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.
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 making 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.