I recently accompanied my wife’s book club to West Jefferson, North Carolina to hear John Hart speak at the Ashe County Literary Festival. It was a crisp September morning for the 40-mile drive, perfect for meandering along mountain roads and taking in the long-range vistas. The book club had just read Hart’s latest book, “Redemption Road,” and all were excited about meeting and hearing the author. I’ve read Hart’s previous four novels, and count him as one of my few favorite authors.
If you’re unfamiliar with John Hart, you’re among a shrinking population of readers. Hart, a North Carolina native, is a New York Times bestselling author of suspenseful, literary thrillers and stands alone in winning back-to-back Edgar Awards for best mystery novel.
The activity room at the Ashe County Library was at capacity when Hart entered the room. It had been a morning filled with writing seminars and presentations, and Hart was the culmination of the day and the week. I’ve been to similar presentations, but none that featured someone with the writing chops of John Hart. I must admit, I was more than a little starstruck as he took the podium.
With the writing credentials to be full of himself, Hart was anything but. He was clever, humorous, and informative, and at times, self-deprecating. He spoke like someone addressing his peers, rather than a world-famous author speaking to a room filled with mesmerized readers, writers, and book promoters. Without notes or props, he assessed his audience and our knowledge of his work before giving us an hour-long inside-the-tent look at his past, present and future writing projects.
As an aspiring writer, I came away from Hart’s presentation inspired. It was insightful to hear him discuss how he approached writing, viewing himself as a writer of “character-driven” fiction. For him, and unlike many authors, the characters come first, not the story. Hart has deep feelings about his protagonists. He gets to know them well early in his novels, long before he figures out where they will travel and the challenges they will face.
Hart takes exception to those labeling him as a writer of dark novels. Instead, he says he “searches for light in dark places.” It’s true. Through no fault of their own, many of his protagonists are damaged individuals, facing what seem to be unscalable barriers. Hart describes their trials, their errors, and their relationships with other characters, as they attempt to overcome these barriers and step into the light.
Oddly, I also felt a little diminished as I filed out of the meeting room. I’ve long known that achieving writing success isn’t an easy journey, but after hearing John Hart, I realize success is even further away. I fall short of the insight, preparation, and quality writing demonstrated by Hart. His discussion of character development brought this home. Admittedly, I don’t know my characters nearly as well as he does.
I will take what I learned in West Jefferson and refocus my efforts. Writing is a process, where even your recognized shortcomings need to be viewed as stepping stones forward. I will likely not come close to achieving the success of John Hart, but I continue to appreciate the process. What better way to enjoy an early autumn day than driving to West Jefferson with my wife and friends to attend the literary festival? The only thing better would be to someday view it from Hart’s side of the podium.