John Lescroart has made a name (albeit an unpronounceable one!) for himself as the author of crime thrillers, most notably an acclaimed series starring the San Francisco lawyer-and-cop team of Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky. But the road to bestsellerdom has been paved with more than a few unexpected detours for this hardworking novelist, who has been writing all his adult life but who only started to chart big around the mid-1990s.
Lescroart (pronounced les-KWA) grew up with an equal interest in music and writing. After college, he concentrated his energies on the former, performing alone and in bands around the San Francisco Bay area and scribbling in whatever spare time he could find. But he set a deadline for himself, and when he had not "made it" by age 30, he quit music to focus on writing. Within weeks he finished up a novel-in-progress based on his experiences living in Spain. He submitted it to a former high school teacher who was less than dazzled; but the man's wife loved it and entered the manuscript in a local competition. Although it would not formally see print for another four years, Sunburn won the prestigious Joseph Henry Jackson Award, beating out Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire for the best novel by a California author.
To support his art, Lescroart held down a dizzying succession of jobs -- from house painting and bartending to working as a legal secretary. At one point, just as he was ready to enroll in the creative writing program at Amherst, he was offered a lucrative gig he could not afford to pass up, and graduate school fell by the wayside. As the years passed, some of his books were published, but he never felt financially secure enough to write full-time. Then, in 1989, he contracted spinal meningitis after body-surfing in contaminated seawater. He emerged from his life-threatening ordeal with a new resolve, quit the last of his day jobs, and became a real working novelist.
It took a few tries for Dismas Hardy to become the fully realized character Lescroart's fans have come to know and love. Debuting in 1989's Dead Irish, Hardy began life as an ex-cop/ex-attorney turned bartender and did not return to the practice of law until his third appearance in Hard Evidence (1993). From then on, interest grew in the series, which has snowballed into a lucrative franchise for the author. In 2006, Lescroart introduced another San Francisco-based dynamic duo, private investigator Wyatt Hunt and homicide detective Devin Juhle, in The Hunt Club. Slightly younger than Hardy and Glitsky but drawn with the same humanizing brush, the protagonists of this series have proved immensely popular with readers.
Incidentally, Lescroart's writing success has allowed him to return to his other love: He has founded his own independent label, CrowArt Records, which showcases some of his own music and produces CDs by a number of artist/friends. At long last, John Lescroart is able to enjoy the best of both worlds.
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In our exclusive interview, Lescroart let us in on some fun and fascinating insights about himself and his life as a writer:
"First, it's Less-KWAH. Here's a tip -- don't have that name. Get a pen name that people can pronounce and remember. Just this Saturday, I gave a talk at a well-attended writers' conference. There were probably a hundred people in the room, and the talk went very well. Five minutes later, I was in the bathroom washing my hands and around the corner, I heard a guy tell another that he'd just heard the greatest talk by John le Carré. 'You know, The Tailor of Panama and the Smiley books? Good stuff. I'm going to go buy all his books.'"
"Second, I didn't have to quit the day job to keep writing. One of the most productive times in my early writing life was while I had a full-time job as a word processor in a law firm and also worked part-time at night, often working until 11:00 p.m. How did I do any writing, you might ask? Well, I did it between 6:00 and 8:00 in the morning, four pages a day, and published five books in six years. But because a) I was making some money doing 'regular' work and didn't have to be scrounging for coin and b) I was panic-stricken at the little time that was left in the day to write, I wound up becoming more efficient."
"Third, I don't wait on inspiration, and I refuse to acknowledge 'writer's block.' I simply sit down and put words on the paper. It's like being a carpenter -- writers build things. Carpenters don't wake up and say, 'Hmm, I'm not in the mood to drive nails today.' No, they go to work and do the job. It's not very romantic, but that's how I approach writing."
"If you have a good relationship, nurture it. The great god of Writing with a capital "W" isn't the only thing in life. It can be a great part and a big part, but it shouldn't consume you on a daily basis and shouldn't make your life miserable all the time. Try not to get nuts about the greater success of other writers -- we're really not in competition with other writers. We're only trying to outdo ourselves, to get better at our jobs. Go on dates. Spend some time outside (fishing is good, so is skiing, hiking, swimming, jogging). Stay in shape -- writing is a marathon. Don't drink too much. Have as much fun as you can."
Lescroart used to perform r as "Johnny Capo" in a group called Johnny Capo and His Real Good Band. Although he no longer performs with that outfit, he still pursues music as the founder of his very own independent label called CrowArt Records. The first project on the label was Date Night, a CD of his own compositions performed by master pianist Antonio Castillo de la Gala. Followers of Lescroart's writing may recognize the in-joke in the album's title. As he explains on his web site, "Fans of Dismas Hardy will know that Diz and Frannie (Dismas's wife) set aside every Wednesday night for some time alone together -- it's their date night."
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us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what John Lescroart had to say:
The Travis McGee Series by John D. MacDonald -- Just about the perfect summer reads. Usually set in Florida, lots of great action, a terrific hero, and that warm summery feel.
Laguna Heat by T. Jefferson Parker -- The first novel by one of the masters of the mystery. Fast, yet literate, with a terrific Southern California setting. More beach than pool, but either one would work.
The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille -- Already mentioned as one of my top ten books, period, but a complete joy to read. Close runner up in this category by the same author: Plum Island.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- I always think that summer is a great time to return to (or discover) the classics. This book is a long and spellbinding read, for all you may have heard about it. It's ideal for vacation reading.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand -- A classic that should be required reading for everyone. It's so mesmerizing that when I read it in Africa, I went and hid under a bridge for the last hundred pages so that I wouldn't be disturbed. Absolutely riveting!
For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway -- Simply one of the best novels ever written, with it's brilliantly rendered combination of war, Spain, food, and love.
Any of the Hercule Poirot books by Agatha Christie -- Nearly always set in exotic settings, always exquisitely plotted, Poirot is a boon companion when you want it light, fun, and satisfying -- maybe a nice change of pace after you've just tackled one of the classics.
The Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith -- A page-turner of the very first order; very funny and hip, but with a surprisingly touching heart.
The Source by James Michener -- Summer is a great time to pick up any of Michener's books. They're long, long, long but always rewarding and interesting. I think The Source is one of his best, but The Novel is also great, as is Chesapeake. In fact, you could do a whole lot worse than devote a whole summer to Michener's work.
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell -- Again, in my top ten list of favorite all-time books. It's a commitment to read them all, but definitely worth the effort, and what better time than the summer, with its slower pace and time, to settle deeply into atmosphere, character, intrigue, and just gorgeous, limpid prose?
In the spring of 2004, John Lescroart took some time to discuss his favorite books, authors, and interests with us.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
The single most important book for my life and my career as a writer is actually a connected group of four books: The Alexandria Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea) by Lawrence Durrell. These works are not "mysteries." They are profoundly "literary," and yet there is plenty of intrigue and suspense. Character development -- with dozens of main and hundreds of ancillary characters -- is the glue that holds the stories together. But even important is the conceit that binds these books -- the idea, based to some extent on chaos theory and quantum mechanics -- is that the act of viewing an event changes the event itself. Point of view becomes, then, in some respects, as much of a "character" in these books as any of the people who inhabit them. This shifting point of view, even sometimes within individual chapters, has become a hallmark of my own writing, and has enabled me to enlarge my palette to include many elements in my work that are "novelistic" rather than genre-specific. And perhaps to give the books, although set in San Francisco, something of a universal flavor.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The first of my ten favorite books would be the 22 books in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. Set in the early 1800s, these seafaring books about two ill-suited and contradictory best friends are a majestic masterpiece of storytelling. There is action galore, incredible internal conflicts, moral and political issues that resonate strongly in today's world -- and all of it within the context of a few hundred men on a fighting ship in some ocean or another. To a writer such a myself, whose series is set in one city (San Francisco), the idea that a very lengthy series set, essentially, on a sailing ship can be endlessly compelling, is inspirational and a powerful incentive to continue to strive for excellence in plot, tone, and pure storytelling.
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell -- See above.
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow -- Without a doubt, the grandfather of all modern "legal thrillers." I've read the book three times now and am still in some uncertainty as to who actually committed the crime. The moral ambiguity that distinguishes its lead character, and indeed, most of the legal professionals in the book, is perhaps its single distinguishing contribution, but it is a brilliant one.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway -- Simply one of the greatest books of all time, by -- in my opinion -- the grand master of the use of the English language. Fashions come and go, but this book about an idealistic, fatalistic, antiheroic, thoroughly modern American man during the Spanish Civil War remains fresh, compelling, and heartbreaking.
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles -- Again, a "literary" work that deals with shifting points of view, an enigmatic woman, and conflicting social mores in a world just becoming "modern." Again, moral ambiguity plays a huge role. The book is also, to some degree, a thesis about the author's role in any creative work. It had a huge influence on me when I first read it (I've now read it at least four times), and it continues to resonate to this day.
Cat Chaser and Be Cool by Elmore Leonard -- Two separate books, and unrelated except by author. Really, almost any book by Elmore Leonard could serve as well in this spot, but these two are close to my favorites. Leonard's books should be read by all prospective writers for their dialogue alone, although his way with plotting is also superb.
Misery by Stephen King -- Just a great tale, wonderfully told. A tour de force of commercial fiction, while at the same time a send-up of it. And again, it deals with a host of "writer's issues" -- the source of creativity, the challenge to make interesting recurring characters, writer's block, "genre" vs. "literary," etc. Terrifying, subtle, ingenious. King's best work, which is saying a lot.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson -- One of the most beautifully written stories I have ever encountered -- an argument, all by itself, that a "genre" story can be a genuinely "literary" work. Hugely disparate elements -- from the big picture of World War II to the intimacy of love in a hollowed-out cedar tree -- combine with powerful themes of race and commitment to create an unforgettable reading experience.
The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille -- This book about a lawyer, his wife, and his new Mafia neighbor is, for pure entertainment value, one of the best books of the past 20 years. The tone ranges from slightly ironic to hilarious, and it is this narrative device beneath the thrumming urgency and emotional upheaval of the plot that elevates this novel to the level of high art.
Bloody Season by Loren Estleman -- This retelling of the Gunfight at the OK Corral could be a textbook on how to write. Every word is perfect, nearly every phrase a gem. Estleman is always very good, but this short work is, for my money, a powerfully serendipitous commingling of author and subject, and remains his absolute best.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Here's one I bet you've never heard before: the Godfather series. What made it unforgettable is its originality at the time -- the violence, the language, the beauty of the cinematography, the depth of the characters (when they could easily have been sticks). The music, Coppola's vision, the sweep of the story. No other movie, in my opinion, comes close.
Other movies that have struck me powerfully include E.T. (though a cliché now, when it first came out, nothing like it had ever been done before) and Forrest Gump. I'd be remiss if I didn't include The Music Man and The Sound of Music. Call me a wimp, but I'm a sucker for those old classic musicals.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love most melodic music -- classical, reggae, big band, jazz, blues, country, pop, swing, folk. I'm very much a product of my generation musically -- the baby boomers -- and my favorite vocal performers (I'm partial to words) are Tony Bennett, Lyle Lovett, Jimmy Buffett, Jackson Browne, the Beatles, the Eagles, Billy Joel, Paul Simon (including Simon & Garfunkel). I truly do not like rap and/or hip-hop. I know, it's a flaw, but there you go. I can't write with any music playing.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like cookbooks. I get them and give them. Everyone needs to have Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The Joy of Cooking, The Silver Palate Cookbook, any of Alice Waters's books, and several other common standards. The best of the recent crop are The Zuni Café Cookbook and The French Laundry Cookbook.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have no special writing rituals. I come in, sit down, procrastinate for a few minutes, then start to write. On my desk, hopefully, is a slowly growing pile of pages. And, of course, a picture of my wife.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I'm not an overnight success. My early publishing history, through my first five books, was unfortunate in many respects, typified by a couple of short anecdotes. My first Dismas Hardy "courtroom drama," following two earlier mysteries with the same character (Hardy as an ex-lawyer/bartender), was a book called Hard Evidence. The sales on the first two Hardy books (Dead Irish and The Vig, still in print and selling briskly) were so poor that my paperback house (Dell at the time) dropped me, in spite of my editor's pleas to keep me on. My next book, The 13th Juror, was rejected by 22 publishers on its "auction" date. It went on to become my first New York Times bestseller, and the book that kick-started my career.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
By "discovered," I'm assuming that you don't mean "published." Published is only the beginning. The main advice I would give is don't ignore the business side. Acquiring an aggressive, honest, and communicative agent with actual relationships in real-live New York publishing houses is, in my opinion, the single most important move that a writer who aspires to be successful can make.
I can't enumerate the number of published writers I know who have ignored this advice, who have held onto agents that they "like," that are "such nice people," and so on. My agent, Barney Karpfinger, is a nice person, too -- tough agents can be, and in my experience often are, nice people. But they can also be mangy dogs on a bone when they don't get something you, their client, needs. They fight for you. They get the kind of advances that ensure a publisher's backing (because then the publisher is financially motivated to recoup its investment in you). So here's my advice: Do your homework and get a good agent. Look around -- you won't find a successful author that doesn't have one.
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|John Lescroart Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by John Lescroart|
|Son of Holmes, 1986|
|Rasputin's Revenge, 1987|
|Dead Irish, 1989|
|The Vig, 1990|
|Hard Evidence, 1993|
|The 13th Juror, 1994|
|A Certain Justice, 1995|
|The Mercy Rule, 1998|
|Nothing but the Truth, 1999|
|The Oath, 2000|
|The Hearing, 2001|
|The First Law, 2003|
|The Second Chair, 2004|
|The Motive, 2004|
|The Hunt Club, 2005|