My husband (an attorney) always cringes whenever we watch a courtroom drama on television. Why? Because, procedurally, they get everything wrong. I cringe as well whenever I read a poorly researched novel wherein the author would be out of his/her depth in a puddle. In my recent interview with accomplished author James L’Etoile, I found myself wondering how often he shakes his head in disbelief at crime-themed plots which have absolutely no basis in reality. His latest release, Black Label, serves up the premise of a pharmaceutical executive waking up in a strange apartment and finding herself suspected of the murder of her company’s CEO. Believing she’s insane, or a murderer, Jillian Cooper finds herself on the run from not only the police but also gang enforcers.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: “Write what you know” is a motto you’ve certainly taken to heart with your crime stories, procedural mysteries and twisty psychological thrillers. Tell us a bit about how your background as an associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system led you to the decision to add “novelist” to your list of career credits.
A: I can’t help but let some of that experience out onto the page. After I retired from 29 years in the correctional system, writing became a therapeutic tool where I could vent some of the frustrations, violence, and tension I absorbed over the years. They may have been characters who met a brutal, justified end in a novel draft or two. (They remain forever entombed in my desk drawer—may God have mercy on their souls).
My stories draw upon situations and characters I encountered during my career. At What Cost was pulled from a series of events starting with the shooting of an Aryan Brotherhood gang member while he was trying to stab another inmate. After the gang member died, the local hospital called and wanted to donate his organs. It got me thinking, even though this man was a filthy, racist, gang member, would I really care where the organs came from if my child needed one to survive?
Even though Black Label isn’t a police procedural, Jillian encounters prison gang elements working in the community. There have been instances where criminal organizations have secured state contracts in California and run their criminal enterprises through these business fronts. Fiction borrows from real life once more.
Q: Where do the facts of the criminal justice system leave off and the flexibility of fiction begins…or are these two seamlessly joined at the hip for you?
A: If you’re writing a thriller, or procedural where interaction with the criminal justice system is part of the plot, you’d better have the inner workings of the police agency, jail, or court system portrayed in an accurate fashion. I’d also caution to make sure you research the laws, policy, and procedures of the state, or city in which the story is set. Nothing pulls readers out of a story faster than inaccurate description of the system. Lay that foundation first, then layer your story within the framework.
Q: Have almost three decades of seeing the worst side of humanity colored your impressions and intentions regarding positive outcomes for your fictional characters?
A: You can’t experience the violent side of man without it seeping into your soul. The challenge is not allowing the actions of a few to color your expectations of humanity. We become adept at compartmentalizing our lives, letting the violence stay locked behind the walls—but some of that will inevitably creep in and influence your interaction with friends, or family. Trust issues are common. When writing fiction, it helps to instill these emotion, fears, and traits into the characters. Everyone’s human with all the strengths and weaknesses that come along with it.
Q: What comes first in your writing process—the plot or the personalities who will people it?
A: Character first. Readers gravitate to complex, well-developed characters. I’ve stuck with reading a book with a lousy plot because I really got into the characters and wanted to know what happened to them.
Q: Plotter or pantser?
A: I’m a gardener. I have the characters and the basic plot in mind, then I plant them and start writing. I trim, cut, and tend to the story as it sprouts so that it loosely follows the plot I had in mind. I find I write myself into fewer corners if I keep to the basic structure, but I allow myself the freedom to explore new subplots as I write. If I’m not excited and surprised about what I’m writing, how can I expect a reader to keep interested?
Q: You’re also a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. What do you wish the average citizen knew about today’s criminal justice system and what really goes on for those who work behind prison walls?
A: The inner workings of a prison are unknown to the public. It’s not like Orange is the New Black, or The Green Mile. It’s a place where bad people go, and they disappear from society—literally out of sight and out of mind. Prison is a place where time stops. Men doing decades behind prison walls lose contact with the outside as the world goes on without them. They are frozen in place at the time when they were pulled from society. In a maximum-security prison like the places I worked, there is a very real convict subculture, one based on power, dominance, and violence. One of my assignments was in a Security Housing Unit, the SHU. The SHU is a prison within a prison and every man in that unit earned their cell in SHU. Most were there because they murdered another inmate in the general population. For inmates like them, there is no rehabilitation, only a life of predator and prey. But most inmates housed in prison cells across the country don’t fall into that category. They may be sex offenders, gang hit men, or violent criminals of another stripe. The fact is that a large majority of these men and women are coming back home. For the most part, correctional systems do little to prepare them for return to the community. As a result, these inmates are doing life on the installment plan.
A common misconception readers (and editors) have is prisons (in California) decide when to release inmates. Most states have a form of sentencing which requires release after a specified amount of time. They go back into the community regardless of their behavior in prison, no matter if they are prepared for the challenges of housing, employment, and lack of support systems ahead of them. Another common belief is that all prisons are like the SHU, or Shawshank. Fortunately, they make up less than 20 percent of the population. The vast majority of inmates are housed in medium and minimum-security settings, in dorms, support facilities, and camps. I once wrote a novel that had an inmate escaping from a minimum facility and walking away. The editor rejected the premise that someone could simply walk away—after all they’re in prison.
I’ve been lucky to connect with writers who want to get the look and feel of prison right in the written work. I held a week-long Q&A session with the Romance Writers of America’s Kiss of Death Chapter, and they had dozens of great questions about the inner workings of the prison and the people who enter those gates.
Q: An outspoken member of Congress recently touted the idea that abolishing prisons would reduce crime. What’s your take on that?
A: That’s really flawed logic, in my opinion. It’s like saying let’s abolish dentists and we’ll eliminate tooth decay. Prisons don’t cause crime. They are the end point of a system, with all its flaws, which reacts to crime. The root causes of crime are worth exploring and investment in communities might provide some relief and offer opportunity to those who feel they have no other choice.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your writing career?
A: I’ve been fortunate in my second career as a writer. I think my biggest challenge is myself. I always experience that dread halfway through a manuscript where the self-doubt creeps in. Can I finish this one? Where is this going? Will anyone read it? Without fail, the clouds of doubt part and the book gets finished. I know authors always fear the creative well drying up.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your work in progress or do you make everyone wait until you have typed The End?
A: Nope. Never. I’m protective of the work in progress until it’s finished. When I’m done with a first draft, I’ll go through it at least once more before I turn it out to beta readers.
Q: Black Label is your latest release with a new publisher. This book is also a departure from your detective novels, At What Cost and Bury Your Past. What prompted you to write about an amateur sleuth?
A: 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. I wanted to do something different and explore the psychological thriller genre. I wanted to take a pause because I needed to see where the police procedural genre was heading. The last few years have seen a social justice movement, defund police initiatives, and an often-polarized view of police in the community. I will continue to write procedurals, but I believe some of these social narratives will thread into the new stories.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Black Label?
A: The inspiration for Black Label came from a session at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference a few years back where 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.
Q: Your latest release features a strong female protagonist. What should readers know about Jillian Cooper and what makes her tick?
A: 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 she was good enough. I think Jillian would tell readers 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: What’s a fun, behind-the-scenes fact about Black Label?
A: The character of the police inspector in Black Label was named for a generous patron of the Sacramento Library Foundation who won an auction to have a character named after him.
Q: Some of your short stories are available in anthologies. Tell us about how the experience of penning shorter works contrasts to writing full-length novels.
A: I’ve been fortunate to have some of my short stories selected for a few cool anthologies. I was lucky to be a finalist for the Bill Crider Award for Short Fiction at the 2019 Bouchercon in Dallas. The short form has taught me to tighten up my prose and often what’s left out of the story is as important as what on the page. I find it harder to write a short 5,000-word piece than a 100,000-word novel. You must distill the story down into a compact space. There’s no time for lollygagging about building background—light the fuse and get to it! I’ve also found that playing with short stories lets you experiment with different POV’s and storylines. A recent short helped me line up a novel I’ve been trying to write. Getting the characters on the page and seeing that interaction gave me a few ideas where to take the novel.
A couple of the most recent published shorts are “Billy’s Plan” in the Eviction of Hope, and “Birthright” in Shattering Glass which earned an Anthony Award for Best Anthology last year.
Q: Where are your anthologies available?
A: Shattering Glass, Eviction of Hope, Betrayed, Strangers in a Strange Land, and Drowned Lands anthologies are all available on Amazon.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I grew up in prison. Really. As a child I lived on prison grounds. My father was a Correctional Lieutenant and in a few of the prisons, I was able to wander through the prison dorms where I’d get my hair cut by the prison barber, learned to play guitar from a convict on the back dock of the kitchen, and played pool in the rec hall.
Q: So what’s next on your plate?
A: In July 2022, the first in a new series will debut. The first installment will be titled, Dead Drop and it’s 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 and must rely on very people he chased back across the border for his own survival.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thank you for letting me come and spend a little time with you.