John Lescroart and San Francisco are synonymous. The author of over a score of novels, Lescroart usually bases his action in California’s city by the bay. His long-standing series featuring ex-cop, ex-bartender, ex-PI, and current defense attorney Dismas Hardy, takes place in the courtrooms and mean streets of San Francisco, as does his series featuring private investigator Wyatt Hunt.
Lescroart, who came to writing after a career in music, regularly finds his fast-paced fiction on the bestseller lists. He has been dubbed “one of the best thriller writers to come down the pike” by USA Today, and “reliably excellent” by Publishers Weekly. His third novel featuring Wyatt Hunt, The Hunter, appears in January, 2012.
San Francisco has always been a special place for me. Growing up on the San Francisco peninsula, I always looked to the city as the location where everything important seemed to happen. I attended college there for a year, and have lived there on four separate occasions, always driven out by the weather. In spite of that, my wife and I are fortunate to have a pied-a-terre now on Russian Hill, and we try to get down there at least a few times each month.
What things about San Francisco make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
While every place is unique, San Francisco has its own distinctive character that lends itself to fiction. Its topography is truly romantic, its politics Byzantine (to say nothing of just plain bizarre), its food miraculous. Additionally, it is large enough to give the novels a kind of universal spin, and small enough to feel personal.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I definitely set out use San Francisco as a kind of “character” in my books. I use real locations, stores, restaurants, sports teams, landmarks. And the aforementioned weather, of course – the fog, the wind, the occasional nice day. All these help create a real personality that infuses the books with a solid sense of place that impacts my characters and their feelings and world views on almost every page.
Right from the beginning, I knew that I would be using San Francisco as my default setting. My scenes almost always appear to me as occurring in specific locations, and I try to take full advantage of the real feelings of these places in terms of visual touchstones, smells, landmarks, etc.
How do Hardy and Hunt interact with their surroundings?
All of my main characters are long-term residents of San Francisco, and most of them display a love-hate relationship with the city that I think is typical of real residents. The location and the zeitgeist of San Francisco seems to create a certain kind of background noise, if you will – there are hassles with parking, with the homeless, with the political structure, and on the other hand there is the sublime physical beauty, the great food, the stunningly perfect days that seem to descend directly from heaven, all the more remarkable for their unexpectedness.
What’s the local reaction been like to your novels?
My books generally have been very well received in San Francisco. I am flattered to note that my picture hangs in a few of the city’s restaurants where I have named those restaurants in my books. That’s truly a real thrill.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I have, of course, made some goofs. In The Suspect, for example, I named an intersection of two North Beach streets that in fact run parallel and do not intersect. Also, I sometimes refer to certain thoroughfares incorrectly: Lincoln Way is not Lincoln Avenue, Geary Blvd. is definitely not Geary Street, and there is no such thing as the Oakland Bay Bridge (it is simply the Bay Bridge) – believe me, these peccadilloes do not go unnoticed. Whenever this happens, my readers – especially the locals – bombard me with indignant emails excoriating my ignorance and blindness!!! On the other hand, sometimes I create a fictional place in the city because I need it for plot purposes . . . and I still hear from readers who “correct” me on these decisions as well. I love writing them back saying, “Hey, it’s fiction.” But messing with the reality that is San Francisco is a tricky business, and a writer like me only approaches the undertaking at great peril.
Do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I couldn’t do better than to quote from the opening scenes in the very first of the Dismas Hardy novels, Dead Irish:
“A shroud of gray enveloped the westernmost twenty blocks of San Francisco and extended from the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge down to Daly City. The fog covered an area of perhaps no more than five square miles, but within it gusting winds of thirty miles per hour were not uncommon and the temperature was twenty degrees lower than in the rest of the city. Nowhere was visibility greater than half a block, and squalls of bone-chilling drizzle drifted like malevolent ghosts across the drear landscape.”
And by the way, the “drear” above is not a typo – it’s a referent to a word from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” my favorite poem:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Among my favorite writers and Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence Durrell, and Patrick O’Brian, and all of them used location to great advantage. After reading these giants, I came to believe that location is integral to storytelling, and I’ve stuck with that belief forever.
What’s next for Hardy or Hunt?
In The Hunter (to be published on January 3, 2012), a mysterious texter sets Wyatt Hunt on a journey to discover how his mother died. Set in San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Mexico, the book covers a lot of territory – physical and emotional.
Thanks much, John, for taking the time to visit with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on John Lescroart, visit his homepage.