Author James L’Etoile spent a big chunk of his adult life in prison. Thankfully, he did so on the correct side of the bars as a probation officer, corrections counselor, hostage negotiator and associate warden. Now retired, L’Etoile uses that wealth of experience as a basis for his excellent John Penley mystery series, once of the best out there. The newest in the series, Bury the Past, came out just a few months ago, and he is already working on the next big thing. We sat down with him recently to talk about his work as a writer, life in the gritty California prison system and how sometimes truth is even weirder than fiction.
Open Mic: Did you always want to write? Or was this something you came to later?
L’Etoile: I don’t think I started out when I was working thinking I was going to become a crime writer at some point. It’s kind of hard to pin it down but maybe last 10 years when I was working I had so many stories and snippets and ideas and images run across my mind, and when you talk to people outside of work and they’re really interested in that sort of stuff, you think there might be something here. But I’ve always been a big reader of crime fiction. I was reading a James Patterson book at one point, maybe one of the Alex Cross books, and I thought ‘maybe I should try this, because one of the characters kind of sounded like a guy I had run across in prison.’ So that was the little spark of the thought.
Open Mic: And how long did it take you from there to getting your butt in the chair and typing words?
L’Etoile: I didn’t really have any time to do any writing at all until after I retired. After I retired I had the freedom and the time and, unlike some of the struggling writers out there, I had a retirement pension. I didn’t have to support myself by my meager writing. So it was good that it worked out.
Open Mic: It sounds like your profession was a very fertile ground for characters and stories.
L’Etoile: Oh, yes.
Open Mic: The great writer David Simon based many of his characters from “The Wire” on people he had gotten to know over the years as a crime reporter in Baltimore. There’s a really famous scene in the miniseries where stickup man Omar Little is being chased by some guys looking to kill him and he escapes by jumping out of the fourth story of a parking garage. Simon says people always ask if that really happened. He says it did, but admitted it didn’t quite happen that way. The person he based Omar on really did jump out of the parking garage, but it was from the 6th floor. Simon says he changed it because no one would have believed he survived from that height even though it is actually what happened. I imagine you feel like you also have an endless supply of stories like that.
L’Etoile: It does to some extent, but it gets down to how much the readers will believe. I had a story that involved an inmate escaping from prison, going out and doing bad things and then sneaking back in. This was in a minimum support facility, kind of like a camp situation with no armed guards, no towers and no fences, pretty much a minimum security camp setting where there are low-risk inmates that come in and go out. It went to a reader of a well-known Bay Area author, and she gave me the comments back and the readers said it was unbelievable. It couldn’t happen, these guys are in prison for god’s sake. And I’m thinking, ‘Wait, this is actually real.’ So that made me think there’s a kind of CSI effect where people have a preconceived notion of what criminal justice is and what forensic science is and what prisons are. And so we kind of have to filter real life stuff through that lens to make it palatable for the reader to believe it.
Open Mic: Every genre has certain constraints or expectations from its readers. When you were first teaching yourself to write in these formats, how cognizant were you of those restraints, and how did that work with the story that you had in your head?
L’Etoile: I think after ten years, I’m just now getting there. When I first started out I really didn’t have a clear definition of what fit within the genre, and there’s some really clear lines in each sub-genre of crime fiction. You have the real hardcore noir guys that write dark fiction, where you start in a gutter and go down from there. Then there’s the legal thriller or police procedural, which is kind of where I’m at. And then there is the outright thriller category. Mine bleed a little bit between procedural and thriller; it’s what I like to read so that’s kind of what’s keeping me there. But I had to read a lot, and I read differently now than I did when I read for enjoyment. When I read now I’m dissecting it. ‘What does the structure look like here? Where is the story arc going? What makes the story work? Where are the connections and how do the sub plots land.’ So it’s a different way of reading.
Open Mic: Did you take writing courses?
L’Etoile: Not courses, but I attended several mystery writer conventions and workshops and the craft classes they would offer. I would learn something every time.
Open Mic: The camaraderie and the agent contact you get at most conferences is great, but for me the best thing is that there is so much opportunity to learn something about the craft.
L’Etoile: Right. And the authors that do that kind of work are some of the most open and approachable and accessible folks. And you would think they would hold the secret back, but they’re willing to share with anybody who wants to listen. And when you get to work with other authors in your literary agency or publisher, we really band together and support one another. I’ve got a couple of guys writing really good stuff with other publishers but they’re with my same agency or agent, and we’ll go out and attend each other’s events. It’s kind of nice to see that kind of support.
Open Mic: Who do you like to like to read?
L’Etoile: Now I read broadly. I still prefer crime fiction stuff, but I’ll branch out to YA science fiction, historical romance, all kinds of stuff. A good story is a good story. Right now I’m reading Allison Brennan’s new book, Breaking Point. She writes the Lucy Kincaid FBI series, and she’s local to Sacramento. That’s a good one. I just finished Gregg Hurwitz’s third in the Orphan X series, so that’s another really good thriller series I like.
Open Mic: You were talking earlier about how you read differently now. Do you only do that when you’re reading your genre or do you find yourself doing it all the time?
L’Etoile: I do it less when I’m reading something completely different, but every once in a while something will just pop up in a story that was an unexpected twist that is really effective. Then I go back to see how they did it, how they set the minefield for that event. But yeah, I think less so in stuff that’s not specifically crime fiction.
Open Mic: Many writers keep a stockpile of ideas that could flower into something, either a full length piece or maybe a short story. How do you manage your cache of ideas and decide which ones are going to get the most of your attention?
L’Etoile: I do have a folder of different ideas. I scratch them out as I think of them and then when I have the time in between projects I’ll pop it open and see which one is going to float to the surface. I’ll put a one-page treatment together to see what it looks like and if I’m going to enjoy working on this for the next couple of months. Then I’ll float it past my agent and say these are the three that came to the surface, which one do you think would get the most bang for your buck. She’s been helpful to kind of sort that stuff out with me.
Open Mic: That in itself feels unusual. I’m sure we probably both know several writers that may not have the same agent for any of their books. It’s becoming really normal in this day and age for an agent to represent only a particular book.
L’Etoile: Technically and contractually we’re only working on the two books that went to Crooked Lane, but I think we both know we want to go further and do other things and so it’s like she’s managing my career if you will. And I need that because that’s not my expertise, the whole business side of the publishing world.
Open Mic: You got acquainted with her at a writers conference right?
L’Etoile: I did.
Open Mic: And how did you manage your approach?
L’Etoile: Her name is Liz Kracht, and I heard she was on a panel discussion with four or five other agents about the agent/author relationship. There was something about her approach and the way she works with authors that appealed to me. It was a mutual support kind of thing and not dictating to the author what you’re going to do and I know best and just do what I tell you to do now. She came across as someone who knew the business and was confident in her network of publishers. So I figured she was the one for me. I hadn’t signed up for an agent pitch, but I saw her walking around the bookstore. Stalking is a very underrated skill, and we just happened to end up at the same book table looking at books, I don’t even know what books were on the table but she basically said” hey, what are you working on?” And I had my elevator pitch handy and gave it to her and she said it sounded interesting and to send it her way when I was done. So a few months later I did and here we are.
Open Mic: Had you approached any other agents before then?
L’Etoile: I had sent some queries out, but not anything that I would really call serious. I had never really perused or thought ‘I’ve got to get an agent, I’ve got to get this agent.’ It wasn’t really until I heard Liz talk and saw her approach and what she was like that I really made that effort. She does a lot of collaborative work with me as the draft goes forward. I’ll do my work and send it to her and then we’ll do almost like a line edit. This character needs to do this and let’s move this here, let’s delay this reveal, that kind of thing. And then we’ll kind of disagree on points. I’ll say ‘this character shouldn’t do this’ and she’ll say “yes it should” and we’ll agree and disagree and I’ll leave it my way, and then every single time the publisher has said “why don’t we change this” and it will be to exactly what Liz said. That’s happened probably three or four times. So that just reinforces that she knows what she’s doing, she knows the business and I just have to listen.
Open Mic: Tell me about your writing process? Has it stayed the same over time?
L’Etoile: I’ve changed my process over time. Part of that is because for my last book I had deadlines. My publisher had benchmarks I had to hit. I had previously been doing stuff pretty much by the seat of my pants. I just sort of wandered, which was a lot of fun and very creative and rewarding as things unfold. It surprises you as you go along, and I like that. But it takes a long time to get there, and you do inevitably write yourself into a corner and you have to go back and recreate. So I’ve become more of an outliner. At the beginning of a project I’ll basically look at the story structure. I think of Alexandra Sokoloff. She’s got the story structure matrix that she uses and that’s been really very helpful in breaking it into eight quadrants, two middle acts and a first and an ending. I do a chapter outline and a logline of each chapter’s high points so when I finally sit down and write it goes a lot quicker and a lot smoother.
Open Mic: Fewer surprises?
L’Etoile: Fewer surprises but I’m still uncovering new things as I’m writing that I didn’t think of in the outline, and that’s still kind of rewarding. And you find that way there are fewer plot bunnies hopping around and taking you down their rabbit hole than you find when just sitting down and doing it by the seat of your pants. I know where the beginning is, I know where the end is and I know the route getting there. I can still take a side road here and there but it’s much more straightforward. At first I thought it might take the fun out of it, but it hasn’t.
Open Mic: I imagine it’s more fun than not selling it.
L’Etoile: Probably. (Laughs)
Open Mic: Tell me about your writing space. Do you need to have a certain environment to write in?
L’Etoile: I have a loft that is set up as my office and I do almost all of my writing there. I think my most frequented location other than my office is out to my patio and around the fire pit and I just camp out there and write. I start out writing after my coffee in the morning. I’m in my office for four or five hours. I’m not a word counter or a page counter, so I don’t have a number of words that I have set up for the week that I have to hit. I’ll try to finish a scene and that might be five pages, it might be two pages. It varies on the flow of what I’m trying to do in that particular story. I don’t have to have quiet, so I’ll have the news going in the background, or I’ll throw some music on. I know a lot of writers have to have it quiet or a lot of folks say they can’t have music or lyrics on, that doesn’t seem to bother me. I know when I’m writing a really heavy action scene, I might put something on that’s a little heavier, but overall I just kind of camp up there and do my thing
Open Mic: Stepping back to the plot points. We talked earlier about plot points a reader might not buy even if they are based in truth. But there is also the need to stretch a reader and make them tense. The part where you know you want to get them concerned about what’s going to happen next, but to not cross that fine line of going a little too far. How do you manage that?
L’Etoile: I think you need to be cognizant of that ticking clock. Whatever you’re writing has got to be moving that story forward. Anything that’s going to bog it down or sidetrack it you’re probably going to end up losing. I think in “Bury the Past” I ended up cutting 15,000 words out because it just didn’t work. It interrupted the flow and it didn’t keep the tension up there. It was maybe good stuff to know – a lot of procedural stuff about law enforcement and corrections and prison operation – but you didn’t need to know that to move the story forward. Think of it like a tree. If you can’t see through the leaves, you have to shake some leaves out to get to the tree.
Open Mic: You were a corrections officer, but your characters are detectives so do you rely on detectives from your sphere to fact check your work?
L’Etoile: When I was with parole I worked a lot with the Sacramento police department. I’ve had Sac PD folks tell me I got something right and they’re happy with it, so that was good. But did I go out of my way to fact check it with the Sac PD? No I didn’t. I know enough about investigation and criminal procedure to do that. I’ve been in it all my life. My brother was an LAPD detective, my father was a career corrections guy and I was a career corrections guy. All totaled between us, we’ve were at it for a hundred years. So that part we have down pretty well.
Open Mic: My brother was also a cop, so I know firsthand that folks on the job often have a real gallows humor. I think there is a real challenge to bringing that forth in a character because the average reader maybe doesn’t understand how necessary that kind of morbid view of the world is for people to get through a day when they see so much bad stuff happening around them. Did that present you any problems when you’re writing these characters?
L’Etoile: I do throw some gallows humor in, more so in the second book than the first in the series. And yes, it’s a survival mechanism. You kind of compartmentalize your life a lot. I would come home from the prison and I wouldn’t say anything to my wife about what’s going on, and she would turn on the news and there would be riots and stabbings, officers dying, and she’d just look at me like “you didn’t say anything about that.” It’s a survival mechanism to be able to turn off that part of your life because if you let it, it will just devour you. It’s like Fight Club. You just don’t talk about it. That’s my internal struggle now, because it’s so the opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing now as an author, which is talking about my experiences in prison and corrections and criminal justice. The least comfortable thing for me in this whole process is getting that out there because it’s against everything I had practiced for thirty years, just talking about what goes on behind the walls.
Open Mic: Have you ever considered doing anything in the non-fiction realm?
L’Etoile: My agent and I are kind of kicking around a non-fiction piece that has to do with serial killers in the Sacramento region. We’re looking at a couple of different ways to approach that.
Open Mic: The serial killer thing is both fascinating and repulsive to me: fascinating as a reporter, but there’s fear of getting too deep into it.
L’Etoile: Where I’m still working my way through the weeds is how I want to approach the story. A lot of the true crime stuff out there centers on the victim and it almost becomes a splatter of porn kind of thing, and that’s not what I want to get into. I want to be respectful to the victim. I want to understand their whole process and the impact this had on them and their family, but I don’t want to make it a gratuitous sex and violence kind of thing. So I’m just trying to think of the right angle to approach the story about Sacramento serial killers without being too focused on that aspect.
Open Mic: It certainly seems that the guys who hurt women and/or children have an underlying rage they can’t control. Is that ever a plotline you would write about?
L’Etoile: You find generational cycles of abuse. If you’re dealing with an inmate now who’s having anger outbursts, nine times out of ten he suffered some sort of abuse in his childhood and it just kind of drove him to that place. I did a short story called When the Music Stops for an anthology titled “Betrayed.” All of the stores were domestic violence-themed. My story was basically a wife who grew up in a home with domestic violence against her mother and here she is in the same kind of generational cycle.
Open mic: What kind of advice would you have for someone who is looking to get into writing crime fiction?
L’Etoile: I think to not be afraid to find out what it is you don’t know, because there is so much of the writing business that you don’t find out til you stumble over it and you trip and you fall and you have to dust yourself off. The bottom line is just to keep at it, keep writing. The first thing you write you’re going to think is the best thing out there and you’re going to send queries out far and wide. I did that and I want to follow up now with postcards of apology to everybody who saw the damn thing. I think everything you do – every project, book and story – gets better and better and better. They say you have to write like a million words before you’re really ready to have something out there and I don’t know what the number is but it’s probably pretty close.
Open Mic: Where do you see the state of the industry now and maybe where it might all be going in the next five to ten years?
L’Etoile: I think the stigma that was attached to self-publishing is fading. There’s a lot of really good self-published stuff out there. Granted, there has been a lot of real poor-quality stuff that has been self-published, but you get authors like Hugh Howey, who does science fiction and dystopian stuff. He started out with a self-published approach and it’s blossomed into being picked up by the big guys. I think the industry is increasingly afraid of independent publishers and writers maybe going that route, and if they’re not careful they might lose a big chunk of control of where the industry goes in the future. The big hurdle for self-publishers is distribution because you’re probably not going to get into the same kind of distribution circles as Barnes and Noble, but everybody has access to Amazon, Nook and all the other e-book platforms out there all over the world.
Open Mic: The challenge for so many self-publishing authors is the marketing part because it’s not their sweet spot.
L’Etoile: No, and you do now see a lot of authors hiring someone who specializes in that. They’ll hire someone who does marketing and someone else for arranging appearances and that kind of stuff. It kind of makes sense to me to have people working for you who have that skill set.