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Psychology professor Jim Foster’s novels take readers to space and into the minds of madmen, stretching the boundaries of science and the imagination

by Sean Patterson |

The stories filled Jim Foster’s head for years — tales of time travel, psychological experiments gone awry, and spaceships. But it took more than three decades to find the courage to put his imagination into words.

Once he did, there was no slowing him down. In science fiction, Foster discovered the portal to a place he could flesh out all the outlandish, fantastic ideas that came to him.

Nothing sci-fi is off limits. In his books, man and dinosaur coexist in a modern-day world, a Dr. Frankenstein-like mad scientist creates a super brain, and a religious cult discovers an antigravity device and escapes to another planet.

“Honestly, I’m not sure how I come up with this stuff,” he admits. “I might just happen to see a book title or a magazine, and that will trigger an idea for a story. One of my sisters was creeped out by one of my books. She told me ‘We never knew you had those kinds of thoughts going through your head all those years.’

Like a compelling novel, his life has an ironic twist: Foster, 54, is dean of the School of Behavioral and Health Sciences. At work, it’s academics. At home, action-adventure. Still, the two worlds do occasionally meet. “One of my characters was based on a coworker,” he laughs. “Bits and pieces of people I know show up in the books. Even parts of me show up.”

As dean, Foster oversees the departments of undergraduate psychology, sociology, social work, nursing, and health and human performance. He admits his life is an odd dichotomy, but he also sees a correlation between professor and novelist. “In the 27 years I’ve been here, I’ve graded my fair share of papers. When you read that much, you develop an ear for grammar and for what flows and what doesn’t. Great writing is great writing, whether it’s a psychology paper or a science- fiction story.”

Fear of failure

Still, for years, Foster didn’t believe he could be an author. Ironically, a poorly written published short story inspired him to begin submitting short stories for publication in the early 1980s. “I figured, ‘I can write a better story than this,’” he says.

His first story was turned down; a string of rejection slips followed. Undeterred, Foster soldiered on. He eventually published short pieces in small science-fiction journals, and that whet his appetite to do more. He wanted to write a novel.

Then came a stroke of good fortune. Foster began work in 1990 on a time-travel tale in which dinosaurs get transported to modern times and wreak havoc. He liked the premise, but he confessed to his brother that it probably wouldn’t get published. “Nobody knew me as an author, and at the time there wasn’t a big market for dinosaur novels,” he says.

But Foster got a break late that year, when Michael Crichton published Jurassic Park, in which a scientist uses DNA technology to bring dinosaurs to life on an isolated Caribbean island. The bestseller — and subsequent Hollywood blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg — ignited a wave of interest in dinosaurs and gave sci-fi publishing giant Tor Books a reason to take a chance on Foster’s submission in 1993. Two years later, after extensive revisions, they published Footprints of Thunder. It remains the most popular of Foster’s six novels, with two printings and more than 92,000 copies sold.

“It took me a lot longer to write books in those days,” he says. “I didn’t get to write until after putting the three kids to bed.”

Imagination unleashed

Encouraged by Footprints’ success, Foster followed with a psychological thriller, Fragments, and, in a spurt of productivity, four more books in a six-year period beginning in 2000 (see sidebar, next page). His novels include elements of time travel, experiments-gone-wrong, and murder-mystery.

“My books go all over the place, which presents a dilemma at times,” he admits. “One of the problems with writing such diverse stories is the fact you never know what section of the bookstore your novel will be displayed. I heard of one of my books ending up in the horror section. Another was considered a mystery. The bottom line is, I write books that I myself would enjoy reading.”

Foster has a simple formula for writing compelling stories: Write about characters the reader cares about and use words wisely. “That’s always a danger with novels — to waste words. Personally, I like to keep the action moving along.”

Foster, who goes by the pen name James F. David — a moniker he devised to avoid being confused with Alan Dean Foster, another science-fiction writer — defines a satisfied author as one who is true to himself. “I won’t read similar books to the one I’m working on, as I don’t want to be influenced,” he says. “When I do read someone else, I’m always asking the question, ‘How would I tell that story differently?’”

Foster loves classic science fiction, particularly the works of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jules Verne. But he can’t explain his fixation with the genre. “I suppose I’m drawn to the challenge of creating an internal logic — of bending the rules of physics and sticking to those rules. That’s why I’m not big on fantasy novels. Those have no boundaries and anything goes. They conjure up spells to explain reality.”

He also avoids proselytizing. “I don’t write ‘message books’ and I don’t preach. I do, however, treat Christianity with respect and reverence.”

Faithful following

Foster doesn’t make a living as an author — he earns about $17,000 for each book, plus a percentage of sales over a threshold of about 35,000 copies – but he’s content knowing his prose makes readers consider alternate realities. The formula has worked: Foster regularly receives emails from fans nationwide, and a New York library chose Footprints as one of its “young reader’s favorites,” generating fan mail from enthusiastic youngsters. His books are marketed extensively — from independent bookstores to national retailers Wal-Mart, Borders, and Barnes and Noble.

dinosaur head

He can’t help but recall that he nearly gave up. “I was pretty discouraged with all those rejection letters early on,” he says. “I’m convinced there are a lot of great would-be novelists. They just haven’t written down their ideas. Or, if they have, they’re afraid it isn’t good enough.

“My advice: write it down and get it out there. You just never know.”

Tales of mystery and imagination
The novels of Jim Foster (aka James F. David)

Footprints of Thunder book cover

Footprints of Thunder (1995)

Overnight the boundaries between yesterday and today dissolve, transforming the world into a crazy-quilt mixture of dinosaur-infested forests and modern cities. As scientists race to find a solution to the time disruption, people all over the world struggle to survive encounters with prehistoric predators. Much of the action takes place in what is left of Portland, and even Newberg plays a role in the novel.

Thunder of Time book cover

Thunder of Time (2006)

Ten years after the time disaster that brought dinosaurs to the modern world in Footprints of Thunder, time is unraveling again.Worse, Nick Paulson, director of the newly formed Office of Security Science, discovers that time is being manipulated.Unless Paulson can unravel the mystery and find the source of the time disruption, the Earth will once again have the time-space continuum shredded. The mystery sends Dr. Paulson and his teams to the jungles of the Yucatan, to a secret base on the moon, and even into the past to a Mayan civilization that practices human sacrifice.

Judgment Day book cover

Judgment Day (2005)

God calls together a small group of believers for a new Exodus. When God reveals the technology needed to leave the planet, the “Fellowship” becomes a space power, first orbiting satellites, then building a space station, and then exploring distant planets. As the believers struggle to fulfill God’s plan, Satan organizes the forces of the world to stop them, even sending a demon to assist Satan worshipers in destroying the Fellowship. The action begins on Earth and moves to the stars as God and Satan go to war.

Before the Cradle Falls book cover

Before the Cradle Falls (2002)

A serial killer known as “Cradle Robber” is working his way up the West Coast, killing children. When the killer arrives in Portland, a detective who recently lost his own child is assigned to stop the murder spree. But Detective Sommers and his team aren’t the only ones on the murderer’s trail. A mysterious man begins to appear and save children from danger as if he knew what was going to happen. Detective Sommers comes to believe that the mystery Good Samaritan has returned from the future and may be the key to not only stopping Cradle Robber, but bringing his own daughter back from the grave. Unfortunately, the price of saving his daughter could be the destruction of the city.

Ship of the Damned book cover

Ship of the Damned (2000)

The survivors of the experimental team in Fragments are gathered together again to help a group of people being forced to dream of a ship in the desert, filled with trapped sailors. Lack of normal dreaming is killing them. Linking the minds of the dreamers together, the researchers discover that the ship is a World War II cruiser used in an experiment in 1943, an experiment that never ended.

Fragments book cover

Fragments (1995)

A psychologist with cutting-edge neurotechnology links the minds of autistic savants to create a super-intellect. Unknown to the researchers, they choose to conduct the experiment in a house where a young woman died mysteriously. As a result, the experiment takes a turn no one could predict and ends in disaster.


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