The Writer

John at Borders

One might think that writing legal briefs, as part of a lawyer's life, would make writing a novel easy. After all, a brief often starts with a client's story--and in the case of personal injury case, a tragedy. And I had been writing briefs for almost 30 years, including to the United States Supreme Court in a landmark case of corporate duplicity and greed. Looking back, I realized that when I "wrote" a legal brief I did so standing, just as I would when talking to a jury. I dictated the brief into a machine for transcription by a secretary who would hand it to an associate attorney who would edit it and return it to me for final signature. I was not writing; I was speaking.

Each time I addressed a jury in my years as a trial lawyer, I was telling a story. But I was also receiving back from them their individual reactions. I could see when I was winning and when I was losing them. I could pause, drop my voice, pound the table, or choke with genuine emotion. No punctuation in the court reporter's later written transcript could adequately explain what went on in the courtroom.

Ironically, it was a speech that lead to The Lawyers: Class of '69. At my 25th law school reunion, I delivered the after dinner comments that became the basis of that first novel. In fact, the actual speech, with a few minor changes, is contained in both of my novels and attributed to my character J.J. Rai. It was the questions of that speech: "Are we who we were; and were we ever?" that led me to create five fictional characters and follow them thoughout their lives to the 30th reunion of the U.C. Berkeley law school class of 1969. (It took time to write the book, so I added five years to the story.)

In writing The Lawyers, I learned my first lesson about fiction: Once you create characters, they take on a life of their own. For example, Rose was never meant to be the main character. In early drafts, she didn't even appear until chapter seven. But one night, at about 4 a.m., I wrote the line: "Rose was crying." So was I. Later that morning, I called my daughter Rebel and told her that a woman had taken over my book. Her answer: "That's what we do, dad." Rose's chapter became chapter one.

I also learned that editing was not the same as having someone correct a brief and returning it to me for signature. And tirades like "how in the hell do you expect me to know what parallelism is; I'm a lawyer," were to no avail.

As I began writing my first novel, I received a book on writing as a gift: Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird. I have since summarized it to many who tell me they have always thought of writing: Start. Finish. And if you need more encouragement: I have since been featured with my hero Ann Lamott at an authors luncheon in front of a thousand people. Start. Finish. {To read the speech about my encounter with Ann Lamott, click here.}

Looking back, I realize I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote and published my first novel. What a blessing. Had I known, I'm sure I would have weighed the odds and abandoned writing. Instead, I wrote just to see if I could write a novel; was surprised when I finished; was surprised when friends liked it; was more surprised when people bought it; and was finally overwhelmed when strangers praised it.

One morning, (ok, maybe every morning) when I Googled The Lawyers to see what new mention had appeared, I saw a reference to it in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania newspaper. Surprised, as I had no contact with the paper, I pulled it up. Someone named John Lescroart was on a book tour and was asked what he was reading. His answer: "I'm reading this book by John Poswall. It's great. I'm going to recommend it to my agent." Up to that point, I had no idea who John Lescroart was.

I now know John Lescroart. We will be appearing "back to back" at Borders Books in Sacramento, he on Feb. 27th, and I on Feb. 28th. 2008, John with his new book Betrayal--a timely story that begins in Iraq and returns to the courtrooms of San Francisco with attorney Dismas Hardy--and I with Altar Boys.

Without John Lescroart, Altar Boys would never had been written. While I waited on New York for a hardback deal for The Lawyers, John told me: "Write the next book." I accepted the challenge thinking, "I'll show them." So I wrote Altar Boys and John's evaluation of my effort appears on the front cover. Had he not liked it, you would never have heard of Altar Boys and I would have abandoned writing for alcohol.

The Lawyers is, in many ways, a questioning look back at the 60s and what "our generation" accomplished--or failed to accomplish. Did we change America? Or were we changed? Did we live up to our ideals? Or did we sell out? So, it is about our lives. Altar Boys is a look at faith and death. With two books, I have covered the period of my life and the question of death. What's left? Will there be another book? On what? Who knows. But I will tell you, I do have one chapter completed and so far the Vice President of the United States has been blown up by two women. I'd call that a pretty good start.