How I Came To Write THE HUNT CLUB:
I’m extremely fortunate in that my terrific publisher, Dutton Books, has been asking me to hand in a new book every May 1st for the past six years. The way it works is that I hand in my latest manuscript on that date, and then start thinking about what I’m going to write next, and the outline for that next book is due on September 1st. Some writers don’t like that kind of regimen, but fortunately for me, it seems to work.
Don’t I feel pressure coming up with a new story every year? Sure, a little bit. But honestly, I find that it’s kind of nice knowing that your publisher is waiting for – and even enthusiastically anticipating – my next creative work. And it’s not bad working from an outline, either, where I can develop plot points and twists in relative peace, before the crunch of deadline kicks in. That way, I can devote my actual writing time to scene construction, dialogue, and simple (!!) narrative flow. And once you’ve got yourself a sturdy plot, these things are what makes a book really sing.
So, in general, this is how The Hunt Club came about, too. But in another way, this book was very different, right from the beginning. It all began, as many of these ideas do, in the middle of my previous book. I’ve got a scene in The Motive, where my long-time main character Dismas Hardy more or less blackmails his client to get him to pay his legal bills. In the course of writing that scene, I had Hardy refer to a private investigating firm – and in my writing he just happed to call it The Hunt Club.
(This kind of thing happens all the time – where characters just go where they want and say things I’ve never consciously planned to have them say.)
Anyway, as soon as Hardy uttered those words, I knew I had to get inside The Hunt Club and find what made it tick. The answer to that question was: Wyatt Hunt.
Et voila! I had a new main character. Of course, I knew nothing about him at the time, other than his name and current occupation – but in time I came to discover his really very interesting background. Hunt was an orphan and foster child who joined the army and worked with the Criminal Investigation Division in Desert Storm. Returning to San Francisco, he then worked for a dozen years as an Emergency Services Worker with Child Protective Services – helping to remove children from abusive environments. All seemed to be going well until he fell victim to politics and bureaucracy (one of my recurring themes!) and was forced to resign.
And then, being a pro-active sort and getting an opportunity for payback on his cheating, lying ex-boss, he oversees this cretin’s come-uppance in what I believe is a particularly satisfying way. And this experience finally leads him to his new career as a private investigator.
The Hunt Club chronicles the first big case of Hunt’s career, and I’m betting it won’t be his last. There are familiar elements here for my longtime readers – San Francisco, food & wine, a criminal justice setting. But Wyatt Hunt isn’t a lawyer, he isn’t married, and he and his friends tend to be at least fifteen years younger than Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky, and these facts give this book a speed, immediacy, and fun factor that’s all its own. Plus, writing the ending, which takes place not in the courtroom but in a dramatic physical confrontation, was truly a gas.
A LITTLE MORE BACKSTORY STUFF:
As I mentioned briefly above, in the middle of writing my previous Hardy/Glitsky book, The Motive, in the course of my normal workday I was writing what I hoped would turn out to be a fun scene where Hardy essentially blackmails his client’s husband into paying him his attorneys’ fee. To do this, he implies that he’s discovered an adulterous secret about the husband, and he refers to an invoice from his investigating firm, The Hunt Club. As soon as those words hit my computer screen, I knew I had an opportunity to expand my horizons in the San Francisco legal world that I’ve been chronicling. And just as suddenly, I knew that the owner of The Hunt Club was a guy named Wyatt Hunt. I didn’t know him then, but I wanted to, and thought my readers would like him, too.
Was it a risk? Perhaps.
When you’ve been as fortunate as I have been with my “franchise” characters over thirteen previous books, you know that your readers have developed sometimes very strong bonds with your characters. You know that they’re waiting for the next installment to catch up on what’s happening with their “old friends.” And I knew that by writing about an entirely new character, I wouldn’t be delivering on this kind of implied promise that I’d always previously kept with my loyal and long-term readers. That fact alone might make some of them mad. Worse, maybe people wouldn’t like Wyatt Hunt and Devin Juhle. Finally, the book has an entirely different structure (including a lengthy first-person section, which I’d never used before in the Hardy/Glitsky series) and contains no courtroom scenes. So I was in essence jettisoning my main characters, my narrative structure, and my genre all in one new book. The more I think about it, in fact, the more I realized that this was, in fact, quite a bit more than “perhaps” risky. But as they say, no guts, no glory. I think it has definitely been worth the risk, and I’m glad I took it.
WYATT HUNT’S CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
I must admit, getting close to Wyatt was a bit of a challenge. I knew that he had to be a trained investigator, comfortable with weapons, good with his hands, and I didn’t want him to be the “usual” ex-cop (even Hardy had been an ex-cop); so he had to have served in the Army, better in a war zone such as Desert Storm, better still with the Criminal Investigation Division. I also knew that I wanted him to be charismatic, athletic, musical, intelligent – i.e. an active character. It was also a bit important, having written about those two quintessentially married men, Hardy and Glitsky, for thirteen books, that Wyatt not be married. I wanted a little of that romantic and sexual buzz in this book.
The one thing I wanted to avoid was the clichéd hard-boiled private eye. As with my other characters, I wanted to give Wyatt a “real-life” background that hadn’t been done to death in other people’s fiction. I’ve got a great, long-standing friend named Andy Jalakas, who had spent about thirty years in Child Protective Services in New York. Some of his stories – removing children from abusive parents – were incredibly exciting, and moving. I started to think that this was the kind of work toward which a guy like Wyatt Hunt might gravitate. After I read a book that Andy had recommended, “Turning Stones: My Days and Nights with Children at Risk” by Marc Parent, I was sure that this was the life from which Wyatt had come.
But that left the question of how he got from Child Protective Services to where he is now – owner of a private investigation firm in San Francisco. Trying to answer this question led – and again, it’s based on some of Andy’s “real” stories – to the kind of bureaucratic/political shenanigans that I love writing about, and that make up the final chapters in the first section of The Hunt Club. Bad bosses, political cronyism, lies and power.
Finally, I also wanted Wyatt to have a certain sense of loss deep in his soul – and for a long time I couldn’t quite discover what that had been. But I knew it had to be the thing that had driven him to work with abandoned or abused kids, and that left him seeking love and companionship – and one day it came to me that, of course, he’d been orphaned himself, shunted around in the foster care system as a child until finally getting adopted by a loving and caring family.
We’re being honest here, so I can say that The Hunt Club was the most difficult book I’ve ever written. For the longest time, even after I more or less knew who Hunt was, I couldn’t get my arms around a story that seemed to take advantage of the disparate elements of his character. I actually started the book, and passed the 150 page mark, three times between September and December.
I had several problems, some of them technical. In the first place, I had a huge backstory about Hunt to convey, and I hate exposition and expository dialogue. I need things to happen in the here and now. I think that’s what narrative drive is all about. So how do I tell Wyatt’s backstory, which really has nothing to do with the actual plot of The Hunt Club, without it feeling tacked on, expository, or boring. Secondly, I’ve always written with a third person omniscient narrator – but now I was “free” to do anything I wanted. This wasn’t, after all, a Hardy/Glitsky book. So I experimented in all of my false starts with different tones, voices, past or present tense, points of view. (I even considered telling the whole story in the first-person point of view of Wyatt’s female secretary!)
Also, I had just a ton of very cool research about the California Correctional Police Officers Association (the CCPOA), better known as the Prison Guards Union, and I wanted to somehow include that in the story, as soon as I knew what the story was.
At last, it got to be the end of January. The book was due at Dutton, my publishers, on the following May 1 – 90 days away! Was I worried? Panicked? Even slightly concerned?
So then I did what I always do. I stop thinking and recite the old mantra that Thurber’s editor at the New Yorker had said to him: Don’t get it right, get it written. I literally didn’t have time for all the soul-searching and nail-biting. I knew I had all the material. I had to just try to have fun with it and tell a story that was intriguing and amusing, scene by scene. So I started fresh again – for the fourth time – and found that a first-person narrative in Wyatt’s voice brought him to life on page one, and also kept him active, front and center until the day he decides to become a private eye. At which point, I switched narrative styles, reverted to my comfortable narrative third-person voice, tried to channel through the Sun God Ra, and wrote like a madman, finishing the book with two days to spare. Whew!
But if The Hunt Club reads fast and fun, that’s because that’s how it was written.
John Lescroart is the bestselling author of dozens of novels and a terrific musician. Visit his webiste to read and listen. He will be a spotlight author at both VA Festival of the Book in March and ThrillerFest in Phoenix in June.