I was thrilled when my editor at Library Journal asked me to do a short Q&A with Edgar-award winning author, John Hart, as his latest book, THE LAST CHILD, hits the stands. An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the March 15, 2009 edition of Library Journal. Here is the interview in full.
In 2007, North Carolina lawyer-turned-novelist John Hart burst upon the literary thriller scene with his acclaimed debut, The King of Lies, which garnered several award nominations, including the Edgar and Anthony Awards. His second book, Down River, won the 2008 Edgar, and now his forthcoming third novel, The Last Child (LJ 3/1/09), is being billed as his best work to date.
BookBitch: The Last Child joins a rich Southern tradition of fine literature and will undoubtedly draw comparisons with Harper Lee's masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. Your hero is a very smart, rather unusual 13-year-old boy with a powerful story. Why did you choose to use his voice to tell this story, and what were some of the challenges that created?
John Hart: The idea for Johnny Merrimon came from the opening scene of Down River, my last novel. In that scene, the protagonist, Adam Chase, returns home after a long, self-imposed exile. He stops at the river that defines the county’s northern border. While there, he meets a young boy who is there to fish. Writing the scene, I fell in love with the idea of this kid. He was about ten, happy on his old bike and in his blown-out shoes, wearing a fishing knife in a cracked leather scabbard. I never named the boy, but he had what, in my mind, was this perfect childhood. A home and security, the simple pleasures of his small world. In fact, I describe him as, “a dusty boy in a soft yellow world,” and that’s exactly how I saw him. He never reappears in the book, but I thought of this kid as I wrote the rest of Down River, and I found myself asking two questions: 1) what could happen to take such a wonderful life away from a boy like that, and 2) how would he react to the brutality of his changed circumstances. The Last Child takes place in a different county, so I can’t say that it is exactly the same boy, but that’s where the idea of Johnny Merrimon originated: I just loved the idea of this kid.
Writing any kind of thriller with a child as its protagonist presents a huge challenge. Specifically, it was tough building sufficient danger and action around one so young while still making the novel work as a thriller. There were other challenges, too: finding a convincing voice for a traumatized thirteen year old kid; believable dialogue between boys that age; the relationship between parent and child when their world has fallen apart; the way that Johnny was forced to perceive the world; thinking of ways that a powerless kid might seek some kind of control, then making that quest even remotely credible… In the end, however, I could not be happier with how it turned out.
BookBitch: I've read that you gave up working as an attorney when it came down to defending a child molester shortly after the birth of your own child. Here it is several years later and The Last Child centers around a missing child and all that implies. Has this been a difficult process for you? And did that experience contribute to this book?
John Hart: The story you mention is, in fact, true. I’d always aspired to write, and that moment seemed like the perfect occasion to make a choice: carry on with a career I’d never loved or take a real stab at a different life. So, I quit. Honestly, I was so ready to take the time to write, that I might have found some other excuse; but that case seemed like a perfect signal for change.
As for any influence that case may have had on The Last Child, I’m sure it was a factor, but only a small one. A more significant influence came from the news we all see every day, the unbelievable proliferation of crimes against children. I tried to keep the reality of those crimes “off the page” in this book; but I took great satisfaction in writing the scene where one of the young victims manages to shoot her abductor in the face. That was poetry.
BookBitch: Your previous books, the multi-award nominated The King of Lies and the Edgar-award winning Down River were both set in Rowan County, North Carolina, which one can find on a map. The Last Child is set in a similar yet fictitious place, Raven County, NC. Why did you feel it necessary to fictionalize the location this time out?
John Hart: There are dangers inherent in setting novels in real places, especially when it’s your hometown. A few people got upset because they thought they were in the books (they weren’t). Others got upset because they weren’t in the books. In the end, I needed geography that was simply lacking in Rowan County. I also found a sense of sweet freedom when I made the change. Perhaps, I was more concerned about how the people of Rowan felt about my portrayal of that place than I ought to have been. Perhaps, I was censoring myself because of that. Whatever the case, those who wish to see elements of Rowan County in the new book will be able to do so. Rowan County, Raven County … the similarity was purposeful.
BookBitch: Your writing has been compared with some of the greats of the genre, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and James Lee Burke, yet I've read that you haven't read any of them. Your undergraduate degree is in French Literature, is that where your reading interests lie? What are some of your favorite books, and some of your most influential?
John Hart: Entertainment Weekly said that my prose “…was like Raymond Chandler’s, angular and hard.” I thought that sounded great, but I had no idea what they meant. So, yes, it’s true that I am woefully under-read in the genre. I have since read one James Lee Burke novel, and find myself flattered by the comparison. As for the French literature in my background, I think my writing has been impacted by the entirety of the French existentialist movement. Most of my protagonists face some crisis of self-definition where they address their place in the world. How they got there and why? Where to next? It’s fun to wrap that kind of self-discovery in the robes of a thriller.
As for my favorites … Man, there are so many. To Kill a Mockingbird, of course. The Great Gatsby. The Prince of Tides. The Cider House Rules. Gates of Fire. Most things by Michael Chabon. In the genre, I’m a fan of Grisham and Turow, also of Michael Connelly, Dennis LeHane, Lee Child, Jeff Deaver, John Sandford, Charlie Huston and many others.
As for the “influential” question, I would have to say John Grisham had the largest impact - not so much on how I write, but he was the one that made me think I wanted this job.
BookBitch: You seem to use great care in your choice of words, and your writing is often lyrical, something not always found in thrillers or mysteries, yet you are still able to propel your stories forward and keep the pages turning. Do you work from an outline? Do you work at home? What is your writing process like?
John Hart: Authors who outline are probably the smart ones. I grope and hope. That being said, I think that my way is the most fun. Every day is an adventure, an exercise in joy and fear. I do treat this as a job, though. I work from an office downtown and try to set daily page goals. The downside of the grope and hope school of novel writing, however, is that steady production schedules don’t really exist. I deal with a fair number of blind alleys and false starts.
I break my writing day into two parts. In the morning, I let myself run unchecked. This is what “drives the bus” for me – the part of my brain that lets the story form. Then, in the afternoon, I tighten whatever page count I manage to write in the morning. This is the analytical part of the process. At the end of the day, I hope to have a thousand decent words, but that’s a loose target. The process is quasi-mystical in that I am never quite sure how ideas form and combine into a novel that works. Where the book ends up is more or less a surprise. That’s the real beauty of grope and hope.
Copyright © 2009 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Posted by BookBitch at 5/24/2009 01:45:00 PM