Author Julie James knows a thing or two about love

Author Julie James balances her family life with writing a novel a year.
Author Julie James balances her family life with writing a novel a year.

Julie James knew she wanted to write, it was just a matter of finding the right platform.

James, who’s been writing professionally for 10 years, said she was practicing law at a large Chicago firm when she “finally got to the point of ‘I want to do this.’ 

“I always had an idea for a screenplay, a romantic comedy,” she said recently from her home on Chicago’s northside. James, 42, said she went on to write two screenplays that were optioned but never produced.

Instead, when the option expired, she converted the first 100 pages into a book, “Just the Sexiest Man Alive.”

“A literary agent liked it,” she said. “I got a two book deal with Berkley.”

Her ninth book, “The Thing About Love,” is out Tuesday. It’s a romantic comedy built around FBI agents Jessica Harlow and John Shepherd, frenemies from their training days in Quantico. They paired up years later on an undercover assignment investigating public corruption in Jacksonville, Fla.

James said the story draws upon her life experiences and dreams. James clerked for the 11th Circuit Court Appeals in Jacksonville. Jessica and John divide their time between Chicago, James’ hometown, and Jacksonville, because both cities are familiar to her.

She went to law school with plans of becoming an FBI agent — her eyesight kept her out, as this was pre-lasik. James does a wonderful job of capturing the nuance between the various groups within it, rather than making it an amorphous law enforcement agency.

John is a former Army Ranger who was recruited by bureau with the hope that some day he would qualify for the Hostage Rescue Team, an elite counter terrorism tactical team. He’s undercover with organized crime, awaiting the opportunity to qualify for the team.

Meanwhile, Jessica, who’s a graduate of Stanford Law School, is with the white-collar division.

John, whose only degree is a bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is acutely aware of the educational differences that separate the agents. The distinctions are part of the underlying tension between Jessica and John.

James said she works with an active Chicago FBI agent so that she can keep her storyline as realistic as possible.

She laughed as she recalled an early conversation with the agent. “I said something about white-collar agents getting into car chase and he said, ‘Julie, white-collar agents don’t get into car chases.’ 

The banter between John and Jessica is a tribute to James’s love of classic romantic comedy. Each has been bruised by a bad romance and they try to stay at arm’s length. But it’s clear they’re going to lose the battle as their attraction refuses to be ignored.

The story is filled with a strong cast of supporting characters. Both agents are grounded by families.

James, who writes a book a year, balances her writing with her family. She and her husband have two school-age children.

“It’s challenging at times,” James said, adding that she does a lot of writing during the evenings.

Her earliest heroines — lawyers specializing in cases involving employment discrimination — tracked her legal career path. But after her second book she turned to a world of FBI agents and U.S. attorneys.

The books are all written as stand-alones, but fans refer to the loosely connected titles as the U.S. attorney/FBI series.

The Thing About Love

(out of five)

  • By Julie James
  • Berkley, $15