A Talk with Scott Pratt

Scott Pratt is the author of the best-selling legal thrillers featuring his protagonist, attorney Joe Dillard. Scott has a B.A. in English and a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University Of Tennessee. He practiced primarily criminal defense law over a period of years before he began writing. His latest novel, Conflict of Interest, was released recently.

The Joe Dillard series is comprised of five books. Dillard's worked as a criminal defense attorney and a prosecutor -- both sides of the aisle. How come? Does this reflect your ambivalence regarding the law?
I did a great deal of criminal defense law, and worked closely with people in the prosecutor's office. My experience has been that prosecutors wanted to win once a case was filed and it got in front of a Grand Jury. It really became much more about winning than about the notion of justice. It was a competition. It's a human experience and everyone in court is competitive, especially those who are drawn to that kind of adversarial profession.

In the first Joe Dillard novel, An Innocent Client, Joe wants above all, to finally defend someone who is actually innocent. Does that reflect your thoughts about practicing criminal defense law?
Joe is very much a reflection of me, but I think he's a better person than I am. He and I have many things in common. Joe's very conflicted about what he's doing. When you practice criminal defense, you inevitably represent some people who are guilty and some who don't tell you the truth. You wind up being an advocate for a lie. It becomes difficult. You have to try staying focused on the process and the constitutional aspects of criminal defense law. I always enjoyed constitutional law, which is what attracted me to criminal defense. You can get various situations often involving violence. When a defendant's freedom is at stake, things can get warped and you have to step back and ask yourself "What am I really doing here?" And that's what Joe Dillard does at times.

Joe questions himself constantly. In the second book, In Good Faith, he actually becomes a prosecutor. I left him in that office for three books. He had the same issues in the prosecutor's office -- the same internal conflicts as when he was a defense attorney.

The five Joe Dillard novels are a series, though they're discreet stories. Should the books be read in order or could a reader pick up any one and have an understanding of Joe's life and conflicts?
I try to write them so you can pick up any one and enjoy it. I think the reader's experience would probably be more enjoyable by starting at the beginning and going through the series in order. It's not like the Jack Reacher novels. Joe doesn't stay the same age. He evolves and his family does too. His wife gets sick. His kids go off to college. He's living a life and progresses through it. I think this natural progression in his life resonates deeply with readers.

Do you use your own legal cases as material or do you go to court and research interesting cases for the novels?
It's a mixture. Some, I make up completely. Several have been cases in which I was involved, and I based the story loosely on them. I tweaked the facts a bit; changed names and other things. This is a fairly rural area, but these situations involve people--and people create drama--so the cases are just as compelling as those in Los Angeles or New York. People are people and the same forces apply.

So sometimes there's a fuzzy interface between an author's life and that of a protagonist the author creates. How much of your life infiltrates Joe Dillard's on the page?

Joe Dillard and I are joined at the hip. This became clear when I started writing in the first person. I want the storytelling to be natural; I try to get out of the way and let the story happen. It's hard to explain, but Joe Dillard and I are sort of mirror reflections of each other. I've made mistakes in my life--ones I regret, and have tried to have Joe avoid making those mistakes. But he makes certain mistakes he regrets. I want the book to have heart; I know I want that when I read a novel, so I try for that when I write one. That's my goal as a writer: to infuse this man with heart.

Your first Joe Dillard novel was published by New American Library, a division of the Penguin Group. Your latest novel, Conflict of Interest, is an Indie, meaning it's self-published. How did that come about?
NAL published my first three novels. My editor moved to California and my books became orphaned. They didn't assign another editor to me for a few months. When they did, he wasn't particularly interested in my work. Those three novels just died on the vine. An Innocent Client was published in 2008, and by 2010, it was dead in the water. They were going to take it out of print. I wanted the rights back but they wouldn't give them to me. I ended up having to get a lawyer. It took over a year to get the rights back for those first three books. Meanwhile, I wrote two more. I didn't market them because I wanted the rights for the first three before I did that. I knew the series could do well. I could feel it in my heart and I had great reactions from people who'd read them.

So I finally got the rights back. I designed new covers; I re-wrote parts of them and began publishing them myself. I began in November 2012 with An Innocent Client--I sold seven copies the first day for 99 cents each on Amazon. Two weeks later, I released the next one, and then one more every two weeks until I got four of them up. I waited until April of 2013 year and released Conflict of Interest.

How are the novels doing now?
I'll sell about 50,000 copies this month. It's been getting better each month. I sold 10,000 in December of 2012; then 14,000 in January; in April, 25,000 were sold; in May 27,500 were sold. This month more than 40,000 have been sold. I promoted them a bit and that helped a great deal.

Have the sales been mostly in print or have they been e-books?
Though more print books are selling than ever before, about 98 percent of the books sold have been e-books.

What made you start writing novels in the midst of a successful legal career?
I've always enjoyed writing. I wrote for newspapers and had a column in a Sunday paper for years. What really kicked it over the edge was my getting into a feud with a city criminal court judge. It culminated in him holding me in contempt of Court and throwing me in jail. During that process, I was suspended without any hearing because the judge filed a complaint against me. It was so unfair it made me angry enough to make me want to stop practicing law. It so happens I read The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. I told my wife, "I think I'm not going to practice law anymore. She said, "Are you crazy?" I said "If this is the way they treat their own, I don't want to be a part of that anymore. She asked what I was going to do, and I showed her The Lincoln Lawyer. I said, "I can do this..."

Had I known how difficult it was and what a long shot it was at the time, I probably would not have done it. But I got into it full bore. The next day, I began writing. It took me 18 months to sell the first one -- to get an agent and get it sold. Then I went through the period with Penguin where I didn't have any success. It got to the point where we ended up living in my mother-in-law's basement. Things weren't looking very good. Kristy, my wife, always believed in me and said, "You're going to make it. Just stay at it. No matter what happens, we'll be okay." The kids were in college and we needed money. It was rough. But we made it.

If you could have dinner with any Supreme Court justices, past or present, which ones would they be and why?
The one I'd like to have dinner with right now would be Earl Warren. The Warren Court was an activist court when it came to civil liberties. Since 9/11 and with the new revelations about the PRISM program and what the NSA is doing, I would like to hear what Earl Warren would say about the government spying on its own citizens and about the deterioration of civil liberties. You know the Miranda rights were established by the Warren court. And the decisions coming down over the last few years have been chipping away at the Miranda rights. I'd love to hear what Earl Warren would say about that.

If you could have dinner with a few writers, either living or dead, who would they be?
Samuel Clemens would be at the top of the list. He entertains me and was so bright and witty; it would be a lot of fun. I'd love to talk with Homer and ask him how he came up with what has become the model for structuring stories way back then. I'd like to talk with Harper Lee. I'd love to talk with Ernest Hemingway. William Shakespeare...there are so many of them, I could have dinner with a different one every night for a year.

What would you discuss with them?
I would certainly talk about writing, especially with Homer. But I think I would just like to hear their stories more than anything. I'd want to get to know them as human beings.

If any of the Joe Dillard novels became a movie, who do you see playing Joe?
Maybe Matthew McConaughey. His voice and demeanor are a lot like I imagine Dillard's being, but his physical appearance isn't exactly like him. Noah Wyle was interested in playing Joe Dillard after An Innocent Client came out. There was significant interest in Hollywood in turning it into a television series. I think Noah Wyle would do a good job.

And who would play Joe's wife, Caroline?
Someone lovely, kind-hearted, tender and beautiful. Back in her day, I think Meryl Streep could have done it very well. Right now, I just don't know. Maybe I'll write my wife into the contract.

Would you defend Jodie Arias or James Holmes, the Aurora Colorado shooter?
Of course I would. Jodi Arias would turn my stomach. But I would defend her the way I defended other people. I would look at the law and hold the government to its burden of proof and make sure they follow their own rules. I'd do the best I could under the circumstances.

With James Holmes it's a bit different. There must be something wrong with him. But it's difficult to believe a person who was as organized as he was, and went through the planning process he did, was so far gone mentally that he couldn't tell the difference between right and wrong. As a juror, I would have trouble finding him not guilty by reason of insanity.

Is there a sixth Joe Dillard novel coming our way?
Yes. A while back I wrote a stand-alone thriller called Russo's Gold about a young woman who winds up with a fortune in gold she finds in a cave. I'm re-writing that book as a Joe Dillard novel, inserting Joe into it, and I think I'll have it done by mid-July. I think I see about ten Joe Dillard books, maybe more. But if I get to the point where I feel I'm only writing them for money, I'll stop. As long as I feel I'm creating something people will enjoy, I'll keep doing it.

To hear a podcast of this interview please visit author Mark Rubinstein's
"Writer to Writer" on booktrib.com