I did for my memoir.
A reader of this post may be able to assist me with achieving one of my next steps. Does anyone know a Syrian or a person from the Middle East who may be willing to read the revised beta draft of the novel? I would be appreciative if anybody could suggest a female as the book addresses gender roles in Syrian society. But I am looking for any person from that region who may be willing to review the revised draft.
My website can be found at: www.BDHWrites.com
My blog can be found at: www.BDHWrites.com/blog
My email address is: BDHWrites@gmail.com