Keeping away from the courtroom
Attorney turned award-winning author John Hart talks to Craig Sisterson about why he’s eschewed legal thrillers for character-centric rural noir
Legal thrillers are hugely popular. But when North Carolina attorney turned author John Hart’s publishers suggested he write more lawyer-centric tales, following his critically acclaimed debut, 2006’s The King of Lies, he balked. “Because the book worked they wanted another lawyer book, and I really had to fight it because I was getting all these John Grisham comparisons, and you’re never going to out-Grisham John Grisham, period,” says Hart. Along with Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent), Grisham built the entire legal thriller genre, says Hart. “It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re always going to be second fiddle to those guys, and that seemed intolerable to me.”
If you don’t scratch below the surface, it’s easy to see why some made the Grisham references early on in Hart’s career: both were Southern lawyers turned novelists who penned page-turning tales with intriguing characters set in the rural South. With Hart centring his debut on a disgruntled lawyer, the lazy marketing comparison became near-automatic. But read a few pages of a Hart novel, and you know you’ve got something completely different, and quite special, in your hands. Call them literary thrillers, rural noir, or whatever; bottom line is there’s a reason that Hart made history by scooping the coveted Edgar Award for Best Novel for consecutive books.
Hart creates the kind of hauntingly real, complex characters that literary fiction aspires to, balanced with lush evocations of place, and engrossing storylines that lure you in. After two failed novels that he admits were “much shallower books”, it was the creation of Work Pickens in The King of Lies that helped things click into place.
Hart had been looking to leave the law: the final straw was an incident where he was assigned to defend a child molester, who’d confessed to Hart but wanted help to get out on a technicality. The man’s mention of his four-year-old stepdaughter, when Hart had recently become a new father himself, crystallised things. “I was just so unhappy in my law practice, and the main character in The King of Lies is this very disenchanted attorney that was looking for a way out and was in the law for all the wrong reasons,” he recalls. “So I wrote this opening sequence for my wife to read, about this lawyer meeting with a client in jail who’d just been sentenced to life without parole for murder, and just these feelings of icky-ness mixed with disgust coursing through the lawyer in that scene.”
Hart realised after writing that scene that Pickens could never be a strong, super-charged typical legal thriller hero. “He was just this broken down, unhappy man. And if he was that unhappy in his career, he can’t be happy in his life. There’s got to be more to him. I just realised this character was so real that I didn’t need grandiose plot drivers to make the story work. That if I could build a character so real that the readers felt his anguish, then you could buy an emotional commitment without change-the-world stakes.”
The damaged, authentic characters in Hart’s novels aren’t searching for bombs in the Vatican or hidden terrorist cells, but each in their own way is facing something just as dangerous. Change-their-life stakes, if not change-the-world. The running-on-empty Pickens is suspected in the murder of his father. Down River follows a troubled young man facing long-held grudges when he returns to his hometown. Hart’s 2009 Southern Gothic masterpiece, The Last Child, sees 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon desperately scouring the dark underbelly of his town for any sign of his twin sister, who disappeared a year ago. Mob enforcer Michael tries to break away and make a fresh start in Iron House, while protecting those he loves from his violent life, past and present.
Character isn’t everything to John Hart, but it is key. Credible characters and credible stories. “The books I remember ten years after I read them, what I remember are the characters, period,” says Hart. “I might remember little bits of the plot, but if a character is really well done and compelling, they tend to stick. I don’t aspire to write what would be considered classics in fifty years – I think that would be the height of conceit, but I do aspire to write characters that people will remember after they close the book… you absolutely have to care about the people you’re reading, or there’s no point.”
Hart boldly quit his legal practice after his wife read the first few pages of The King of Lies. He’d written his first unpublished novel while studying for a Masters, and his second while at law school. He knew he could never make it work while practising. He was “ridiculed roundly” by many in his town, including colleagues. But he and his wife knew he had to try. “What people regret at the end of the road is what they didn’t do, the risks they didn’t take,” he explains. “I’ve never heard someone say ‘I’m so sorry I tried for that brass ring’. So it really was such an imperative. I could not be a half-baked lawyer and a half-baked writer. I needed to make a decision, I was at that point. That if I didn’t do it then, then when our second baby came it would be impossible; expenses would double, time would disappear. This was one last little window where we had enough money to live, meagrely, for a year, and my wife was supportive.”
So Hart and his wife rolled the dice, and he spent his time in the local library and “just did it”. Success didn’t come straight away – it still took a couple of years for The King of Lies to be published, but once he broke through, the faith and effort all paid off. He’s now published four bestselling, critically acclaimed novels, that have scooped several awards and been published in dozens of countries.
More importantly, however, Hart is doing what he loves; disenchanted no more.
This article was first published in the print issue of NZLawyer, 5 April 2013, and is reprinted here online with permission