James L’Etoile specializes in gritty crime fiction. Little River is his debut release and his complex, edgy stories are fueled by two decades of experience in prisons and jails across the country. Realistic crime fiction requires an eye for detail while immersed deep within the darkest criminal elements. James brings these stories to life with his background in probation, parole, investigation and prison operation. An experienced Associate Warden, Chief of Institution Operations, Hostage Negotiator and Director of Parole, James is unique among crime fiction authors.
Time to chat with Jim!
What is your latest book?
My debut novel, Little River, is a human trafficking thriller, set on the island of Jamaica. Two college girls fail to return from vacation and their parents set out to rescue them after the local government gives up on the search. The parents soon discover the girls are trapped inside a deadly human trafficking network. They face a parent’s worst nightmare: how far would you go to get your child back?
You state that you tend to weave social themes into my stories. Can you tell us more about the different themes you’ve chosen for your books and what drew you to make those choices?
I do incorporate major social issues in my stories, not only for the character connections they bring, but they provide a lynchpin for the readers to get into the story. It raises the stakes, the tension and the consequences to all of the characters. I’ve written stories with human trafficking, homelessness, domestic terrorism, black market organ transplants, and prison gang drug rings. These social elements are real, and everyone can find something to identify within these issues.
During your two decades working in the criminal justice system, did you plan to become a crime fiction author one day? How did it all come together?
I didn’t start with the idea of becoming a writer. When you work in prisons and in probation or parole settings, you come across every personality type imaginable. In this corner, you’ve got your serial killers, over there you have the Mexican Mafia shot callers, you have hundreds of men serving life on the installment plan and every single one of them is working an angle to beat the system. It’s a high stakes game with lives in the balance.
You see a very different side of human behavior and motivation in a cell block as opposed to the shopping mall. I mean, do you know a man who stabs someone and pours hot sauce in the open wounds? I do. Trying the explain stories like that got me thinking about writing, to share the behind the scenes picture that no one sees.
What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?
For me, the best part of writing is when I start a new novel. A blank slate, where the characters can go do what they do is liberating. Initially, I was a no-structure “Pantser” kind of guy, letting the characters loose on the page and seeing where they end up. I found that left to their own devices, the characters often didn’t play well with others, skipped over important plot points, or dug themselves into deep little corners.
Following a rigid outline, for me, is not fun. It feels like I’m doing data entry work and the passion evaporates from the words. Blah, blah, blah, then this happens, blah, blah, blah. If I can’t get the feel of the story while I’m writing it, I sure as heck know a reader isn’t going to connect with it either. So, the challenge was to find a middle ground to balance the freewheeling seat-of- the-pants creative mode and the attention to detail of the plotter.
A general outline of beginning, ending, and important plot points is enough of a leash to keep the characters on the path through the story. Enough freedom to let the protagonist find his, or her, way through the maze to the conclusion, without going off to sniff for truffles. How the character gets from scene to scene is loose enough to satisfy my creative urges and the outline serves as a guidepost to show the character the intended path. Free enough to allow for a new scene idea, or plot twist, but structured sufficiently to avoid the mess of plot hole quicksand.
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
I’m a very linear writer. With the guidepost outline, I typically work scene to scene and it helps me keep continuity in the story, the right tone, tension, and character development. The downside of writing scenes in order is that your characters conspire against you and will do the lemming walk off the plot cliff, if you aren’t careful. I’ve spoken with a number of other authors and this seems to be a point where writer’s block can take root. You’ve written a great chapter, but it takes the story in a new direction, but one inconsistent with the one the author anticipated. Self-doubt and fear creep in and the brakes come on. Where do I go from here?
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
I have a general picture of what the ending of a book will look like. I know who will come out on top, what they have sacrificed to get there and how the story impacted their lives. The final product has enough wiggle room to develop the ending as I go, and allow the opportunity to offer one more twist, or nugget for the reader to chew on. The possibility that my antagonist ends up dead, disgraced, or gets away, is less important to me.
I’ve changed titles from draft to draft. The first label is a working draft title, so I can save the document, nothing more. One example is a book I first titled Highway, because the opening scene in the story takes place on an isolated stretch of road. The final title became, Justice Delayed, Justice Delivered, the screenplay version of which received some recognition by the Creative World Awards, and a couple of other screenwriting competitions.
Similarly, Little River started out as Trapped, then Trafficked until the final version settled on Little River, after a river in Jamaica that features prominently in the story.
After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?
The dark demons of self-doubt whisper in every author’s ear. When I’m months deep into a manuscript, I’ve heard those same whispers, the “You aren’t going to finish this,” or, the more common, “Who are you trying to kid? No one’s gonna read this.” In my experience, it is more than self-doubt, it is self-doubt with blinders on. You’ve been in the tunnel for so long and the light at the end scares you. You’ve invested time, effort and what if no one ever reads it? I think I’m overcritical when it comes to judging my work, where it should have been tighter here, or a different direction there.
I heard Michael Connelly speak at a mystery writer’s conference a few years ago and one of the things he said that really hit home with me was, “I write stories that I want to read. If they interest me, chances are there’s someone else out there that might like them too.” He’s done pretty well with that line of thought, so I’ve tried to adopt my own version and write stories that I’d want to read.
Have you ever written characters that you truly despise?
Oh, sure. That’s half the fun of writing a crime fiction book. Working in prisons, I got a front row seat of the most vile, cold and methodical criminals. I use many of the personality traits in my villains. Jean-Paul Baptiste, the human trafficker in Little River, is a cold, methodical manipulator, who views human life as another tradable commodity. He preyed upon the victims of the Haitian earthquake before he established a human trafficking network in the Caribbean. He is not a man you’d invite over for a weekend barbeque.
Can you tell us about your road to publication?
I think my path to publication is fairly typical. I sent Little River queries to publishers who seemed like a good fit with the holdings they had in their catalogs. I had some interest, a couple of requests for a full manuscript, then a year later, nothing. So I went on and wrote another novel, then another, learning more about my writing process and becoming, I think, a better writer.
A small publisher was interested in the second and third novels and we were in contract discussions when the publisher decided that the company was going to shift to children’s books. So where did that leave my darkish crime fiction? Not in little Johnny’s reading list, that much was certain. As it happened, the publisher shared the manuscripts with a new start up publisher, SALT Media Productions and through our discussions, it was decided that Little River best fit what SALT wanted to produce, fiction with a message.
Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?
My publisher pulled me, kicking and screaming, to the social media world. Oh my God, I don’t care what Ashton Kutcher had for breakfast. Twitter? Really? You’re really going to make me do this? Pinterest photos of grilled cheese sandwiches, honestly? At first, it was painful, scrolling through thousands of kitty videos and book spam. Gradually, I started to see some examples of how to connect on social media from the likes of Kristen Lamb and Rachel Thompson.
I’ve come to get a kick out of interacting with readers, who want to know more about the story behind the story. The questions and comments readers come up with took me by surprise. Readers identified with one character or another for something that I didn’t even notice, or they wanted to know what will happen next (I hadn’t originally planned a sequel). Interacting with other writers helps make a connection and provided confirmation that others have experienced the same ups and downs in creating a manuscript. I’ve discovered and shared marketing strategy, passed on tips I’ve learned submitting a document for print distribution (hint not all PDFs are equal).
So, fast forward to today and I’m active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Ello. Then there is my blog, where I share what ever seems to be going on in my mind, writing related, or not. Drop on by and chat…
The downside of social media is the time it takes to be present in the various platforms. I don’t automate random tweets or posts into the interwebs, that’s as bad as spamming, at least in my view.
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
People are often surprised by the amount of research it takes to flesh out a good story. “It’s fiction, isn’t it?” “Just make it up, isn’t that what you do?” There is a limit to how far readers are willing to suspend disbelief. The story must have enough “true-glue” to hold it together while you hook the readers into your fictional account.
I visited Jamaica a few times and the culture of the island is captivating. The people are open and inviting, but there is an undercurrent of crime and corruption on the island that many accept as, “the way it is.” I spoke with many locals and felt their frustration and powerlessness to make meaningful change. Out of respect to the Jamaican people, Little River’s antagonist is not from the island.
In drafting the human trafficking angle in Little River, I poured over hundreds of pages of United Nations Human Rights reports, individual accounts from trafficking survivors, and law enforcement organizations. In the process, I found that several good non-profit organizations are making strides in the fight against human trafficking. It’s a $32 Billion dollar underground economy and many governments find themselves unable to take meaningful steps to interrupt the flow of modern slavery into and out of their borders. I donate a percentage of all my sales to the Not For Sale Campaign, a global non-profit fighting all forms of human trafficking.
Do you dread writing a synopsis for your novel as much as most writers do? Do you think writing a synopsis is inherently evil? Why?
The synopsis is the child of the Devil.
You’ve invested months, perhaps years, in the crafting of your novel, with attention to every word choice, inflection and tease. Then, you’re directed to squeeze three-hundred plus pages and wring it down to the size of a post it note. Clearly, the world of dark minions is involved in this wizardry.
Seriously, I get it. Agents and publishers have only so much time to sort the uncut gems in their slush piles. You need to be able to convey your story and stand out from the rest. That dreaded synopsis is your one shot to get in the door. You may not like it, but ignore it at your own peril.
What genre have you never written in that you’d like to try?
Until now, I have focused in crime fiction. Bad guys doing bad things, in bad ways. Something I’ve recently started tinkering with is a story with a paranormal twist. Without giving up too much, the basic premise of the story involves a fireman critically injured in a warehouse blaze who sees people differently than he did before the fire. He’s able to see greed, hate, and deception from those around him, even his friends and family as well as their true intentions. There might be something there…
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
Northern California is home, but one place that really appeals to me is the Greek island of Corfu. It doesn’t have that living on the edge of a volcano vibe that Santorini possesses, and there is less of a tourist vibe on Corfu. One local custom, which occurs on Easter, is tossing terra cotta pots from the balconies out to the street. It symbolizes hope for the coming year and that is something I can get behind. The whole place is laid back, relaxed and I can see myself parked overlooking the Ionian Sea with a cup of strong Greek coffee.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
I have a pack of peeves, actually. I’m easily peeveable. But, the one that makes my skin crawl is when I hear someone use the “words” supposibly, or pacifcally. Oh, good God people. Supposibly sounds like a cross between a suppository and a billy goat. And pacifically seems like a place with saltwater, sharks and kelp. Shudder.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
I’m pretty much an open book. But you might not know I grew up in prison. Seriously. When I was a child, my father worked in several prisons in California and I lived on prison grounds through my high school years. Some of my earliest memories were learning about raising pigeons from an inmate and rescuing bears from garbage pits with an inmate crew. It gave me a different perspective on life behind prison walls. I later taught college classes in prison and eventually worked in the prison system, all experiences I draw from for my writing.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
Anytime I feel stressed, all I need to do is look to our Pembroke Welsh Corgis. How can you not smile when you see those faces. Tanner and Emma are both titled performance dogs and registered Therapy Dogs. My wife and I take them to Memory Care facilities, Senior Citizen homes, and Assisted Living facilities to provide a little comfort to the residents. Reading To The Dogs is another therapy activity we are actively involved in, where children practice their skills, reading to a non-judgmental dog, who won’t make fun of their ability.
CONNECT WITH JIM