When it came time to write a new novel, John Hart turned to familiar territory – his native North Carolina

North Carolina native John Hart is part of the event “Thrillers! An Evening with Authors John Grisham and John Hart” Feb. 23rd at Meymandi Concert Hall.
North Carolina native John Hart is part of the event “Thrillers! An Evening with Authors John Grisham and John Hart” Feb. 23rd at Meymandi Concert Hall. Ashley Cox Photography

When John Grisham appears with John Hart Friday in Raleigh, it’s more than just business. It’s a favor to a friend.

Hart, a North Carolina native, lives near the best-selling author in the Charlottesville, Va., area and are members of a small group of author friends called The Hung Jury. They meet a few times a year for long lunches – hours-long engagements defined by book talk and wine.

“I go out of my way to never ask John for anything, to never impose on that friendship, until the time came for the launch of (“The Hush”),” Hart says of his new novel, which will be published Feb. 27.

“I had joined him for an event in Charlotte when he was on tour for ‘Camino Island,’” Hart said. “He asked me to do a presentation with him in front of an audience and it was recorded for a podcast ... After doing that I felt comfortable asking if he’d consider returning the favor, and he didn’t hesitate.”

Best-selling author John Grisham, who lives in Chapel Hill and Charlottesville, Va., says many of the inmates on death row in North Carolina did not receive a fair trial. Fernando Salazar The Wichita Eagle

On Feb. 23, Hart and Grisham will appear at Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall for a conversation moderated by D.G. Martin, host of UNC-TV’s “NC Bookwatch.” The event launches “The Hush,” but it’s also a fundraiser for dinosaur research and education at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science.

We caught up with Hart to talk about “The Hush,” which jumps forward a decade from 2009’s “The Last Child” and follows the same characters when crisis strikes again the fictional Raven County, North Carolina. Here are excerpts.

Q: It felt like Raven County was a composite of several regions of North Carolina. Am I onto something?

A: You are absolutely right. It is a composite. “The Hush” is a sequel to “The Last Child.” Prior to “The Last Child,” I had written two novels, “The King of Lies” and “Down River,” that were both set in Salisbury, which is my hometown and where I’m from. There are perils inherent in doing that sort of thing. People get upset because they think they’re in the book, or they get upset because they think they should be in the book and they’re not.

When I decided to write “The Last Child,” I wanted to fictionalize the county to protect myself from those sort of reactions. If you think about it, I literally changed three letters from Rowan County to Raven County to create the name.

In terms of its setting and its feel, this is how I look at it. I really took bits of Salisbury, bits of Southern Pines, bits of the Great Dismal Swamp, and created this area further east than Salisbury – somewhere in-between Raleigh and the coast is where I picture it in my mind. Maybe a little east of Raleigh. I know the Green Swamp area is down there, so I kind of use a little bit of the Green Swamp in my imagination. I wanted to have the familiarity of Salisbury, having grown up there and practiced law there. I wanted to have the charm of Southern Pines and the idea of a little bit of money on the fringes, and the history of the Great Dismal Swamp and the mystery of the Great Dismal Swamp. That was in fact a massive refuge for runaway slaves and outlaws back during the day for a long period of time.

The Hush

Q: You include modern echoes of slavery and tense race relationships throughout “The Hush.” Why did you want to make this a major element of the book?

A: What blows my mind is that race relations in this country are just getting worse by the year, when it seems to me that they should be getting better. It’s further and further in the past, and yet it feels more and more raw. It baffles me.

It’s not an attempt to lecture or inform or sway. That has never been my intent as a writer. I’m a storyteller first. The most important part of story is the feelings created in the reader. There are so many ways to do that, and I think touching on difficult subjects that are relevant today as a backdrop for the greater story is a perfect way to do that. It brings the reader into the moment, it makes it all feel very real and relevant.

The book is very much about time as a tapestry and the threads that stretch forwards and back. It’s impossible to escape the history of slavery in the South, especially today.

Q: Can you talk about introducing supernatural elements in this book?

A: That was not a hard shift for me at all. I had wanted to try a book like this. From a writer’s perspective, there’s such a liberty that comes when you break the rules of physics and time and the laws of the physical world. It’s the easiest thing in the world to write compelling plots because you’re not confined by expectations, so I’d always wanted to see if I could do that.

I don’t even like the term “supernatural.” I like the term “magical realism.” I was being interviewed by a guy from England, and I loved his take. He said, “You know what this book is? It’s not supernatural, really. It’s elemental. It’s about time and the land and the connection to both.”

Q: What was it that made you want to revisit these specific characters, this specific setting?

A: First of all, Raven County is entirely my world. I haven’t done that before. This was a world that was entirely fictional, and therefore entirely mine. It’s easy to feel proprietary about a world like that and to want to revisit it.

Secondly, “The Last Child” was always the most personal of my novels for the simple reason that it was an adult-themed thriller driven by a traumatized 13-year-old kid. In order to write that book in a way that it would work, I had to really touch the emotional lodestone of what it is to be a 13-year-old traumatized child, and the only way to do that was to spend a lot of time trying to get back into my own head as a 13-year-old boy, to remember what it felt like.

Through pursuing that process, it became a very personal character to me, a very personal book. It’s driven by Johnny and Jack. Johnny and Jack are both nicknames for John; that was purely intentional. I think Johnny was part of me as a kid, and Jack was part of me. Johnny was sort of the clear-eyed, selfless kid and Jack was the troublemaker, and I had both of those in me. The characters felt very personal to me and I wanted to see what kind of young men they’d turn out to be.

I wanted to go back to Raven County because I’d created it and I really wanted to see if I could write this elemental story and make it work.

Corbie Hill is a Pittsboro-based freelance writer. Contact him at corbiehill@gmail.com or follow on Twitter at @afraidofthebear.


What: Thrillers! An Evening with Authors John Grisham and John Hart

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 23

Where: Meymandi Concert Hall, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

Cost: Tickets start at $32. All tickets, excluding students, include a signed copy of John Hart’s new novel.

Info: naturalsciences.org or 919-707-9800