Thrillers Gotta Thrill
Three local attorneys have second lives as historical thriller authors
Published in 2017 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine on December 23, 2016
Writing a novel—especially your first one—can be a daunting task. But for Van R. Mayhall Jr., forming a narrative wasn’t even the toughest part.
“I couldn’t type,” says the Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson business attorney. “My method of typing was emails only, preferably one or two words, that I would peck out with my index fingers. And so, the first three chapters of Judas the Apostle, I hand wrote on a yellow pad and asked my assistant to type them out.”
Mayhall learned how to crank out passages onto his computer thanks to a Mavis Beacon typing tutorial—“When you write 95,000 words 20 times, your typing picks up a little bit,” he says—and has since self-published two historical thrillers. He’s not alone in that last part.
Fellow Baton Rouge attorney Michael H. Rubin worked out the concept for his first historical thriller, The Cottoncrest Curse, on 4:30 a.m. walks with his wife, Ayan, a retired television producer.
The book opens 20 years after the end of the Civil War with an elderly colonel, Augustine Chastaine, killing his wife and subsequently taking his own life. The townsfolk think there’s a curse on the plantation, but when the sheriff suspects the deaths to be homicides, they suspect Jake, a peddler and Jewish immigrant. The character is loosely based on Rubin’s great-grandfather, who escaped from Russia in the 1880s.
“On our walks we talk about plots and characters, and we wanted to have a page-turning thriller that addressed race and religion,” says the appellate attorney at McGlinchey Stafford. “But also, more basic questions: Can anybody really know the truth of everything? If we knew the truth of our ancestors, would that change our perception of who we are and how we see others?”
Rubin believes thrillers allow authors to pose philosophical questions in the midst of a page-turner. Finding that balance, for him, is key. “That’s the goal of any writer,” he says, “to create a world and characters that people want to stay in.”
LSU Press, which published The Cottoncrest Curse, even had it vetted by historians. Says Rubin: “The murders are fictional, but the history is accurate.” He and his wife are currently working on a second book, Cashed Out, about a failed Louisiana lawyer whose ex-wife is accused of murder. That one, of course, is pure fiction.
“Fiction is easier than law books because there’s no footnotes,” he jokes.
Chip Wagar, a medical malpractice and products liability attorney at Wagar Richard Kutcher Tygier & Luminais in Metairie, had always wanted to write something other than briefs.
“I had an urge to write something for fun, so I began to do a novel on the period in Vienna during the first World War,” he says, “when things changed radically in the history of that city, and of the empire that it was once part of.”
His first novel, An American in Vienna, is historical fiction with a touch of romance; he drew inspiration from the time he spent in the city as a student in the mid-1970s. He has returned to Europe a number of times since, and his most recent novel, The Carpathian Assignment, takes place overseas as well. “It’s kind of the back story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Wagar says. “I wrote it for fun, imagining what the classic story would be like as told by people who lived in that area.”
Wagar not only likes to write historical fiction, he enjoys reading it as well. His favorite stories take place during the 18th and 19th centuries. “They’re long enough ago to be interesting, but not so far back in history that you’re really in a foreign environment—like ancient Rome or the Middle Ages or something,” he says.
Just as Wagar has a screenplay in the works for The Carpathian Assignment, Mayhall’s Judas the Apostle is likewise getting the script treatment.
The idea for the novel itself arose out of Mayhall’s curiosity about a biblical verse. “There’s a passage in Matthew where Jesus says, ‘Better for the man who betrays me that he should never have been born,’” he says. From there, he researched Judas until he had an idea for a thriller.
It begins in Madisonville, near Lake Pontchartrain, and tells the story of Cloe Lejeune, who discovers, after her father’s murder, that an ancient oil jar he found during World War II is missing.
“The story is all about what was in the jar, who wanted it and what they were willing to do to get it,” says Mayhall. “It’s not a religious book, but it’s a historical thriller that sort of expounds upon a character in the Bible that is both notorious and, I guess, pretty unknown.”
Mayhall remembers one particular struggle with an editor, concerning a lengthy description of some bread and butter.
“She said, ‘Van, this is a thriller, OK? You want to write about French bread, write about food. The French bread’s going out. Nothing gets in the way of the pace of a thriller—the thriller has got to thrill.’”
For Mayhall, Rubin and Wagar, putting together an entire novel poses certain challenges. While Mayhall says it was most difficult to take criticism from his editors, for the others it was figuring out how to keep readers from putting the book down—or just finding the time to write.
Still, they keep on writing. “It’s the process of bringing to life a concept,” Rubin says. “I was a professional jazz pianist, and I think of writing a lot like jazz: There’s a basic melody, but the real interesting thing is what you do in and around it—the embellishments. And we always have the arc when we start, but the fun is the embellishments that you get through the arc.”
“As a lawyer who has practiced now for 3 ½ decades,” adds Wagar, “you see a lot of things that would make a good novel. I’ll just put it that way.”
Finding the Time
“It’s much more about the discipline than it is anything to do with creativity or genius. I do it one hour a night, at 9 o’clock. I turn the TV off, finish any office work I have, light up the computer, and I tap out whatever I have thought about during the day.”
—Van R. Mayhall Jr.
“We all find time to do those things that we enjoy. If you like to go to baseball games, you’ll find time to go to baseball games. This is our hobby—this is what we enjoy doing.”
—Michael H. Rubin
“You have to squeeze in writing around the margins, when you can—definitely after work, on weekends. I’m an early riser and I find my creative juices often are flowing at 5 o’clock
in the morning, when it’s quiet and I can think. I tend to write in spurts as the ideas come to me, and then I can sometimes go weeks without writing and then binge again.”