Author Interview: John Lescroart
The day he found the body, Mickey Dade woke up under a tree on
. (Treasure Hunt, Dutton, 2010) Mount Tamalpais
This is the opening line to New York Times bestselling author John Lescroart’s latest novel, Treasure Hunt, a whodunit tunneling beneath the layers of
’s fictional world of nonprofit greed and corruption. Like many Lescroart novels, this novel delves into more than story, plot and character—it thematically links us to the real world. In this story, money and power corrupts those entrusted by society to care for people in need. San Francisco
And, of course, someone dies.
John Lescroart (pronounced “less-kwah) is a man of many talents and experiences. While attending U.C. Berkeley, he wrote his first novel when most university students there simply worried about passing the next exam. He finished a second novel after graduating in 1970, but he would not try to publish them for another fourteen years.
In the meantime, John crammed his life with experience.
John struggled as a musician and song writer in his twenties, realizing as he neared thirty his dream of success in music seemed unlikely. In his thirties, John continued to teach himself to write while eking out a living as a house painter, slinging drinks at the bar, and a host of other jobs.
At age 41, John faced a near-death experience after which he became more focused on his writing career. This renewed attention led to his seventh published novel, The 13th Juror, becoming John’s first bestseller. At age, 46, this novelist began to consecutively create NYT bestsellers. Some twenty-one Lescroart novels have been translated into sixteen languages in seventy-five countries at last count. That number is rising.
(You can learn more about John's world by going to his web site).
It is a pleasure to visit with John here on Hook’em and Book’em as we learn about his latest novel, Treasure Hunt.
MARK: Thank you for joining us, John. Tell us about Treasure Hunt and your main character, Wyatt Hunt, a
private investigator. What do your readers need to know about this novel as they get caught up in another Hunt investigation? San Francisco
JOHN: One of the things I try to do in each novel is to make it a stand-alone experience, so my readers don’t need to bring much to the party in terms of background. I try to supply what’s needed. That said, of course Hunt does have a developed backstory. He was an orphan/adopted child who spent time in foster homes when he was young. He was in Iraq I, then worked in San Francisco for over a decade in Child Protective Services. All of these elements come into play in Treasure Hunt.
MARK: What are some of the motivating factors in Hunt’s past that drive him?
JOHN: Like many of my characters, Hunt is a justice freak. Especially when the injustice he’s up against concerns the downtrodden. In this story, several non-profit organizations are skimming lots and lots of money from the people they purport to help. And then, of course, the main suspect turns out to be a woman who, like Hunt, was a former foster child. Lots of resonance there.
MARK: Can you share with us what inspired or prompted this story?
JOHN: The initial impetus came from a headline in the Sacramento Bee – many of my stories are based on true-life scenarios. It seems that one of our largest local charities, City of Hope, with close ties to the Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, was coming under indictment for misappropriation of funds. Its federal money was going to be cut off. As soon as I saw this, I thought it had the germ of a terrific story in it.
MARK: What research did you have to do make this story so believable?
JOHN: I did what I usually do, since I usually start off knowing little or nothing about what I’m going to write about. I called up the Sac Bee reporter who’d written the City of Hope piece and she not only gave me a lot of insights into the non-profit work, but suggested that abuses in San Francisco were even greater than they apparently were in Sacramento. So I called some people in San Francisco and just got a ton of raw info, much of it compelling. Then I followed up with standard Google searches and newspaper stories. There was just a plethora of information, and I knew I was on to something good.
MARK: If one of your readers traveled to
today, would they find any of the sites mentioned in Treasure Hunt actually in existence? For example, the Little Shamrock where your characters hang out? San Francisco
JOHN: Many, many of the locales that I use in San Francisco actually exist. The Little Shamrock is a real bar where I used to bartend. It really is at 9th Ave. and Lincoln, just where I put it in the book. Same goes for many if not most of the restaurants, although Lou the Greeks is fictional. Anyway, my real San Francisco stuff is one of the hallmarks of my books, and one of my favorite parts.
MARK: The City of San Francisco always seems to hang in the background of your novels, almost as if the city itself becomes one of your characters. What does
mean to you? San Francisco
JOHN: As I just noted above, San Francisco is my spiritual home. It’s just such a great town to write about because of so many things: a goofy political climate, absolutely bizarre weather, gorgeous physical settings, water, wind, and fog. It’s the perfect mystery writer’s city, and I love it.
MARK: Which of your characters are you most closely drawn to? Which one contains more of John Lescroart than all the others?
JOHN: People always try to guess about this. Clearly, Dismas Hardy shares a lot with me, especially in the early books. He’s got a wife who’s ten years younger than him, he’s in his second marriage, he’s got two kids, etc. All that started out similar to me. But as the books have progressed, Hardy has become less like me and more like himself. Nowadays, the person with whom I most closely identify is Wes Farrell – although I wish I had hair I could decide to grow long! I don’t.
MARK: Your web biography mentions an experience in 1989 that became a turning point in your career. Can you tell us what happened and how this changed you?
JOHN: For several years before 1989, I was working pretty hard trying to write and make a living as well. I got up at 5:00 a.m. and wrote in my garage until 7:30 or so, shooting for 4 pages a day. Then I went to my “day job,” word processing in downtown LA from 8-5. After work, I’d eat a bag lunch someplace and then go around to the other lawfirms in the downtown area, taking piecemeal word processing work, often until around 10 or 11 at night. So times were challenging, to say the least. Then one Sunday I went body surfing, got some water in my ears, and woke up the next day with a splitting headache, which in a few hours had developed into spinal meningitis. By the time my wife, Lisa, got me to the hospital at around 3 a.m., the doctor said I would be dead in two hours. I wasn’t. But I did go into a coma in the ICU that went on for about eleven days. When I came out of that, I decided I had to write full-time and simply go for it. So I planned for most of a year, then quit my job and moved from LA to Northern California, where I wrote Hard Evidence, my first legal thriller. Then the next one, The 13th Juror, became a big international bestseller, and since then my life has been very good.
MARK: At the beginning of this article, we glossed over your writing career and the struggles you’ve faced. Can you give us a Reader’s Digest version of this writing journey, the highs and lows that help build the writer you’ve become?
JOHN: I like to think that much of my writing life has been done the hard way. I had no connections and no knowledge of how publishing worked, so much so that when I finished my first real book, at age 23, I didn’t show it to anybody. That book, Son of Holmes, went out for the first time 15 years later, and got bought in six weeks!! And this was fairly typical of my experiences early on. I didn’t have a sense of how to market myself or my work. When I got my first hard cover offer, I didn’t pay enough attention to my contract, and struggled mightily in a kind of indentured servitude for several books. (See the Tuesday Tidbits on my Facebook page for excruciating details of these years.)
MARK: Is it fair to characterize your novels as containing certain themes around which the story wraps itself? For example, in Betrayal the story is intricately tied to the war in
. In The Oath, modern medical care becomes part of the skeleton of that story. How would you identify the theme in Treasure Hunt? Iraq
JOHN: All of my books, as you point out, tend to be theme driven. In Treasure Hunt, I wanted to explore the dirty underbelly of the “not for profit” community, and there is one. It’s truly appalling that some people – and I hasten to add that by no means is it all, or even a majority – prey on the good will of good people and fleece them for money that is then used only to line the pockets of the fundraisers. My anger about this definitely drove the book.
MARK: Is it hard to stay aloof from certain themes you feel strongly about? As a writer, how do you prevent your personal feelings from influencing your character’s journey?
JOHN: I really don’t try to stay aloof. I let myself sink into the themes that I explore, and find that this approach informs the actions of my characters, who often seem so “real” because they are the vehicles through which I channel my own very real emotions.
MARK: How do you approach a new novel? Do you have a general idea of the plot and characters? Do you write the first chapter to see if your passion will carry through to the end? Do you start with a detailed plot, a partial plot, or work by the seat of your pants?
JOHN: Because I’ve been fortunate enough to have contracts from publishers for the past eighteen books or so, I always have to have an outline first (so that I can be paid)!! I labor over my outlines, making sure I’ve got a theme and a plot that are important and compelling. But I make it a point to keep the ending hidden, both from my publishers and from myself. This is because, once I get going, I let the book take me where it wants to go. That’s the surprise and delight of it all. I follow my outline for maybe 200 pages, and then I just make the best choices that I’ve left myself, and hope the ending turns out to be satisfying.
MARK: In one previous interview, it was mentioned that you generally complete one novel a year. What does that year look like? How do you structure your year to complete each project?
JOHN: This one’s easy. I hand in my outline on September 1, and the finished first draft on June 1. I’ve done this now about sixteen years in a row – the only exception being this year, when I handed in Carnage on April 1. But I hope and plan for the next book to go back to June.
MARK: How many drafts before your novel is ready to hand to the publisher? Do you edit daily, edit between chapters, or between drafts?
JOHN: I edit all the time, but I try not to reread too extensively because that just eats creative energy. The goal at the outset is to get to the end as fast as I can, and stay in “genius mode,” where I’m purposely not critical. Then I have a technical read with some of my consultants and get critical. Then I do a complete re-read and become truly harsh. All this before I submit. In my latest, I cut 5% of the total pages between the second technical edit and submission. But by then, it’s readable, hopefully without too many clunkers. Then I just keep tweaking through line edits, and sense edits, and two sets of galleys.
MARK: Who is your first reader? And at what point does this first reader get to look at your work?
JOHN: My first reader is my legal consultant, Al Giannini, my great friend since we were both fourteen. He reads the unrevised first draft. Not being a lawyer, nor having ever attended law school, I make lots of errors about procedure and so forth, and all that’s got to get fixed before the story really works in terms of details.
MARK: Where do you write the most? At home? Away from home? In places like the Little Shamrock?
JOHN: I have a beautiful office – actually a stand-alone house – in downtown Davis, California, and I write there after working out every day from about 10 to 5.
MARK: What does a normal writing day look like in your life? How do you let off steam?
JOHN: As noted above, I’m up around 7 or 8, go work out at a gym for about 1 ½ hours, then come into work and write until 5. Usually no weekends or nights. As for letting off steam, I love food and wine, I like to fish and occasional hack up a golf course.
MARK: Can you tell us about any writing projects that we can look forward to in the near future?
JOHN: Well, I’ve just finished next year’s book, Carnage. It features mostly Abe Glitsky and Wes Farrell, and is the story of a man who gets released from prison on appeal, which turns out not to be too good an idea.
MARK: Which writer(s) have most influence you over the years?
JOHN: Hemingway, first. Lawrence Durrell. Elmore Leonard. They’re pretty much the triumvirate.
MARK: What books have you set aside to read in the near future?
JOHN: I’ve got a stack of six blurb requests on my desk right now, all of which I’m trying to get to. Beyond that, I’ve got several non-fiction books I’m looking forward to. I read a ton of non-fiction – River of Doubt, The Murder Room, all kinds of stuff.
MARK: What is one piece of advice you’d give aspiring novelists today?
JOHN: Finish something. Get to the end. That’s where you learn what you have to know.
MAY 17: Part II– Operation Black Widow. Mystery readers and writers will be taken inside a gripping task force investigation—dubbed ‘Operation Black Widow’ where they will learn about how such cases are put together. Gang consultant George Collord will give us insight into one of the most effective investigations into organized crime and gang violence in California over the last decade.
MAY 24: New York Times bestselling author Terri Blackstock will tell us about her latest novel, Predator, to be launched on May 24th. She is the award-winning author of Intervention and Double Minds, and has sold six million books worldwide. Among her other works are the following series—Cape Refuge, Newpointe 911, the SunCoast Chronicles, and the Restoration Series.
May 31 & June 14: Greg Snider, recently retired FBI agent, just returned from war-torn Iraqi where he was embedded with military units for the past year and half. His job--to assist military commanders in their investigations into the manufacture and detonation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IODs). Greg will share his experiences about how he and others searched to identify and arrest terrorists responsible for these acts in a two-part interview.