William Bernhardt is a New York Times bestselling author and founder of HAWK Publishing Group. He is best known for the Ben Kincaid series of legal thrillers, including his most recent title, Capitol Conspiracy. He has won the Oklahoma Book award twice and the Southern Writers Guild Gold Medal award. He is on the advisory panel for the Oklahoma Arts Institute and serves on the board for the Tulsa Arts and Humanities Council. More information is available at williambernhardt.com and hawkpub.com.
By Ryan Dahlgren
I met William Bernhardt at his home office on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. He took time away from working on the first draft of his latest book to talk about his novels and HAWK publishing. His office was dominated by an antique wooden desk, bare except for a fountain pen. Next to his desk was a computer station, its screen blinking with the novel-in-progress. One wall was lined with books; another was a row of windows. The remaining space was adorned with book jackets and newspaper articles, framed and neatly hung. The entire space was immaculate, but Bill’s kitten had free rein.
So is this your sanctum sanctorum?
It does look nice. For the first ten years of my writing I just worked at a table stuck in a bedroom. I’d like a house about half this size, but the kids rebel every time I talk about moving. I have to wait for them to move out before I can divest myself of it. This does at least give me a room I can call my office. My bedroom is right over there, so I can work, sleep, work, sleep.
Do you try to keep a schedule or do you write when the inspiration catches you?
I write every day. I definitely keep on a schedule. Really cranking. The past several weeks I’ve been working on a first draft of the new Ben Kincaid novel. The first draft, as you probably know, is the hardest. Writing is great work, but it’s still work. I’m trying to accelerate the schedule a little bit by pushing myself more to write each day and getting up earlier and working. I did many, many pages today before you got here today. I knew you were coming, so no goofing off!
Do you shoot for a certain number of words a day?
I never look at words. Words? I mean who knows? Who cares? I look at page numbers, and sometimes say, “Okay, you’ve got to write at least X many pages,” depending on whether it’s a first draft or second draft. “Is it a courtroom scene where people are mostly just yakking at each other?” Obviously that goes down faster than an action scene. And I find this gets worse as I get older, probably more OCD or something: I can’t stop on an odd numbered page. Why am I admitting this? [Laughs] If I’m on page 348, “Well, that’s no good; I’ve got to get to page 350!”
Is the important part just to get the words out there on paper?
Exactly. Write the lousy first draft and fix it later. It’s a lot easier to work with something that’s there on the screen than trying to create something from nothingness. That’s the really hard work. Revision is a lot more gratifying, I think, artistically satisfying, trying to make it good, make it pretty.
So did you know that at first, or did it take you a couple of novels to figure that out?
Well, it’s an on going process. I still haven’t completely figured it out. I have never really written two books the same way. I’m getting closer, butI’m experimenting this time, trying to get through the first draft more quickly.
Is it easier to go into “Ben Kincaid mode” than to do something different?
I think it’s easier to get started on a Ben Kincaid book. I don’t think the actual writing is quicker or better. To be fair, obviously I’m not creating every character from scratch and that helps. I know who Ben is. I know who Christina is. Even if they’re moving forward in time and maturing over time, I know who they are.
Ben Kincaid is a bit different, isn’t he? There aren’t a lot of detective types who swill chocolate milk.
It was almost a cliché, at the time, that every attorney in fiction was some kind of roaring alcoholic. I thought, “I’m just not going there.” This character will be a contrast.
So not exactly whiskey and jazz. Ben played in a band, didn’t he?
Yeah, he played in a band. He’s a musician. Apparently not too bad.
Are you a musician?
Well, I play the piano.
So there are a lot of little elements of your life in Ben Kincaid.
Well, I haven’t solved any mysteries. I haven’t solved any murders. That’s another thing I tell my students. I think all writing is autobiography. That doesn’t mean every character is based on you, the serial killers for instance. But at the same time you are a filter. It all kind of comes through you, and the characters don’t work unless they make sense to you. So when I am writing about a serial killer, I try and think of something that would make sense to me.
So not “Here’s a monster” but “Here’s a person that’s twisted in one way or another”?
Exactly. So if you read Dark Eye, you’ll see we’ve got the police psychologist, the autistic kid who is very smart but kind of clueless in social situations, and the nutsy crazy killer guy who is basically so steeped in literature and has read so many books he’s gone off the deep end. I can relate to all three of those. [Laughs] They’re not exactly me, but I can get there from here.
I can see the transition where you go from practicing law to writing about it, but did you take writing courses? Where did this interest come from?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I’ve got a rejection letter from when I was eleven. Really! I could show it to you. Yes, I kept it. I always wanted to be a writer. It’s all I ever cared about, but I hadn’t sold anything when I got off campus. So I figured I had better learn how to do something else so I could support myself. Law worked out well, and I was pretty good at it. I’ve been able to use it as source material. Not the individual cases, but my knowledge of the law was very helpful.
You said you have students. How long have you been teaching at a writing camp?
Well, this will be the fourth year, third time. But I also speak at least three or four times a year at other people’s seminars. I work up the material for my own workshop and then take it on the road. I mean, I really try to come up with things that can be useful to people and not just rattle on for fifty minutes. Once you have that material, you can take it anywhere.
So not to take all the secrets from your workshop but are there any big areas you focus on?
Write a framework. Don’t expect to write a novel in three months. Be organized. Take it seriously; don’t drown in pretentiousness. That won’t help you as a writer, no matter what kind of book you’re trying to write. Last timein fiction boot camp--we focused on how to organize the introduction, then talked about structure, character, and plot. So now I’m trying to explore some of that other stuff that we didn’t get into so much. Viewpoint is a little more subtle, but so critical. Like Primary Justice, it’s all about viewpoint. It’s what makes Ben Kincaid come alive.
One of the things I really liked about Primary Justice was when I could say “Oh, I know where that is in Tulsa!”
Well, I think that works for people even if they don’t live in Tulsa. It’s an environment that hasn’t been seen much in mystery thrillers, which always seem to be in New York, Chicago, LA, or San Francisco. Enough already! It’s time for the heartland.
Did you stay with that Oklahoma setting through all of your books?
No, but Ben lives in Tulsa. It’s his home base. The Capitol trilogy was taken to Washington D.C. Ben’s coming back for the next book. He’s done other cases in other cities, but Tulsa’s always home base. I’ve also had other books set somewhere else, one in Las Vegas. The Christmas book was in Oklahoma City. There was Dallas. Another in Georgia.
Do you ever write short fiction?
I’ve done short stories. I’ve done poetry. I wrote a musical once, for Pete’s sake, but that’s never going to be in a list of my A books. I’m okay with that.
Then you write the songs, too?
I sure did. The lyrics, the score, the whole works. It was produced here in Tulsa. It was done as a fundraiser for the Arts and Humanities Council. LeAnne Taylor sang the soprano lead. I wrote a ballad number for her because she has such a lovely voice. So flash forward a few years to last year. I got a call from a woman who runs a symphony orchestra in Dubuque, Iowa, who is also apparently a fan. She wanted to know if I would come host a symphony program. I said, “Of course.” Pretty soon she had me reading the narration to one of the pieces. Then she had me guest conducting. Then she asked if I played the piano. Then she said, “Well is there anything you’ve written that the orchestra could play?” This is over a long period of time. I said I wouldn’t know how to orchestrate something. She said, “Well I do; that’s what I do all the time.” I sent the ballad number for the musical, wrote some new lyrics, and she scored it for the full orchestra. It was really fantastic. They played it, and I played the piano at the same time.
You have such a multi-faceted career. You wouldn’t trade it for anything?
The writing life? Absolutely not. What could be better? Other things I might have gotten wrong, but when I decided I wanted to be a writer around age seven, I got that exactly right! Nothing could possibly be better. You get to hang out with the coolest people. You hang out with other artists and other writers. They really care about their work and about other people. You can look in their eyes and tell there’s really somebody in there. It’s the best part of the whole job.
And it’s gotten even better since you started HAW\K?
The nice thing about HAWK is that it has created a context for me to work with other people. It’s true, writing can be kind of a solitary profession. In the sense that when you’re actually doing the work it’s just you and the pen or your word processor or whatever. It’s not a group activity. You don’t go to the office, like I used to do, and say hi to your secretary and hi to everybody else. I come in here in my pajamas, prop my feet up, and sometimes my cat comes. That’s pretty much it. With Hawk, I work with people all the time. I get to work with people that were or have become my best friends. That’s really nice. Now we’ve expanded into these workshops, and I get to work with even more people that I can publish, and that’s great. We’ve got a lot of talented people. We’ve got some people that started with HAWK and went on to get published by other companies. Started some careers.
I noticed there’s a submission area on the website. What is HAWK looking for?
Something good. We’re not looking to fill in a slot for a science fiction author here, and we’re looking for authors who are serious and have what it takes to make a career as a writer. We’ve published over 90 books. We’ll publish our 100th this year.
When I was younger, I never realized there was this much writing going on in Oklahoma.
The writing in Oklahoma is well above par, on the per capita average I think. We’re not always the best at publicizing it. We suffer from this sort of cultural inferiority complex. “Everybody else’s work is of higher quality” or “Everything good in publishing is on the east coast.” Baloney. That’s just where the publishing houses are.
Genre writing seems to get a lot of criticism for not being “literary.” Do you think that’s necessarily the case?
I don’t think it has anything to do with genre, myself, whether or not your book is of literary quality. Some mysteries have been great. Crime and Punishment is a crime novel, obviously. Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner is a crime novel. But they’re also great examples of literary fiction. 1984 and Brave New World are science fiction novels. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are romance novels. It’s not about the genre; it’s about the writer. It’s what you bring to it.
Do have time for leisure reading outside of work?
Not as much as I would like, but yes, of course. I read all the time. I find myself reading more non-fiction these days. Particularly when I’m working on a book. I don’t know why that is. It’s hard to enter other people’s fictional worlds when you’re creating your own, perhaps. I actually stock up on a lot of novels when I go out of town. I can get through one a day, easily, depending on what I’m doing.Email Ryan Dahlgren at firstname.lastname@example.org