Mysterious Ways: How a Salisbury lawyer became a bestselling author

by Amy Kingsley

If this were a murder mystery, it would open with a scene: a gray sky, a Bradford Pear tree, an industrial building, a man in a window.

The tree stands in front of the building, where they used to make denim overalls. That stopped a while ago, long before they gutted it, installed interior walls and transformed that L-shaped stack of bricks into office space for rent. They never touched the floors; they’re still the same blond wood they’ve always been, glossy and tattooed with the kind of marks that don’t come from dress shoes.

There’s a room on the third floor, a spartan one with bookshelves, a desk and a man in heavy boots. The man from the window.

He’s our guy.

An educated itinerant with a resumé full of discarded jobs – careers, even – who once spent a summer packing grease guns for helicopter pilots in Alaska, angling for some stick time on the big ships. He exhausted the rest of that summer loitering too close to the gates of human misery to come away unchanged.

Let’s put him aside for now. He’s alive and well, and we’re concerned with corpses. Specifically the remains of a loathsome old lawyer, Ezra Pickens, which materialize in an abandoned strip mall 18 months after his disappearance.

It happened in Salisbury – that’s Rowan County, about half way between Greensboro and Charlotte. It’s the home of Cheerwine and Food Lion, known for its wealth and rich Civil War history. And for a murder rate with the odd habit of spiking every other year.

The police suspect the son, a criminal defense attorney like his dad, who’s tortured by a loveless marriage. The son suspects his sister, a damaged figure with a murky past. No one suspects the real culprit.

Which brings us back to our man at the denim factory, who fishes a bottle of green tea out of a mini-fridge and drops onto a sofa.

He doesn’t look the type, not with his neat haircut and glasses, but he killed Ezra Pickens. There’s no doubt about it. Does it matter that he created him? That he dredged Ezra Pickens and all his descendants from the depths of his own imagination?

I suppose that depends on the reader.

Today he’s our hero, and his name is John Hart. He used to work as a lawyer, a banker, a bartender and a pilot. Now he’s a bestselling novelist, and the only mystery left is how he did it.

Since this is journalism, let’s start with the facts. John Hart was born in Durham in 1965, the son of a surgeon and a schoolteacher, and his family moved to Salisbury seven years later.

His parents owned 472 acres along the banks of High Rock Lake, an immaculate piece of property passed down from the King of England. The family spent the summers there, wading in the water and tending cattle on the banks.

“We had two and a half miles on the water,” Hart says. “If you followed the paved roads out of town it would lead to a dirt road. We had land on both sides of the road. There were rolling pastures and deep woods that had never been timbered. We ran cattle on the property. It was a pretty special place.”

With the exception of one grandfather from Stone Mountain, Ga., the Harts have been in North Carolina since the state was founded. Grandfather Hart, a thoracic surgeon, even joined the founding faculty at Duke University Medical School.

His father, an aunt, an uncle and a half dozen of John Hart’s cousins followed their grandfather into medicine. Hart himself started down that path when he enrolled at Davidson College.

“I always assumed I was supposed to be a doctor,” he says. “After two years of premed I knew one thing and one thing only, and that’s that I was not supposed to be a doctor. So I took a year off and went to France and studied the French language and tried to figure out what I was supposed to do and came to no conclusions. But when I came back I spoke French really well, so I shifted my major to French literature in a vain attempt to graduate on time.”

Two and a half years later he did and began working out the mystery of adulthood. He ventured to London on an exchange program and pulled pints in a pub. That adventure lasted six months, until his work visa expired.

Then he set sail for three months with his parents. Upon his return, he took a gig at Wachovia Bank in Salisbury. Like medicine, banking didn’t take.

“It was not a linear thing,” Hart apologizes.

If anyone knows the importance of a little misdirection and suspense in a mystery tale, it’s Hart. And there were clues – there always are – from the very beginning that suggested the inevitable.

“I outlined my first novel when I was twenty,” Hart says. “I was working down at the beach, and it never got off the cocktail napkin. You know, literally, I was going out to the bar, trying to be a writer. And then I figured out what a lot of aspiring writers figure out, that it’s actually really hard to write three hundred pages.”

He had few illusions about the publishing industry. That and the lack of a finished manuscript inspired him to undertake a master’s program in accounting at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Being a somewhat responsible fellow, I did what I had to do,” he says, “and that’s provide for the future. That means graduate school and jobs and all that stuff.”

There are few carcasses in Hart’s real life, unless you count all his discarded careers. But there is at least one that still informs his writing.

Hart’s parents split up when he was 10 years old and both eventually remarried, adding three stepbrothers, three stepsisters and one half sister to the family, which had until then consisted of Hart and his two sisters.

“When my parents divorced,” he says, “the farm was sort of an auxiliary victim. You know, we sold it off and it’s now a trailer park and a junkyard. It was just destroyed. And in fact it had been a single, intact piece of property since a grant from the king. In fact, Cornwallis camped on it during the Revolutionary War. To see it taken from this really pristine property to what it is now had a really big effect on me.”

His second novel, Down River, is an homage to the old farm. The fictional version is a bit bigger – 14,000 acres – and rests on the banks of the Yadkin.

Hart even used the name of the real caretaker from his family’s farm: Dolf Shepherd. Shepherd died in 1989, so Hart sought out in his children to ask permission to use his name in the book.

Everything that shaped me happened near that river. I lost my mother in sight of it, fell in love on its banks. I could smell it on the day my father drove me out. It was part of my soul, and I thought I’d lost it forever.

That’s Adam Chase, the protagonist of Down River. He’s returned to a family that looks something like Hart’s, after the shakeup, with a stepmother and two stepsiblings.

That’s where the resemblance ends. The Chase family is deeply troubled, near dissolution even. The Hart family moved on.

“What I can say without hesitation is that everyone recovered from the separation of the family perfectly,” Hart says. “The simple fact is that I think family dysfunction makes for great fiction.”

In a meeting with movie producers, he remembers the entire table leaning in. Someone had a question.

“So,” they asked. “Tell us about your father.”

Here’s why they were curious. In his first book, King of Lies, Hart created a father, Ezra Pickens, so villainous he practically invites his own murder. Chase’s father in Down River is more sympathetic by a mile, but he’s not perfect. Far from it, in fact.

Hart says his father is a huge fan. Still, he plans to take it a little easier on the old man in novel number three.

“I have no recollections of any great rendings in my life,” Hart says. “One day, things were just different. I do think that good fiction should be like therapy for a writer, you should go to places you normally wouldn’t. I’m not so self-aware as to say that my life has nothing to do with the books. I certainly won’t rule that possibility out.”

People can relate to families, Hart says, and that’s key to attracting readers. It’s his gift with characters that his editor, Pete Wolverton, associate publisher at Thomas Dunne Books, credits with his success.

“John has a remarkable touch in creating characters, creating dramatic situations with great ease and great pacing,” Wolverton says. “A lot of times you have to suspend your disbelief with mystery novels, it’s surprising how quickly you get caught up in his world.”

It wasn’t always that way. Hart has two unpublished novels secreted in a drawer somewhere, his first honest attempts at writing. The first is a science fiction novel.

“I cannot bear to tell you anymore about that,” Hart says.

He finished the second during a summer away from law school. It was inspired by a hypothesis: What would happen in eco-terrorists obtained thousands of the so-called smart mines developed for the US military? At the time, world leaders were urging the US to sign an agreement banning all landmines.

It was a “popcorn thriller,” Hart says. And it took place far from Salisbury.

Two unpublished novels. One thousand typewritten pages. By the time Hart graduated from Franklin Pierce Law School in 1999, he’d completed a solo apprenticeship in creative writing.

He began practicing in Salisbury within the year at the firm Kluttz, Reamer, Blankenship, Hayes and Randolph.

“I was a very unhappy criminal defense attorney,” Hart says.

As it turns out, the law wasn’t his cup of tea either.

“I mainly represented normal people who did bad things for stupid or selfish reasons,” he says. “I was only beginning to brush up against the truly bad guys when I quit to write the book.”

He dropped criminal work a few months before he quit for good when his firm assigned him the case of an admitted child molester.

“My first daughter was, I think, two weeks old at the time,” Hart says. “And so I spent a couple of hours in the jail with this guy and he was guilty. He told me he was guilty. And then I came out and said I’m not going to represent him, this is the line for me. And I went to the judge and I went to the firm and I told them I didn’t want the case, and they told me in no uncertain terms that if I was going to be a criminal defense attorney that these were the kinds of cases I had to take.”

Hart picked criminal because the work was exciting. A defense attorney spends his days in the courtroom, arguing cases for judges and juries. It was exhilarating, he says.

And exhilarating is something he knows. Hart has sailed across the Atlantic with his brother. Twice. The second time they turned off their Global Positioning System and steered by the stars.

He put off law school for a year to finish his second novel in Alaska. He was a student helicopter pilot by the time he returned a year later, and earned some money on the side as a collections specialist for the state employees’ credit union.

“I was calling people who were late on their truck payments and stuff,” he says. “It was a miserable job. I’ll never do anything like it again.”

All the adventures he’d had would pale in comparison to the leap of faith he was about to make. With his wife Katie’s blessing, with one daughter in diapers and another in the works, he quit practicing law and started writing his third novel.

He gave himself a year. He finished in eleven and a half months.

“The only reason I was comfortable doing that is because I knew – not suspected or hoped or thought – I knew that I was getting better with every page and that I could write a better book,” Hart says. “For me, a lot of it was switching an internal switch that said you are a writer, come good or ill, for the next year. Don’t whine about it, don’t make excuses, just put your butt in the chair and make the pages.”

Make the pages he did. He commandeered a carrel at the Salisbury Public Library and worked on the manuscript that would become King of Lies. He took what he already knew about the courts and prison and wrapped a story around it.

“I honestly didn’t really think it would get published when I first started writing,” Hart says. “I figured it’s easy, I know the place, why waste energy on making something up when I can use a real town? And I honestly thought that if I got a deal, I would go back and change it.”

The writing was hard, but getting it to print would be harder. In the interim, Hart took a job at Merrill Lynch, moved his family to Greensboro and started the search for an agent.

He started at the top – with a query letter to Heide Lange of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, who reps Dan Brown. Hart also queried Robert Ludlum’s agent and a bunch of others before he figured out what he was doing wrong.

“I made a mistake, I realized, by picking the biggest, most powerful agencies in New York,” Hart says, “and going for the guy at the top of the letterhead.”

He eventually worked his way down to the mid-level agencies where his book found its way to Mickey Choate of Lescher & Lescher.

“I just loved it,” Choate says. “I thought it was a great piece of writing. I thought King of Lies had great characters as well as being a really compelling mystery. It didn’t feel like a plot-driven genre novel.”

Choate began working the publishers, circulating the manuscript and making plans to strike out on his own after 13 years at Lescher & Lescher.

“John was one of the reasons I left,” Choate says. “I thought I had something in John.”

Choate passed the book along to Wolverton at John Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. The associate publisher had the manuscript sent to his in-laws in Alabama, where he was visiting with family.

“This is a story that has been told at many an engagement in Salisbury and Greensboro,” Wolverton says. “When I got the manuscript, I read it in one sitting. I missed the first two hours of a dinner party. I knew from the minute I read the very first sentence that this was something special.”

Readers agreed. Nearly three years after its completion, King of Lies was published and reached the New York Times bestseller list. It was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America, for best first novel. Editions in some 23 different languages have or will be published.

Hart secured a contract generous enough to allow him to quit his job at Merrill Lynch and move from a library carrel to a downtown office.

Hart wrote Down River in about nine months, if you subtract the weeks he spent promoting King of Lies. The setting is the same – Salisbury – as is the implication of familial intrigue.

Already, his publishers have negotiated contracts to have Down River published in 12 foreign languages.

Even though he’s a writer now, Hart still keeps regular hours. He arrives at his office at 8:30 a.m. on weekdays and settles in behind a long desk.

“I spend three or four hours pushing the story forward, just driving the bus,” he says. “And then in the afternoon, after lunch, I usually spend my time working those pages, making them all shiny. It seems like two different muscles almost – the purely creative muscle and the analytical ones that sort of sit on your shoulder and tell you you’re making an ass of yourself.”

Hart doesn’t have internet in his office – it’s too distracting. So on the morning of Jan. 18, the day the Mystery Writers of America announced the 2008 Edgar nominees, he checked the site from home before leaving for the office. None of the nominees had been posted, so he slipped out of the house and into his work.

Several hours later, he received a phone call.

“My editor called and he said, without any introduction, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news,'” Hart says. “‘You’re coming back to the Edgars but you ain’t gonna win.'”

Hart’s book is going up against The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the latest by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, and Christine Falls by Benjamin Black, also known as John Banville of Man Booker prize fame.

“I grew up with a small-town Southerners distrust of New York,” Hart says. “I was scared of it; I didn’t know what to make of it. But since I’ve been going up there for this, I’ve just fallen in love with it. I guess that’s not unusual to say.”

Hart keeps two unframed pictures on a shelf in his office. The first is of him and Stephen King and the second includes his wife and editor. Both are from last year’s Edgar ceremony.

If this story had another cast of characters, it would have turned out differently. When King of Lies was still in limbo at Thomas Dunne, his editor pressed the book on some of his superiors and planned for a modest print run.

“Six or seven months went by and I heard nothing,” Hart says. “There was no pub date set, there was no jacket art. I didn’t know what Pete [Wolverton] was doing until finally one day [another editor] read it and said, ‘Whatever we’re doing, we need to do this bigger.’ I think the original plan had been to do a very small printing, maybe six thousand copies, but he read it and passed it along to the president of the company, and she liked it. Things just sort of grew. But it could have been a very different story.”

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