Please welcome financial mystery thriller author John J. Hohn to Reviews and Interviews.
John, please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a small town boy. I grew up in Yankton, South Dakota, the last upstream steamboat stop on the Missouri River. Yankton’s history reaches back to the Sioux Nation, from which the town draws its name. Lewis and Clark parlayed with the Lakota there. Decades later, it became a jumping off point for homesteaders, a campsite for Custer, a territorial capital, and in the 1920s, the home to WNAX radio that once boasted it broadcast from the highest radio tower in the world. Huckleberry Finn would have felt right at home under the shade of the Hackberry and Elm trees.
My own family’s history is intimately tied to the history of South Dakota. My grandfather, John Hubert Hohn homesteaded, north and west of Yankton, staking out 360 acres that remains in the family today.
I have been writing all of my life. I first published at age 10 in the nationally circulated Pilot magazine, which was distributed by a children’s clothing manufacturer with a traffic signal icon. The concluding couplet to my winning verse: “You are always trying these foolish acts. When will you learn to trust known facts?” (That’s from memory-so be impressed.) When I was in the seventh grade, I placed first in a nationwide contest sponsored by “G. I. Joe” comics. In less than 25 words, I told the world why I wanted to be like G. I. Joe. My prize was a five-year subscription, an award I outgrew within a year of accepting it.
I graduated with a degree in English in 1961 and began teaching that same year at St. John’s Prep School.
I enjoy working out at the local gym, walking my dog Jessie, golf, music, touring Civil War battlefields, and reading history. Since retiring, I have focused completing my novel, Deadly Portfolio: A Killing Hedge Funds. I have been very gratified by the acceptance and reviews the book has received and spend what idle minutes come my way every day thinking though the plot for my next book.
Please tell us about your current release.
Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds is a financial thriller mystery. The story centers around four families who reside in the affluent lakeside neighborhood of Pelican Bay on Heron Lake, North Carolina. The story takes place over the first several days of July in 2008, on the eve of the stock market collapse. Financial Advisor Morrie Clay and his wife Monica, with their two sons, are the youngest family in the immediate vicinity. Morrie, seduced by his company’s competitive compensation system, executes an unauthorized trade in a client’s account by purchasing a large block of shares in a hedge fund. If the trade is every discovered, Morrie will lose his credentials and will not be able to support his family’s sumptuous lifestyle. His breach of the rules sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to the death of three of his neighbors, the first victim being Rene McAllister, the wife multi-millionaire Alan “Mac” McAllister. Her body washes up on the beach after a daylong Fourth of July bash at the home of stockbroker, Matthew Wirth, Morrie Clay’s senior partner. Matthew’s wife Shirley discovers the body. Matthew and Shirley, as a result, come under investigation.
Authorities ultimately dismiss the McAllister woman’s death as an accident. But days later, when the body of college drop out, Jamie Sherman, a neighbor to Wirth, is discovered adrift in his fishing skiff, investigators suspect foul play. The eventual findings on youth’s death, however, establish drug overdose as the cause. Only Detective James Raker, upon hearing McAllister’s complaints of unauthorized trading in his deceased wife’s account, suspects the two deaths are related. Raker quickly discovers that at least four members of the affluent community had motive and opportunity in either one or both of the deaths. Pursuing his case, he runs afoul of the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) who were closing in on Jamie Sherman’s drug dealings and Raker is ordered to back off.
In a clash with his boss and the lead detective from the SBI, Raker is given 72 hours to makes his case or close. Convinced that at least one more life is at risk, Raker races to prevent the killer from striking again.
What inspired you to write this book?
The inspiration for the book occurred in the months leading up to my retirement. I was very proud of what I had accomplished as a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch. I had built a solid team with three wonderful people (very much like Matthew Wirth and Morrie Clay in the novel), and our reputation drew clients to us.
My career, prior to joining Merrill Lynch, was a patchwork of notable achievements that were almost immediately followed by dismal failures. At age 43, I was divorced for a second time, out of a job and deeply in debt. My first wife, my high school sweetheart, and I were married 19 years. She died 9 years after our divorce. My children were in college at the time and looking to me to provide a home base for them as their surviving parent. In the book, Matthew Wirth stands on his dock the morning of the Fourth of July reflecting on is good fortune. His reverie came right out of my own experience.
Thus the thought of something going very wrong in the waning weeks leading up to my retirement was frightening. Many of the situations that are presented in the novel parallel events that happened while I was working in my practice. I found it is easy, for example, to round out the character of Rene McAllister because I had a client whose personality resembled hers.
The despair and terror that Matthew Wirth experiences when he finds out about Morrie Clay’s illegal and unethical behavior mirrors what mine would have been if, on the threshold of finally retiring, my efforts over 16 years were brought down and I faced professional disgrace and the loss of my retirement savings.
What exciting story are you working on next?
Critical acceptance of Deadly Portfolio has been gratifying. I have started work on a sequel that I hope to complete by this time next year. Detective Raker came across as a real favorite with readers, and I want to capitalize on his appeal. The new story is based again on a lakeside community, but this time the lake is nothing more than a millpond in the mountains of North Carolina. The entire setting is a development that was planned and marketed to scores of unsuspecting investors, many who bought site-unseen, in the 1970’s. Most of the lots are too small to qualify under county ordinance for a building of any kind. In addition, many are on terrain that is not suitable for building. Three organizations, however, recognize the lucrative long term prospects for acquiring the land from the disenchanted buyers, consolidating the smaller lots into larger plots, and remarketing the entire area as an upscale second home development with a golf course, trout stream and other amenities.
In the competition to motivate owners to sell their properties, a rumor is started that the rolled earth impoundment, a century old structure, is weakening and may give way. If the dam gives way, land values will collapse. The hubbub catches the attention of the authorities who insist on an inspection of the dam.
Detective James Raker happens to be visiting a friend over the weekend the state inspector is killed by a stray bullet from an unknown party. Coincidently, he is later assigned to assist the local sheriff in stopping the trafficking of meth from a Southern States textile finishing plant in the same area. Raker is drawn into the investigation of the inspector’s death as well as others that appear at first to be unrelated fatal accidents.
I am perhaps a third of the way through my first draft. Typically, I will need at least three rewrites. I need to begin a search for a good story editor.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I remember returning home from school one day and telling my parents that I had met a boy whose index finger had been cut off in an accident. “The stub looked just like a closed tulip bulb before it opens in the spring,” I reported.
My dad’s reaction is still very fresh in mind, “He has a real way with words.”
I have been writing all of my life. My first recognition was first prize for a short verse in Pilot magazine while I was in elementary school. I wrote short stories on colored tablets about going fishing with my dad, or hunting, or working in the yard. I would read them to my mother who was always supportive.
Most of my writing over the years has been poetry. I published as short volume of poetry in 2000 entitled As I Was Passing By. I have written short stories over the years also. The shorter pieces—poetry and fiction—were easier to work on while my job demanded so much of my most productive time each day. When I retired at the end of 2007, I dedicated myself to writing my novel, which has been an aspiration since high school.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I don’t think that any writer today can claim that he or she writes full time. Once an author has a book out in the market place, an enormous chunk of time needs to be dedicated each week to promoting it. I organize on a weekly basis because my days are so varied. I have four major writing days—Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Every day begins with my dog Jessie as the two of us take a 30-minute walk. My writing days are also my gym days. I want 30 minutes of aerobics and some tension raining. It’s a big thing with me given the health history of my family. Writing time is roughly 9:30 a.m. to noon and perhaps an hour or two in the afternoon depending on other priorities—honey-dos, paying bills, and the like. Every afternoon, Jessie and I head out for another tour of the neighborhood taking, perhaps, as much as 45 minutes.
Tuesday, Thursdays, and Saturdays are golf days. I enjoy the game—most of the time. I enjoy my friends every day. These are days for catching up also with correspondence, calling children, writing letters and working on the promotional stuff that needs to be completed.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I have two or three quirks, as a writer, which I find are downright annoying. First, I always overwrite. I can’t seem to help it. I load up a sentence with modifying clauses that are completely unnecessary. A reader may find evidence of that trait in my responses to this interview. I tend not to give my reader enough credit. I always need to go back into my text and make the writer in me let go of the reader’s hand and stop leading the way. The writer in me believes more is better. The editor in me believes less is more. The two never seem to get together on anything.
Another annoying trait is that I never seem able to keep something short. Look at the answers to this interview as an example. Give me a request to write an article 700 to 900 words in length, and I will work an additional two hours to get it to come out exactly to 900 words. Boy, am I glad Word keeps the count for me.
Additionally, I love starting a piece. I keep coming up with opening lines and paragraphs all of the time—in the shower, walking Jessie, dozing off. I have no idea where the piece is going, but I am excited by the initial few lines. Sometimes I will write an idea down. I have dozens of starting paragraphs littering the memory of my computer.
Finally, I can’t resist checking out why Word underlines what I have put on the page to report that the program is having a problem with the text. I must stop. I know that the rules are bogus sometimes, but something in me keeps me from ignoring the underline.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to go to sea. I loved reading about the sailing ships and pirates. Growing up in the Midwest, I had never seen an ocean. But somehow being a sailor appealed to me. As I grew older, I wanted to become a doctor. I felt destined for it. My first year in college, however, was my undoing. I could not hack the sciences. I might have been bright enough to get passing grades, but I just could not get interested. My intellectual life was being taken over by my literature and history classes. There was no turning back.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
This may seem a bit self-indulgent but there are two things that I would like my readers to know as much about themselves as about me.
First, as Winston Churchill said, “Never give up.” There were so many times in my life where it would have been completely understandable that I would give up on my aspiration to be an author and a published poet. I know others managed the achievement despite circumstances much more difficult than mine, but I inherited some priorities that took more energy to fight than to follow as a boy from a middle-class home. Writing played a very important second chair position in the orchestration of every day life for me. I would say to anyone who harbors the desire to do something that promises to be self-fulfilling, then he or she should never let go.
Second, everyone needs to come up with his or her own definition of success. My book is a mystery, yes, but I want it to be a literary success above all. If it sold 100,000 copies but was dismissed as mediocre literature, I would consider it a failure.
No matter what the field, if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will get you there. Worse yet, you will never have the satisfaction of knowing how close you came to achieving your heart’s desire.
Thank you for being here today, John. You shared quite a bit with all of us.