A conversation with John Hart

The bestselling author talks about his love for Rowan County, his new book and what Novant Health Wallace Cancer Institute means to him

John Hart grew up on 472 acres of farmland in Rowan County, and his memories of that time are vivid and blissful. He lived a “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer childhood,” and he knows adventures like his are much harder to come by these days.

“I was free-ranging, barefoot for days at a time in a place that felt like a nation, it was so large,” Hart recalled. “Having that place and living that childhood, I can still feel it. I feel that childish love and sense of wonder. You can’t find a red dirt road in Rowan County anymore. It was just a simpler time. And as the world grows increasingly complex, that’s what I marvel about.”

Now, as a New York Times bestselling author, it’s also what he writes about, in ways both subtle and not.

“All my books touch on this love I have for the land. That was my favorite memory of childhood,” Hart said.

Hart doesn’t live in Rowan County anymore, but he comes back often. And on Feb. 1, he’ll return virtually for an event to launch his latest book, The Unwilling, and raise money for the Cancer Survivor Fund at Novant Health Wallace Cancer Institute. The event will be held via Zoom from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and will be moderated by Hart’s friend and fellow bestselling author Mike Lupica.

Join the event!

You can hear from John Hart about his life in Rowan County and about “The Unwilling” on Feb. 1 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. during “An Evening with John Hart,” a virtual event to benefit Novant Health Wallace Cancer Institute and the Cancer Survivor Fund. Join us and register today!

Register today

Raising money for the Wallace Cancer Institute is particularly significant for Hart, who lost his father-in-law to cancer almost six years ago and was in Salisbury in early January to help his mother navigate a recent lung cancer diagnosis.

“We didn’t have the Cancer Institute when my father-in-law was diagnosed, so getting involved initially seemed so perfect because of what we had experienced when my father-in-law passed away. It was not easy,” Hart said. “Now that my mother’s facing her own diagnosis, it’s doubly significant. It’s wonderful to have this in the community. It’s a big deal, and not many towns this size have an institute like this.”

Learn more about the Wallace Center Institute

Hart began writing novels when he left Rowan County for undergraduate, graduate and then law school. His first two books remain unpublished — Hart calls them “unpublishable” — and it wasn’t until his time working as a criminal defense attorney in Salisbury that he took the biggest leap of faith in his writing career.

He had been working for a firm on Main Street for a few years, cutting his teeth on small crimes and cases, when he was assigned to work on his first child molestation case. At the time, he was newly married with a daughter just a few weeks old. The man accused of the crime admitted what he had done, and Hart couldn’t bring himself to represent him. He started to think it was time to leave the law and go back to writing.

“Writing is hard, and it hurts, and if you really remembered how painful the process is, you may not do it another time. But I could look at the first two books and tell that the learning curve was trending in the right direction,” Hart said. “This case was the sign I should quit my law practice and write a third book.”

But first, he knew he had to make a compelling case to his wife.

“My first two efforts were very much in the vein of raw, commercial thrillers — not a lot of character or attention to language. Whatever I was going to write next, my wife needed to respect it, and she has more literary taste,” Hart said. “I decided to write a thriller that would be enough to keep my interest but go really deep into characters, back stories and language.”

Hart wrote the first scene of the book in secret and then asked his wife to read it and offer her honest opinion.

“She looked me in the eye and said, ‘John, you will never work another day job in your life,’” he said.

Hart laughs when he tells that story because he would, in fact, go on to work another day job, although not for long. Over the next 11-and-a-half months, he wrote his third book, King of Lies, and then went to work as a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch while he looked for an agent and then a publisher. The process took four years, and when his agent finally sold the book to St. Martin’s Press, the offer was for just $7,500. It wasn’t the amount of money he wanted or needed, but it was enough to justify embarking on a full-time writing career. 

“I have a real ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ when it comes to my writing career. When I had a decision to make, I always took the risk. So based on $7,500 and pure faith, I quit my job to write another book,” Hart said. “I was about halfway through Down River when King of Lies came out and became a New York Times bestseller and went through multiple printings in multiple languages.”

In many of Hart’s books, Rowan County is a central character, although he learned long ago to change the name. Locals would read his work and start guessing which character in the book was inspired by what real-life character in town, and it was never Hart’s goal to immortalize the people he grew up with. It was always about the land and his memories of it.

“Rowan County is what I see when I close my eyes. This is where I grew up, and childhood is so formative. All of my main characters have some event in their childhoods that transforms who they are as adults. Anything that is truly going to shape you is most likely to happen then,” Hart said. 

The same goes for Hart’s latest book, which centers on three sons during the time of the Vietnam War. Two went to Vietnam: One died, and the other became a war hero who was then dishonorably discharged and went to prison. The youngest brother is the only one who thinks his older brother is innocent of his crimes, and the book is about how their lives are torn apart and then come back together.

“All my books are, at their core, thrillers or suspense, but they’re largely family dramas. It’s just such a powerful thing to have as the backstop of the story because we all have families. And so we can all relate,” Hart said. “It’s a great texture to the broader strokes of the story.”

Join the event!

You can hear from John Hart about his life in Rowan County and about “The Unwilling” on Feb. 1 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. during “An Evening with John Hart,” a virtual event to benefit Novant Health Wallace Cancer Institute and the Cancer Survivor Fund. Join us and register today!

Register today