It’s not often that you get to chat with a living legend. I was recently fortunate enough to interview NY Times bestselling author John Lescroart, whose career spans decades of consistently turning out over twenty enormously popular, erudite, riveting fiction novels. He was kind enough to subject himself to my inane questions, all for your amusement, and at considerable personal expense – all right, perhaps an exaggeration, but what of it? The point is, this literary icon took the time away from a life of jetting to and fro in the company of celebrities and super-models to offer his thoughts and counsel so you could be enriched. So pull up a chair and read one of the most meaty and interesting interviews I’ve had the pleasure of doing in my Author Spotlight series. Pay attention. Maybe you can learn something…
Russell Blake: Your legacy of work is one of the most impressive out there. Where do you get your ideas from, and what’s your process for moving them from idea stage to where you’re actually writing?
JL: Right now I’m in the throes of “getting an idea” for my next (2013) book, and I must say that the challenge never stops. Because really, what’s needed is not just an idea, but a great idea, a concept that can carry your characters through 400 pages of compelling action and development. If there were a secret to getting that idea, I’d tell you what it was, but I’m afraid that for me, at least, ideas “come” as I’m writing scenes and pages. And the one, big idea that I’m waiting for – at least for the very next book – is proving elusive at the moment. I’m sure it’s out there, and I’m sure it will arrive before I reach utter despair, but it is a difficult time. As to the process moving from the idea to the actual writing, that’s much easier. Once I’ve got a general idea of what the book is about, I just sit down and start writing scenes and having fun.
RB: How many hours per week do you try to write? Do you have a disciplined schedule, or do you mostly write when the mood strikes?
JL: I most definitely do not write when the mood strikes. I go into work, after a physical workout, every weekday, and spend at least two and often as many as six hours putting down pages. Inspiration often comes to visit during these spells of work, but I think if I waiting for any one given inspiration, I wouldn’t get much done.
RB: Do you do character outlines and structure the book in advance? What’s the mechanism you use? Any?
JL: As is probably obvious from what I’ve already written here, it’s all very much by the seat of my pants. I try to see interesting scenes that involve the reader and move the plot and characterization forward, hopefully with a surprise or a little gem of prose included in every scene.
RB: Have you ever had writer’s block? How did you get past it? Any tricks or suggestions?
JL: My favorite definition of writer’s block is that it is a failure of nerve. By any objective standard, I’m in a (very rare but very real) state of writer’s block right at this moment; it takes a consistent act of will not to give in to it, but to keep searching in the darkness for a little spark that will eventually light up the internal landscape and let the idea shine forth. To fight this failure of nerve, I try to gear myself up into what I call “genius mode,” where I tell myself that everything I’m writing is brilliant, let my inner demons be damned!
RB: What’s your story. How did you get into writing, and what was your path to becoming a bestselling legend?
JL: My story is an extremely long and complicated one, but here is the short version. I did not know anything about publishing when I started out. I did not even know how to submit a book. I actually wrote my first published hardcover when I was 24, but didn’t even send it out to publishers until I was 36! When I signed the contract for that book, I essentially hired myself out as an indentured servant to my publisher at the time. The option clause in that contract specified that I would have the same contract, except for the advance, for my next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. So my first five or six books got published with very low print runs, no advertising, no publisher’s push at all, and – no surprise – none of them did very well commercially. Finally, though I had no money, I hired a lawyer to help me get out of that option clause. It cost me $28,000 in attorney’s fees in a year when I made a total of $22,000. But I got out of the clause. The very next book sold for six figures, and since then they’ve all been bestsellers. So the best advice I can give is to tell hopeful writers to be careful when they sign contracts. Don’t sell out for less than you think you’re worth. If you’re good enough, somebody will pay you what you’re worth, and treat you right in the bargain.
RB: I follow you on Facebook and Twitter, and you frequently write about structural issues, grammar and style. If you only had 60 seconds to impart to aspiring writers the most vital advice you’ve acquired as a writer, what would it be?
JL: I would have three things I would say: master the use and misuse of the passive voice, and avoid it at all costs. Beyond that, learn what writers mean when they say “Show, don’t tell,” and do that. Finally, finish something . . . anything . . . short story, novel, scene . . . get done with it and move on. Only in the doing does learning happen.
RB: If there was only one book that readers could peruse of your work, which one would it be? What’s the landmark, defining example of John Lescroart? And why?
JL: This is a tough question because they are all my babies. And some of the early books – The 13th Juror, A Certain Justice, Guilt – really did mark personal breakthroughs in terms of what I was writing and how I went about it. And even now, my latest two books, Damage and next year’s The Hunter, have marked real departures from my earlier “courtroom” books. All that said, however, I’d have to say that the quintessential Lescroart book is The Hearing. It’s got Hardy and Glitsky in all their agony and glory, and a truly great, complex plot. If you like that one, you’ll know what I’m all about, and can go backward or forward in the series without losing a step.
RB: Whose work influenced your writing? What authors did you grow up on?
JL: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence Durrell, and Patrick O’Brien on the literary side, and Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, John D. MacDonald, and Agatha Christie on the mystery side. Mark Twain was a giant early influence, but then again, so were the Hardy Boys and the Landmark Books of biographies. I’ve been an avid reader, some would say an addicted reader, for my whole life, and most of what I read I tried to learn something from.
RB: Why did you become a writer? What made you burn to do so?
JL: I somehow always knew that I wanted to be an author. From an early age, I used to make up stories and put on plays that I wrote, so I guess I’ve always had that bug. Beyond that, there wasn’t really anything else that I felt so passionately about – I worked every “day job” in the world until I started making a living as a writer when I was 45, and none of them were very fulfilling or interesting. Also, I generally hated working for bosses, and wanted to be my own boss very badly. So I just kept at it until it worked.
RB: What gets you up in the morning and keeps you writing?
JL: I do love the process, the challenge, the fact that I never get bored. I keep trying to write the best novel that I can envision, to capture all the world that I possibly can on the page. Having done so many different other kinds of work, I never lose sight of how lucky I am do be able to do what I do now. Also, much more prosaically, it’s great to be paid to be a writer, to be on contract with a great company like Dutton, to be in this milieu with its talented, interesting people. To be a part of it is a kind of magic, and I just consider myself supremely blessed that I’ve somehow, after a somewhat tortuous journey, arrived here.
RB: What’s your latest release, and what are you working on now?
JL: My next release, The Hunter, comes out on January 3. It is a book featuring Wyatt Hunt and, if I might pass along some really wonderful news, it’s just gotten a starred review in Publishers Weekly. As to what I’m working on now, it’s that pesky outline referred to above. Ask me next week, and I’ll probably sound a lot happier about it.
RB: There’s probably a universe of good questions I failed to ask. What parting words would you offer aspiring novelists, other than save your money from your day gig?
JL: Finish. Finish. Finish. Then rewrite until it sings.