By Mike Yawn
–he’s been highly successful in two distinct professions. For the past 35 years, he’s been a prominent attorney, with several appearances before the state’s highest criminal court. Over that same period, he’s published 19 books—almost all of them set in his home state of Texas—with a 20th book, From the Grave, coming out in January 2020.
You are a practicing attorney and a professional writer. What path of formal education prepared you for that?
I went to Trinity University in San Antonio for two years, then I got a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas. From there, I went to a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University in creative writing. Ultimately, I went to the University of Houston for my law degree.
You specialized in the same general discipline at both the University of Texas and Johns Hopkins, both prestigious universities. From a student perspective, how did they impact you?
The master’s experience is much better. At UT, I was one of tens of thousands of students. At Johns Hopkins, I was one of about 25 writing students, half of which were poets, and the other half fiction writers. We were immersed in writing the whole year I was there. We discussed writing, and when we weren’t discussing it, we were reading or writing. It was the only time in my life when I was around other writers constantly, and I was able to focus just on that. It was wonderful.
One of your instructors at Johns Hopkins was noted author John Barth, who won the National Book Award. Do you still keep in touch with him?
He was the main fiction instructor, and he ran a great seminar. It was extremely helpful to me, and I learned a lot. I grew a lot that year. I have kept in touch with Barth over the years, but it has been a while since I’ve reached out to him.
You indicated you were one of 25 students. How have the other students in that program done?
The most prominent member of that class was Louise Erdrich, who has written several books and won a National Book Award in 2012. Also, my best friend from there, Michael Martone, has taught writing all over the country, including at Harvard; he is now at the University of Alabama. He has published many books and short stories.
Did any others decide to be attorneys?
Actually, yes. About four of us ended up going to law school!
How did you end up in law school?
I wrote a couple of novels shortly after coming out of Johns Hopkins. I wrote suspense novels because I heard it was easier to get published if you write in a genre. I had an agent, but the agent didn’t sell the works. Meanwhile, I had moved to Houston, and I was working in a bookstore, then for a law firm. What I realized is people at the law firm made a lot more money than people at the bookstore (and more money than I was making as a non-lawyer at the law firm). So I decided to go to law school.
What happened with the books?
In my second year of law school at the University of Houston, I switched agents, and my new agent sold both novels to the first publisher she took them to! I went ahead and finished my third year of law school, and my first novel was published the same year I graduated from law school.
I’m guessing that called for a rather large bottle of champagne?
Ah, yes. Several. the odd thing was my first novel—which was written before I was even thinking about law school—involved a main character who was an attorney living in Austin. When the book came out, I was an attorney, and I was living in Austin.
Did being a writer have an impact on the race?
Not really, but some people were more interested in me because of my writing. In particular, I met a court reporter in Midland, Laquita Dettman, and I spoke with her a lot about my books. One of my books, Local Rules, featured a court reporter as one of the main characters, and it turns out that Laquita was interested in writing. She read Local Rules, and that prompted her to write again, so we have kept in touch. Her husband, Mike Dettman, is the former County Attorney in Midland, and he showed me around Midland and introduced me to a lot of people—introductions that wouldn’t have happened without my writing career.
Out of three candidates, you came in second in the primary. Would you run again?
No, but I don’t regret running. I met a lot of great people, and I saw miles and miles of Texas. But I wouldn’t do it again. It’s just too much.
You do some intriguing presentations for attorneys, mostly “Continuing Legal Education” presentations. One was Law and Literature. What did that entail?
That was a dinner topic at an advanced criminal law course. It addressed not only some of my works but also other legal works, such as To Kill a Mockingbird.
How about Ethics and a Murder Mystery?
That one wasn’t my idea. My co-presenter was an ethics specialist in Austin
He should stay busy there…
Well, yeah. Anyway, he wanted to do a webinar for the State Bar, and he wanted to take one of my novels and point out the ethical issues in it. As you suggested, lawyers can watch the webinar for CLE credit, and I’ve been told it is one of the most popular videos the State Bar offers.
Why are so many attorneys professional writers?
I don’t know. I’ve wondered that myself. I’ve spent most of my career in appeals, which is mostly writing, but most attorneys shy away from appeals and from the writing aspect. Still, all lawyers who practice law relay and develop stories, and that blends into writing.
What is the best thing about being an attorney?
Going behind the scenes. There are so many fascinating cases and trials. As an attorney, you go behind the scenes and have an understanding of how those things work, why you get the outcomes you do, and you also can see how the personalities of the players affect the outcome of the trial.
With the exception of a year or so in Baltimore and vacations, you’ve spent your life in Texas. What’s the best thing about being in Texas?
It’s so diverse it could be eight states. the diversity is the best thing. When I went to Johns Hopkins, people thought that being from Texas, I must have ridden my horse to school every day. I am a complete city boy, but there are certainly some true cowboys and cowgirls in Texas and plenty to write about.
Do you have a favorite part of Texas to travel to?
I love going to the coast. I love Port Aransas. Also, I enjoy Wimberley, which is part of the wonderful Hill Country area of Texas. There’s so much diversity in geography and the people, it serves as a wonderful setting for a writer.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
I’ve been writing since I was nine years old. I once gave an interview stating that I started writing in the 5th grade. Shortly thereafter, I ran into my 4th-grade teacher, and she said, “No, you began writing in my class in 4th grade.” It’s something I love. I love creating stories and characters, and I love reading other people’s writing.
Who are your favorite authors?
Mark Twain is my all-time hero.
And your favorite Twain book?
I think the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is probably the greatest American novel. But for me, my favorite is the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And there are so many other great and favorite books. But I remember reading about Sawyer in 5th grade. there’s a passage where Aunt Polly gets mad at him for something he didn’t do, and he spends the rest of the day sulking. His cousin Mary comes in, and she was excited about something that had happened to her, and this frustrated Tom even more. He had to leave, because he wanted to enjoy his misery again. I read that and thought, “I have felt the exact same way. the pleasure of being miserable.” And I had never met anyone who had felt that way, or at least someone who was able to verbalize that feeling. that’s what writing does: it makes you aware of feelings that you share with other people.