Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cop-Turn-Writer: Interview with novelist John Scanlan

By Mark Young
I was scrolling through my emails recently when I came across one from a debut author from Palm Beach, Florida—author John Scanlan. As I read further I learned that John is a cop-turned-writer and my interest meter shot up. Honestly, as a cop-turned-writer myself, I always want to help out a fellow officer trying to make a stab in the writing business—particularly if they are writing crime-related fiction.

Now, I have not read John’s novel—Of Guilt and Innocence published by Sunbury Press, Inc.—but his story idea seems intriguing. Nothing tugs at the heartstrings of people like the abduction of a child. Five-year-old Ashley Wooten is snatched from her own front yard in a well-to-do community of Boca Raton. The girl’s father must reveal secrets about his past to jump start a faltering investigation. As detectives delve into Ashley’s disappearance, they learn that the suspect might have ties to the murder of an elderly victim, a crime attributed to the South Florida Strangler. Uncertain how these two cases might dovetail, investigators scramble for clues before Ashley or another victim are found dead.

Sound interesting? I thought so.

John is a transplanted ‘Floridian’—is that the word? It seems that most people who have settled in Florida have come from somewhere else—particularly colder climates I would wager. John is no exception. He migrated to the sunny state from a small village in New York, about an hour’s drive east of Buffalo, which I guess accounts for his love of chicken wings. Eight years ago, John began his career as a police officer with the Palm Beach Police Department after a short detour with the U.S. Border Patrol. He is married with two young daughters and a son due in June. This makes 2013 a big year for him—a novel released last January and a son on the way.

Let’s find out a little more about how John balances his life between police work, writing, and a growing family. First, let's find out about his debut novel.

MARK: John, thanks for joining us here on Hook’em & Book’em. Tell us a little more about Of
Guilt and Innocence. What can readers expect when they pick up your novel? How did you come up with the idea?

JOHN:  Thanks for having me, Mark.  I think readers can expect an easy read that will hold their interest until the final twist.  It’s not your typical whodunit crime novel, but with every secret revealed it will really make them consider who is truly innocent and who is truly guilty.  I had decided I wanted to try to write a novel before I developed this particular idea, but I knew I wanted to have three separate storylines that intertwined.  I wanted to make it as emotionally charged as I could and so I used crimes that I knew would accomplish that. 

MARK: What did you find most challenging in writing this novel?

JOHN:  Aside from trying not to make it sound like one long police report?  My biggest issue with writing this novel was that I didn’t know what writing a novel would entail.  I thought every novel had to sound like A Tale of Two Cities and make readers have an open dictionary by them.  So I tried to write that way, until I read an interview with James Patterson where he said, basically, that he could only write the way he was capable of writing.  He couldn’t be anyone else.  And after reading that I looked at writing in a whole new light and felt a bit more confident in my ability.  I readdressed my work and just wrote the best I could.  No more, no less. 

MARK: As the father of daughters myself, I found the most troubling calls I responded to as a police officer where those involving children. In fact, a young girl—friend of my oldest daughter—was abducted and killed near our home which brings your story a little closer to my world. These incidents tear at your heart even though you must deal with the situation as a police officer.  John, as a father of two daughters did you discover writing this novel difficult in that respect? Have you had other experiences as a police officer that you could use to deepen the emotional struggle within your characters?

JOHN:  At times it was extremely difficult for me to write.  I had to really get into the feelings and emotions of the father of the missing girl, which, of course, made me consider what I would do if this had happened to one of my girls.  I remember, after writing portions of it, going into my daughter’s bedrooms after they were asleep (because that was when I usually wrote) and just looking at them and thinking how lucky I was.  And then I had to transition into writing from the perspective of the investigating officers, which provided me with no relief at all.  As a first responder, calls involving children are always the ones you dread.  They affect you deeply and stay with you, well, forever.  I was once first on scene at a house where a child had been pulled from a swimming pool just minutes before I arrived.  She was drifting in and out consciousness and I spent hours with her family at the hospital as they waited to see if their daughter would pull through and at what cost.  To make matters worse for me emotionally she was the same age as my oldest daughter.  I tried to use experiences like this to develop a realistic view as to what my investigators would be going through.     

MARK: Let us switch gears here and focus on your police career.  You  have been with the Palm Beach PD for about eight years. Where have you served and what kind of experiences have you faced?

JOHN:  I’ve served on my department’s Honor Guard Unit and currently serve as a member of the Crisis Intervention Team.  The great thing about working in Palm Beach is that it is a wealthy community that experiences a relatively low crime rate thanks to the hard work of my fellow officers, as well as all the outstanding officers that served before me.  Because of this we get to experience a lot of fun things.  I’ve served on two presidential details when George W. Bush visited and work security details when the NFL owners meetings are in town.   

MARK: Tell us about your assignment with the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). What kind of services does the CIT provide? What are your responsibilities?

JOHN:  CIT deals with individuals in crisis situations.  Officers on the team are trained by mental health professionals to better deal with a variety of crisis situations and are dispatched to handle them should they arise.  Examples of these types of situations would be dealing with individuals suffering from mental illness, individuals who are suicidal, substance abusers, child or elderly abuse investigations, and death notifications.   

MARK: What experiences have you found interesting with CIT? What has been less desirable?

JOHN:  While none of those situations are pleasant, they are important.  It is important to help people who sometimes get overlooked or passed over because they are difficult to deal with.  It is important to console families who are grieving or confused or scared.  I wouldn't say any one experience is more interesting or favorable than another, but there is a bit of intrigue before you arrive at the call because you know it is going to be complex.  You know it is going to make you work for a resolution, and you just hope it will be a positive one.  Of course, that being said, I'm sure every member of the team would tell you that death notifications and child abuse investigations are the absolute hardest to deal with emotionally.

MARK: What has been your most rewarding experience as a police officer?

JOHN:  I'd have to say the most rewarding experience I've had was when I located a man wanted out of Cleveland on ten counts of kidnapping and rape.  The warrant was ten years old and after I put the cuffs on him and shipped him back to finally answer the charges against him. It was a pretty good feeling.

MARK: Leroy, New York is a long way from Palm Beach, Florida. What prompted you to make the switch? Better weather?

JOHN:  In all honesty, yes.  After my time training with the Border Patrol in Charleston, SC I just fell in love with southern living.  I liked having a somewhat constant temperature and the ability to do more things I enjoyed year round.  So I started looking at police departments in different areas of different states that I liked.  Luckily for me Palm Beach was the first to make me an offer.

MARK: How do you balance your day job and your family in order to find time to write? Do you just skip sleeping?

JOHN:  Skip sleeping?  It's probably my favorite past time actually.  Though I admit I do it much less these days.  In actuality my schedule works out quite nicely and I just don't push it.  I generally wait to write until my daughters have gone to bed so I can spend time with them and so I don't end up writing the same sentence six times because they are constantly asking me questions and I can't focus.  And then, depending on if I have to work in the morning, I will write for a minimum of an hour.  Occasionally, I am up until the wee hours of the morning writing, but there are also days, sometimes multiple days in a row, that I just can't fit it in to my schedule at all.  And I'm fine with that.  I have a full time job and a responsibility to my family that come first.  Maybe, someday, writing can be my only job, but until then it is relegated to being done under the cover of darkness. 

MARK: In reading some of your background material, I learned that you were a closet writer for a while—even from  your wife. Tell us how your big secret was finally revealed and why you were keeping it a secret.

JOHN:  I decided to keep my writing a secret simply because when I started I wasn't sure how far I'd get.  I figured no one needed to know if it only ended up being a week long hobby.  My wife had recently gone back to work and so, being a cop with atypical days off, I was left with an abundance of time alone on weekday nights.  I would write while my wife and kids slept and, as the words started flowing and I started really enjoying it, I decided I would tell her when the end was in sight.  But, of course, I got greedy and I got lazy.  I tried to sneak in a quick writing session one day while she was at the store and I left my manuscript up on the computer.  When she found it she was obviously confused, but very supportive and encouraging once I explained.  At that point I was only about half way finished and, with the exception of one other person, she remained the only one who knew about it until I signed my publishing contract.

MARK: What kind of story are you working on right now?

JOHN:  Right now I'm putting the finishing touches on a manuscript about the aftermath of an overturned murder conviction.  A conviction that caused a man to serve twenty years in prison for a crime he seemingly did not commit.  It details the perspective of the murder victim's husband, who refuses to give up his closure or peace of mind and instead chooses to overlook the evidence that supports the release.  It also details the perspective of the man once convicted of the crime and his reentry into the crime riddled neighborhood in which he grew up.  And then, of course, the now cold case investigation into the original murder.  

MARK:  Now that you have one novel under your belt, what do you think about the whole writing process? Worth losing a little sleep trying to balance everything?

JOHN:  Absolutely.  What started out as a secret hobby has grown into a large part of my life.  Though it's a lot of work, which does occasionally make me lose out on some of my beloved sack time, it's a fun part of my day that I look forward to.   

MARK: Any last words for new writers?

JOHN:  Don't try to be someone you're not with your writing.  Have fun with it.  Stay loose.  Don't get intimidated.  I tried not to put any pressure on myself, even with the submission process.  I told myself that if this manuscript didn't get published I'd keep writing them until one did.  And because writing was fun for me I didn't have a problem with that plan.

MARK: Thanks for your time, John. I know you don’t have much time to spare. Best wishes on your new writing career.

Author John Scanlan is a police officer on the picturesque island of Palm Beach in South Eastern Florida where he currently resides with his wife and two daughters. For more information on him, visit John’s website at www.johnfscanlan.weebly.com or visit Sunberry Press.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Interview: NYT bestselling author John Lescroart

By Mark Young
It has been more than two years since New York Times bestselling author John Lescroart visited us here on Hook’em & Book’em. There has been a least one major change in his writing career since that time which we will cover in the Q&A section below. It has been too long. Join me as we find out what has been happening in John’s literary world since we last visited.

After his release of The Hunter last year, I intended to try to corner him with questions about that novel but I fell into my own writing cave, emerging months later to realize I never followed up on this opportunity. One of my 2013 New Year’s resolutions was to make sure I did not miss another chance to visit with this gifted author. I wanted to interview John before his next novel, The Ophelia Cut, comes out this May. Between the two novels, I felt I might be able to kill two birds with…oh, enough of the clich├ęs.

In The Hunter, the subject of adoption is an intricate part of the story. This subject matter is close to my heart, and this novelist quickly drew me into the story after I learned the main character found out his adoptive mother may have been killed. Not that John needed this heart tug to get me to read another of his great novels. After discovering this author a few years ago, I’d follow his writings anywhere.

John Lescroart has crafted a community of crime-investigating individuals –characters that stay with you long after the novel ends—who live and work in the San Francisco bay area. In this novel, The Hunter, San Francisco private investigator Wyatt Hunt must dig into his own past after receiving a disturbing text message: “How did your mother die?” Hunt learns his mother might have been murdered, and he begins down a path into his past that he never knew existed. What he finds out will shock him and the reader. Do not assume you know where this story might be headed. You would be wrong!

MARK: Thanks for joining us again, John. Let’s start off with The Hunter. Tell us a little about the plot and the main character, Wyatt Hunter.

JOHN: Well, you’ve done a great job of that already. Wyatt Hunt is a San Francisco private investigator whose fictional debut was in The Hunt Club. Wyatt was an adopted child, raised by loving foster parents, and hadn’t really given too much thought to his birth parents. Then one day he gets a mysterious text that asks: how did your mother die? And once he opens that can of worms, he cannot rest until he finds the answer, and that answer is as traumatic as it is unexpected.

MARK: The topic of adoption is a central theme in this story. Just this subject alone would grab my attention for personal reasons. How did you come to choose this as an intricate part of Hunt’s character history?

JOHN: When I’m creating my characters, I try to give them what I think are interesting backgrounds, even if I’m not sure of all the details. In Wyatt’s case, I thought it was inherently provocative that he came from a foster background, even though in my first two Wyatt Hunt books, I didn’t go into much detail about this other than the bare fact of it. Then, as I started thinking about the book that would become The Hunter, this background moved to center stage, and I knew I would have to explore it to get to the core of Hunt’s character. It was an exciting and powerful opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up.

MARK: Without giving the story away, there is one well-known cult you use in the novel to build upon the plot. Is the missing funds from the cult something you came across in research or is this a part of your creative fiction?

JOHN: Actually, both the well-known cult and all of the facts that I attribute to it, including all of the financial details are, to the best of my knowledge, absolutely true. I always like to ground my stories in reality, and this aspect of The Hunter turned out to be one of the most resonant that I’ve used in any of my stories.

MARK: The Hunter sales seem to be doing quite well in the market place. I noticed on your blog that this novel rose from #10 to #4 on the New York Times Paperback Mass-Market Fiction list. Congratulations! And I took a peek on Amazon regarding your upcoming novel, The Ophelia Cut, a Dismas Hardy novel, to be released May 7, 2013. The ranking on Amazon is rising fast even before your release. Your readership really seems to be snowballing. Besides writing outstanding novels, what other ways have you been able to connect with readers?

JOHN: I try not only to write books that are timely and fun to read, I also keep in touch with my readers in a variety of ways. I speak at writing events quite regularly. I also have a webpage that I update all the time. Beyond that, I’m on Facebook and Twitter and I have a blog page. So all in all, I try to keep in close contact with my readers, and to respond to requests about the writing process, or individual books. Also, I invite emails from my readers. If you write me on my web page, I try to respond every time. That’s a great source of connection and fun.

MARK: I noticed that you’ve switched publishers this last year, leaving Penguin’s imprint, Dutton after many years and joining Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books. Can you give us a little inside information about these changes? How are you managing this major shift in your publishing career?

JOHN: I think that sometimes it just gets to be time for a change. Dutton was a wonderful publisher for twelve of my books, with every one a NY Times bestseller. My editors there, Mitch Hoffman and later Ben Sevier, are both great guys with whom I’m still on excellent terms. My publishers, Carole Baron and Brian Tart, are likewise terrific people. But I think there just got to be a kind of expectation of where I fit into the sales projections, and then this tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The sales force of any one company can only go out so many times saying, “This is so-and-so’s best book. You’ve got to stock it in big numbers.” And unfortunately, if they don’t do that, the book doesn’t “happen.” So, after The Hunter spent only one week on the NT Times list, I decided it was time to get involved with a company whose enthusiasm for my work, and belief in its commercial prospects, was a little greater. And Atria has been nothing if not wildly enthusiastic and gung-ho. I’m very excited to be bringing The Ophelia Cut out with them.

MARK: Looking toward the near future, your main character, Dismas Hardy, returns to center stage in the next novel, The Ophelia Cut, in what appears to be a suspenseful legal thriller. Tell us a little about this story and what kind of trouble Dismas might be headed for in this new adventure.

JOHN: The Ophelia Cut has Dismas Hardy threatened from all sides. In the first place, faithful readers will remember that he and three of his closest friends (Abe Glitsky, Gina Roake, and his brother-in-law Moses McGuire) were involved in an extra-legal solution to a big problem a few books back (in The First Law). If any of the details of that solution came out, it would cause huge problems for all of the principals, probably ruining lives as well as careers. As this book begins, Moses McGuire, a recovering alcoholic, shows dangerous signs of spilling the beans about this event. At the same time, McGuire’s daughter Brittany gets involved with a boyfriend who is nothing but trouble, and who eventually rapes her. When the boyfriend then winds up dead, McGuire becomes the chief suspect. After he falls off the wagon, he becomes a great threat to reveal the earlier secret. As the McGuire’s trial progresses, the ratcheting tension spills over into every aspect of Dismas Hardy’s life, where it seems that every one of the choices he has to make is more awful than the last one. How far can he go before his world, and that of his friends and family, falls completely apart?

MARK: Can you tell us how you came to select this title, The Ophelia Cut, without giving away the story?

JOHN: The Ophelia Cut is that rare example of a phrase showing up in the book in the course of the writing. In this case, I was on my third draft, on the very last page of the book, and a character brought up this phrase in conversation. As soon as I wrote it down, I empathized so much with the phrase, and it seemed to encapsulate the very essense of the book, that I actually teared up. Ambiguous though it might at first appear to be, to me it simply captured the deepest themes that the book explored. It simply had to be the title.

MARK: There have been a lot of changes in the book publishing industry over the last few years. Major publishers seem to be cutting back on the number of authors they sign, book advances seem to be shrinking, and even some major authors have chosen to follow a more independent publishing path. From your prospective, where do you think the world of book publishing is headed?

JOHN: Since I’ve signed a three-book deal with Atria, I hope it’s headed to great things over the next couple of years. But in a general sense, I hope that the turmoil calms down somewhat. I believe the royalty structure around eBooks needs to be corrected. It would also be nice if we could return to having the “secondary” publication of books (e.g. downloading, paperbacks), after the hardcover release, take place after giving the hardcover a few months at least to sell in that format.

MARK: Many authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and others seem to be experimenting with shorter works in the digital market—novellas and short stories—as a way of attracting readers to their novels. I noticed that writers like James Patterson are offering the first nineteen chapters of their novel for free to entice readers to buy the complete work. How do you feel these efforts are paying off? Have you contemplated offering shorter works as part of your marketing strategy?

JOHN: In fact, I contemplated it with The Ophelia Cut. I wrote a short story that was, I though, tangentially related to the book. When I submitted it to my agent and editor, they decided that it would be great as the book’s prologue! And so it came to be. I would expect over the next book or two, these “teaser” elements will become even more prevalent. Although I must say that giving away the first 19 chapters for free seems a bit excessive. (Although I will also admit that James Patterson probably has a slightly better idea about how to market books than the rest of us!)

MARK: With The Ophelia Cut now set for release, can you tell us a little about your next project?

JOHN: My next book is tentatively entitled The Keeper, and all I know about it is that it begins with a man coming home from picking up his brother at the airport on the day before Thanksgiving to find that his wife is gone. I’m taking any and all suggestions for what happens next. J (Yee Gods, my first emoticon in an interview! What is the world coming to?)

MARK: I can imagine with your writing schedule, coupled with promotional tours and marketing efforts, you have little free time left to blow off stream. When that time is available, how do you enjoy spending it? Playing in the band? Watch the Giants win some games?

JOHN: Free time? Hmmm. Maybe not so much. I’m in “work mode” now on The Keeper, putting down as many pages a day as I can, as it is due in the middle of July. My tour for The Ophelia Cut will take most of May. Meanwhile, for fun, I still love cooking. I’m playing a little bit of guitar, but not enough. And I’m very much looking forward to the Giants winning the World Series again this year. My wife, Lisa Sawyer, and I still have many good times together, and spending time with her is mostly what I look forward to day to day. If I didn’t like my work, I might find the schedule grueling, but fortunately, I love what I do. And that’s the secret to never really working a day in your life. 

MARK: John, I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to join us here on Hook’em & Book’em. We look forward to your upcoming novel.

Readers can find out more about John Lescroart and his writing career by visiting his web site at JohnLescroart.com or interviews here on Hook’em & Book’em on May 10, 2010 and January 1, 2011.