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Success with “Fatal” for John Lescroart

Success did not come early for John Lescroart.  It wasn’t until he reached middle age and his seventh novel that Lescroart achieved commercial success in the book world.  Since then, he has written 18 New York Times Bestsellers.  His latest book, “Fatal,” is a standalone likely to continue his success, even as it defies the traditional conventions of the mystery/thriller genre.

Lescroart—who was born in Houston—will make an appearance at Murder by the Book on Wednesday, February 8 at 6:30pm.John Lescroart, Fata, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

Mike Yawn: I’ve heard you say you’d use a pen name if you were starting over.

John Lescroart: Yes.

Lescroart is pronounced “Less-Kwah,” the opposite, he notes, of “More-Kwah.”

MY: What would it be?

JL: My mother’s maiden name was Gregory, and I would probably just use John Gregory which, by the way, would put me next to John Grisham on the shelves in bookstores.

MY: That’s a good place to be.

JL: It is.

MY: You’ve had about 10 different jobs, all in different fields.  How has this informed your writing?

JL: I think it gives me a big palette with which to work.  I’m familiar with blue collar and white collar jobs, and that kind of thing is helpful when you are dealing with large slabs of humanity, as I tend to do in my books.

MY: You broke through with “The 13th Juror” at the age of 45.  How common is it for a writer to have his first success at that age?

JL: “The 13th Juror” was my 7th book, and I’d say breaking through like that at 45 is uncommon.  But then, any success story in literature is rare.

MY:  What was it about “The 13th Juror” that made it a breakthrough?

JL: Timing and fortune play a role in people’s lives. Something has to elevate your book to become more visible.  “The 13th Juror” addressed battered-woman syndrome, and it came out in paperback about the same time the OJ Simpson trial began.  This syndrome was on everyone’s lips.  Suddenly my book had visibility; I probably did 140 radio interviews.  People were buying it in big numbers, and it changed my life.

MY: Have you always tried to incorporate a topical social problem in your books?

JL: I think some of my books had that aspect to them.  I try to find a big theme, which I do in the Dismas Hardy books.  Also, I incorporated the courtroom scenes into my novels, and that was when the legal thriller was becoming a hot genre.  John Grisham and Scott Turow led the way.

MY: Most of your books address law, but all of your books are set in San Francisco.  Why is that such a prime setting for fiction?

JL: When I was majoring in English at UC Berkeley, I really enjoyed a tetralogy called “The Alexandria Quartet.” It was set in Alexandria, Egypt before World War II.  It was fascinating, and it gave me the idea that a city could function as a character.  And San Francisco is that way: it’s cosmopolitan on the one hand, and yet small enough that everyone knows everyone.  Even the weather, which is bizarre.  It can go from being beautiful and sunny to foggy and wintry in a day or within the same day.  You can create tremendous scenes.

MY: You’ve also relied heavily on Dismas Hardy, who has appeared in more than 20 novels.

JL: I think Dismas is a pretty good character.  He’s complex, just smart enough.  He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes his work seriously.  He’s got a good sense of humor, a knack for makiJohn Lescroart, Fata, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Centerng friends, a guy you want to be friends with.  And he’s faithful to his wife.

MY: Speaking of being faithful, that’s not a claim all the characters in your new book, “Fatal,” can make.

JL: In “Fatal,” I have a character, Beth Tully, who is a homicide detective, and one of her friends engages in a brief marital affair—a kind of purposeful mistake—just to see what it is like.  And it puts into motion a series of unpleasant events.

MY: Tully, your detective, is central to the book but isn’t mentioned on the cover.

JL: You have to take risks in this business, and I think risks are what make it fun, but also a bit terrifying.  I wanted to play with structure a bit, so I introduce her later and more gradually than I otherwise might have, but I believed she could carry the load of the novel, and I think she did.

MY: She’s also the moral conscience in the book, a book in which some of the other characters lose their way.

JL: The theme of the book is fidelity and faithlessness.  Actually, I was going to call the book “Faithless.”  Most of the characters are deeply flawed. It doesn’t serve you well if you have one-dimensional characters.

MY: In addition to the mistakes that individuals make in the novel, there is a city-wide tragedy, and San Francisco falls into a kind of miasma.

JL: This city-wide tragedy wasn’t something I had planned out, but it produces a powerful effect, a powerful change, and it leads to redemption as well.  You have to have dramatic moments in a book, and when I decided to go on this path, I fell in love with it, and I think the readers will too.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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Daniel Cole’s “Ragdoll”–A Macabre and Mirthful Mystery

Daniel Cole’s first book isn’t set for release in the United States until April 4, so it’s understandable that he isn’t a household name—yet.  But with the book slated for translation into more than 30 languages and a narrative ready made for the screen (in fact, it was recently picked up by Sid Gentle Films), don’t be surprised if Cole’s name begins popping up in bookstores and households alike.  Described by fellow author Greg Hurwitz as “a gruesome delight,” the novel features detective “Wolf” Fawkes, who discovers a corpse stitched together from the body parts of six different victims.  Cole manages to inject humor into this macabre premise and the result is, indeed, a delight.  Published in the Houston Chronicle, April 9, 2017.
Mike Yawn: You began “Ragdoll” as a screenplay.  When did you finish it in that form?

Daniel Cole: Five or six years ago.  It was one of many screenplays I submitted, only to have them rejected.  But “Ragdoll” is the one I liked the most, and I spent time developing it into a novel.

Q: How did you persist during those years of writing when nothing was accepted?

A: It was tough.  If “Ragdoll” had also been rejected as a novel, I’m not sure I would have hung in there.  But I loved the characters and premise, and I stuck with it as a novel.

Q: Tell us about the characters and premise.

A: The main character, Detective William “Wolf” Fawkes, gets a call to a crime scene.  When Fawkes arrives, he finds a “body,” but it’s a body composed of different parts of six different victims, stitched together to make a whole, which the press nickname the “Ragdoll.”  The media then receive a list of six more names, along with the dates on which those victims will die.  So the police have two objectives: to solve the murders of the first six victims, and to prevent the targeted victims from being murdered by this twisted but ingenious serial killer.Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle Books, Daniel Cole, Authors, Mysteries, Ragdoll

Q: Why do you think novel was accepted when the screenplay was rejected?

A: I think my writing improved.  In looking at my old screenplays, I can see that they got better as I wrote more.  At the time, you think you’ve written something really good, and then you look back at it later, and think, “Gosh, that’s a bit cringe-worthy.”  But I think I also added some complexity, details, and humor that made the novel better.

Q:  How did you get the news that the book was accepted?

A: I got an excited call from my agent.  To be honest, for me, it was more relief than anything.  After six years of rejection, I started wondering if I was deluding myself.

Q: And I guess the positive reviews have taken you beyond relief into excitement?

A: I’m quite naïve, and I didn’t know how the whole publishing world works.  But I stay clear of reviews, if I can.  The good ones don’t sink in, they just bounce off of me, and I take the bad ones to heart, so it’s not very healthy for me.  But the publishers let me know how it’s going, and it’s been wonderful.  I wrote the book for me, filled with dark humor and weird things.  I wasn’t really aiming for it to be a commercial hit, so I was just happy it was published, and then to get a really positive response has been amazing.

Q: You worked in emergency management while writing.  Did that inform your writing?

A: Yes, some of my medical knowledge came in handy for the gory parts of “Ragdoll.”  But I also think the attitude of people who work in the midst of tragedy, their world-weary outlook and sarcastic humor is something that I used to set the tone.

Q: I was surprised by the humor in a book with such a macabre storyline.

A: The humor is important to me.  I get bored easily, so I need something every couple of pages that makes me smile.  And I think it helps the readers, too, who may not want a book that is just doom-and-gloom.  The humor lightens it.

Q: You wrote this while working full-time.  When did you write?

A:  I stayed up writing all night when I was in the mood.  I’d turn up to work the next day a bit of a zombie, but able to function.  It’s quite an exhausting way of doing things, and I wouldn’t recommend that other writers emulate my writing schedule, because it’s not healthy or good.

Q: When do you write now that you are a full-time writer?

A: The same.  I’ve tried to write from 8 to 5, but I find that just rubbish comes out if I try to force it.  So I wait until I am in the mood and then I write obsessively for a few weeks. I’ll start growing a beard and looking a bit homeless and keep going at it.

Q: Are you doing a book tour?

A: My publicist has all sorts of strange stuff planned for me.  I’m booked more or less for the next few months with radio shows and public-speaking things that I’m still trying to get my head around.  It’s something I’ve tried to avoid in the past, and I didn’t fully realize it was part of being a writer.

Q: As a person who likes to write obsessively for weeks and look homeless, how do you think you’ll do with the kind of city-a-day schedule?

A:  I wish I knew.  The publisher gave me some media training at last, which was much needed because I tend to just babble when I am nervous (laughs).

Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle Books, Daniel Cole, Authors, Mysteries, Ragdoll

Author Daniel Cole

Q: What do they tell you in media training?

A: It basically came down to telling me to stop babbling, to think about my answers, really obvious stuff.  They filmed me speaking so I would see myself on camera, which is really horrible to start off with (laughs).  But it helps, and I’ll be a pro by next year…or that’s what they keep telling me.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, and Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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“The Brain Defense” by Kevin Davis (Q&A)

Kevin Davis has worked as a journalist for decades, covering crime stories for newspapers and working as a writer for the American Bar Association Journal.  His latest book covers “The Brain Defense”—the idea that a criminal’s wrongful action may be a product of a faulty brain, thus mitigating the criminal’s responsibility.  Such defenses have increased by a factor of three in the past decade, and Davis’s “The Brain Defense” explores the science and the law behind this trend.  The Brain Defense, Mike Yawn, Kevin DavisThis article was published in The Houston Chronicle on March 5, 2017.

MY: As a non-attorney and non-scientist, what did you do to understand this intersection between law and criminal behavior?

KD: That was my greatest challenge, but I’ve been covering crime stories for decades, watching trials, interviewing lawyers, so I have some background in this area.  And like a good journalist, I dive into my topic, do the research, and rely on my natural curiosity to answer questions as I go.

MY: What is the “Brain Defense”?

KD: It’s when defense attorneys bring neural psychology into courtrooms in an attempt to excuse or diminish their client’s responsibility.  It’s different than your basic insanity defense, bringing more neural science into the courtroom.  It’s a way of explaining criminal behavior through a better understanding of the brain.

MY: The poster boy for that is Herbert Weinstein.  Tell us about his case.

KD: Weinstein is mentioned in dozens of medical and law journals on this topic.  Here’s a guy who is 65, a family man, never committed an act of violence in his life.  He was praised for being kind, gentle, and giving.  So when he got into an argument with his wife, killed her, and then threw her from the 12th story of his Manhattan apartment window, it drew attention.   His attorney ordered a brain scan, which showed an orange-sized cyst in the frontal lobe—the area of the brain that affects judgment, decision making, and executive functions.  And in this case—for the first time ever—a brain scan was used in court to help determine guilt or innocence.

MY: Although Weinstein was 65, one of the areas that is being investigated is childhood adverse experiences, whether they be stress, abuse, or brain trauma.

KD: The idea is that the developing brain is susceptible to trauma and that stresses inhibit proper development of neural networks.  Studies show that young people are already prone to impulsive behavior that is heavily influenced by peer presence, so it is an area particularly ripe for additional study.  But researchers have documented the fact that many of the adults they have worked with share a common experience of a trauma, extensive stress, or abuse from childhood.  The child psychologist Bruce Perry describes some of these children as being “incubated in terror,” and I think that’s both chilling and accurate.

MY: One group potentially affected by early brain trauma is child athletes.  We hear a lot about athletes committing crimes.  Is that a media thing, or is there some science to it?

KD: This is difficult to sort through.  It’s documented that many football players have suffered concussive brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  The difficulty is proving cause and effect.  Athletes, by nature, are probably more aggressive than the average person.  They are also more likely to have head trauma.  At this point, I don’t think we can definitively point to the head trauma as the causal link.  It’s a gray area, but as we see, many lawyers are picking up this idea and bringing it to the courtroom.

MY: In the book, you explore the philosophical aspects of this defense.  Are people whose brains are impaired responsible?

KD: I am not opposed to using the idea of a brain defense as a mitigating factor in the sentencing stage. The most important things to me in sentencing decisions are looking at the entirety of a person’s life and determining whether there are mitigating or aggravating circumstances.  We have two obligations.  The first is to protect society from violent people.  We also have an obligation to offer understanding and compassion to people in the criminal justice system.  I don’t think those ideas are mutually exclusive, and I think that’s where neuroscience may prove really helpful.

MY: You live in Chicago, which had almost 800 murders this past year.  Is there anything that can be done about that?

KD: I try not to be cynical; it breaks my heart.  I live here.  A couple of years ago, when my son was in kindergarten, he was walking home with his mother.  Right in front of school, he found a loaded revolver.  He said, “Mom, look, a gun!”  And that just crystallized for me how endemic the culture of violence is in this city.  There are some wonderful people here trying hard to make things happen, but it’s going to require more than a law-enforcement response.  When children are raised in this environment, it’s adding to their stress levels and, if it’s severe enough, it’s truly like being “incubated in terror.”

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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More than Inkblots: Damion Searls’ “Inkblots” tells story of Hermann Rorschach

Article published in Houston Chronicle on February 19, 2017.

Almost 100 years after its creation, the Rorschach test remains a widely-used scientific tool in psychology and serves as a cultural catchall in the popular imagination.  Author and translator Damion Searls explores this legacy—and the life of its creator—in his latest book: “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” which goes on sale February 21, 2017.

Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP CenterMY: Could you describe the role that art played in Rorschach developing the test for which he is famous?

DS: Rorschach’s father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist, making drawings in his diaries, building and painting toys for his children, and an avid photographer. He was a visual person.  Freud was a word person: the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, and so on.  But we’re not all word people.  Freud thought the most revealing thing was what we say or don’t say; Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking.

MY: Rorschach began his career at about the same time abstract art emerged.  Was there a connection between abstract art and Rorschach and his inkblots?

DS: Rorschach wasn’t an artist in that sense, but he was aware of modern trends and mentioned them in his work.  The main link is the new idea that art expresses something inside the artist (this is why Jackson Pollock, for example, is called an “Abstract Expressionist”).  Modern abstract art tried to give visual form to something ineffable inside, and the Rorschach test used visual images to gain access to that ineffable inner self.

MY: Even people familiar with Rorschach’s test may not know that the same ten blots that Rorschach developed 100 years ago are still being used.Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP Center

DS: Most people think that each psychologist uses their own blots.  In fact, Hermann made ten unique images, and he put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience.  Those ten are still used today.  The blots are visually interesting, and that’s a big part of what inspired me.  Most smears look like nothing, but Rorschach’s blots really could be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other or what have you.  They can be perceived differently, but there is a structure to them.  I could go on for hours about what makes them so rich.  Psychology aside, they’re probably the ten most analyzed paintings of the 20th century.

 

MY: In terms of usage, the high point of the tests was in the 1940s and 1950s.  What factors prompted this degree of ubiquity?

DS: The test became popular in the U.S., starting in the late 30s—after Rorschach died—when American culture was very interested in personality.  How could personality be measured in an objective way?  Here was a test that claimed to give access to that.  When WWII erupted, the field of clinical psychology took off and the Rorschach test was the center of the field.  It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach test… but the test was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.

MY: Professionals disagree over the validity of the test, and some researchers suggest that the Rorschach test has become a Rorschach test of its own.

DS: Professionals disagree, but much of the criticisms are out of date.  There has been a lot of research on it, and science has validated the current Rorschach test.  What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version, where the test is a magic mind reader.  The real Rorschach test doesn’t do that.  The Rorschach test is not a Rorschach test.  The cliché is that there are no wrong answers, anything means what you want it to mean.  But the real Rorschach test isn’t like that.  The blots have objective visual qualities; the test has a specific history and use. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.

MY: Rorschach died at an early age, and not much is known about him.  For people who haven’t read the book, what would you like them to know?

DS: The people who have read the book so far are struck by the same thing I am: that Hermann Rorschach was a really solid, good person. You like spending time reading about him. He was modest, kind, hard-working (and incredibly handsome); a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women; and a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, cultural touchstone, and visionary synthesis of art and science. It’s a good story.

 

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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Author Discusses Going “All-In” on Life’s Choices

In her new book, “The Art of Risk,” Sukel explores why some people are more comfortable with risk than others, how risk shapes our lives, and attempts to explore how we can manage risk more successfully.

Kayt Sukel, The Art of Risk

                  Kayt Sukel, Author of “The Art of Risk”

Mike Yawn: Risk means different things to different people, but you came up with a working definition of risk in your book.

Kayt Sukel: Simply put, risk is a decision that involves uncertainty with a potentially negative outcome.  It could be going “all in” in a poker game or wearing a white blouse on a rainy day. It could be all manner of things.

MY: Speaking of going “all in,” you mention in the book that your boyfriend proposed to you and you went “all in” and said, “Yes.”  Is that still accurate?

KS: Yes, I am married!  Otherwise, I would have had to make the acknowledgement section a bit different.

MY: In your book and in other studies, it’s made pretty clear that people aren’t good at predicting outcomes.

KS: Our brain tries to predict what is coming next, but given the amount of information we face, it would be overwhelmed unless we use shortcuts. Our past experiences, our learning, they help our brain hone in on the things on which we need to focus.  But sometimes those shortcuts aren’t applicable, and that’s why the book is called “The Art of Risk.”  It’s more of an art than a science.

MY: People’s acceptance of risk, as you point out in the book, is a function of both biology and environment.

KS: Two parts of the brain are very important for influencing how comfortable a person is seeking risk: the basal ganglia, which is sometimes referred to as the reptilian part of the brain; and the frontal cortex, which is the seat of executive control. The basal ganglia shouts, “Yes, I want rewards!  I want excitement—food, sex, money, prestige!”  And the frontal lobe says, “That stuff is great, but maybe this isn’t the best time” or “If you do that you’ll probably end up in jail!”  These two parts of the brain are tangling all the time and biology helps shape which of these brain regions may be more influential.  But our family environment, our peers, and the life cycle have considerable sway.

MY: You’ve previously researched stress and early childhood.  How does that connect to “The Art of Risk”?

KS: Risk is often seen negatively, but without some kind of risk, we wouldn’t be able to learn and grow.  Some freedom to take risks is important for healthy brain development in children.  Similarly, stress can motivate people.  We don’t want chaos, but a certain amount of stress helps us learn and grow.  Risk and stress in your children can be managed to an extent, but there is a big difference between a parent who permits a ten-year old to walk to school after discussing safety with them, and a parent who sends their five-year old to the store alone to fetch cigarettes for them.   It’s important for parents to know the difference so that children take part in healthy learning, growth, brain development and, ultimately, decision making.

MY: How old are your two children and, as you were writing this book, did you at times think of risk through a parental lens?

KS: I have a son who is 10 as well as a nine-year old daughter. And, yes, I thought of them extensively as I was writing. It’s funny, from the time my son was a baby, I strapped him on my back, and we travelled all over the world.  He’s been to more than 40 countries, snorkeled with sharks, and has ziplined through jungles.  But last winter he busted his ankle sledding!  Of all the activities on which to get hurt, it seemed like the most mundane activity ever.  But, you know, we live in Texas where there isn’t much snow, so he doesn’t sled often.  It makes sense that this would be an activity where he hasn’t had enough experience to fully assess the risks. I can either say, “Everything is terribly dangerous, and I have to wrap my child in bubble wrap to keep him safe,” or I can say, “Let’s learn from this, take corrective action, and do our best to avoid this kind of accident on the next sledding attempt.” I want him to learn how to do cool things; sliding down a hill wicked fast is one of them.

MY: You discuss training as a way to manage risk and decision making.  You use the term “deliberate practice,” which is different than just “practice.”

KS: I think of “practice” as what my kids do at the piano each afternoon.  They plunk away without much thought, and it’s not getting them very far.  Deliberate practice is practicing at the edge of your performance ability.  Athletes, classical musicians, and artists do this all the time.  They choose a project that exceeds their abilities and they fail over and over again until they get a step ahead.  It sounds like torture, but it’s how people learn the difficult piano piece, or shave seconds off their run time, or learn a complicated play in sports.  It helps your mind assess what risks are involved and the parameters within which success can be achieved.

MY: If you were a bookseller, which shelf would you put your book on?

KS: Perhaps science or business or self-help, but whatever shelf it falls on, I hope that people see it as interesting non-fiction.  I think this book is really for anybody who wants to understand more about the way we make decisions or how to make better decisions.

MY: It has elements of a memoir.

KS: Yes.

MY: Tell us why you thought it important to include your experiences.

KS: The questions I was asking were personal questions, but I don’t think they are limited to just me.  They affect everyone, and I wanted to put context of what I have faced, and why I went on the quest to find some answers.

MY: You participated in many activities in different fields to research your book.  Was witnessing brain surgery the most interesting?

KS: Yes.  It was fascinating.  I was able to observe the surgery from a close distance.  It’s amazing to see the skull opened on a live human while doctors are cutting into really delicate tissue.  The doctor was using his brain—specifically the frontal lobe—to control his actions and mitigate the risk to the patient to successfully repair the brain of the patient.

Mike Yawn directs the Center for Law, Engagement and Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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