Jake Lassiter has been in scrapes before. I’ve put the linebacker-turned-lawyer into lots of ethical, moral and physical jams.
Lassiter has had an affair with a woman while defending her gangster husband in court in MORTAL SIN.
He’s been charged with murder for allegedly killing his banker/girlfriend who was about to report him for stealing client funds in STATE vs. LASSITER.
Doing his own legwork defending his pal Steve Solomon in a murder case, he gets stomped by Russian mobsters in BUM RAP.
Poor Jake Lassiter
I sometimes feel guilty for handing Lassiter such a rough life. In a dozen legal thrillers, he has flirted with disbarment, death…and dangerous dames. But now…oh now, he faces his greatest opponent yet: himself.
“Thirty seconds after the jury returned its verdict, I decided to kill my client.”
That’s the opening line of BUM LUCK. Jake Lassiter has just WON a murder trial, successfully defending Miami Dolphins’ superstar Thunder Thurston, charged with killing his wife. Problem is, Lassiter believes his client is guilty and vows to do something about it. Rough justice. Vigilante justice.
Lassiter’s pals Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord are stunned. “You must have played football too long without a helmet,” Solomon says, not realizing the nugget of truth embedded in the wisecrack.
Lassiter begins to suffer crippling headaches and memory loss. He’s even more irritable than usual. And his plan to kill his own client rattles family and friends. His bizarre behavior extends to his law practice. The State Attorney believes Lassiter bribed a juror in the Thurston murder trial. His denial – claiming he wanted to lose the case – gets him nowhere. A grand jury plans to indict Lassiter for bribery, even as he plots to kill his client.
Jake Lassiter Defends Satan: an Insurance Company
Lassiter’s life gets even messier when he’s forced to represent an insurance company that refuses to pay the orphaned children of a deceased martial arts fighter. “Defending insurance companies is like fiddling with the thermostat in hell,” he complains.
In the course of the civil case, Jake Lassiter crosses paths with Dr. Melissa Gold, a neurologist with a specialty in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) It’s the fatal brain disease afflicting retired N.F.L. players. Long-time readers will recall that Lassiter suffered numerous concussions as a football player, including one play in which he made the tackle, recovered a fumble, got turned around, and ran to wrong end zone. That earned him the unfortunate nickname “Wrong Way Lassiter,” something that followed him from gridiron to courtroom.
So, yes, I’ve placed my hero on a shaky tree limb and I’m tossing rocks at him. Will he fall or make his way safely to terra firma?
– Will Lassiter kill Thunder Thurston…or be killed?
– Does Lassiter suffer from C.T.E.?
– Will he lose his practice…and his life?
When pre-publication news leaked out about the plot, some readers wrote me, pleading not to kill Lassiter. “Are you insane?” one asked. “Why would you kill your meal ticket and my guilty pleasure?”
Well, it’s not as if I’d be the first author to knock off a main character. I suppose Brutus could have only wounded Julius Caesar, but that’s not the way it played out. Not to mention Hamlet, Macbeth, and BOTH Romeo and Juliet.
But no spoilers here. I’m rooting for Lassiter to make it out of this jam and hope you are, too.
For more info and to read an excerpt, please check out this site’s BUM LUCK PAGE.
BUM LUCK is available in ebook, paperback, and audio formats from Amazon. Or, if you prefer, here are the links to order trade paperbacks from Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.
That’s right. I lusted after cheap meds, not fame and fortune, when I migrated from Miami to Hollywood 17 years ago. And why not? A doctor’s visit costs ten bucks at the industry-subsidized Bob Hope Health Center. I quickly learned, however, that writers pay their dues in many other ways. Even mystery writers.
Before I traveled west, I thought Hollywood writers rolled into work around 11 a.m., scribbled for a couple hours, drank their lunch at Musso and Frank’s, then cracked wise with starlets the rest of the day. Like Bogart, who came to Casablanca for the waters, I was misinformed.
I quickly learned that television scribes are skilled craftsmen who work damn hard, sometimes all night while cameras roll. The writing itself is tougher than it looks. One-hour dramas employ the same three-act structure as plays and novels. Yes, it’s still the dramatic form advocated by Aristotle. Act one is exposition; act two is complication; and act three is resolution.
HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER: “Aristotle said that? Get me his agent.”
An overriding factor in television writing is the restraint of time. Want to craft a one-hour drama? After commercials, you’ve got 43 minutes to tell your tale. Stream-of-consciousness writers need not apply. Mystery writers who are strong on structure fare better.
I came west in 1999, sneaking into TV at such an advanced age that the Christian Science Monitor dubbed me the “oldest rookie writer in Hollywood.” I had already been a newspaper reporter, a trial lawyer, and a novelist, so I have a track record of either taking on new challenges or being unable to hold a job, depending on your point of view.
I began doubting the sanity of this latest move my first day on the Paramount Pictures lot. My dungeon of an office in the Clara Bow Building overlooked a dumpster behind the commissary, and my window air conditioner whined like an F-14 taking off from an aircraft carrier.
Mystery Writers Are Their Own Bosses. TV Writers Not So Much.
Years earlier, as a lawyer, I enjoyed a view of Bimini from the penthouse of a high rise on Miami’s Biscayne Bay and lunched on stone crabs and passion fruit iced tea at the Bankers’ Club. Later, as my own boss, I wrote eight novels at home in Coconut Grove, parrots squawking in a bottlebrush tree outside. Now, with kamikaze horseflies from the dumpster smashing into my window, I was low man on a staff of six writers. As well I should have been. When I got to Hollywood, I didn’t know a smash cut from a cold cut. How did I get here, anyway?
I’d been bitten by the Hollywood bug in 1995 when the late Stephen J. Cannell produced an NBC movie-of-the-week that was adapted from my first novel. I began dabbling in Hollywood long-distance. I wrote an action-adventure feature for Cannell’s company. Think Die Hard in a missile silo. I wrote the first draft of The A-Team feature screenplay that likewise went nowhere. I penned a computer hacker pilot for ABC. Five similar pilots were commissioned by the networks that season; none got on the air. I wrote a miniseries for CBS, which also was never produced. I was beginning to learn of a world where writers were unionized and got paid even though their work was shelved — literally — stacked on shelves with hundreds of other dusty scripts.
I also free-lanced two episodes of JAG, the CBS military drama. When they aired, I had the novel sensation of listening to actors read my words aloud.
Mystery Writers Wondered if I’d Sold Out.
Then Don Bellisario, the creator of JAG, offered me a staff position. I considered the alternatives. Stay in Miami with the mosquitoes and no book deal. Or go to L.A. and get a paycheck plus that free health insurance. Goodbye mosquitoes. Hello coyotes. (The four-legged scavengers, not Hollywood agents.) My friends among the mystery writers watched from afar with alarm. Had I sold out? Would I be eaten alive?
I ended up writing 20 episodes of JAG and also co-created with Bellisario First Monday, a drama set at the Supreme Court. The show, which was based loosely on my novel 9 Scorpions , this year was named one of the “ten great Supreme Court novels” by the American Bar Association Journal. It is now available as an ebook, retitled Impact. First Monday gave me the opportunity to work with James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning, three terrific actors. In fact, the entire cast was fine. But we, the producers and writers, failed when we tried to jazz up the stories.
In reality, most of the drama at the Supreme Court takes place in the Justices’ minds and is difficult to dramatize. Still, we might have been a hit, if not for our dead-on-arrival demographics: most of our viewers were between Medicare and the mortuary. After 13 episodes, we were buried in the slag heap of cancelled shows.
So was the Hollywood experience all bad? As the junior officers frequently said to the admiral on JAG: “Permission to speak freely, Sir?”
Actually, there were many satisfying moments. While TV writers remain anonymous outside the industry, an actor’s compliment on a script or several warm and fuzzy e-mails from viewers mean that someone has noticed your work. The very speed of the process — weeks, not years — from page to screen, makes the medium more intense and immediate than publishing. Then there’s the knowledge that 15 to 20 million people are paying various degrees of attention to a story you created out of a thin air. (Moments later, of course, your story vanishes into thin air).
Something else, too, something I never anticipated. Writing for TV sharpened my prose skills. I believe my writing is leaner, my plotting tighter, my dialogue zippier. And let’s not forget those regular paychecks plus pension and health benefits.
I have returned to the excruciating yet exhilarating task of storytelling with only the written word. Since Hollywood learned it could exist without my services, I’ve published four courtroom capers in the Solomon vs. Lord series. One of the books, The Deep Blue Alibi, was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award. I’ve written three more novels in the Jake Lassiter series. Last year, I brought Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord together with Jake Lassiter in Bum Rap, which was briefly the number one bestseller in the Amazon Kindle store. In June 2017, Bum Luck, the second in that new series, will be published by Thomas & Mercer.
There’s even renewed interest in Hollywood in Lassiter as a television series. No, I’m not interested in writing the show. I’ve got my health insurance — and my sanity — and intend to keep both.
This is the 100th anniversary year of the birth of John D. MacDonald, Florida’s favorite novelist. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune (JDM’s hometown paper) asked a bunch of writers — Stephen King, Lee Child, Jeff Deaver, Dennis Lehane, Heather Graham, among others — to write short articles describing how MacDonald influenced them. Oh, the paper asked me, too. Here’s my piece.
“There are no hundred percent heroes.” – Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald
It’s flat-out the best opening line in fiction. You can have your “best of times, worst of times.” You can have your “all happy families are alike,” and you can “call me Ishmael,” for all I care. I’ll take John D. MacDonald’s world-weary opening from 1982’s “Cinnamon Skin,” the penultimate Travis McGee novel. The deceptively simple sentence is not merely juicy bait to hook the reader. It encapsulates in six words – SIX WORDS! – the essence of character and the promise of the plot to come.
I never would have become a writer if not for “beach-bum McGee, the big chopped-up, loose-jointed, pale-eyed, wire-haired, walnut-hided rebel…unregimented, unprogrammed, unimpressed.” JDM’s “knight errant” is a man of honor, protector of the weak, nemesis of the corrupt. And yet, he is flawed. He can lose a fight and lose his way, though never straying far from his moral center.
What a blueprint for a fictional hero!
In 1988, I attended the Key West Literary Seminar, which honored MacDonald, who had died two years earlier. His widow, Dorothy, was there to accept the award. We chatted. I told her I was a trial lawyer in Miami and was writing a novel. Told her, too, that my protagonist, “ex-football player, ex-public-defender, ex-a-lot-of-things” Jake Lassiter, owed a lot to Travis McGee. She’d probably heard similar tales at numerous cocktail parties. But she was polite and said she would enjoy reading the book, should it ever see the light of day. Two years later, To Speak for the Dead was published, and I sent a signed copy to her home in Sarasota.
Weeks went by. Then months. No reply.
Late in 1990, I received a fax from Maynard MacDonald, Dorothy and John’s son, who lived in New Zealand. He explained that his mother had passed away the previous year, and he found the book when sorting through her possessions. He had read it. Said he liked the Jake Lassiter character, the mystery, and the Miami setting. And thought his father and mother would have enjoyed the book, too. I was moved and gratified and simultaneously sorry for his loss.
I went on to write nineteen more novels. [Update: Twenty-one more novels including Bum Deal (2018) and Cheater’s Game (2020)]. I titled one of them, The Deep Blue Alibi, an homage to John D. Macdonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. One of the proudest moments in my life came in the mid-1990’s, when I was awarded the John D. MacDonald Award for Florida Fiction.
I recently came across Maynard MacDonald’s fax in an old file. It had been printed on that antiquated thermal paper, and the type had disappeared. Fortunately, John D. MacDonald’s words remain bold in my memory. Profound. Witty. Wise.
“We are all comical, touching, slapstick animals, walking on our hind legs, trying to make it a noble journey from womb to tomb, and the people who can’t see it all that way bore the hell out of me.”
If that doesn’t make you want to be a writer, nothing will.
Novelist Paul Levine has some writing tips. Why is “write what you know” bad advice? What does Stephen King say about rewriting? How does Paul find so much humor in court? And why does he pay homage to John D. MacDonald?
Q: Paul, you frequently speak to aspiring authors. Any writing tips you want to share?
A: Read! If you’re still in school, study history and literature and the social sciences. Everyone should read newspaper every day. Not just blogs and social media. And read both fiction and non-fiction.
Q: And when you’re ready to write?
A: Put your butt in the chair and keep it there. Write! Don’t dream about writing. Don’t talk about writing. Just write.
Q: Do you do a lot of re-writing or are you a first draft kind of guy?
A: Someone said all writing is rewriting. I do at least a dozen drafts. Sometimes way more.
Q: Do you recommend any books with writing tips?
A: Stephen King’s “On Writing.” King says your first draft is where you tell yourself the story. Then, when you rewrite, you take out all the junk that doesn’t belong in the story. Good advice.
Q: You write legal thrillers, but your lawyer-protagonists, Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord in one series, Jake Lassiter in another, don’t spend that much time in court. Why is that?
A: Where would you rather be, in a stuffy courtroom, or on a beach in Key West?
Q: Which brings us to “The Deep Blue Alibi.” In the opening scene, a yacht crashes onto a beach, one man has a spear in his chest, the other is a shady real estate developer. Solomon and Lord have a tough murder trial to defend, but they seem to argue as much with each other as with the prosecutor.
A: I used to be a trial lawyer. My wife, Marcia Silvers, is a criminal defense lawyer, and we frequently banter about cases. Hopefully, the scenes I write are as funny as the ones I live.
Q: Is it true that you based “Bum Rap,” your most recent novel, on a criminal case your wife handled?
A: Yes, the Miami Beach bar girls trial. Marcia keeps asking for royalties.
Q: So Solomon and Lord are Paul and Marcia, not Tracy and Hepburn?
A: It’s a classic genre. Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate.” Hammett’s “The Thin Man.” TV’s “Moonlighting.” Two people love each other, but they also love to argue.
Q: Harlan Coben described your books as: “Carl Hiaasen meets John Grisham in the court of last retort.” Fair assessment?
A: I’ve long said Harlan is a genius. Yes, I bring humor to the legal system because I see so much that’s absolutely nutty there.
Q: In “The Deep Blue Alibi,” there’s a chapter at a Florida nudist resort. Is it fair to ask how you researched the scene?
A: Like Tom Cruise, I do my own stunts.
Q: Is the title of the book an homage John D. MacDonald’s “The Deep Blue Good-By?”
A: “Homage?” That’s French for “cheese”, isn’t it?
Q: Now, you’re being facetious.
A: That’s what they pay me for. “The Deep Blue Good-By” was the first of MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. His writing deeply influenced me. You want more writing tips for thrillers? Read JDM’s “The End of the Night.”
Q: You and MacDonald are both Florida writers. Did you ever meet?
A: He passed away four years before my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” was published in 1990. But one of my first fan letters was from Maynard MacDonald, John’s son.
Q: Why do the judges in your books all seem a little wacky and the lawyers crooked, or at least somewhat flexible in their ethics?
A: Even though the “Jake Lassiter” series and “Solomon vs. Lord” series are fiction, real events and real people inspire the work. I practiced law in front of curmudgeonly judges, and I knew lawyers who could shake your hand and pick your pocket at the same time.
Q: You wrote 20 episodes of the CBS show “JAG.” and co-created the Supreme Court show “First Monday.” Any writing tips when working for television or features?
A: The great difficulty in writing for network television is the time constraint. Forty-three minutes to tell a main story and a B-story. You have to “write tight” and use the visual aspect of the medium.
Q: Any writing tips for those who want to break into Hollywood?
A: Marry a blood relative of Les Moonves or J.J. Abrams.
Q: Lacking that, when aspiring screenwriters sit down at the computer, what should they be writing?
A: Ransom notes, maybe. Look, it’s really hard to break into the business. Some people suggest writing a spec script. Be advised, though, how difficult it is to sell a script. Long ago, Elmore Leonard said, “Writing a script and sending it to Hollywood is like drawing a picture of a car and sending it to Detroit.”
Q: Any final writing tips?
A: Some people say to “write what you know.” But what you know is probably boring. You can always research something new. You can always travel to a new place. My advice is to “write what you love.” Because if you don’t love it, no one else will.
Getting published is hard. Just ask John Schulian, a prize-winning sportswriter and veteran television writer whose first novel, A Better Goodbye, was just released by Tyrus Books. There’s a lesson in his tale that’s not confined to the writing life. Achievement comes with hard work, persistence, an ability to handle rejection and a willingness to accept advice…and did I mention hard work? John is 70 years old, and there’s a lesson in that, too. It’s never too late…unless you let it be.
A Better Goodbye has gotten rave reviews. Here’s a quote from the book jacket: “Set in the sex trade that straddles the worlds of entertainment and crime, the novel is L.A. noir at its most keenly observed. Think Michael Connelly meets Elmore Leonard for a Metro ride from Universal City to Compton.” Oh, that quote…it’s mine. But now, let’s hear from John about the long and winding road of getting published.
As far as I can tell, I won’t be receiving any prizes for having my first novel published when I am 70. Holding the book in my hands will be reward enough, thank you – that and knowing I’m in the same age bracket Norman Maclean was when he bestowed his classic A River Runs Through It upon us nearly 40 years ago. Every predictable happy adjective applies to me as I go public with my L.A. noir, A Better Goodbye. But if I still resemble a punching bag, it’s because I never realized how long a decade can be until the one I just spent getting hit by rejection after rejection.
They came from every direction, like mosquitoes on a steamy summer night. Some editors instinctively backed away from what one called my “dark tale.” Others were repelled by the haunted ex-boxer, sex-trade sirens, and merciless criminals who populate my novel.
“Unsympathetic,” said one potential buyer, leaving me to wonder how he’d react if I told him what a fine time I had creating them.
The way I’d written my female characters, meanwhile, became a subject of debate. “(Schulian) has writing chops, particularly with the way he writes women,” one editor said. Another chimed in with praise for my soiled heroine’s love of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and “her attitudes toward men.” On the other side of the ledger was the spoilsport who found the ex-prizefighter in my novel “emotionally taut and compelling,” but said my star massage girl “never quite comes alive as a three-dimensional character.”
Mercifully, I managed to avoid what one editor told Vladimir Nabokov while rejecting Lolita: “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Most of my rejections came wrapped in encouragement. I was “terrifically talented” and “keenly observant,” my writing “polished and lively.” But that didn’t make me any less dead in the water at Scribner, Penguin and Putnam. Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, Kensington and Melville House told me thanks but no thanks, too. Then Random House and Soft Skull/Counterpoint joined the chorus. Thomas Dunne, William Morrow, Dutton and Berkeley didn’t bother to respond, but I got the message.
Who Said Getting Published Was Easy?
I was being initiated into a club that has been around since the first editor turned away a writer on behalf of a publishing house. Margaret Mitchell collected 38 rejections before she found a buyer for Gone With the Wind, James Joyce 33 for Dubliners. Even J.K. Rowling struck out a dozen times before someone got smart and snapped up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The showstopper, however, is the 111 rejections that buffeted James Lee Burke’s The Lost Get-Back Boogie in the nine years it went begging. It might be the best novel Burke has written, nominated for a Pulitzer and better than his best Dave Robicheaux mysteries, but it’s still largely unknown and unread.
I feared the worst for A Better Goodbye getting published. Not knowing what else to do, I changed agents. It was either that or self-publish, and the thought of self-publishing pained me. I’ve been a professional writer – newspapers, magazines, Hollywood – since 1970, and I was dead set on finding a publisher for my novel. Whoever it turned out to be might not pay me a lot, but they would pay me.
With that in mind, my new agent took my novel back into the marketplace, zeroing in on a fresh set of editors whether or not they were at publishing houses my first agent had approached. I did my best not to interfere, staying busy by writing short stories and editing anthologies of sports writing. But every time I noticed a new crime novel published by an outfit I’d never heard of, I shot off an email to my new agent. Bless his heart, he never complained.
In 2012, on the same day he told me that Soho Crime, Mulholland Books and Grove had passed, he forwarded an email from Gerry Howard, who wasn’t just an editor at Random House; he was David Foster Wallace’s editor. And a Thomas Pynchon scholar. And the kind of heavyweight I never imagined being interested in A Better Goodbye. But he was interested. There was, he wrote, just one big problem for him: My hero was “too much of a mope for the book’s good.”
It was the smartest, most incisive note I’ve ever received. I rewrote a third of the book on the strength of it, and Gerry Howard liked what I’d done enough to put it in front of Random House’s decision makers. How could they say no to him? Pynchon? David Foster Wallace? Things like that count in the literary world, right?
Genre Counts in Getting Published
It was the marketing people who got me. They said my novel, part crime fiction, part literary fiction, puzzled them. They said they didn’t know how to sell a book like mine. I thought it was their job to figure things like that out, but I must have been misinformed.
My agent resumed knocking on doors and I began clearing space in the desk drawer where my novel would likely stay until it turned to dust. I didn’t even think about it much anymore. And then in March – on the 23rd, a day that should be a national holiday – my agent called with not one but two offers to publish A Better Goodbye.
I took the offer from Tyrus Books. They had published muscular crime fiction by Craig McDonald and Scott Weddle and brought my friend Robert Ward’s stunning blue-collar novel Red Baker back into print. As soon as I came aboard, the lead foots from Tyrus stomped on the gas. They wanted to publish my novel right after Thanksgiving, which meant a lot of work in a hurry – writing a new top for an early chapter and a completely different final chapter; combing the manuscript again and again for typos, misspellings and graceless sentences; arranging for publicity; having a website built; putting in days at the computer so long I thought my eyes would melt.
But Ben LeRoy, who runs Tyrus, called my novel “great” the first time we talked on the phone, and that was enough for me even if he lays the same praise on all his other writers. As anyone who reads my book can attest, there are happy endings and then there are happy endings. This one suits me just fine.