Books

John Lescroart keeps the thrills coming

John Lescroart opened the front door of his vintage white bungalow in a leaf-strewn Davis neighborhood and welcomed a visitor inside. The house – one of several properties he owns in Northern California – is the innocuous “writing room” he occupies when he’s working on his next book, which is most of the time.

Inside was all white wood walls and hardwood floors, with a computer on a writing desk (26 emails would arrive in the next hour), an unmounted dartboard and a bookcase overflowing with hundreds of the multi-editions of his novels – 26 at last count, translated into 20 languages in 75 countries. The paperback edition of last year’s “The Fall” is in bookstores now and is The Bee Book Club’s choice for December (Pocket Books, $10, 448 pages).

His 27th novel, “Fatal,” is due Jan. 23 (Atria, $27, 320 pages), a stand-alone out of his Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitsky legal-thriller series set in San Francisco. “Fatal” is set there too, edgy and character-driven (his trademark), with an ending that will surprise his fans.

“One of the reasons I wrote a stand-alone was to break me out as a bigger household name,” he said. “I completely rewrote the last 60 pages three times. By the time you’ve done that, you’re sick of it, but you’d better believe it’s pretty damn close to what you want.”

Lescroart proudly pointed out a large framed document on a wall, an award from the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. It’s in recognition of his “legal mystery thrillers that are not only set in the San Francisco environment, but also offer penetrating and perceptive views of the city’s social and political nuances.”

“It’s been a wild year,” said Lescroart, 68. One that also has included the Silver Bullet Award from the International Thriller Writers, with 3,800 author members in 47 countries, representing 3 billion books in print. The honor was for his “philanthropic endeavors,” which are many.

“And then the ITW just named me its co-president,” he said. “They wanted somebody with a substantial track record who can keep a steady ship and won’t panic. Authors can get a little irrational about certain things that touch their egos.”

The recent accolades don’t end there. “I’m going to be a ‘celebrity’ chocolate chip cookie taster next Sunday here in Davis,” he said, grinning. “These kinds of things happen and you go, ‘Wait, you’re mistaking me for somebody who’s famous.’ Looks like the next thing will be my obituary.”

The struggle to success

With rare exceptions, the template for best-selling authors is “overnight success” after years of solitary toil and repeat rejection. That’s true of Lescroat (a French name pronounced “LESS-kwah,” though he is mostly Irish).

The UC Berkeley graduate (English literature) couldn’t find a steady income as a musician (Johnny Capo and His Real Good Band) or part-time writer. He left music at age 30 to take a series of office jobs leading to one as the word-processing supervisor for a large Los Angeles law firm. He continued to write, mostly at home in the mornings before work.

Life cruised along for the next 6 1/2 years, highlighted by the publication of two best-forgotten novels featuring Auguste Lupa, the alleged son of Sherlock Holmes. Then came a life-altering plot twist.

In 1989, Lescroart went body-surfing in contaminated ocean water near Long Beach and contracted spinal meningitis. At the hospital in Pasadena, doctors told his wife, Lisa Sawyer, he had only hours to live. After 11 days, he was back home.

Though he returned to work six weeks later, “obscene” office politics led him to reassess his goals – and his mortality. Those two trains collided to “turn my whole world around,” he told me in an earlier interview. A year later, he moved his family to Davis, familiar ground where the cost of living was lower and the stresses were, if not fewer, at least different.

“I went back to work full time, and he stayed home and wrote full time,” Sawyer, an architect, recalled in that same interview. “I think John realized it was a second chance and a turning point. He did that for two years, and that’s when ‘Hard Evidence’ hit in 1993 (after “Dead Irish” in 1989 and “The Vig” in 1990). I got to come back home, and be with the kids.”

Lescroart’s mainstay character, ex-cop and bartender-turned-defense attorney Dismas Hardy, soon teamed with San Francisco homicide detective Abe Glitsky. They’ve worked many dangerous cases together in a progressively impressive string of New York Times best-selling books.

In a separate three-title series, Wyatt Hunt is a San Francisco private investigator whose agency, the Hunt Club, is “among the elite of San Francisco’s high-end P.I. shops.”

“(Success) has been surprising,” said Lescroart, alternately sitting on a living room couch and jumping up to look at emails and check caller ID. “You spend all your time trying to make it, and then one day you look up and say, ‘I don’t really have to kill myself anymore about this.’ It’s weird to look back rather than anxiously forward, but I am thrilled and happy. I have my health and the main focus of my life – my great wife and two great kids. I still love what I do, so I’ve got the best job of anybody I know.”

The ‘made man’ syndrome

When the subject of thriller writers comes up, Lescroart is usually mentioned with the likes of Dan Brown, John Grisham and Len Deighton. The publishing company Libraries Unlimited included him in its reference book “100 Most Popular Thriller and Suspense Authors.”

In that crowded genre, clearly he’s a made man. Still … “I don’t have any movies out,” he said, sitting down and then springing back up. “Back when I started, the vision was you would have a giant hit that would be on The New York Times Times best-seller list for a year and would became part of the culture – like ‘Presumed Innocent’ by Scott Turow. That would lead to a movie deal. Since I grew up buying into that, to some extent you’re never under the big umbrella of a made man until that happens.

“I’ve purposely decided not to care about that,” he said. “For one thing, that’s not how it is anymore, Paula Hawkins and ‘The Girl on the Train’ notwithstanding. (For instance) authors now have to be their own full-time online marketers.”

But what if …

“Yeah, I would be lying to say I wouldn’t be happy if (a movie deal) happened, but I don’t expect anything magically different even with this stand-alone (‘Fatal’). I don’t want to be John Grisham. I don’t want the paparazzi waiting outside the house, or my kids to feel endangered. I think I’m right in the sweet spot.”

Publishing’s new age

Lescroart in an astute observer of the publishing industry, and holds – shall we say – definite views on hot-button issues. For instance, over the past decade, the traditional publishing industry has been in turmoil over the sudden shift into the Digital Age, and the subsequent drastic transformation of book-buying trends and reading habits.

Scores of independent bookstores have closed their doors because of it. Even the once mighty Borders chain was slain by the e-giant, which most industry players identify as Amazon, the world’s biggest Internet retailer. Its model of undercutting retail prices and its library of cheap down-loadable titles is anathema to traditional publishers.

“Flux is the new name of the publishing industry,” said Lescroart, who laments the loss of the “well-attended venues to buy books. You would hang out there for two or three hours, buy five or six books. Everybody was into, ‘Let the presence of the book be part of our society.’ No offense to Barnes & Noble, but that’s gone.”

The publishing industry was “bushwhacked by Amazon and caved to it,” he said. “Why someone isn’t stepping up about copyright privacy blows my mind. Now the industry is trying to find some kind of paradigm that’s going to give it income. It’s like an unraveling ball of string that gets smaller and smaller. Pretty soon there’s no string anymore.”

The author as renaissance man

Lescroart comes as close to being a “renaissance man” as you’re likely to meet. Writer, musician, gourmand, oenophile, skilled cook, avid fly fisherman and co-host of a private book club, he’s interested in everything and is a notoriously quick study.

“My business card used to say, ‘Musician, novelist, bon vivant,’ ” he said with a chuckle. “I try to enjoy life, let’s put it that way.”

Lescroart crossed the room to his computer to play a few cuts from his latest music CD, “Dixie Sunshine.” He wrote the lyrics and the music (“I’m trying to sell them in Nashville”) and contracted with Vacaville singer Tommy Lee Moffat to record them. Lescroart has produced (and performed on) other CDs under his Croart Records label, including piano solos, reggae, jazz, country and Cajun.

Lescroart likes his wine and is a shrewd collector, and he appreciates a well-set table. “Novels are just an excuse to write about food,” he once told me over lunch.

Our time together has run out. Quickly, what’s he working on now?

“I’m returning to the Hardy-Glitsky fold with ‘The Last Death Penalty,’ ” he said, now standing on the front porch. “I’ve got about 250 pages of it written. The manuscript is due Dec. 15. It’ll be my 28th novel. Can you believe that?”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Bee Book Club

John Lescroart will appear for the The Sacramento Bee Book Club in conversation with Sacramento Bee senior writer Allen Pierleoni at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento. His latest title is the paperback edition of “The Fall” (Pocket Books, $10, 448 pages).

Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $30 for general admission. Buy tickets online. Please bring tickets to the event for entrance. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free.

All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education (NIE) program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.

Information: 916-321-1128, www.johnlescroart.com

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