An Interview with John Hart

The Edgar-winner talks about his crime thriller Redemption Road, newly out in paperback.

john hart

Read It Forward: Crime thrillers are not what I automatically gravitate towards but I was glad your novel Redemption Road was thrust in my hands because I really, really, enjoyed it. So, thank you.

John Hart: Well, it’s not the kind of thing that I normally write. I never set out to write it. I even hate the term “serial killer book,” but there it is. It just kind of happened that way.

RIF: We don’t have to call it a serial killer book because I actually think it’s way more than that. It’s not only a great story of suspense, but you incorporated a lot of plot threads from real-life current events that have been making the headlines, such as corruption in prison and violence against women. Is that a device you use in all of your books?

JH: I wish I had the clean, quick, and easy answer for you on that. I’m always looking for something that ties the novels into reality as much as possible, but I don’t go out of my way for it.

For instance, in this book, I really struggled with this question of white cop shooting black suspect. That’s been such a hot-button issue all over the country, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, etc. I’m a criminal defense attorney in a previous life, and in those circumstances what bothered me so much was this idea of the rush to judgment regardless of what side people were on the issue. If you thought cops were corrupt, you immediately came down on that side. If you thought that any of these people who were shot were prone to criminal behavior, you immediately came down on that side.

So, there was never any thoughtful reflection and waiting for the facts. As a defense attorney, I understand fundamentally that facts are all that matter. The rush to judgment is just appalling on both sides and so visceral that it just pulls at the threads of society. So one of the things that I wanted to purposely put in the book is this idea that until you really know what’s going on, you just don’t know what’s going on. I think I made that point really well in the book.

RIF: You did. I got to the last chapter and thought, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! I liked that you flipped the stories from our headlines—about Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Freddie Gray, and so many cases—on their heads. Elizabeth really comes under fire for shooting these two black male perpetrators. And there’s this outcry from within the police force that the white female has perhaps even tortured these two criminals and used excessive force.

Was this your reaction to something that you wish befell officers in real life? That when a cop shoots someone or is charged with using excessive force that an internal investigation would result and the cop might be held accountable?

JH: No, it’s broader. On the contrary, it’s simply this: There is no room for political predispositions when it comes to something like a shooting death, or any kind of death. It all comes down to the facts, and that’s the point. Again, this is just a small part of the novel obviously, but you asked about current events and intentional linking to those events.

This is real, I mean, every case is different and people are so immediately eager to take a side to prove or to support whatever political slant they have. It’s just appalling from the perspective of someone who’s seen so many cases of violence and who understands so deeply that there are countless, countless variables in every single violent act and until you understand what those variables are, judgment is a full variant.

So I think it’s more a commentary on the national predisposition to immediately harden a position based on pre-existing political conventions.

RIF: At times when I was reading, I couldn’t decide whether I loved Detective Elizabeth Black, or I was troubled by her and her actions. I mean, she is an incredibly complex character and I understand your first female lead, is that right?

JH: She is, yeah, absolutely.

RIF: So, how was it writing from her point of view and did you do anything differently with her than you do when writing a male lead?

JH: Well, I was nervous taking this on, I mean, for obvious reasons, right? She’s not just a woman, but she’s a complex woman who is carrying around a lot of scars and damaged bits from her early life, from her current life. This woman’s been through hell.

So, the question was, can I convincingly write from a woman’s perspective and especially, can I do it for a wonderfully dark and complex woman? I went into that pretty nervously. What I discovered is that it was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. The reason, I believe, is if one chooses to focus on universal elements—the things that make humanity the same regardless of race, or sex, or any other biases or predispositions, but the fact that we all have fears and wants and the desire to be loved and understood—the fundamental core things are the same whether it’s a man or a woman.

Focusing on that gave me the grounding that I needed to portray her well, and I was just very careful around the periphery. I’ve always believed that the key to writing good character fiction is just some empathetic ability on the part of the writer. The ability to slip in and out of different people’s skins and really try to imagine what they see and feel. I’ve always liked to think that I have that knack. This was just a chance to test it.

RIF: Why was it so important to you to make her complex and have these scars?

JH: I believe that all of the things that make people interesting as adults happen during childhood. Now, these can be good things or bad things, but the elements that really shaped us happened at some point before we were 16, 17, or 18 years old. You’ll see in every book I’ve ever written—there’s always some linkage back to childhood that informs the main character and often other characters as well. So I knew going in that something from childhood would affect this woman’s emotional makeup and would have to be addressed in the course of the book. That’s just what I do in all my books.

Other than that, I just believe that character is the most important thing. Most thriller readers would say plot is the most important thing, but for me it’s always been the character. As long as the character is credible and complex, then the reader can get into that person’s shoes and I can get the emotional buy-in that I need to make the story meaningful. For instance, if the stakes are huge in a thriller—if it’s the end of the world, if it’s a race against war, or if it’s like Dan Brown’s anti-matter bombs in the catacombs under Vatican City—if the stakes are big, then people give a buy-in pretty quickly if they like that kind of book.

But I don’t write those kinds of books. What I need is a relationship between the reader and the character. The emotional buy-in goes through the character, meaning, if you’re reading one of my books I want you to understand this character well enough that you care, and care enough that you feel, and feel enough that the book has weight and meaning and import. Complex characters really help that dynamic.

RIF: There’s also a thread in the story about a man, a police officer, who goes to jail for 13 years for a crime he says he did not commit. As a former criminal defense attorney, are you making a statement about our judicial system and shedding a light on people who are wrongly accused and jailed? Did the things that you’ve seen in courts personally play into this narrative?

JH: I think there are two separate issues here. There’s the big one, which is the fact that, yes, absolutely, people are wrongfully convicted. That does happen; innocent people go to jail all the time. I would like to think that we do have the best system; that the adversarial system works as it’s designed to, which means simply that if one has a vigorous prosecution met with vigorous defense, that’s the best route to discovering the truth. I think that that’s the best we can hope for.

However, obviously good people are wrongfully convicted. My personal experience was not in that area. I didn’t practice long enough to really have that kind of personal experience.

What I did see was the institutionalized jadedness, to the point where, once people are put in the system, the dehumanization of those people happens very quickly. I felt that even as a lawyer going through the process to get into the holding areas to interview my clients. It’s almost as if I can feel myself being dehumanized as I walk through all of these barred doors going deeper into the system.

It was especially, I don’t want to say vigorous, but it was obvious with prison guards. These people have seen it all and have learned through hard experiences to treat inmates with a certain aloofness. As a result, the prisoners don’t receive some of the basic courtesies that humanity takes for granted. I think that the guards, and everyone involved in that side of the system, learn that behavior as a defense mechanism. Otherwise it’s too hard to carry it home at the end of the day. But it’s tough; that jaded, dehumanized, institutionalized nature of prison life was hard to watch.

RIF: Yeah, absolutely. I once had the opportunity to go into a maximum-security prison in college to watch a group of men rehearse a Shakespeare play. The whole process of going in and seeing just how many freedoms are stripped away; it is a stark contrast to the outside world.

JH: It is. It is stark and I think that there are pathways that flow from that. If anyone, even the best intentioned person, spends year after year working that kind of environment, eventually prisoners become something less than human and it opens the door to all kinds of problems.

RIF: In Redemption Road, a few of your female characters have been victims of sexual assault, and they carry around the weight of that trauma long after it occurs. Sometimes they even encounter their perpetrators in the course of everyday life. So, in the light of the [Brock Turner] rape trial at Stanford for example, and so many others that have occurred, what point are you trying to make about the predilection of victim-blaming and the jump to conclusions about how it must have been the victim’s fault?

JH: I’m not trying to make any point along those lines. The point that I was trying to make is simply that there is a strength that can be found by survivors of these types of crimes. In particular, if you look at the relationship between Channing and Elizabeth.

Channing is a young woman that Elizabeth rescued from these horrible circumstances when Elizabeth was then accused of killing these two men that had been holding Channing. In fact, she was accused of torturing them. The focus of the book is very much about the relationship and the bond that forms between these two women and how Elizabeth, who is older, and who suffered as a young woman, takes the lessons that she’s learned and helps Channing find a path. In fact, I think there are times in the book where I talk about the path and that no one knows the bitter trails of after more than Elizabeth does.

I don’t think that I ever had any thoughts about victim-blaming, but more about the ability that these women have to take strength from each other, and to heal and move beyond it. Especially if you look at Elizabeth’s life, and how she’s handled her interactions with the young man who raped her. He’s now a grown person and living in the same community. It’s pretty plain who’s got the upper hand in that relationship. She makes a point of going out of her way to see this man, to pass him on the street and to stop and say hi, and to show him that she in fact has the power after all these years.

RIF: I love that scene.

JH: I thought that was good too. There was a point in the book, and maybe this is what you were referring to, where there’s a risk that Elizabeth as a cop is going to be undone when the rest of the police force understands the truth of what happened in that basement. But I think that’s not so much about victim-blaming as it is about this idea that she loses some valuable part of herself—the armor that she’s built up since what happened as a child, this strength which she has encased herself within as a strong police officer, as a strong woman. Even after so much time that can still be stripped away by the wrong circumstances.

RIF: Many of the book’s victims are found on the altar of a rundown church and Elizabeth definitely has a tough relationship with her father who is a pastor. Is there any commentary here being made about religion, or the faith versus the moral code that police rely on?

JH: I think that there’s a lot that can be taken from this. I truly spent a lot of time on it. You have Elizabeth’s father who believes that his path is the only path. Of course, he’s all about God’s path and the grand redemption, but only if you play by his rules.

Elizabeth, who was injured and made anything but whole by the church and by her father’s convictions, has found greater faith in the idea of man’s law and secular justice. Of course, one of the great tensions in the book is between these two belief systems.

I do think there’s some commentary in there but I think it comes from both sides. I disagree with any religion that says if you don’t believe exactly what I believe then you’re going to hell. I think that’s horrible. Not to make this a discussion of religion, but that’s just a very narrow-minded attitude in a world of so many billions of people and so many different beliefs. So I did have a little fun with that.

But also, Elizabeth’s beliefs are pretty narrow-minded as well. She wants justice whether it’s according to the rules of God’s law, man’s law, or anything else. She’s actively seeking her own comfort level about what this justice entails. So, I think it’s more of a conversation than a position paper on my part.

I like the idea of thrillers or novels having a great story arc that keep the pages turning, but if there is a conversation to be had during or after the reading of those books, I think that’s even better. That’s really what I was going for.

RIF: Completely. That’s why I think this book is more than a thriller. There are things that stick with you and cause you to think more than just “whodunit,” which I liked a lot. What is your research process like? We have prisons, sexual assault victims, all these things that I could picture you researching in depth.

JH: Well luckily, most of the things that you just mentioned are things that I’ve learned about through the courts in my time as a criminal defense attorney. So it doesn’t take more than the kind of cursory research that is usually done these days. You know, make sure that I’ve got the probation laws right, make sure I understand what the process is when you go in and out of the state prison. But, of course, I’ve done those things before, so that didn’t really take a lot of work.

For me, again, it’s all about making the characters as real as possible and that’s about getting so deeply into them that we really understand exactly what they’re trying to accomplish, if at all possible. When you have so many characters, and there are quite a few in this book, you can’t spend the time going so deep on all of them. You’d never have an actual plot.

So, it’s selecting the right characters to focus on and then trying to make them as compelling as possible. And that’s about making them as real as possible too. Not just willing to do fascinating things—I mean, if one is willing to walk through fire, why is that person willing to do that?

You see Elizabeth, for instance, she is willing to turn her life upside down for the smallest chance of protecting this young woman that she rescued. She literally will take the heat for a torture and a murder rap if that’s what she thinks is necessary.

Let’s talk about why that is and try to explore that. Most of my energy goes into that work first and then it’s followed by the research. It’s either stuff that I know just through my life experience or I can call on people who are deeper in the system. If I have questions that I don’t have the answers to, I can reach out to judges and lawyers and people in law enforcement that can guide me.

RIF: Was there any research involved around first person accounts of women who have been through sexual assault? You wrote so beautifully about the relationship between Channing and Elizabeth and their trauma that they bond over. Was that something that you had to read about in depth or hear from people who have been through it?

JH: No, that was just pure imagination and empathy. In my time in the criminal system, I did interact with victims. I do understand a lot about the ripple effects of criminal activities and how they can damage people in unaffected ways.

But I think the beating core of this book is this relationship between Elizabeth and Channing. They’re both so selfless when it comes to the other and yet both so fragile. And I’ll take full credit for that. I mean I just try to put myself in their shoes and figure out what it would feel like. That’s got to be the writer’s greatest gift, if there is a gift, and it’s that kind of empathy. And I’ve always had that. Going back to when I was a kid, I’ve always seen all sides of situations. Rarely do I go into a conflict without being able to understand where everyone stands and why. That’s just part of my makeup.

RIF: Wow, and well, it’s not just one set of characters. There’s a boy, Gideon, who is convinced he’s striving for revenge and is willing to go to jail to avenge his mother’s death. There’s a cop that’s out of jail and is so damaged by what’s happened to him there. There’s the prison warden who, from the beginning, you think “there’s something up with this guy.” Do you have to put on different hats while you’re writing or can you just seamlessly switch from one to the other?

JH: It’s pretty seamless, but it’s only because I live with them so much. I get into discussions with writer friends all the time about outlining versus not outlining. I don’t outline. I can’t imagine understanding enough of the novel before I wrote the first scene to actually know what’s going to happen on page 300 or page 400.

I have to live with this day and night, and I think this is the trick. I go to bed thinking about these characters; I wake up thinking about them. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job. I really do dream about them. And, because it’s such a perpetual process, it does become fairly easy to slip in and out of these different characters once they’re fully imagined in my own mind. But it often takes a long time to get to that point, meaning I’ve written and lived with these people for several months before I get to the point that it’s that easy. Before that, it takes a lot more concentration.

RIF: When you write, how do you stitch together the plot threads that, at the beginning definitely seem to be rather disparate, into this cohesive narrative?

JH: That’s probably my least favorite question in the world because I don’t have a real answer for it. Again, I think that the people that outline novels, they can probably explain this in some detail. And my feeling is that they’re probably a little bit smarter than I am.

On the other hand, I think their job is a lot more boring because for me, I wake up every morning wondering what’s going to happen and I go to bed every night afraid that I’m not going to have a fresh idea when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes I might be 20 or 30 pages ahead in my thinking than I am in the actual writing.

Eventually, usually about halfway through the book, I see how I’m going to end it and tie the whole thing together. But I wrote the first half of this book so that there were two or three different people that could have been the actual killer. I was prepared to go down any one of those routes, but it wasn’t until I lived with it long enough to really feel it that I knew where it was heading.

Without giving too much away, what happens at the end of this book is that there is a resolution that resonates very deeply because you realize how far back it all goes. It all goes back to these early years that we were talking about. There were all these things that drive these characters that might not have seemed such a big deal when it happened, but over time, they’ve become enormous.

I could not have possibly imagined all of that when I began the book. There are so many threads to this novel and such a necessity for it all to fit correctly at the end. It’s a lot of trial and error and going to bed with one idea and waking up with another and then hoping that it all fits.

It makes for a terrifying experience because, I’m sure you’ve heard this, but I’ll tell you just in case you haven’t. I wrote 300 pages of a novel and spent a year of my life working on it before I threw it out because I just wasn’t happy with it. That’s what happens when things don’t go well. Redemption Road is what happens when they actually do come together.

RIF: Does it feel at all similar to arguing a case or is it a completely different experience?

JH: Completely different. There’s the old saw about lawyers and cops: they rarely ask questions unless they already know the answers to them. That’s about trying to trip someone up and get a contradiction that can be exploited in an interview on the stand. I would never put on a case without knowing everything I could possible know.

Writing for me is a gut-level experience. I literally will go off in a plot direction with no clear idea of how it’s going to tie into the whole, but with the faith that if it’s an interesting direction, I will find some way to use it and make it all link. I would never put on a trial like that. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Author Photo: Kim Veillon Photography

JOHN HART is the author of Redemption Road, and of four New York Times bestsellers, The King of Lies, Down River, The Last Child and Iron House. The only author in history to win the best novel Edgar Award for consecutive novels, John has also won the Barry Award, the Southern Independent Bookseller's Award for Fiction, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and the North Carolina Award for Literature. His novels have been translated into thirty languages and can be found in over seventy countries. A former defense attorney and stockbroker, John spends his time in North Carolina and Virginia, where he writes full-time.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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