Everything looks better between two pieces of cardboard. You know it's true. Which do you have more of on the bookshelf in your living room -- paperbacks or hardcovers? Those shiny dust jackets just make everything look cooler, right? That's what I was hoping would happen, anyway, when I approached the first hardcover entry in the Ben Kincaid series, Perfect Justice.
My agent had been in discussions with Susan Peterson, then president of Ballantine Books and a great woman, one whose taste and enthusiasm set her apart. But the Kincaid books were being brought out so quickly, just as soon as I could finish them, that we ultimately agreed to do the second and third in paper but targeted a date for a hardcover release for the fourth entry. (Despite this executive planning, that date would change many times.)
I approached this with considerable trepidation. Basically, I was: 1) delighted that I would emerge from what is usually the abyss of paperback originals but 2) unconvinced anyone would pay $24 for something I wrote and 3) aware that a failed hardcover would be the end of the line. Traditional wisdom is that the only thing harder than getting published for the first time is getting published for the second time after your first book tanks. The advantage I had was that by the time the book came out, I had already sold around a million books and had an audience waiting for the next entry. This was a blessing. The hardcover doubled my readership and income overnight.
All the Kincaid novels were crime stories, but they also tackled serious social issues as well, i.e., Blind Justice advocated animal rights, Deadly Justice criticized corporate abuse, etc. But for this book, I decided it was time to seriously ramp it up. For this book, Ben travels to Arkansas and becomes involved with white supremacist, government-despising, militia groups. Some critics thought racism was the issue of another era, but living where I did, I knew it was far from over.
The obvious plot would've been to have crusading Ben go all Atticus Finch on the racists and argue them into submission. But I always try to avoid doing the obvious thing. Instead, in my story, no one is willing to represent the supremacist accused of murder. Ben realizes that if he doesn't represent the man, he will not get a fair trial. Reprehensible though he may be, Ben believes everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Thus Ben is forced to do what I consider the hardest, most courageous work a lawyer can do -- representing the unpopular client. This decision puts him at odds not only with the community but even with his loyal companion Christina.
I'd been involved with the Southern Poverty Law Center for years and I knew well the work Morris Dees and others had done to combat these militia groups (Dees was generous enough to contribute a blurb endorsing the novel). But not everyone did. I received more than one review -- including one from a New York source I could quote verbatim, suggesting that I was "making too much" of a few "backwoods bullies." Less than a year after the book was released, two militia members bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, not 10 minutes from where I grew up. Suddenly, everyone had a better perspective on the very real danger still lurking in our midst.
The OKC bombing brought this issue to national attention, as did my book and several others, including books by Dees himself. In the wake of the horrific bombing, membership in these militia groups declined dramatically. I would like to tell you racism and anti-government fervor have been eliminated, but of course, that isn't true.
I did extensive research for this book, thinking that if I was going to tackle such a serious subject, I had to get my facts right. It's always challenging to achieve the right balance -- providing enough factual information to make it real, without bogging down what is after all supposed to be an entertaining read. I think the work paid off, though. I had been nominated twice before, but his book actually won the Oklahoma Book Award, in part I assume because of the serious subject matter. (The fact that it appeared in hardcover probably helped, too.)
I still had some reservations. Because the schedule changed, I was forced to complete the book in a mad rush, and always had the feeling I should have spent more time with it. I was determined to start early on the next one so I would not be hurried. And I was determined to come up with a plot that would tackle serious subjects but also be wildly entertaining, with more complex characters and plotting. Easy to say, hard to do. But it never hurts writers to set their goals high. Because in my opinion, the next book would be the first one to really rock and roll...