A Davidson alum’s latest novel, set in Charlotte, finds well-drawn, sometimes well-meaning, characters in deep trouble.
by Page Leggett
John Hart, the New York Times bestselling author of fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat thrillers, probably hated 2020’s glacial pacing. Hart’s latest novel, The Unwilling, was supposed to come out almost a year ago, with a reading and book signing scheduled at Queens University of Charlotte. The pandemic derailed those plans. The thriller will, at last, be available Feb. 2, and the author, a Salisbury native and Davidson College grad, can finally go on a publicity tour — albeit a virtual one.
Hart’s novel is set in a 1972 version of Charlotte. “I made the city bigger, dirtier, scarier,” he says. “I created a nonexistent prison. North Carolina never used the electric chair, but I wanted one.”
Told from several points of view, The Unwilling begins with Jason French’s return from three years in prison following a dishonorable discharge from the Marines during the Vietnam conflict. Jason’s a heroin addict prone to violence, and his folks aren’t thrilled about his homecoming.
His younger brother, Gibby, 18 and possibly headed to Vietnam himself, wants to reestablish a relationship with Jason. They begin that journey at the lake on a carefree day that takes a scary turn when their group encounters a prison transfer bus on a stretch of empty road. Jason’s girlfriend taunts the prisoners, which leads to a riot on the bus. The girlfriend, who drunkenly stumbles her way into trouble, later turns up murdered. Jason is accused, but he isn’t the novel’s villain. That role belongs to a mysterious man known only as X.
That intricate, fictional plot began with two seeds from real life.
“First was the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and a brave soldier who stood down a murderous soldier intent on destroying a village,” Hart says. “He faced vilification. It was 30 years before he was recognized as a hero.”
The second seed came from a moment that happened 30 years ago. Hart and his then-girlfriend were headed to Wrightsville Beach and ended up on a deserted road with a prison transfer bus. What if the girl in the convertible, he wondered years later, lifted her shirt?
“Then, I wrapped those [ideas] up in a family story that takes place in a community split by war.”
From lawyer to crime writer
Hart came to the writing life the same way fellow bestselling authors Scott Turow and John Grisham did — by first being a lawyer.
“I was a pretty unhappy law student and then a pretty unhappy lawyer,” he says. He had two unpublished books, a wife and a young child and realized he needed time and space to focus on writing.
“With my wife’s blessing, I quit my law practice,” he says. “I wanted to try to write a book I would enjoy and that Katie, my wife, would respect. She loves character-driven books. I like propulsion and a breakneck pace.”
His first two books were, he says, “unpublishable – all plot and no character.” On his third try, he did it differently: He wrote in the third person. “I decided I’d build a plot to illuminate my characters,” Hart says. “That’s what Pat [Conroy] did so well.” Hart took up a carrel at the Salisbury library with a view of the courthouse and wrote the 2006 novel The King of Lies over the course of a year.
Publishing success allowed him to leave lawyering for good. He left Salisbury, too. He’s now friends with Grisham, his neighbor in Virginia’s Hunt Country, and the two compare notes on the writing life. “I prefer character first, plot second,” Hart says. “John likes plot first, character second. We trash talk each other over that.”
Hart maintains military-style discipline about his writing routine. When he’s working on a novel, he gets up before daylight and writes for two to four hours, with a goal of 1,000 words a day. Some days he’s up at 5 a.m. and finished by 7 a.m. After lunch, he edits those pages. A good day might include writing five pages in the morning and getting them to two-and-a-half good (or better) pages in the afternoon.
“I don’t outline,” he says. “I’m part of the ‘School of Grope and Hope.’ I make the story up as I go. Readers will come up to me and say, ‘I knew who did it on page 50.’ And I say, ‘Really? I didn’t know until page 150.’”
The story may not be outlined, but Hart knows his characters before he creates them. He knows where he wants them at the end of the book. “They might be broken, healed, in prison or dead,” he says. “I know that much. I just have to figure out the plot points that get them there.”
Even with Redemption Road, his 2016 novel, he was still tinkering with the process. “I spent 300 pages and a year of my life on Redemption Road and didn’t even know whose story I was telling,” he says. “I realized it was a minor character — a young, female detective who was troubled and dark but would walk through fire for the people she loves — who ought to be my main character. It should’ve been her story all along.”
The lesson? Start with people.
Hart’s thrillers do — and that’s a rarity in the genre. With The Unwilling, Hart proves again that it’s possible to write a crime thriller populated by characters readers care about. SP
Murder, he wrote: Follow @johnhartauthor on Instagram for information on his virtual book tour, including North Carolina dates on Feb. 1-3 and one in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 8.