Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Scott Pratt was a reporter, columnist, and editor on Tennessee newspapers before he decided to go to law school in his late thirties. Eventually he was drawn back to writing, and after a more difficult struggle than he had anticipated (see below for the whole story), he sold his first legal thriller, An Innocent Client, which was published this week. Publishers Weekly gave An Innocent Client a starred review and called it a “brilliantly executed debut” with “richly developed characters.” The first chapter is posted on Scott's website.
Scott and his wife have two grown children and share their Tennessee home with a German shepherd named Rio, a Yorkshire terrier named Pedro, and a Bichon Friese named Nacho.
Q. Tell us about your first novel.
A. An Innocent Client is the story of Joe Dillard, a forty-year-old criminal defense attorney who is excellent at what he does, but has grown tired of the constant moral compromises he’s forced to make in the profession. On his fortieth birthday, he makes an off-hand wish for just one innocent client before he quits. Not long after that, he thinks he’s gotten his wish. A young girl is accused of stabbing a preacher to death in a motel. Dillard is hired to represent the girl, and he sincerely believes she’s innocent.
However, as the case unfolds, Dillard finds himself dealing with a dirty cop, a politically-astute district attorney, a drug-addled sister, a dying mother, a violent stalker, and a manipulative redhead who isn’t what she seems. Dillard is forced to make a series of gut-wrenching decisions along the way and ultimately is forced to confront his worst enemy – himself. I tried to keep the story suspenseful but fun, fast-moving but deeply evocative. There are several twists, a bunch of great characters, and what I think is a satisfying, plausible ending. Sounds like a bestseller, huh?
Q. I’ve heard that the legal thriller market isn’t easy to break into. What was your road to publication like? Easier than you expected or more difficult?
A. It was vastly more difficult than I expected. I knew going in that I could write, but I didn’t know how to structure a novel. I enlisted the help of The Editorial Department, an on-line company that not only helps writers develop manuscripts but also helps them secure literary agents. It wasn’t cheap, but without Renni and Ross Browne, the owners of the company, I don’t know whether I could have done it. I went through five drafts of the novel. After each draft, we’d send it out and get rejected.
After the fourth draft, I knew something fundamental was missing, so I bought a copy of “Plot and Structure” by James Scott Bell. That put me over the top. I did another draft and Renni called Philip Spitzer, whom she’d known from her days as an editor in New York. Philip got the manuscript on a Monday and called me Tuesday afternoon. The first words out of his mouth were, “This is the best first novel I’ve read in ten years.”
I started the novel in January of ’06, Philip picked it up in July of ’07, and he sold it to Penguin in October of ’07, so it took me a little over a year and a half, start to sale. Over the next few months, Philip and his co-agent, Lukas Ortiz, also sold it to major publishing companies in France, Germany, Japan, Holland and Bulgaria, and I firmly believe he’ll sell it to more publishers before all is said and done.
Probably the most interesting thing – and frustrating at some level – I discovered along the way is that publishers aren’t necessarily looking for good books. They’re looking for bestsellers. If they don’t think a book is going to be a big hit – especially a book from a first-timer – they’re not going to take a chance on it. Ditto for agents.
Q. How did you get the news about the sale? What was your first reaction? How have your family and friends reacted?
A. I got the news about the sale in an email from Philip. He called a little while later. My reaction was mixed – part of me said, “Finally,” and another part said, “I don’t believe this is really happening.” You have to understand that when I quit practicing law and made the decision to do this, I had some financial resources, but, as things turned out, not enough. About a year into the process, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. We wound up filing bankruptcy, losing our home and our vehicles… it was bad. But I kept telling myself that I’d eventually make it and that all the bad things that were happening would make me more appreciative of the success. And that’s what’s happened. I’m extremely humbled and thankful for what’s going on right now and for the opportunities I’ve been given. My only concern is to get the snowball effect going and keep it going.
As for my family and friends, I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive group. They were skeptical at first, but once they realized I was serious, they all believed that good things would happen, and they told me so. My mother is proud as punch.
Q. What was the inspiration for the story? Were you already familiar, as a lawyer, with the legal issues involved, or did you have to do some research?
A. The inspiration for the story was the moral dilemmas that I faced each and every day as a criminal defense lawyer. The criminal justice system is the perfect backdrop to explore the themes I wanted to explore -- things like the hypocrisy in the criminal justice system, the fine line between justice and injustice, man’s continued inhumanity to man, the dangers inherent in extremism and power, the havoc that childhood trauma, especially trauma that is buried and unresolved, can wreak on the life of an adult, just to mention a few -- and I used the opportunity to work out some of the dilemmas in my own mind.
As far as research, I have to admit I did very little. After practicing law for as long as I did, I was intimately familiar with both the legal and moral issues involved in the story.
Q. Why did you decide to go to law school after working as a journalist?
A. To be honest, I was tired of being poor. I had a couple of kids and a wife to support, and I thought law might be a good fit for me. I didn’t start law school until I was 38 years old and I had to commute over 200 miles a day, five days a week, for three years to get through. It was so difficult I barely remember it. The other reason I went is that as a journalist, one of the things I noticed was that lawyers could actually change things for the better once in awhile, and that appealed to me. I practiced criminal defense and I also took on some civil rights issues.
Q. Do you write full-time now? Do you outline and stick to a writing routine, or do you wing it?
A. I write full-time. I’ve already finished my second novel, In Good Faith. It’s in the production process and is scheduled for release in May. I’ve also written a couple of teleplays and a screenplay based on my novels. There’s some serious interest in Hollywood, but so far nobody has shelled out any money.
I outline loosely, but the stories, and especially the characters, sometimes seem to develop a mind of their own. I do have a routine – it’s called “get your butt in front of the computer and write every day.” I take a day off every now and then, but when I’m closing in on an idea, I tend to spend a lot of time on it. The other thing I do is talk with my wife every day. We walk four miles every morning at a park near our home and I bounce ideas off of her and listen to her suggestions. She’s been a great help.
Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?
A. I don’t know what my strengths are, really. Maybe dialogue. I hear the characters speaking in my head when I’m writing. As far as the other aspects of the craft that I’m still trying to master, the answer would be all of them.
Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books do you rush to read as soon as they’re published?
A. I have a wide range of tastes. I love James Lee Burke, Grisham’s early stuff, Paulo Cohelo, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, J.K. Rowling, and a bunch of others. Probably my favorite writer of all time is Mike Royko, a columnist in Chicago. I like straightforward prose, a subtle sense of humor, and writers who leave themselves out of the story.
Q. Are you planning a series, or do you want to write stand-alones? Can you give us a hint of what the next book is about?
A. The next book, In Good Faith, is the second in what I hope will be a long series. At least five, anyway. In the second book, Joe Dillard has taken a year off from the legal profession and is drawn back by what he perceives as gross injustice. The twist is that he’s a prosecutor in the second novel, a job he thinks he might feel good about. It doesn’t quite work out that way.
Q. Will you be doing any signings and conferences where readers can meet you?
A. Right now I have a couple of signings scheduled here in Johnson City, Tennessee. I’m still trying to figure out the marketing thing. I’ll be posting events on my website, www.ScottPrattfiction.com, as they come up.
Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A. I think the most important characteristic for an aspiring writer – besides talent - is persistence. You also have to have patience, you have to be willing to accept criticism, and you have to believe in yourself. To anyone who wants to do this for a living, I think you might be nuts, but I certainly wish you all the best.