I was fortunate enough to interview Hart for a recent article in the New Zealand Listener (read here), and it was a real pleasure to talk to him about everything from the literary merit of crime fiction, to the importance of compelling characters and treating a setting honestly (it's good and bad aspects), to getting gripping drama from 'small-scale' personal stories rather than world-coming-to-an-end plotlines, to the fact we'd both left the law to do something else, something better (hopefully) with our lives.
Hart was a really humble, down-to-earth guy, and I'm looking forward to meeting him in person when he visits New Zealand in the next few days, touring in support of his fourth novel, IRON HOUSE. Hart will be appearing at Hagley Park in Christchurch on Sunday 21 August as part of the "Setting the Stage for Murder" event where the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel will be presented, and at Takapuna Library in Auckland on Tuesday 23 August for a solo event (see further details here).
But for now, John Hart stares down the barrel of 9mm.
Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero or detective?
I still love Kay Scarpetta from Patricia Cornwell’s novels. We went to the same small school, she was a few years ahead of me, and she has always been an inspiration to me, and when I was trying to get into this business I could look at her and think if she could do it, I could do it. I’ve followed her career for that reason, amongst others, and I’ve always enjoyed her. I love Lucas Davenport, John Sanford’s character, he’s enjoyable. And I’m a sucker for Jack Reacher too, Lee Child’s guy, and Harry Bosch from Michael Connelly. Those are really four series characters that I would go to regularly.
What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I remember specifically, because I remember my father read it to me and I still have it, a book called DIVERS DOWN, I can’t remember the author, it’s in a box in the basement somewhere. But it’s called DIVERS DOWN and it’s about a group of kids who came to sort of an engineering camp in Hawaii and got involved in a project raising a sunken ship that had belonged to some Hawaiian king. And the book was filled with good kids trying to do right, and bad kids trying to derail things, and underwater adventure. That’s definitely the first one I remember. For all I know it could have been absolutely the worst thing ever written, because I was probably six or seven, but my father was doing his medical residency when I was at that formative age, so for him to find ten or fifteen minutes to read a story to me was be a big deal, because he would be at the hospital 30-40 hours straight, sleeping in the backrooms...
Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I had a couple of unpublished manuscripts that remain deep dark secrets, two failed novels that honestly should never have been published. My editor thinks they’re lost masterpieces and keeps asking me to see them, but keeps getting refused, which I’m convinced is the height of wisdom. The first one was a science fiction novel and the second was more a mainstream thriller.
And there was plenty of legal writing of course. The only short story I wrote I wrote when I was ten years old, and it may have linked in to that DIVERS DOWN story because it was about falling off a fishing boat and basically being rescued by Aquaman, and an underwater civilisation brought me into their world. I’m sure it was fun to write.
Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Well I love my dog, and I’ve got a fairly large piece of land, so I spend a lot of time out on the property with the dog... I’m out on the land a lot, just walking in the woods - that’s where I get my best ideas for whatever book I’m working on. I have young kids, which takes up a lot of my time, and I made a deal with my wife that as long as they cared about spending their spare time with me, I would put a lot of things aside with the understanding that when they came of an age where they’d rather be with their friends at the pool, then I could start playing golf again (chuckling). I love playing golf and tennis. I really just love being out on the land.
What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I’m brand new, I just moved in the last couple of weeks to a new city... there’s a restaurant in Charlottesville, I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia now, we moved recently, called the C and O, which is based of the name of the old railway line that used to be up here. And it inhabits a building that for probably a hundred years was used by the railroad engineers that had overnight layovers. And it’s this restaurant in this old building that they’ve worked hard to keep the same, and my great grandfather was an engineer for that railroad, in Charlottesville, so he spent his life working in and around this building. And it’s my favourite place, and I go there all the time, because it feels like you’re stepping back into the 1800s, but you get this absolute wonderful food. So if you’re ever in Charlottesville, Virginia, you should go to the C and O restaurant.
Charlottesville, it’s beautiful. We moved up here because it’s gorgeous. I’ve seen enough pictures of New Zealand to know how beautiful it is, and this is about as close as you could come to having that on the east coast in my opinion.
If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Wow, man, that’s a bit of a mind-blower. I’ve never thought of that before. Well, let me see, he would have to be devilishly handsome of course (laughing). The thought has never occurred to me. I would have to say - you would have to ‘young him up a bit’, pardon the colloquialism, but I would love to see someone like Tom Hanks do it. Because I don’t have any great convictions of my physical prowess, but I believe that I’m a very sincere guy, and I love all the characters that Hanks plays, I think he brings a real sincerity to it. So I think I would probably like to see him do it. I think he’s wonderful...
THE LAST CHILD is my favourite. It’s my favourite because I had to reach for those boys, for Johnny and Jack. I really had to dig deep into my own memories, my own soul, to try to find a credible way to convey two traumatised thirteen year old boys. And just to give you an idea of how personal I consider that book, Johnny and Jack are both nicknames for John, and that was intentional. I kind of feel like I split the difference between those two; Johnny is the kid that most men wish they could have been - clear-eyed, fiercely loyal, courageous, selfless kid. And then you’ve got Jack on the other spectrum, and he’s this hell-raiser who steals his Dad’s liquor, smokes cigarettes and slicks his hair. And I kind of feel like they are two sides of the same coin, and that book for me was a very soulful book. I really relate to those kids, and feel like I’m a part of them and they’re a part of me, and the fact that there was such a risk inherent in trying to write an adult-based thriller around a 13-year-old boy. I knew fundamentally the risk I was taking when I started that book, and the fact that it worked out at the end of the day, and it worked as well as it has, just fills me with pride.
I’m always pushing the book I’ve just finished, but THE LAST CHILD will forever be, I think, my special book... it’s really weird. I do like different books for different reasons. I try to take chances with every book, and IRON HOUSE is a little bit different because I set out to try to write a page-burning thriller that didn’t lose the depth that made the other books work. I felt again that it was a risk that I took knowingly, and I feel satisfied that it’s worked for what it is. So I’m very attached to all of them for different reasons, but THE LAST CHILD will always be my personal most significant.
What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication?
As luck would have it, my wife’s parents were in town, and they’ve always been my biggest supporters. Early on when everyone says ‘don’t quite your day job, you’ll never succeed in this field’, my in-laws were the ones that said ‘if you need to quit your job, we’ll feed your family while you try this’, they were really that supportive.
So it turned out that they happened to be in town, and we were just doing a cookout, and I just remember my wife made a lovely toast to tell her parents that I’d got the deal, and she got choked up and was just full of pride, because it had been 15 years and two failed novels to get to that point. And the moment I remember most after that was just fixing a very stiff drink and going outside to light the grill, and just taking a sip of that drink and feeling a sense of just unbelievable relief, of what had been years of pent-up frustration, seep away, that it had actually happened.
So it was that family moment, and then ten minutes of just standing outside, enjoying that cocktail and just taking very deep breaths, that this had actually happened. So nothing outstanding in terms of no headline-grabbing celebration; just a very quiet, contemplative and meaningful evening with my family.
What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
No question, hands down the strangest thing I’ve ever had at a book signing was when a man walked up and meowed at me. Like a cat. It was a terrible book signing, for the KING OF LIES, and it was probably the worst event we’d had all tour. I was just sitting at this table by myself and this man just walks over, looks me up and down, and goes ‘reeooowww, reoowww’ [cat noise], and then turns around and walks away. And I just literally turned to the manager and said ‘I think I’m done here’. It was just so odd (chuckling).
Thank you John Hart. We appreciate you taking the time to talk to Crime Watch.
Have you read any of John Hart's novels? What do you think? Which is your favourite? Will you be coming to one of the New Zealand events? Can big stories come from small plots? Are characters the most compelling aspects? Comments welcome.