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Interview: October 5, 2007

October 5, 2007

John Hart is the author of the acclaimed bestseller THE KING OF LIES, as well as the newly released DOWN RIVER. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Hart explains why he chose to set both of his books in Rowan County, North Carolina, and describes how the plots of his novels are dictated by the characters and their emotional issues. He also discusses his unusual career path, speculates on the rich literary history of the South and shares his experiences in overcoming writer's block. Your new novel, DOWN RIVER, has elements of Southern Gothic literature but is very much a thriller at its core. You have Adam Chase --- tried and acquitted for murder, leaving his hometown and returning some five years later --- confronting not only the old suspicions raised against him but also finding himself to be the target of accusations in a new killing. At the same time, Chase is forced to deal with his own choices, in terms of the people and relationships he left behind. It begins as a simple story that progressively becomes more complex. Is the DOWN RIVER that has just been published the story you originally set out to tell, or did the tale become more complex in the telling?

John Hart: I never know what the story is going to be when I start out. Strange, huh? All I really have at the start is an opening scene, a strong sense of the character (Adam) and whatever emotional issues he's lugging around. Here, it's loss and rage. This is one angry man, and I knew that the anger and sense of injustice he's suffered would drive many of his decisions. That allowed for some rash choices, some unpredictable behaviour --- and that, I knew, would not only make a fascinating character but would also cause the plot to develop in unexpected ways. From that opening scene, the story just grew over the months it took to complete. Where it ends up is always a surprise to me.

BRC: DOWN RIVER reminds me thematically of a very different book --- YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN by Thomas Wolfe --- in that both deal with a protagonist who must confront his alienation from his roots, even as he comes to realize that he can never entirely leave where he came from. Has Wolfe been an influence on you in any way?

JH: How embarrassing a question. I've never read Thomas Wolfe --- a sin, I am sure, for any Southern writer. Yet, somehow, I missed Wofe in school; and now that I am in this business professionally, I am careful not to read things that might influence me. I have a great fear of "Voice Creep" --- I never want to sound like somone else. Strangely, the writers to which I am most often compared --- Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, Ross MacDonald --- I've never read. The theme of the prodigal son, of course, is as old as literature. The trick is to keep it fresh. I certainly hope that I've managed that. Maybe someone will tell me one day.

BRC: While both of your books are set in Rowan County, DOWN RIVER is more rural in its setting. Was there any particular factor that drew you to the country as opposed to the city?

JH: Not really. I just thought it would be a challenge. I grew up in the Salisbury of my books. It is a real place. We had a home in town and 500 acres out on the river. So, I knew the feel of the river and of the lands around it. Crafting a compelling thriller when much of the story is set on a huge chunk of land seemed like it could make for one heck of an accomplishment. I really liked that challenge. In fact, I often speak of my books as trying to build a tempest in a teacup, meaning it's fun to fashion real people with real emotional stakes, then ramp up the voltage. Of course, that only works if the reader truly cares about the characters. That's when the fun starts --- making characters that grab the reader so forcefully that their pain or confusion or joy seems real. Then you don't need a nuclear bomb and a ticking clock. The possible ruin of a single life takes on huge significance if that life belongs to someone you care about.

BRC: It has been my opinion that the South as a geographical area has provided the best and most enduring of American writers. Why do you think so many of our classic literary figures --- Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, among others --- are from the South?

JH: I never studied Southern literature, so this is just a gut feeling. The Southern history is one of small towns, large families and deep ties to the land. It's about loyalty and about memory, about mistakes, pain and loss, love --- in no small quantity. Those are rich themes, and for years, writers have been exploring them to make sense of their own place in all of that. Even today, Southerners possess a strong sense of identity and shared stories. Maybe it has something to do with that.

BRC: A constant theme running through Southern literature, and indeed through DOWN RIVER, is the concept of a loyalty, a fealty, being owed to the land, both as a physical and an emotional concept. Why is this particular theme so strong, and recurrent, in Southern literature?

JH: So much of the heritage here is based on agriculture. For generations Southerners knew that if you took care of the land, the land would take care of you. In my opinion, it's really that simple.

BRC: DOWN RIVER, as with THE KING OF LIES, is set in Rowan County, North Carolina. Do you plan to create a mythos surrounding Rowan County, similar to what Faulkner did in many of his novels with Yoknapatawpha (Lafayette) County, Mississippi? Will your Rowan County novels continue to be stand-alone efforts, with some cross referencing of characters between your books?

JH: Create a mythos? That would be cool. I am actually planning on writing more books that are set in Rowan County, not because they have to be, but because I enjoy it. It's where I was raised and I like seeing it brought to life on paper. However, these stories could take place in any smallish Southern town.

BRC: On a related note, what are you working on currently?

JH: Book three, as yet untitled, has a 13-year-old boy as the protagonist. Writing this kid convincingly has been an amazing and satisfying process. It's strange, the bits of childhood that come back when you start thinking about it day after day. What did you do? What did the world feel like? What was important and what did you fear? I'm very excited about this story.

BRC: You have an interesting work history, having endured employment as a banker, stockbroker and attorney, as well as sanding teak, repairing helicopters and drawing pints in an English pub. Outside of writing, which of those --- or any others --- was your favorite job? If you weren’t writing, would you return to one of those occupations or do something else?

JH: Working in the pub was my favorite, by far. I was right out of school, living in London. If I could survive on 20 quid and three pints a day, I'd probably still be there. If the writing had not worked out, I honestly don't know what I would be doing. In my last incarnation, I consulted on the management of a billion dollars of other people's money. That was pretty cool, so I think I might still be there. No one has yet offered to pay me for playing with my kids on the beach, but I remain hopeful.

BRC: While you have degrees in French, Accounting and Law, you studied French literature as an undergraduate. Are there any French authors who you feel have had influence upon your own work?

JH: Probably all of the existentialist writers had some influence. I find myself drawn to characters facing a crisis of faith; not a religious crisis, but faith in who they have become and in the choices that drove them to this point in their lives. These stories all revolve around a reckoning. How did I get here and where am I going? It's pretty universal for those of us who have a 40th birthday in the rearview mirror.

BRC: You have spoken elsewhere about your initial experience as a writer, getting up at 4 a.m. writing and then going out into the “real world.” You have further indicated that it didn’t work for you. What writing schedule did you find ultimately worked best for you? Given that you have a family, how do you avoid interruptions?

JH: I have to treat it like a job. I rent an office and go there every weekday (and sometimes on the weekend). It helps me remember that this is a job, not some fanciful hobby. Do the work. Every day. That's how you write a novel.

BRC: Have you had problems with writer’s block, and how do you break through it?

JH: Writer’s block, for me, means that some deep part of my brain recognizes that the story is on the wrong track. Once I accept that and tear down the problem writing, I am usually freed up and able to move forward again. In DOWN RIVER, I once deleted 90 pages. It took that long to figure out what writer's block was really all about. I get it now and can recognize the issues pretty quickly.

BRC: With regard to your writing career, is there anything you wished you had done differently before you were first published?

JH: It would have been nice to find the necessary drive in my 20s rather than in my 30s. But, honestly, I doubt that I was ready at that point. Even with perfect focus, I lacked the life experience to write the kind of stories that I now write well. There is always a nagging feeling that something might have been done better or differently, but in the end, I think that everything evolved as it should. I'm grounded, you know. Kids. Wife. It's all good stuff.