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.
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