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June 13, 2014

Best-Selling Author John Lescroart Talks About Latest Book, Prisons, Writing & Friendship

By Joan Brunwasser

One of the truisms I discovered is that the jail's inmates are in many ways a truly invisible population. Nobody spends a lot of time worrying about them, even though the environment is ripe for abuse. If somebody dies in jail, it's probably not going to make headlines. I thought that putting the jail in the center of this book's conflicts would add an unusual and powerful element to what is otherwise a highly domestic story.


Originally Published on OpEdNews

My guest is best-selling author, John Lescroart. Welcome back to OpEdNews, John. You have a brand-new book out, The Keeper [Atria Books, May 6, 2014].

JB: Congratulations! In it, you take readers inside the prison system to an unprecedented degree. Why did you decide to focus for this topic in your 24th book, the 16th of the Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitsky series?

JL: In this writing business, you're always looking for something topical to set a book apart from its brothers and sisters. And especially with a long-running series, this is even a more critical criterion. Now it so happens that prison reform has for a long while been a hot political issue in California -- I actually took a look at some of the problems confronting the prisons and the California Correctional Police Officers Association ("CCPOA") in my novel, The Hunt Club, back in 2006 -- and if anything, it's only gotten more controversial. Inmates are being released because of overcrowding; health care within the prisons is terrible; smuggling is rampant; there are literally dozens of ways that the prisons don't work very well.

In The Keeper, I wanted to bring all this a little bit closer to home and concentrate on San Francisco's county jail system. (Much to many people's surprise, jails and prisons are not the same.) Keeping things unique and interesting in San Francisco, it is one of the few American cities where the city and county share the same borders, so there is a continuous (if mostly low-key) jurisdictional anomaly where the Sheriff's department (the county) and the San Francisco Police Department (the city) both work in each other's territory, as it were.

I thought it would be fun to play with this tension. Also, one of the truisms I discovered in researching this book is that the jail's inmates are in many ways a truly invisible population. Nobody spends a lot of time worrying about them, even though the environment is ripe for abuse. If somebody dies in jail, well, it's probably not going to make headlines. In any event, I thought that putting the jail in the center of this book's conflicts would add an unusual and powerful element to what is otherwise a highly domestic story.

JB: Yes, the entire incarceration system is definitely broken. Despite (or because of) the anomaly that you just pointed out, do you think that San Francisco's jails are any more poorly run or more corrupt than elsewhere?

JL: Not necessarily. But I do believe that because of the "invisible population" that I referred to earlier (the inmates at the jail), there is a great potential for corruption. And if something bad happens in jail, the "usual" course of justice does not necessarily apply. The Sheriff in San Francisco is really not answerable to too many other people or agencies, and if he decides that he's going to bend or break some rules, very few people feel that they are in a position to call him on his actions. He is, in a real sense, a law unto himself, with a great deal of both political and man power and a large budget. Who wants to step outside their own jurisdiction to worry about justice in a fiefdom that largely runs by its own rules? This is the situation that I decided to explore in The Keeper.

JB: What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you actually visit the facility? If so, were you welcome?

JL: Funny you should ask. Introduced and disguised as a "Sacramento lawyer" by a connected friend of mine (as you know I am not an attorney and never attended law school), I went and visited the jail. The first moment inside, an inmate in a holding cell just inside the door sprang forward, swearing and spit on me. After this introduction, and quite a bit shaken, I toured the whole facility -- one of the scariest hours of my life. After I got out, I went across the street to meet the friend who'd arranged the tour and he was waiting with not one, but two martinis, knowing that I'd need them. And I did.

JB: Now that you've downed those martinis, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to know more about your foray "inside". Often, the biggest threat is actually from those running the facility and not the incarcerated. Did you have any interchange with the management? And how did that go?

JL: My foray inside was really pretty uneventful after the initial moment. I had no interchange with the management at all. The guard who showed me around was polite and informative and, given the fact that he thought I was a working defense attorney who'd just been spit on, anxious to make sure that nothing else so dramatic went on that afternoon. Nevertheless, I came away from the experience with a great sense of dread and helplessness. I've talked in my books about trying to "humanize" defendants while they are on trial, and the thing that I brought away from my limited interaction with the jail population is that they become dehumanized, zoo animals to be herded and caged.

JB: Those serving longer terms are further isolated and dehumanized in the process. We have 6.9 million people either incarcerated, on parole or probation. Here's an astounding quote [from a recent episode 5/21/14 of Crossfire, co-hosted by Newt Gingrich and Van Jones]: "Thirty-eight U.S. states are home to fewer people than live under the corrections system in this country." So, we're talking about a major growth industry in America.

Let's flip the coin for a second. While it's pretty well accepted that serving time takes a toll on one's psyche, what's less often discussed is the toll taken by those who man the facility. Is it possible to do such a job and hang on to your humanity?

JL: This is one of the main issues that I address in The Keeper. The close fraternity of the general law enforcement community is exaggerated when a relatively small group of these people work together daily in a constant state of danger and/or privilege. Though many jail guards take their jobs and responsibilities very seriously, the environment itself reinforces an us/them dynamic between the guards and the inmates that is heavily weighted on the side of the guards. These are people who see themselves as basically under siege at all times. And in many ways, this perception is pretty much correct.

It is a dangerous thing to try and restrain any raging man, much less one who might weigh 300 pounds, and put him in a cage. That kind of situation -- which happens frequently in most jails -- demands cooperation and trust that, over time, creates intense loyalty among the tribe of guards. If some one of them oversteps his boundaries because of the intense pressure they're under, and perhaps takes out his frustration on the raging inmate, it is seen as a forgivable.

The crucible of the jail creates its own society whose rules do not always match the rules outside. This is understood and largely unspoken, and of course individual exceptions abound, but a general rule of closed societies is that they create their own ethic, which tend to protect their own citizens. It is possible, of course, to hold the job of jail guard and retain your ethics and your humanity, but since there is very little incentive to do so, and only a small or rare penalty if you lapse, it tends not to be the default position.

JB: I love the deep and rich bond between Diz Hardy and Abe Glitsky. I'm used to seeing that much more often between two women. Why is that? Have you personally enjoyed strong male friendships over the years or is this wishful thinking?

JL: Actually, I've been extremely lucky with a host of some great guy friends, beginning I suppose with my two brothers, Michael and Emmett. Because of our good Catholic parents, we were all born within a 37 month period (do the math), and so we are all close in age. We've made it a point to hang out together throughout our lives -- e.g. we all went the San Francisco Giants baseball fantasy camp when I turned 50 -- and just two days ago, we all met for dinner with our wives in San Francisco since Emmett was passing through on his way from New Jersey to Australia.

But I've also had the good fortune to meet not just a few, but several, terrific guys who have remained truly close friends over many, many (think 50!) years. My chief legal consultant, Al Giannini, for example, was my buddy from freshman year in high school; likewise, Frank Seidl, who was a high school pal and later singing partner. I met another singing partner, Alan Heit, when I was about 24, and he is the model for my character Abe Glitsky. The list goes on and on -- my male friendships greatly enrich my life and my work and, with the exception of my marriage to Lisa, are the blessings for which I am the most grateful.

JB: Lucky is exactly what you are, John. What advice would you give your sons (if you have them) or a boy child about the importance of male bonding?

JL: I believe that male bonding is one of the most important things in life. People always say that guys never get together, or have a hard time getting together, to share real thoughts, ideas, emotions and experiences. I have not found this to be the case. I have shared these real moments with all of my male friends: from singing, to writing stories and songs together, to fishing, to all kinds of team sports, to trying to discuss and solve marital/health/child raising issues, there is really no limit to the connections guys can have. And the great thing is, these connections don't have to interfere at all with guys' relationships to the women in their lives -- it's all complementary. Recently, some friends and I have taken the ultimate step in communication and actually formed a "Guys' Book Club." Guys reading and talking about books? Get out of here!

JB: It does sound very Out There. Good for you. I love that you're still close with your brothers. What was it like growing up in a big family? And how was the Lescroart Boys' stint at baseball fantasy camp?

JL: Growing up in a big family was the only thing I knew, so I don't really have any point of comparison. I was second, eleven months behind my sister Patricia (Irish twins!), and then in quite succession came Mike, Emmett, Marijane, Lorraine, Barbara (who died in infancy) and Kathryn. We kind of naturally divided ourselves in the "big kids" -- Patricia, me and Mike -- and the "little kids" -- Marijane, Lorraine, and Kathryn -- with Emmett casting the swing vote as a staunch independent. With so many kids, my parents were by today's standards extremely laissez faire. We had only one rule -- "Respect" -- and it applied to pretty much everything -- respect Mom (first and foremost), ourselves, property, school, church, etc. As long as we lived with respect, we ran free.

The Fantasy Camp was bittersweet for me, but terrific for both Mike and Emmett. It was less than perfect for me because the week before we were scheduled to go, after I'd been working out and playing long-ball catch and hitting the batting cage, I went skiing and got knocked off the chair lift, dislocating and getting a "ping-pong" fracture in my left shoulder. So I didn't get to play a lick, and was relegated to coaching. Meanwhile, my brother Mike was I think the MVP of the camp, winning two or three games as a pitcher, and leading the league in batting average. Emmett likewise had a hell of a good "season." So . . . all in all, it was fun because the people there were so great, but personally, it wasn't my best week.

JB: That is disappointing. Moving on, you have a custom of naming some of your characters after actual people. Can you tell us how that came about and how it works?

JL: In the "old days," charity auctions often featured signed First Editions of an author's novels. I would often donate two or three autographed books and perhaps a CD to an auction to benefit, say, a Crisis Nursery, or a Library Foundation, and one of the patrons at the event would typically pay somewhat more than the cover price of the book to bring home the auction item. This was a nice, but kind of low-impact way to raise funds for worthy causes.

Sometime around perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, some smart marketer got the idea that if individual signed books were nice, how much nicer would be the donor's actual name as an immortal character in a published novel. Right from the beginning, this approach paid off in spades, with donors paying truly large sums of money ($37,000 is the record) to become a character. Since the first time I did this, I've probably averaged three characters per book every year, and many more authors are doing this all the time. It's a terrific way to give to worthy causes -- far more lucrative and just as easy as a signed First Edition.

JB: Lovely concept. What haven't we covered yet, John? Now's your chance!

JL: In closing, I'd just like to say that being able to make a living as a writer is one of the great opportunities a person can get in life. And because it is such a privilege to be able to do this at all, I try never to cheat on the process itself which, truth to tell, can sometimes be onerous. You've got to find and (more importantly) recognize the really good idea, as opposed to the slew of pretty good ones, and then you have to go scene by scene into the story until you've got something worthy of sharing with a devoted readership. This is also why I tell prospective writers to spend whatever time it takes to learn the craft, the actual nuts and bolts of putting down sentences and writing dialogue and arranging a plot so that it is compelling.

I hope to be able to continue writing, and to continue to improve, with every book. I'm flattered and delighted that you've chosen to have this dialogue with me. It's another wonderful perk of the job to have people such as yourself and your readers who care about my work, my life, and my writing process.

JB: Good luck with The Keeper and please keep writing! I can't wait to see what else you have up your sleeve. And I must tell you that I still listen to your CD, Date Night*. I put it on at bedtime and it lulls me into a great night's sleep. What a versatile fellow you are! It's always wonderful to chat with you. Thanks so much.


prior interview with John:

Novelist John Lescroart Riffs on His Writing, His Music and His Colorful Resume 12/1/2012

* link to John's music, including this CD

Submitters Bio:
Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and