It’s always with a bit of nervous anxiety and awe that we approach those writers who have found success in their chosen careers. We get a bit star-struck when we imagine what their worlds must be like; the tours, the television appearances, the adulation. Indeed, they take on rockstar status in our minds as we envision ourselves in their places, what we’d do and who we’d rub elbows with.
However, there are those for whom success makes more grounded, humble, and thankful for what they’ve achieved. If anything, it makes them more accessible, for they know the hard work that went into it and the countless hours sitting at their desks, writing writing writing.
It would be easy to categorize New York Times bestselling author John Hart in our minds as a literary rockstar, but his down-to-earth and easygoing charm belies such attempts.
Hart is the author of three novels to date. King of Lies, published by Minotaur Books in 2006, his first novel to hit the lists, woke a lot of people from their literary doldrums – critics and readers alike – garnering perhaps the biggest feather in his proverbial cap when famously reclusive bestselling author Pat Conroy (The Great Santini, Prince of Tides) emerged to provide one of Hart’s most prized reviews. Others touted him as the love child of Scott Turow and William Faulkner. For his first published novel, Hart garnered a coveted Edgar Award nomination. In short, everyone seemed to want to place Hart on a pedestal, forge him into that mythic literary rockstar.
The attempts didn’t stop there. When his sophomore novel, Down River, was released in 2007, the media machine revved up once more for this prodigal son of a surgeon (father) and French teacher (mother). The literary comparisons became weightier, with phrases like “Shakespearean” bandied about, among others. The New York Times praised his vigorous plotting and feverish pacing, which seemed to echo the response of readers everywhere.
One would think that such stellar success would inflate even the heartiest ego. In chatting with him, though, you’d never guess he was the man behind the myth. Instead, you’d probably have a hankering to invite him for a cup of coffee or a quick bite down at the local diner.
When his most recent novel, The Last Child, was published in March 2010, most just nodded knowingly while those who came late to Hart’s career got caught up in the fever that seemed to spike in the wake of each new novel. The Washington Post wrote, “Hart is still far too young for The Last Child to be called a crowning achievement, but the novel’s ambition, emotional breadth and maturity make it an early masterpiece in a career that continues to promise great things.”
Not too shabby for a southern boy whose first two unpublished novels nearly derailed his writing career.
Born in Durham, North Carolina in 1965, Hart grew up believing he’d follow in his family’s footsteps and pursue medicine. His grandfather was Chair of Surgery at Duke University and his father a well-known surgeon, led Hart to Davidson College where he studied French Literature and medicine. After two years of pre-med, however, he realized his heart just wasn’t in it, that maybe he’d chosen medicine for all the wrong reasons. Still unsure as to what to pursue, and perhaps whom to please – his family or himself – Hart went on to earn graduate degrees in both accounting and law. Throughout his life, he secretly dreamed of becoming a writer.
“My only dream was to write well and be published well,” Hart states, and even after so many years the passion is evident in his voice.
He moved to France for a time where he enjoyed the culture and learned to speak the language, and which allowed him to immerse himself in the very literature he studied in school. He says that living in France did impact the types of books he eventually chose to write. He admired the French predisposition for existential quandaries – the meaning of life – which is clearly present in his characters and stories, providing them that Shakespearean quality some have compared his writing to.
Those first two unpublished novels were learning experiences in spite of the fact that they now languish in a box under his bed. In attempting to jump start a writing career, he tried getting up early to write before heading off to his job as a criminal defense attorney, but with a wife, young daughter, and another on the way, he decided that he was approaching it wrong.
“I knew I would have to quit everything to take a stab at pursuing the dream. I spent the better part of a year in a carrel at the Rowan County Public Library writing. It was a second stab at writing.” His risk-taking paid off. The result was The King of Lies.
The story of a down-on-his-luck attorney trying to hold his life together when his father’s body is discovered and he becomes a suspect in the murder, it gained obvious comparisons to another southern writer of legal thrillers: John Grisham.
“There were lots of comparisons to both Grisham and Turow after book one and my publisher wanted me to write a second in the same vein. I told them that I refused to write another lawyer book. That’s an argument I eventually won.”
In Down River, we again meet deeply flawed characters searching for fulfillment and redemption, characters forced to fight not only for respect and their reputations, but often for their lives.
Hart says, “There are two things that attract me to writing these types of characters. The first is that I want to write characters that are real in a world that feels equally real, and the second is that we’re all flawed. That’s what makes more compelling characters.” He went on to say that he liked to provide deeply textured inner landscapes for his characters, for “it provides legitimacy .”
A sense of place and history is a very strong undercurrent running through both of those novels. Hart says that it’s quite intentional.
“Knowing the place where you live – whether you love it or hate it – will impact the story. The settings were chosen because they made it easy. I like to feel a place.”
Much like the author Hart most admires, Pat Conroy, his southern locations come alive on the page, almost an additional, if silent, character in the stories. It was certainly no mistake that the first book centered on the area where he lived at the time, Rowan County.
Hart forges darker territory in The Last Child, exploring the terrain between the dreamy innocence of childhood and the stark realities of losing that innocence when the world intervenes.
The London Daily Telegraph wrote, “John Hart is already much praised, but his third and most complex psychological thriller is a risk which has paid off with that same unshakeable sense of discovery.”
It’s easy to see the incredible leaps of talent Hart brings to each successive novel, in his ability to depict deep and murky emotional landscapes with an artisan’s touch. Obviously, the validation and adoration of his writing by other writers and the media didn’t affect him in ways it might have.
“There is no difference to how I approach each new project: with deep and abiding terror,” he says, laughing. “Writers are only as good as their next book. My fear, and one that’s common to many writers, is that I’ll come up dry. But I’m willing to take risks with my characters, the plot, all of it. And on the days when I’m feeling inadequate, I look at my two Edgars and realize that I know what I’m doing.”
Hart has every reason to have an inflated ego, what with each successive novel drawing accolades from critics and readers alike. Two of his three releases garnered coveted Edgar awards – Down River, and most recently, The Last Child. But success has made Hart ever more humble and ever more passionate about his work, eschewing the literary rockstar mantle many try to saddle him with.
John Hart is the first to admit that his earliest attempts at writing failed miserably, enough so that he very nearly gave up. But he kept going.
“I chose to take those first two novels as learning experiences,” he says. “The industry is full of subjective opinions. What I learned is that I had faith that I could do it. There is a world of people who will discourage you, which is very important to recognize. You have to keep putting [your writing] out there. You have to want it. It’s perseverance that saved me.”
Writing can be a daunting venture for even the most stout-hearted of us. But Hart chose to make his own way. No outlines and no critique group to help guide him.
“When I write, I don’t outline. I’m more of a grope-and-hope guy,” he says with a chuckle. “I recognize the value of critique groups, but I’m so insular and protective of what I’m doing. I don’t want someone else cluttering my process too soon or to have the power to affect my writing in that way.”
He states that he tends to write the first half of new projects free-form, to see where the story goes. By the time he hits his stride mid-book, though, the analytical, critical, and editorial process begins to kick in. Does he write solely for himself , or is there someone to “beta read” for him?
“My wife,” he says. “She reads it as it comes off the printer. And I strive to write books that work. I enjoy telling a fabulous story with complex characters and plot. I love the beauty of language.”
Was she supportive of his decision to leave a tough job as a criminal defense attorney, especially having given birth to their second daughter only weeks before?
To help enlist her to support his decision, he sat down and tried to write something in a way he had never tried before. His ten pages described the “pain and angst” of a man who hated being a criminal defense attorney, perhaps using a recent case in which he was tasked with defending a child molester.
“He told me he was guilty. And he wanted to know what I could do to get him out of it,” he says. “And he had a four-year-old stepdaughter.”
That was the tipping point in his decision.
After he finished writing those pages, he handed them to his wife and asked her to go into the other room and read them. After a painfully long silence, he found the courage to ask her opinion. “She said, ‘John, you are never going to work another day job in your life.’”
Hart enjoys working for himself. He’s always been diligent and goal-oriented, but especially when it comes to writing.
“I enjoy answering to readers and no one else,” he says. “No boss, no clients, no meetings. I like having that pathway to freedom with an artistic edge.”
Since writing The King of Lies almost exclusively in a carrel at the Rowan County Public Library over the course of a year, he’s since moved into more suitable environs. He manages to balance writing and raising a family, one of the many challenges that writers tend to come up against. He says that having an office helps remind him that writing is a full-time job and not some fanciful hobby
“It’s not really that hard at all. I have an office downtown where I set my own writing schedule. I’m very careful to make family time their time. The toughest part is traveling. Really, I have three great passions: my family, my writing, and the protection of North Carolina’s open spaces.”
Those ten pages became the basis for The King of Lies.
His passion for environmental issues perhaps stems from a childhood spent on the working 500 acre farm his parents owned. The property had been farmland since the 1700’s, with two miles of lakefront and many heads of cattle. Sadly, the property was sold when his parents divorced and he was but a lad of ten. He said he wants to be able to provide such wonderful childhood memories for his own kids before they’re too old to enjoy them.
Besides writing, what’s one of his favorite jobs?
“Pouring pints in a London pub,” he says without hesitation. In addition to tending bar, Hart has sailed, flown helicopters, and played a lot a golf, but those pastimes have since fallen by the wayside as he focuses on his next novel and the next successful step in a stellar career.
His strongest advice for writers?
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
© 2010 Christian Marcus Lyons – All Rights Reserved