A Conversation with
THE WRONG MAN
1. With this being the third book in your Jason Kolarich series, how do you perceive the character at this point in his life and his career? Is he shaping up the way you imagined he would when you first began writing this series?
Jason is getting his feet under him now. He was broken to pieces and rebuilt, and now he’s fully functioning. He’s still not entirely sure what that means, but more than anything Jason has a tremendously strong sense of right and wrong. It might not be the same as yours or mine, but it’s what he believes and he stays true to it. That moral code, more than anything else, defines Jason.
One thing that has surprised me about Jason’s development is his compassion. He’s a tough guy who likes to lead with his fists, but deep down he’s a softie who wants things to be fair and for the good guy to win. I wanted a tough guy who didn’t follow the rules. What I got, on top of that, is someone who fights for the little guy.
Jason is no whiner. He doesn’t do self-pity. But deep down, he wants to care about people. Even if he doesn’t realize it.
2. How do the real-life cases you’ve worked on inform the cases you write about in your fiction? Has there been overlap?
There is always overlap. Just as characters tend to be composites of several people I know, most plots are composites of different cases I’ve either handled directly or read about. I’ve always struggled not to be too on-the-nose with real-life cases. The impeachment of Governor Blagojevich was the biggest example of that struggle in BREACH OF TRUST. But it happens every time. I try to look at a real-life case and think, how could it be different, more dramatic, more emotional and exciting?
3. We hear many reports about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in returning war veterans. What made you make it a central plot point in your newest book, THE WRONG MAN?
It’s a fascinating illness because it places such a human exclamation point on the stresses we put on our military and law enforcement. You take some of the most violent people—trained to be violent by our government—and then you see them crumble. You see victims in people whom you otherwise would never think to use that word.
4. One of the many interesting facets of PTSD you mention in the book is Tom Stoller’s constant issue with being warm—even being in very slightly hot rooms makes him feel as if he’s back fighting in the war. How did you conduct your research on PTSD, and what other little-known things did you discover about it and how it manifests itself?
I talked with some people about PTSD, including a veteran and a doctor, and then I read as much as I could on the subject. One of the things I learned was how poor the treatment is for prisoners suffering from PTSD or any mental illness, for that matter. Prisons are generally looking for compliance among their inmate population. Making them “better” is secondary to keeping them in line. This is especially true for pre-trial detention—the jails where people stay prior to conviction. Jails are by definition temporary in nature, so the state rarely tries to tackle long-term problems like mental illness. The result is heartbreaking. I wanted the reader to feel that in Tom Stoller.
5. In The Wrong Man, Kolarich meets Tori, a woman who truly challenges him. You’ve waited a while to introduce a female character who could go head-to-head with Kolarich. Why wait till now, and what made this book the right time to bring in Tori?
Jason wasn’t ready for a love interest before now. In THE HIDDEN MAN he was still reeling. BREACH OF TRUST was a different book, and he did have a mate, though it was more sexual than romantic. It was easier for Jason to re-emerge sexually than romantically. But I never saw Jason as going it alone. He may or may not marry again, but I expect that love interests will flow in and out. Whether one of them “sticks” is anybody’s guess at this point.
But I do believe that part of rebuilding Jason is giving him back that piece of his life, even if he isn’t yet sure how to deal with it, and even if he isn’t very good at it.
6. After the tragic death of his wife and child, do you think Jason could ever find love with a woman again? Or is he too scarred from all that he’s lost?
Oh, sure. He’ll just have to find a woman who likes scars. It will take someone special to accept him and his moral code. Jason is just learning to accept himself. That’s the first step before he can let someone else accept him.
7. When Jason first meets Tom Stoller and decides to take on his case, it seems very clear to everyone that Stoller is guilty of murder. Despite the long odds against winning, Kolarich accepts the challenge—but even more telling, he shows a great deal of compassion for Stoller, even though he thinks he’s probably guilty. What is it in Kolarich’s character that responds to Stoller and wants to help him?
It cuts to the reason Jason is a defense attorney. He likes to help people who have the cards stacked against them. The more sympathetic Tom was, the more Jason wanted to help him. The more difficult the odds of winning the case, the more eager Jason was to take it. Part of it is the challenge, and that’s usually what Jason says. But really it’s more than that. Criminal defendants face a very tall mountain in our system. Jason likes being on the underdog’s side.
8. There are several twists and turns throughout the book, yet all your books are very anchored in a “real-life” setting. How difficult is it to set up a plot twist that truly surprises the reader? What is the challenge of creating both suspense and real surprises in your books while not stretching the boundaries of believability?
It is tremendously difficult to set up a big surprise at the end. I don’t mean simply the end of the whodunit—there’s always a surprise at the end of a mystery. But I mean a surprise that nobody saw coming. If you think of an Agatha Christie novel, you might be surprised at the person who ultimately is identified as the killer, but you knew the killer was going to be revealed. What I’m talking about it is a surprise that stands the entire story on its head. You think the story’s over, and then BAM, here’s something you had no idea was coming. It’s the difference between a shock you’re bracing for and one that hits you when you don’t see it coming at all.
Knowing how much reality can be “bent” is one thing that’s particularly difficult, because readers want realism—but they also want a great story. James Patterson always told me that reality is boring. If you want reality, he always says, then don’t read his book. So that becomes a very case-specific thing, to decide when something is too unrealistic to put in a novel. Usually you just have to go with your gut.
9. How do you balance the work you do with the books you write? Is it difficult to find the time to do both? Are there sacrifices you must make in order to keep both careers going?
Yes, there are many, many sacrifices I must make to be a lawyer and a novelist. The three biggest casualties of my dual life are sleep, exercise, and friends. I’ve tried very hard to arrange my schedule so that time with my family does not suffer. I think I’ve managed to find that equilibrium. But it means I have to stay up at night, and I don’t work out as much as I’d like or hang out with my friends.
10. Where do you see the series heading in future books?
Jason is getting bolder. He’s taken on a new life where justice, not rules, matter. He’ll continue to break the rules and face peril for doing so. He’ll put his career on the line. He’ll put his life on the line. But he’ll never stop doing what he thinks is right. In many ways, Jason’s life ended with the death of his wife and daughter. So everything he’s doing now is gravy, a second chance, and he sees this opportunity as a gift to fight for people who don’t have someone in their corner. He’ll keep doing it until the day he (really) dies.