(I ran out of room for my full interview with James in my November newsletter, but his answers were all too good to waste. So, I decided to run the full interview here in my blog.)
James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery, and The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include: At What Cost, Bury the Past, Little River -The Other Side of Paradise and Black Label.
Big Pharma has a secret and it’s costing thousands of lives. Prison gangs and corporate board members make strange bedfellows, but where there’s money to be had, peace exists through an off the books Black Label drug lab. Until a pharmaceutical executive wakes up in a strange apartment and finds herself suspected of the CEO’s murder. Believing she’s insane, or a murderer, Jillian Cooper is on the run from the police and gang enforcers as she tries to unravel the secrets of Black Label.
Q: For almost three decades, you have worked with criminals through the prison system. When did you realize you also wanted to write novels? How did you hone your skills?
James: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a reader. But I didn’t start writing fiction until I retired from my career in the California prison system. I recall reading a novel and it wasn’t particularly good—predictable, tons of plot-holes, and characters I really didn’t care about. Something in me snapped and I thought, “I could do better than this.”
I didn’t have the confidence to jump in and write fiction, until I thought back to one of my early assignments as a probation officer. I prepared pre-sentence reports for the sentencing judge. To prepare those reports, I interviewed the defendant in jail, taking down their version of the crime, spoke with the investigators, read the arrest reports, and meet with victims uncovering the impact of the crime on them, or their families. I’d then have to sort through all this information and cobble together a narrative about the crime and make a recommendation for how long in prison or jail it deserved. What I didn’t realize until I thought about writing crime fiction was, I’d been writing crime stories all along.
With that confidence—that I’d been down this road before—I began learning more about the craft of fiction writing, attending writer’s conferences like the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference outside of San Francisco.
Q: You have written both serial mysteries and a standalone thriller. Which do you prefer and why?
James: What a good question. It’s difficult to pick a favorite. Writing a series allows you to take your existing characters and move their stories even further along. You have the setting in place (usually), existing players ready to act their roles, and character traits/motivation established. It’s familiar. Throw in a new villain and a unique problem to overcome, and you’re on your way. I like writing standalones because of the absolute freedom. You, as the author, get to create a new world, fresh, new characters, and there are no limits on where the story can go because of the constraints of an established series. What I attempt to do in a series is keep the story as self-contained as possible, so the creative freedom is there in a sequel. And readers can pick up any book in the series and not feel lost.
Q: You worked in the prison system for twenty-nine years, yet the protagonists in your serial fiction (both published and forthcoming) are detectives. Why detectives rather a protagonist based on your experience in parole, or as a hostage negotiator, an associate warden, or a facilities captain?
James: Good catch, Lori! I’ve taken that direction intentionally, because most readers have a general idea of police and police work—even if it’s from bad episodes of CSI-Miami. Ask people about what goes on in prison and people tend to have a vacant stare. That said, most of the novels and short fiction I write have some sort of tangential relationship to prison. A character has been to prison, the detective visits him in prison, or as in the case of a manuscript being shopped around now, a man comes home after a decade behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit and the only way to prove his innocence, is destroying the entire town, including the one woman who stood beside him.
Q: How long did it take you to write your first novel, land an agent, and then sign your first publishing contract? Were there any surprises along the way?
James: The first novel, a manuscript which shall forever be entombed in my bottom drawer, took about two years. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? So, with a little practice and a few craft workshops under my belt, my debut novel, Little River, took another two years before a publisher picked it up. I was working on At What Cost and had an elevator pitch to throw out when I attended a mystery writers conference at Book Passage. I listened to an agent panel, approached one of the agents, gave my pitch and she told me to send her the manuscript. Six months later I was represented, and a publisher offered a two-book deal after a short submission period.
As far as surprises along the way—I had to learn a new business model, which was nothing like running a prison, or managing a half-billion-dollar budget. Everything moves in slow motion, except for your deadlines. The biggest surprise, I think, was finding out the crime fiction community is incredibly supportive and actually nice. Where I worked before, folks were generally not nice, and I needed to wear a stab-resistant vest.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Black Label?
James: At What Cost and Bury the Past were straight up police procedural thrillers. Police detectives on the chase to bring down the bad guy before the next bad thing happens. I enjoy writing them and they kind of play into my wheelhouse with my former career in the California prison system. The inspiration for Black Label came from a session I was teaching at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference a couple of years back. A few of us were talking about using fear in our work. Not the fear that you won’t hit your deadline, or the fear that no one will read your book, both real, but I’m talking about that base-level fear each of us have at one point or another. Fear of heights, fear of the dark, or in my case fear of being utterly helpless.
There’s something about being helpless that scares the bejesus out of me. Maybe it’s the control-freak in me, or it could stem from working in prison where you always had to be in control and be prepared for the bottom to drop out from you at any second. So, I wanted to create a character and a storyline where that kind of fear was thrust upon them. What could make someone feel helpless more than being accused of a murder when you’re not sure if you did it or not?
Jillian Cooper is faced with evidence that she’s either a murderer or insane. I like the idea that she must struggle through the helplessness, when the police, the press, the corporate boardroom, and her own mind are ready to take her down.
Jillian is like so many of us who devote our lives to the company, even take on the job as part of her identity. Jillian is smart, focused, and driven to succeed. Her Type-A personality is probably in response to her childhood experiences—told she never measured up to her older sibling, witnessing her mother’s declining mental health and eventual suicide. These all combined to push Jillian to excel and prove to herself that she was good enough.
I think Jillian would tell readers that she is a cautionary tale. When you are so single-focused, spending all your waking moments emptying your life into a job, you miss what’s happening all around you. Sometimes that means you sacrifice relationships, or social interaction. In Jillian’s case it threatens to kill her. I think Jillian would now advocate for a work-life balance.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming series and the first book, Dead Drop, which is due for release in July of 2022?
James: I’m looking forward to the first installment in the new series. Dead Drop is a return to a procedural thriller. It takes place in the Southern Arizona desert where Detective Nathan Parker confronts the deadly consequences of illegal immigration. He’s got a reason he wants strict enforcement of the immigration laws—his partner was murdered by a coyote smuggling people over the border. Parker follows a series of migrant deaths in the desert and soon finds himself relying on very people he chased back across the border for his own survival
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
James: Oh, Lordy. Publishing is a weird business. And it’s just that—a business. It doesn’t care about you personally. It’s very much a what have you done for me lately thing and even then, publishers have been known to change course and focus on different genres to take advantage of what’s hot in the market. Rejection comes with the territory, and it might sting, but when it’s all said and done it ain’t personal it’s just business. That said, I’ve met some of the nicest, most generous people in this business. There are authors, editors, booksellers, bloggers, and readers, who make all the hard solitary time worth it.
So, to a new author, I’d strongly recommend you get involved in this writing community. They are an incredibly supportive bunch, and you can find them in Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America.