FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It’s almost become a cliche that when lawyers morph into authors they turn to legal thrillers. It’s that adage about writing what you know.
But attorney-turned-best-selling-author John Hart chose a different route. He writes about land, about the South and, most of all, about families whose secrets, betrayals and lack of compassion threaten to topple carefully preserved facades.
Bypassing the legal thriller was simple reasoning, said Hart.
“Scott Turow and John Grisham built the genre; they are the masters of it,” said Hart, 43.
“It would be impossible to out-Grisham John Grisham. I did not want to spend my life compared to those guys. I never wanted to be in another writer’s shadow.”
Besides, many legal thrillers show a different view of the law than he knew as a practicing attorney for about four years.
“Every early Grisham has a sharp, fearless young attorney battling shadowy forces. It’s a wonderful formula and it works. But that’s not my experience with the law. Many young lawyers work in the trenches and don’t enjoy their career. They work with bottom feeders and are thrilled to get a felony appointment with a $250 fee. The law I know is not a pretty picture. My books could not be about the profession.”
Instead, Hart found his own niche weaving tenets of crime fiction into the Southern novel with multilayered plots that focus on greed, power and the strength and fragility of families. His novels have been lauded for their precise characterizations and realistic plots.
His first novel, “The King of Lies,” published in 2006, was nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony, a Macavity and a Barry, and won the Gumshoe Award for best first novel from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. It also was named one of the best novels of the year by Publishers Weekly. His second novel, “Down River,” published in 2007, won the Edgar Award; and was nominated for a Barry. Both novels spent several weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list and made several best-of-the-year lists. His third novel, “The Last Child,” was published this month. (May 2009)
“I like to write about real people who are truly messed up,” said Hart. “I enjoy novels in which the human element is very real and that’s what I want to write. My books won’t have a ninja or antimatter bomb or a gun battle.”
While Hart had always wanted to write, he thought of it more as an escape than as a career. His two unpublished novels, which he promises will remain that way (“They are not lost masterpieces, believe me.”), were written as a way of taking a break from classes. He studied French literature at Davidson College, just north of Charlotte. He earned graduate degrees in accounting and law. But three years into his law career, Hart made a life-changing decision. A “crisis of conscience” changed his mind about being an attorney.
“There’s a certain reality as a criminal defense attorney you have to face,” said Hart.
“During the first few years, most lawyers deal with lower-level offenders. They are not evil, but they are selfish and stupid. But then you brush up against bigger and better felons. Every attorney has to have a line that if they step over they know they move into a different world. It happened to me.
“I was assigned to defend a child molester. He told me that he was guilty and that he wanted me to get him out on a technicality. And he mentioned that he had a 4-year-old stepdaughter. My oldest daughter was just four weeks old then. I decided before I left the detention center that I was not going to represent him. Neither the judge nor my firm was happy with me saying no. And that’s when I decided I was not going to be a criminal defense attorney.”
Despite having “two failed novels under my belt,” Hart said the “seed was planted that day” to become a full-time writer. “I had personal faith that if that was all I was doing, I could do it.”
Admitting that he’s “not a multi-tasker,” Hart’s plan was to take a year off to write a novel. But first he had to convince his wife “and remember, she’d read those first two attempts and was not impressed.”
So he devoted a weekend to write what would become the first 10 pages of “The King of Lies.” After reading his manuscript, his wife rewarded him with what has become his favorite critique: “She told me ‘John, you are never going to work another day job in your life.’ So I knew I could do it.”
The timing, however, was not ideal.
“To quit my practice during my 30s, when I had two degrees, a budding law career, a stay-at-home wife and a four-month-old child seemed to be the height of folly,” said Hart, who lives in Greensboro, N.C., with his wife, Katie, two daughters, a yellow lab named Tom, a cat and assorted other pets.
But Hart not only had his wife’s encouragement but also that of his parents and in-laws.
“My father-in-law especially understood the power of regret. He knew I would never forgive myself if I had not rolled the dice and tried to write. What kind of man would I be if I didn’t have the courage to try?” said Hart.
“My father-in-law also said that if there was a problem, he would make sure my family was fed. Of course,” Hart said, pausing, “he didn’t say anything about feeding me.”
It took Hart a year to write “The King of Lies.” It took another two years for him to find an agent and for the novel to be published, during which time he returned to work. “With Down River” he was able to finally take down his shingle.
While series abound in the mystery genre, Hart prefers to write stand-alone novels with different characters and plots. “I never want to write from the same perspective; I don’t want the books to feel similar,” said Hart, who added that “The Last Child,” his third novel, is from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old traumatized by the disappearance of his twin sister.
“Each book scares me to death until I find a way through these guys.”
Hart says he is well into his fourth novel. His method of writing is to “start living the characters to see who they are.
“I’m not out to change the world or to create great literature. I want to be a storyteller who’s wildly read with happy fans who can’t wait for the next book. I want to write gripping suspense stories that have a lot of meat on the bone.”
Still, he’s thrilled when his novels are called literary crime fiction.
“I like thrillers that have literary value. Literary can mean different things but to me it means character-rich, emotionally powerful, detailed, interactive stories in which characters live and breathe. If I could have a legacy it would be to write great mystery thrillers with those elements that people cannot put down. And that’s wonderful.”