John Hart interview

by Craig Sisterson / 30 July, 2011
American writer John Hart, who appears at the Christchurch Arts Festival today, creates characters as well as crimes.
John Hart


The magic happened when John Hart decided to blend the page-turning thriller style he’d always enjoyed reading with the deep, emotionally engaging character studies his wife loved. It was several years ago, back when Hart was a North Carolina attorney hating his job and quietly harbouring a lifelong dream to write books. He’d already tried twice, while studying for a masters degree and then at law school, producing “two failed novels” that he admits contained “run-and-gun” plots and little else.

Hart was desperate to leave the law so he could throw everything into writing – especially after a client with a four-year-old daughter admitted he was a child molester but wanted Hart, then a new father, to “get him off on a technicality”. Hart knew his wife would support him out of love, but not necessarily from genuine belief. So he started working in secret on The King of Lies, a tale of a disenchanted lawyer with a failing practice who becomes a prime suspect in the murder of his father. “I really wanted to write something that would appeal to her, something that was real,” Hart recalls. “The characters need to feel credible for my wife to enjoy those kinds of books.”

Hart imbued the beginning of the novel, where broken-down “Work” Pickens meets a client in jail who’s just been sentenced to life without parole, with all the “icky-ness mixed with disgust” coursing through the character.

“So much of my own feelings about my law practice came out in that opening scene,” he admits, his soft Carolina accent reverberating down the phone line. “To me, he was just running on empty and in all the wrong places, and I realised there was something to explore here – why he was so emotionally destitute, it seemed compelling. It was that realisation that there are depths to plumb in characters that can be just as interesting as whodunnit.”

Everything changed after that realisation. “If I could build a character so real that the readers felt his anguish, then I could buy an emotional commitment without change-the-world stakes. You didn’t need an antimatter bomb in the catacombs of ­Vatican City.”

Real people, real problems; it’s a focus that has seen Hart fast become a critical darling of the mystery genre, and a New York Times best-seller. The King of Lies, his “third-time-lucky” manuscript, was published in 2006 and shortlisted for several prestigious honours, including the Edgar Award (the crime fiction equivalent of an Oscar). Hart had walked away from law to write that novel fulltime, spending hours each day in a carrel in Rowan County Public Library, after his wife was “blown away” by the depth and emotional connection of those opening pages.

“She looked at me and said, ‘You’ll never have another day job in your life’, which was a wonderful thing to hear. It was genuine support, not just the kind because she loves me.”

Such support gave Hart the confidence to “go all-in”, even if others thought he was crazy to give up financial security to try to become a published author. “I was ridiculed roundly by a number of people,” he says. “But the way we chose to look at it was this: ‘How much will I hate myself looking back in 30 years if I do not do this?’

“My understanding just from being around is that what people regret at the end of the road is what they didn’t do, the risks they didn’t take. I’ve never heard someone say, ‘I’m so sorry I tried for that brass ring.’ So it really was such an imperative that I could not be a half-baked lawyer and a half-baked writer.”

The risk paid off beautifully. Hart followed his acclaimed debut with Down River (2007), the story of a troubled young man returning to a hometown he left years before after being narrowly acquitted of murder, only to find grudges run deep and new trouble awaits. That novel won the Edgar Award. Hart then made history when his third novel also won the Edgar, the first time an author had ever won with consecutive books (two awards in an entire career is rare). An early-career ­masterpiece, The Last Child (2009) is a Southern Gothic tale of 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon. The boy desperately searches the dark underbelly of his town for any sign of his twin sister, who disappeared a year ago, and the novel is as much about its rich cast of layered, authentic and damaged characters as its intelligent and engrossing storyline.

This month saw the release of Hart’s fourth novel, Iron House, featuring feared mob enforcer Michael, who has clawed his way up from a traumatic childhood and life on the streets but is now trying to make a fresh start while protecting those he loves from his violence-filled life, past and present. “I try to take chances with every book, and Iron House is a little different because I set out to try to write a page-burning thriller that didn’t lose the depth that made the other books work,” says Hart.

Each of his novels is largely set in small-town and rural North Carolina, the state he has lived in for “95%” of his life. He’s been praised for his lyrical evocation of the area, but says he doesn’t aspire to write “rural noir”; it’s just that he believes a good story can be set anywhere, and he knows those places so well he can write about them in a deep and unvarnished way. “I’m sure it’s the same way with people who’ve been in a small town in New Zealand for most of their lives; you feel it in a way that makes it easy to convey on the page, because it’s not just what it looks like, but what it smells like, tastes like, how it resonates with past memories, and all of those things that make a place different from any other place.”

It’s also important to be honest and not glorify a setting, says Hart. The American South makes for a rich canvas because “there’s the poverty and the racism on one end and then there’s the history and natural beauty and connectivity to the land on the other side”. There are things to love and things to hate.

Likewise, although Hart hated his legal career – “it was with a sense of relief and joy that I walked out of that law office” – he admits it has helped his writing. “Working in the criminal courts and dealing with all of the lowlifes brought me to a very important realisation that there are no criminal masterminds, really,” he says. “At the end of the day, no matter how big you make the plot, how powerful the questions, how high the stakes, it’s usually people doing bad things for selfish and short-sighted reasons, or it’s circumstance beyond their control and it’s stupidity. So I think what I really gathered from my law experience was a bit of insight into motivation, and how quickly things can go bad. A deeper understanding of human nature.”

For Hart, it’s not high stakes that he finds compelling; his stories are propelled by those “grounded reasons” – why people do bad things. “You can make a pretty powerful story out of something pretty simple – people and what motivates them. Why do people do the things they do? What is the puzzle that led to this terrible thing?”

Powerful indeed.

IRON HOUSE, by John Hart (John Murray, $34.99); Hart will be appearing with Tess Gerritsen ahead of the announcement of this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel at SETTING THE STAGE FOR MURDER, August 21, as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival, August 12-October 2; he will also be appearing at Takapuna Library, ­Auckland, August 23.

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