Please join me in welcoming Sacramento based crime novelist James L’Etoile to the blog, literally. Occasionally, we at Murder Books will interview a favorite author in order to help get the word out about a new book, but this interview is even more special because Jim is joining our Murder Books team! Beginning August 14th Jim will post the first of what we hope will be many blogs for Murder Books.
Jim spent twenty-nine years behind bars. Okay, full disclosure, he is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness and consultant on prison and jail operations. Jim uses those twenty-nine years behind bars to influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays.
L’Etoile’s crime fiction has been recognized by the Creative World Awards, Acclaim Film, and the Scriptapalooza Television Script Competition. His novel BURY THE PAST was a 2018 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award finalist for best procedural mystery of the year. He is a frequent contributor to top short story collections. Jim’s most recent novel, Dead Drop, was released on July 19th. And as I can attest—thanks to an early reading—it is superb.
First off, Jim, congratulations on your latest release and welcome to the blog!
Thanks for hosting me today and I’m honored to be a part of this incredible blog. Who knew, some guy fresh from the slammer would get to come and contribute?
1. I know there has been a lot of attention paid to immigration issues over the past decade. What made you decide to set your mystery novel at the southern border?
Immigration policy and border politics are certainly in the news. There was one event that stuck with me which eventually turned into Dead Drop.
There is prison near San Diego, California, and it’s so close to the international border, you can see the wall from the prison yard. Migrants making their way north used mountain trails to the east to avoid roadblocks and immigration checkpoints. During one visit to the prison, there was a bit more frantic energy around the place than usual because the early morning count didn’t “clear.”
Prisons run on a regular schedule of counts—it’s one of the basic missions of an institution—knowing how many prisoners you are supposed to have and account for every single one. In this instance, the prison’s minimum facility couldn’t clear their count because the number of inmates in their bunks didn’t match central control’s count. Escapes from minimum facilities are common, but they come with inspector general investigations, initiating escape protocols, and notifying local law enforcement and stakeholders all the way up to the governor’s office. It’s not a warm and fuzzy experience…
After a series of re-counts using photographs to identify every prisoner, the problem was found and it was a bit unusual. The minimum facility’s count was “Plus 1”—there was one more body in a bed than they were supposed to have.
As it turned out, an undocumented migrant on the trek north was so cold and hungry that he “broke into prison” for a place to sleep. That set of circumstances settled in my unconscious mind and eventually led to Dead Drop. The journey over the border must be grueling if going to prison is the best option.
2. You have written both a series and a standalone. Is Dead Drop the start of a new series?
I have written series and standalone novels. They both have their benefits. I do enjoy a series because you really get to open up the characters and dive a little deeper into their stories. Dead Drop is the first book in a new Detective Nathan Parker series. I’m looking forward to seeing where the series takes him.
3. I am always happy to see a fellow law enforcement professional successfully transition from behind the badge onto the page. How long have you known that you wanted to write professionally?
I didn’t begin to write commercial fiction until after I retired from the prison system. Two roadblocks stopped me—one, I didn’t think I had the chops to write the kind of stories people would want to read, and two I didn’t think I had the time to sit down and write.
I was wrong on both counts. I thought back to one of the first jobs I had as a probation officer where I’d prepare pre-sentence reports for the sentencing judge. I interviewed the convicted person in jail, talked with the detective, read all the investigative reports, spoke with the victims, and cobbled all of that together in a narrative for the judge, recommending a sentence. I didn’t realize it then, but I had been writing crime stories all along. I knew how to do this. As far as not having the time to write—that’s a priority issue. Watch fewer episodes of Stranger Things and go write. I needed to make writing a priority and carve out the time to make it happen.
4. I very much enjoyed your Dead Drop protagonist, Detective Nathan Parker. Where did the inspiration for Parker come from?
Thanks, Nathan was fun to write and his story came out of a few people and events from my past. Part of Parker’s backstory, and we learn this early on, so it’s not really a spoiler, is his partner was murdered and Parker’s sense of justice and survivor’s guilt takes a toll on his life. Unfortunately, I’ve known too many officers who’ve witnessed their partner being assaulted, stabbed, or killed. That’s something that never goes away and how you deal with an all-encompassing darkness is no easy task. And it isn’t for Parker either.
5. Your vast knowledge of the inner workings of the prison and probation systems is impressive. How much of a leap was it to embark on a border novel? Did you avail yourself to fact checkers from ICE or CBP?
I do use sources to fact check. Some of the details relating to immigration and border management came from as assignment I had in the prison system, overseeing the system’s “Deport Units.” In the 1990’s we had over twenty-thousand inmates serving time for various felonies, but they all had one common factor—they were also foreign nationals who entered the country illegally. They came from every country on the globe, but California being a border state meant a large majority were from Mexico, Central, and South America.
The Deport Units were within prisons located in Southern California (Calipatria, Centinela, and San Diego) where inmates transfer to in the last month of their sentence. Immigration Judges at these facilities held hearings to decide if the inmates would be deported after their prison terms expired, or released on parole.
The stories these men told were harrowing, but they weren’t the same people we see in the news being separated from their families. These were violent felons who had also broken federal law by illegally entering the country. Still, they had the same hopes, dreams, and ambitions to make a better life up north. They chose to do it with a gun, or with violence…
6. Every novel comes with its own unique challenges (at least mine have). What were some of the obstacles you faced when writing Dead Drop?
There were a couple of challenges presented with this book. The first was the setting, in and around Phoenix and the Sonoran desert. I’m up in Northern California, so I can’t look out my window for desert inspiration. I spent a lot of time in Arizona over the last few years, driving around to some of the more remote desert locations. The highway between Phoenix and Tucson is particularly stark. The other challenge was maintaining the storyline—Parker, Billie and what they encounter. I didn’t want this to become a co-opted tale of the migrant experience. That’s not my story to tell. I’ve observed the impact of undocumented migrants firsthand, including a mother who was prepared to surrender her “green card” expecting to face deportation because her daughter was arrested for shoplifting. We can all identify what her fear, hopelessness, and resignation felt like.
7. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with others who might be thinking about wading into the deep end of the literary pool?
Get a snorkel and dive in. I’ve found a number of writers who believe they are destined for overnight success. Lo and behold, instant gratification isn’t bestowed upon them and they become disillusioned and give up. Writing is all about the long game. You need to put in the hours, learn the craft, and put yourself out there. Nothing happens quickly, except maybe rejection. Coming to terms with rejection and not taking it personally is key.
8. Is there anything you did early on in your writing career that, now armed with hindsight, you would have done differently?
I wish I had started earlier. There are so many stories and characters out there, and I won’t have the time to capture all of them…
9. Which authors would you say have had the greatest impact on your writing?
That’s a tough one, because I’ve learned so much from reading great authors. As a writer, I read differently now, looking at structure, character development and dialogue. I appreciate the work that goes on behind the story. I’d have to say Joseph Wambaugh, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Connelly were initial influences. Jennifer Hillier, Karen Dionne, and J.T Ellison are masters of the thriller genre and I learn something every time I pick up one of their books. But there’s one author who shall remain nameless who pushed me to write because it was while reading their book (it was awful) that I told myself, “I can do better than this.”
10. I’ve read many different mystery/thriller series over the years and, for me, keeping the characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?
As a reader, I know what I’m drawn to. It’s all about character. I try to give readers a character they can get invested in. They want to see how things turn out for them. I’ve found that readers in general (me included) won’t remember a plot months after reading a book, but when a character sticks with you—that’s magic.
11. You’ve had success both as a novelist, a short fiction writer, and a screenwriter. Is there one format that brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?
Wow. Each format presents its own challenges. I’d have to say the novel is the most rewarding. Telling a story with depth and nuance over 400 pages requires a real investment from the author. When it all comes together and that book goes out into the world, it’s a feeling of relief, pride, and accomplishment.
12. What can readers expect to see next? Are you working on any other projects? Is there a movie in the works?
Dead Drop just hit the shelves and I’m revising the sequel (as yet untitled) now. I like where the second book in the series takes Parker and how he responds to the new challenges coming at him. I have two novels out on submission, so we’ll see where they end up. I’m always working on a project, a short story, or a novel or two. While I’ve had some talk about movie options, nothing’s stuck yet. Fingers crossed.
Jim, thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefits of your thoughts. Best of luck with your new book, Dead Drop. And most importantly, welcome to Murder Books!
James L’Etoile is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the International Screenwriters Association.
To learn more about Jim, visit his web site at http://www.jamesletoile.com.
James L’Etoile was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.