Meet Author James L’Etoile

(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.

A bit about his latest novel, Black Label, released in July by Level Best Books:

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.

The Interview

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.

Preparing for publication is like planning a wedding: Lots of waiting, negotiations and more waiting

Accepting a book contract is much like saying “Yes!” to a marriage proposal.

The moment of commitment is overwhelming. You want to explode, to shout your news to the world. So you do. You tell anyone and everyone, infecting them with your giddiness.

And just like an engagement, the big announcement evokes big questions: When is the wedding (release) day? Do you have a dress (cover)? What are your honeymoon (book tour/promotion) plans?

Self-publishing is akin to elopement or a small, quick wedding. Plans are entirely in your control and either the release itself is over and done with by the time it’s made public, or the book is published soon after the announcement.

No waiting. Answers to all questions are readily available.

Not so with traditional publishing.

I signed my three-book contract with Black Opal Books in February.

I want so badly to answer those questions, to know exactly when the first book will be released, what the cover will look like, where I can do book signings and book discussions. But I can’t. This is the first lull, the time when committed couples meticulously compare calendars, settle on the size of the wedding and look for venues that will work for all.

The first of the novels, A DEAD MAN’S EYES, awaits that kind of meticulous overview. It sits in the Black Opal queue, waiting for an editor to review it for any major plot problems, inadequate research or facts that are incorrect. About four to six months later  (in June, July or August), the manuscript will emerge and the editor will likely request some changes.

My hope is that I will be thrilled with the editor’s suggestions, that I will quickly and effortlessly revise the manuscript and we will move on to the next stage of planning. But it is possible that, like couples planning a wedding, there will be a little back and forth before we settle on these big and important details.

Next comes the nitty gritty.

This is the final round of edits, when someone will comb though my manuscript, studying every chapter, paragraph and sentence for errors. If this were a wedding, Black Opal and I would spend this time carefully sampling the food of recommended caterers, reviewing photographers’ portfolios and listening to the music of various bands. The goal is perfection, a book that creates lasting memories, that moves people to recommend it to others, and makes them clamor for more.

But this isn’t a wedding. I made my selections when I wrote the book. Now I will have to wait another six months (until December, January or February) until the second-round editor has a chance to scrutinize my every choice, look for mistakes and give me feedback. It is not something I want to rush. This book has my name on it. I want to publish the best book possible.

Once that second round of edits ends, the process will pick up speed.

Black Opal will give me a release date and I will have a cover to reveal. I will suddenly find myself in a hurricane of preparations. I expect to hound friends and family for space on their basement floors where I can blow up an air bed and crash for a night in order to do promote my book in every city, village and hamlet I can manage. I will seek out bloggers for reviews. I will send out press releases to news outlets in every place I have where I have even the most remote connection.

While all that is happening, the second book in the mystery/suspense series, NEVER BROKEN, will enter its second round of edits in preparation for release five months later.  NO STRANGER HERE, a stand-alone thriller, will likely be published five months after the second novel.

So what do I do now? Twiddle my thumbs? Not a chance. The key to getting through this period with my sanity is keeping busy. I recently completed a second thriller and I have started writing book three in the mystery/suspense series. My goal is to have the third book in the series ready when the second one comes out.

Between writing, teaching and my family, I am hoping the time will fly.  So, please, toast with me to a happy, healthy and long-lasting relationship with my publisher, Black Opal Books.

 

 

 

 

One hundred days …

You know that last post?
The one about the Christmas dream?
I should have been more clear.
I meant the Christmas of 2015, but I’m not picky.
Christmas of 2016 will do.
In fact, I would prefer it.
So much has changed since I last wrote:
I took a part-time paying job to help meet mortgage payments on our old house until it sold. (Yep. I am now a taxonomy specialist. Ever hear of that? Neither had I, but it’s kind of cool.)
My mother-in-law broke her hip and came to live with us. (She calls herself my fifth child, but don’t let her fool you. She’s 88, but she’s already back in the commander’s seat, itching to permanently move back home.)
My agent and I agreed to switch submissions strategies after only a handful of publishers, shelving the thriller for a bit while we push the rewritten mystery/suspense series. (Working on book three of the series now!)
So my time has not been my own and the timing for my debut into the publishing world would not have been great.
At least, that’s how I rationalize the situation to quell by my impatience.
Distraction is key, so I plan to hunker down for the upcoming months and devote any free time to my work-in-progress. But I hope you’ll forgive me if  I steal a few moments to toss pennies into fountains with my eyes closed, cross my fingers and write a few letters to Santa.
Christmas of 2016 is only 100 days away.
Anyone know of a stocking appropriate for a book contract?

Death: Getting it Right

The guy in the black clothing sneaks up behind his victim, slips his large hands around her throat and squeezes.
She desperately reaches for her throat, weakens and drops dead.
The teenager is dead on the pavement, blood gushing from the hole in his chest.
A masked man walks into a convenience store, whips our a nine-millimeter handgun and shoots the woman who tries to stop him, blowing her head off.
I cringe.
I don’t want to read these novels anymore.
I don’t stop because the scenes are frightening, shocking or gross.
I can handle that.
I stop because I have lost my suspension of disbelief.
The death scenes are impossible.
Inaccurate.
Unreal.
It takes about five minutes to die from asphyxiation and it’s a messy death, with the victim in panic mode, fighting with huge doses of previously unknown adrenaline for his or her life.
Hearts stop beating when people die, so blood stops flowing.
Nine-millimeter bullets might make small messes inside their targets, but not outside.
They certainly don’t blow heads off.
I don’t want to be that writer — the writer who loses readers who are familiar with guns, medicine or death.
And it’s amazing how many people know that stuff.
That’s why I appreciate people like D.P Lyle.
I met D.P. Lyle in August at Killer Nashville, a conference for mystery writers in Nashville, Tennessee.
I listened to him speak, chatted with him, bought two of his books and became a fan of his blog and podcast, Crime & Science Radio.
Dr. Lyle is a cardiologist, a novelist, a writer of nonfiction and a medical consultant for authors. He has worked as a consultant for such television shows as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.
His expertise is a big part of the reason I attended Killer Nashville, to improve my knowledge of forensics.
To get it right for my own peace of mind and for readers.
Every mystery writer needs a D.P. Lyle.
Who is yours?