To say that I worked in a variety of fields is somewhat of an understatement. I've got six brothers and sisters, and from early on it was understood that I could choose whatever path I liked so long as I could pay for it. I decided that I wanted to go to Serra High School, a Catholic college prep institution in the next town, and that was fine, but I paid my own tuition. So to cover that, I worked at the library as an intake clerk, had a paper route, and was the delivery person for the local pharmacy. In college, I taught guitar and managed a couple of McDonald's franchises. After graduation, I got my first full-time, "adult" job as a supervisor with the Pacific Telephone Company, augmenting that with performing as a singer/guitarist in several bands.
During this time, I continued to be interested in writing, but didn't have any cohesive plan about what to do to make money from what I was producing. I wrote countless sketches, lots of short stories, two novels, and well over a hundred songs while also working as a bartender, moving man, office temp typist, house painter. Moving to Los Angeles, believe it or not, I got on several game shows -- Tic Tac Dough, Joker's Wild, Headline Chasers and a few others whose names are lost in the mists of time. I parlayed that experience into working to develop game show pilots for Jack Barry and Wink Martindale.
Eventually I moved back North and became a full-time musician -- Johnny Capo -- and formed a pretty good band that worked constantly for several years in the San Francisco Bay Area. On my thirtieth birthday, I quit my band cold turkey and decided that I would pursue this novelist dream. Although my first novel, Sunburn, won the San Francisco Foundation's Joseph Henry Jackson Award for Best as yet unpublished novel by a California author, it took me four years to get that novel published. Meanwhile, while completing three other manuscripts, I moved back to LA and started a succession of day jobs to pay the bills - legal secretary, more bartending, occasional musical gigs. I wrote a few spec screenplays and outlines. Because I'd always been organized, I landed a job as office manager of The Guardians of the Jewish Homes for the Aging in LA. I wrote and edited that organization's monthly newspaper. Still, I published nothing. I knew I must be doing something (everything?) wrong and finally decided to go to graduate school in creative writing and got accepted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I moved east five months before school started to be with my girlfriend (now wife, Lisa Sawyer) and here, fate intervened.
Working as a part-time typist for a consulting firm, I came to the attention of the boss because I was a published novelist. The boss was in a bind -- he had a lot of data, which I was typing up, but he had no one on his staff who could write a coherent narrative. So he asked me if I thought I could. I had nothing to lose, so in about two weeks, I had put together a 400 page technical brief on the Revenue Adequacy of the Burlington Northern Railroad, a fascinating topic if ever there was one!!! My brief prevailed at the Interstate Commerce Commission, our client won a $40 million judgment, and I got lured away from academia to join this firm as their technical writer.
Two years of that made me crazy. I still harbored an idea that I wanted to write novels, but time was passing and I had no new product. Lisa suggested I dig out one of the old novels in my drawer and submit it, and so, once again "quitting the day job," that is what I did. Luckily, I got an offer from a NY hardcover publisher and needed only one more full-time day job -- six years as a word processing supervisor at a large LA law firm -- before the writing began to pay off and I could do it full time.
I'd be lying if I said that I'm super glad that my career took this much of a circuitous route to get to success. There were many nights (and days) of self-doubt and even despair, and much agonizing, especially as I married and started a family, over the simple business of making a living. But there is no doubt that, proving the adage that what doesn't kill you makes you strong, these experiences buttressed my resolve to succeed as well as gave me insight into people on many levels -- game show producers, law firm managing partners, grunts down in the muck, guys hauling refrigerators into upstairs apartment units, people on both sides of bars. In short, real life on many levels. And, as it turns out, that's what novels happen to be about.
Right you are. That's quite a contrast to your current career, John, with one best-seller after another and acclaim up the wazoo. Are you constantly pinching yourself to make sure you're awake? Conversely, do you ever catch yourself tempted to coast because you probably could if you wanted?
I realize that to make any kind of the living in the arts is a tremendous long shot, and there isn't a day goes by that I don't feel fortunate and grateful that I've finally gotten to that point. So to that extent, yes, I do figuratively pinch myself. However, I don't lose track of the effort it takes to keep the ideas fresh and the prose viable. That effort is significant and, really, unending. Beyond that, the expectations one lives with to repeat what made you successful over and over again (while at the same time creating an absolutely original work each time) are very different from the expectations (essentially, none) that face a novice writer. And remember, in all the creative arts, you are only as good as your last work. So you want to keep improving, keep growing. For this reason, I am never tempted to coast, even for a page. In fact, in many ways I am trying harder than I have in the past. I don't want to let my readers down, and I don't want to produce sub-standard work. And there is still great joy in getting a terrific idea and getting the telling of it exactly right.
So, it's still a struggle, just a different kind of struggle. Thanks for pointing that out. I'd like to take a peek inside the creative process, aka your brain. How does it work, John? For instance, when you sit down to write, how much of the plot and character development is already figured out? As you write, can characters change course from what you thought they were and where you thought they were going? I guess what I'm asking is, are you often surprised by how things turned out?
I am almost always surprised, in big and little ways, in how things turn out. The big ways include [having] a different person that I originally imagined being the bad guy -- a couple of times this has happened after I finished the first draft of the book. More commonly, plot points appear as "Aha!" moments. When they grow holistically out of the developing plot, that can be particularly satisfying. For example, in my novel Damage , the plot is humming along nicely, and I'm just trying to keep interesting things happening scene by scene (this is really the key to it all). So I have my bad guy meet a woman in a bar. He picks her up, and in the course of their "romance," she mentions to him as a pure aside the interesting (and true) fact that there are these spontaneous gatherings in Starbucks coffee shops where people show up armed with hand guns as a protest against anti-gun laws. (Did I say that this was true? Yep. Really happened in San Francisco, and was nowhere in my outline.) Anyway, next thing you know, forget the girlfriend, my bad guy goes to one of these Starbucks protests and decides he's going to mug one of the attendees and take his gun. This is what he does. And that gun suddenly becomes the main event in a completely unexpected turn of events that becomes the first, main climax of the book. I figured if it surprised me, it would surprise my readers. And so it did. But my point is that this huge plot device wasn't ever even a gleam in my novelist's eye when I started the book, and in fact didn't occur until it just happened two-thirds of the way through.
This epiphanic quality happens in every one of my books, and usually many times. I always get a kick out of reviews that talk about the "twists and turns" or "surprises" in my books. I almost never plot these in advance. I just try to write individual scenes that sing one after another, that are fun to read. To make them fun, my characters have got to say and do things that are unexpected and original -- I try not to accept less.
Now, all of this said, I do like to try and have a general idea of what I'm writing about. This is what the outlining process is all about, and it's critical. I don't want to write a book whose central thematic point involves cats, for example. Or a caper -- although fun capers can be excellent subplots. What I try to get to in my outline phase is this central theme, which should be big, important, and hopefully original. And that leads to one or several murders. This why many of my books -- The 13th Juror, A Certain Justice, Nothing But The Truth, The Oath, Betrayal, The Ophelia Cut (May 2013's book) and several others -- deal with social and political issues. I like to have a big problem that demands my characters' full attention and involvement. Once I have that nailed down, I turn back to my characters and let them each handle their part of it the best and the most real way that they can. And they always surprise!
The book I'm reading now, The Suspect, brings in technology, ethics and the Big Business aspects involved in hip replacements. I have no idea how that will all play out in terms of who murdered whom, but I'm being educated painlessly - even enjoyably. I love that; it's like eating a hot fudge sundae that's somehow also good for you! I admit that I'm partial to women writers, especially in the thriller genre, because I prefer character development and plot to macho posturing and violence. But your characters, even the men, and their relationships are so well-drawn that I feel like I know them, like them and want to know what they're up to and what will happen to them next. How close do you get to them and do they and their world ever threaten to become more real to you than the actual people in your life?
I get pretty close to my characters. I live with them for more hours each day than I live with anyone else outside of my family, and so they take up a lot of my psychic space. So do I ever cross the line into where I think they are actually "real"? I'd have to say no. They are made up, fictional entities that hopefully come across as true to life. That said, however, there isn't a trip I make to San Francisco where I'm not aware of locations where I've set scenes. I'll say to my wife, "I wonder if Wyatt's in his office today." Or, "This is where Elaine Wager got shot." It's a little nuts, to tell you the truth. But fun.
You mention The Suspect, where the technological, ethical, and business details of hip replacement wind up playing a large role in the narrative. (And by the way, I'm delighted that you found this enjoyably educational!) I do this type of involvement of characters on many levels of a "real life" concern to keep them from the kind of macho posturing and violence that you don't like. Truth be told, I don't like it either. Sometimes it's important, especially at the end of a book, to have a moment of physical conflict or violence, but most of us, thank God, don't live in a world where most people resort to violence as a knee-jerk response. Most people live fairly "normal" lives, involved in day-to-day activities that can be fascinating in their own right. Because Caryn Dryden (the victim in The Suspect) was a doctor who was involved in hip replacement research, of course the people surrounding her must be at least tangentially familiar with what she's up do, and the issues involved in it. This familiarity gives a real life basis to characters that keeps them from being stick figures. I am always trying to write novels -- not so much in a literary/academic sense -- and not "thrillers." I'm trying to deal with the human condition, and in this way I think that my books are very different from most of the other commercial thrillers out there in the world. And one of the ways to address the human condition is to include plot elements not from the thriller lexicon of constant blood & guts & macho posturing, but from the literary (if you will) lexicon of love, hate, betrayal, compassion, greed, and empathy -- the deadly sins and the saving virtues.
You mean you don't live in San Francisco? I'm shocked! The City is so alive in your books; it's really another character, with its own, distinct personality.
Well, I do try to keep San Francisco front and center in my books. If you're going to be writing about big-city crime, politics, and issues, you've pretty much got to set your stories in big cities, and San Francisco is the one that I know best. And -- this will reassure you -- I have actually lived in San Francisco four separate times: I spent my sophomore year before transferring to Cal Berkeley at the University of San Francisco; after graduating from college, I moved to SF and stayed for two-plus years while working for the phone company; when I formed Johnny Capo and his Real Good Band I gave it another try for another couple of years; and finally I moved from Palo Alto to Dismas Hardy's street when I was around thirty. It might comfort you to know that currently we have a pied-a-terre on Russian Hill that we try to get down to at least once a month, sometimes much more often. But careful readers will note that one of the attributes of San Francisco that I regularly pillory in my books is the weather, and in truth, that is what has driven me from the City every time. For some reason, I want to believe that it's warm and pleasant there, and most often it just isn't. Beautiful, granted, but often cold, wet, foggy, and windy. And I'm a summer kind of guy, happily living in California's Central Valley.
Come visit me in Chicago next month and then we can talk about the awful San Francisco weather! I'm glad you brought up your Johnny Capo period. Can you tell us more about your music - writing and playing and recording - and if you're still into it or if it's receded to become just another part of your broad and speckled resume?
I started playing guitar when I was seventeen and within a year I was performing in public. My college roommate, Frank Seidl, and I started a group called The Two Alone, doing a lot of original songs and covering the basic folk repertoire of the day -- Peter, Paul & Mary; Simon & Garfunkel; Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, and so on. We made it as far as San Francisco's Purple Onion (in Nehru jackets, no less!) and played at lots of parties, pizzerias, etc., through college. After college, I hooked up with brothers Jim and Charlie Warren in a group called Ball. We played at the Holy City Zoo on Clement Street in the City a few times (where Robin Williams got discovered), but our public gigging was limited because I was working full-time on the graveyard shift. It wasn't until I got back to Lloret de Mar, Spain, from Africa in 1974 that I started working solo. I did two full summers in Spain, and in the intervening winter I worked steadily at clubs in Boston, including Charlie's, where Bruce Springsteen got discovered. (All these other people being discovered where I was working should have given me a clue.)
In any event, since Warren Zevon was in Blanes, the town next to me in Lloret de Mar, and he made the successful transition to bona fide rock star, I followed in his tracks to LA to join a band called The Evening Stage. Unfortunately, when I arrived there, that band had hired another musician to be their resident singer/songwriter bass player. Undaunted, I went on the steak-house circuit in LA with the mega-talented Alan Heit (my eventual model for Abe Glitsky, though I didn't know it then), and we worked together until he went to UCLA's dental school. At this point, I punted on LA and moved back to Northern California, where I worked solo for a time and started slowly building a band. Eventually, Johnny Capo and his Real Good Band -- Kent Bancroft, Cheryl Franklin, George and John Kincheloe, and me -- was working as the house band at the Miramar Beach Inn in Half Moon Bay (Neil Young's hangout), and at many other venues in the Bay Area, opening for some good-sized acts (John Stewart), making real good demos, but never quite getting the record deal I was hoping for.
On my thirtieth birthday, I quit the band and started to write my novel Sunburn. But I kept writing original music and keeping a hand in. I produced demos for my old partner Frank Seidl, who was singing essentially all of my catalogue, which had grown to about a hundred songs. The lounge singer Eddie Fontaine covered my tune "I'd Never Ask for a Lifetime" -- it wasn't a hit.
Over the years, music has remained an important part of my life, although most of my gigs and original stuff after we moved to the Central Valley tended to be for my young children at their classes -- "Oh Bunny" and "Koala Koala" remained standbys for years. Five or six years ago, I formed CrowArt Records and teamed up with Antonio Castillo de la Gala -- the brilliant long-time pianist at the Hotel Bel Air. Antonio arranged a bunch of my ballads for piano and we released "Date Night", a lovely CD. CrowArt's next project was "As The Crow Flies," this time with me singing and writing all the songs, produced by Richard Montgomery (lead guitarist for the David Grisman Quintet, among other bands). "As The Crow Flies" is an eclectic mix of styles from Island to Reggae to jazz and features some great, great players and backup singers (Rick Montgomery on guitar; Joe Craven on everything else with strings and percussion; Tracy Walton and Chris Webster from Mumbo Gumbo).
My real love -- it must be Texas birthplace -- has always been country music, though, and I finally thought it was time to release a country CD, so a couple of years ago, I got together with Rick Montgomery again and along with our engineer Doug Chancellor we co-produced "Whiskey & Roses." The last time I performed in public was with the Killer Thriller Band at the International Thriller Writers Thrillerfest in New York about three or four years ago. I still play -- in fact, just last night I serenaded my wife with "Hey, Sunday Morning -- Lisa's Song", but it's very much now in the mode of hobby and goofing around. I'll always love music, but I think I've given up on ever making a living from it again.
Serenading your wife: how romantic! Do you two have weekly date nights, following in the Dismas/Frannie tradition [or vice versa]? One more question about the music. Since it has been such a big part of your life, why doesn't it feature in your books? I can't say that I'm familiar with all your material, but I don't recall any musical plot or subplot in the books that I've read so far. If I'm correct, why not?
Absolutely, my wife and I have Date Night. In fact, putting the Date Night concept into the Hardys' relationship in the book is a true example of art imitating life. When the kids were young, we made it a point to go out at least once a week, usually on Wednesday, and I recommend that practice highly to anyone who wants to stay happily and romantically married for the long term.
Your second question is very interesting. I think I just wanted to keep very clear in my mind that my prose wasn't an extension of my songwriting. It wasn't going to be part of that life and that particular struggle. Prose, though creative, wasn't going to come from the same creative well as music, which much as I loved it, nevertheless seemed to have the taint of failure hanging over it, and I didn't want that anywhere near my prose writing life. The music life is seductive and addictive, and I wanted my prose-writing life to be my long-term, real vocation, which I was going to treat like a real job (once I got the opportunity at long last). I didn't want to mess with it by diluting its focus by introducing music.
For the record, I do a little bit of a country music riff in Guilt, where Sam Duncan is a country music fan and tries to get Wes Farrell on board, with mixed results. And in my next book, The Ophelia Cut (out on May 7, 2013), some of the young kids at the Little Shamrock get into a discussion about the quality of some of today's country stars -- Carrie, Taylor, Brad, Kenny and others . . .
Perfect segue, John. I wanted to ask about your soon-to-be-but-not-yet-published book. You recently posted the cover art for The Ophelia Cut on your website. Do authors usually do such a thing? Is creating pre-publication buzz the ulterior motive or do you just like sharing with your readers?
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).