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September 5, 2011 | by  | in Arts Books |
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John Hart talks about ‘Iron House’

Jay Collins talks to John Hart about his latest thriller, Iron House.

You used to be a lawyer and now you’re writing thriller novels. Do they go hand in hand? It seems like there are many instances of lawyers branching out into this area. Why thriller novels for you?

I never set out to write thrillers to tell you the truth. I just set out to write a story and they just sort of turned into that I guess because deep down I find that interesting. I really care about writing characters, it’s really fun to have the high stakes that peels away all of the facades that people put on and see what’s going to happen. An example I like to use is a shameless theft of a great quote from an Alabama writer named Joshua Jackson who says “If you want to introduce your readers to the people you’ve built, put all of your characters into a locked room and set one of them on fire.” Which when you think about it is genius because somebody is going to try to kick down the door, somebody is going to freak out, somebody is going to put out the fire but it is not till you put them into that type of situation that you see who they are and what they do. I would describe my books as character-driven thrillers, not because I have any literary aspirations but because I really enjoy building interesting people and putting them through their paces and thrillers are a great way to do that.

One thing that links all four of your novels is the rich and detailed characters that you create. Iron House is certainly no exception to this, with characters such as Michael and Julian, who are dangerous but in Julian’s case also quite fragile. What is your process for creating characters like these?

The simple answer is simple imagination and lots and lots of deep, uninterrupted thought. I mean what kind of person is going to be interesting enough to drive the type of story that you wish to create? In Iron House it is obviously a very hard charging story, it’s the most violent thing I have ever written. Most of my books are not like that and so I needed really specific types of characters to make that happen. The trick for me is really ‘what motivates them?’ If at the end of the book the reader is going to look back and say “I believe the character would have done those things”, which is not the same as saying “I would have done those things” but that character would have done those things. You really need to get down to the heart of what makes those characters capable of that type of action.

You talked about how Iron House is more violent than earlier works, however there is also the romance between Michael and Elena. Do you find it difficult to mix action and romance into a novel without compromising the essence of a thriller?

I don’t find it difficult. It is always a question of proportion of course. What is interesting about Elena is that she is very specific in her role. She is the only truly innocent person in the story. In a story full of villains, conflicted characters and people who have done bad things, Elena is a pure soul. I really wanted a mirror against which Michael would have to view the person he has become. He would have to gage the value of the man he was and so much of the story is not just about the depth of the feeling between these people but the manner in which Elena reacts to the truth about what Michael really is and the exploration of whether or not she can except it. Can she move beyond it and still love him or is he lost to her forever because of the things that he has done? It gives the chance to provide additional tension to the story and you know whether or not it’s a thriller, tension has to be present or else it’s boring and flat. That is the primary thing, there has to be some tension, some question about what would happen with these characters and so it is maybe a more wholesome kind of tension in the book, as opposed to some of the more violent tension.

What is your writing process like? Do you have every detail planned out before you put pen to page or is it more organic than that?

It is entirely organic. I don’t have a clue what the story is going to be when I sit down to write it. I have a very strong sense of who my main character is and the emotional issues that have to be addressed. I usually have a strong idea of the opening scene and that is it except for maybe some sense on where that character will be by the end of the book, not in terms of the resolution of the story but in terms of his emotional growth. The story requires many things but first and foremost the story arc has to be compelling but deeper than that you have to have a meaningful growth of the main character. For instance, Michael can not be the same person that he was at the beginning of the story, same thing with Elana and same thing with any of the other major characters. They all have to change through the course of the book. I might know how I wish these characters to change but not the route by which the change will occur. There are those authors who outline and know exactly what they are going to do but I grope and hope, a year long sustained leap of faith – that is really what it is.

You have a penchant for winning awards for everything that you write. How do you handle the pressure of fan and critic anticipation?

kind of learnt early on that you might please 99% of the people but there will always be at least 1% that are unhappy. Maybe it is 90/10, maybe 50/50 – it would depend entirely on the book. After my first novel I had written about 90 pages of my second novel before I realized that it was not very good. The reason it was not very good was because I had stopped taking chances because of this awareness of critical response. The King of Lies worked because I look chances on everything. It was a very fearless project for me because I did not think I would ever get published. By the time I started writing Down River, I knew what it was like to be on television, I knew what it was like to be in Time magazine and to be talked about by people with opinions. Even though most of those opinions were good, they were not universally good and so I realized that I was censoring myself in a manner that led to very boring fiction. Safe writing leads to boring fiction, it’s that simple and I was playing it very safe. I had to figure out a way to turn off the switch and not think about those kinds of pressures and really just think about the story. I had to start Down River all over again, I kept the first three pages, which were good, and by the time I got to page 90 again I knew it was working. It was because I had somehow found my way to a place where I didn’t care. Well that is probably not entirely true, there is a time to care and it is not when you are writing. It is once the book is finished and you know that you are going to be in People magazine on Tuesday, I find myself caring very much then but I can’t let it affect my writing. The only thing I give myself from my awards is when I have my doubt filled days, which are many; it is easier to move through them when I think about what has happened with my past books. People have come back loyally for subsequent books, the awards have been great, each book has outsold the other and so it is a kind of superficial confidence builder to get me over the rough spots.

You said that while writing The King of Lies, that you were not sure if it would be released. Have you ever written anything else that has not made it to the publishing stage?

Yes, I was widely unpublished for about 12 years. I wrote two novels, one while studying for a master’s degree and another when I was in law school. They shouldn’t have been published, I can see that very clearly now but I was widely rejected; agents, editors turned me down all over the place. What I noticed though was that the last chapter of the second book was ten times better than the first chapter of the first book and so the learning curve seemed to be going in the right direction. So when I found myself, two or three years into my law practice, with a non-working wife and a brand new baby and talk of a second, I knew that it was kind of a crossroads for me. I knew that I could be a halfway writer/ halfway lawyer, just as I had been a half student/ half writer or I could make a decision that I was going to be one or the other. So I quit my law practice and gave myself a year to get published, just knowing that two years later it would be ten times harder because of kids and responsibilities and being further into my career. It took eleven and a half months to write The King of Lies and I started looking for work that day, but not as a lawyer, I became a stock broker instead and it took me four years to get published but that is the book that changed everything.

Which of your novels do you feel could be adapted into a film the best?

I think that Iron House is the easiest to adapt because it is very action orientated and Michael is such a powerfully developed character, he would be great for someone like Mark Wahlberg for instance, as Mark is the kind of actor who can do action with depth and he would be wonderful as Michael. I have always believed that Last Child, which was my previous novel, would make the most compelling film as there is just so much depth in the story and the character’s growth is so compelling and wonderfully complex. The problem is that the main character is thirteen and movie studios can pretty much calculate how much they can sell foreign distribution rights for based on who the lead actor is. So if it is Brad Pitt then it is going to get 2 million in Germany and 1.5 million in England and so on. They know how much or their investment they can recoup before they shoot the first scene. If it is an unknown child actor, and I think the kid from Super 8 would be perfect, is not as bankable as he is still a bit unknown. I really think that Iron House would be a no brainer.

Each of your books have been written as a stand-alone story. Have you ever considered writing a series?

I have considered that, in fact I think that Michael would lend himself very well to a series. I have left a few doors open in the story that I think could walk him through into a sequel. I have avoided series really for two reasons. One, there are a lot of good series out there and so it is highly competitive. Two, I have not written a person that I am willing to live with year over year yet I think. The only way you can tell compelling fiction is to really care about your character to the point where you explore a lot of the hidden depths of the character. I would imagine that after three or four books it would become very difficult to find new depths and unexpected responses and I think that is so important. There is a lot of interest to a possible sequel to Iron House and I think that Michael could be compelling enough for another two or three books maybe. I have another book that I am writing which is very different which I will have to finish before I do another Michael book.

Even with your first release you seemed to have mastered the thriller genre. Have you ever been interested in trying to write something completely different?

I have and I probably will at some point but I come from a business background and it is important to be aware of the business of publishing. Part of the route of lasting success is to not shock the market place too soon, not to confuse the readers and those who buy my books be they chain retailers or independent book stores. People have a pretty good sense of who I am as a writer and what I do but if I came out with some more general fiction or a horror story, suddenly people would not have as clear a view of me. Once you become bullet proof (and I am close but I am not quite there) then you can experiment. The best example of this is John Grisham, some of his best work was experimental I think. He wrote Painted House, which is a very literary novel. He stunned me with how different and wonderful it was and yet his fans never doubted for a second that he would come back for another legal thriller. While I will never get to the place that Grisham has, I would like to get to an equally safe place where my readers understand what I do and are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt on something different. In fact I have a great idea for a horror story, based on a short story I wrote about twenty years ago. I would like to attempt a more general sort of fiction, to see if I could build the same tension without the types of thriller elements we were discussing earlier, where you could stretch your characters with meaningful stakes that were not necessarily life or death.

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