Author James Hankins, outside of his Swampscott home. | Photo: Paula Muller
By RICH FAHEY
When it came time to lay down the law, James Hankins was happy to do it.
It proved to be a wise choice.
Now Hankins, a Swampscott resident, is a best-selling author who has a deal with a major publisher and a new novel — “The Inside Dark” — set to debut in July.
Years ago, Hankins was a successful employment law attorney at a major international law firm in Boston who enjoyed his work. His wife, Colleen, was also an attorney at a major law firm in Boston who enjoyed her work. That’s when they learned that Colleen was pregnant with twins — Alex and Zack, now age 13 and students at Swampscott Middle School.
Something had to give. While Hankins enjoyed working as an attorney, he also missed the creative side of his life. So, soon after Colleen gave birth, Hankins immersed himself in the world of diapers and feedings, writing in the evenings and on the rare occasions during the days when both twins were sleeping.
“The day they stopped napping, that was a black day in the household,” he joked. Colleen, meanwhile, was working in securities management for Fidelity Investments and recently assumed a management role for FMR LLC, Fidelity’s parent firm. as Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Head of Legal Strategic and Shared Services.
As Hankins’ career has also taken off in recent years, the final score, decision-wise, is: Win-win. Hankins first found he could entertain creatively when, as a 12-year-old student who was a fan of the great science fiction writers of the time — Heinlen, Bradbury, etc. — he spun his own science fiction tale, a little novel, and he would read chapters to his classmates on the school bus.
“Soon they were asking ‘what did you write last night?’ and asking me about the next chapter,” said Hankins, who grew up in Flemington, N.J.
Eventually, the teacher had him read his chapters aloud in class.
“It taught me about writing on deadline and it gave me confidence,” he said.
He attended Syracuse University before transferring to the prestigious Tisch School for the Arts at NYU to study film. He attracted some attention his senior year when his thesis caught the eye of an agent in Hollywood. He signed with the agent, moved to Los Angeles and spent five years trying to gain traction with his screenplays, working a day job and writing at night.
“I gave it a good shot,” he said.
He came back east to attend law school at the University of Connecticut, and during a summer internship at a law firm in Boston in 1997, he met his future wife Colleen, a native of Buffalo who was attending Boston College Law School. The two married in 1999 and moved to Swampscott in 2000.
After graduation from UConn, he then won a clerkship on the Connecticut Supreme Court, serving the Honorable Justice Joette Katz.
“It was fascinating—one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” said Hankins. He enjoyed it because it was intellectually rigorous and involved two of his favorite skills: researching and writing.
“It’s a profession in which every word really matters and nuance really matters,” he said. “Case law revolves around just those words.”
The importance of the job wasn’t lost on him, with the court’s decisions setting precedents and case law. He enjoyed seeing his writing honed by “brilliant minds and logical thinking.”
But still there was the urge to write, focusing on thrillers, suspense mysteries and the paranormal. The first book he wrote in 1999 was actually while he was clerking at the Connecticut Supreme Court, and was a novelization of one of his Hollywood screenplays that was unproduced. “It was a trial balloon,” he said.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it.”
The second novel also never made it to the starting gate, although by that time Hankins had engaged an agent and it was shopped around, with publishers giving good feedback but not biting.
“It was the late 1990s-early 2000s and the timing wasn’t right to break in a new author,” he said. “It’s not easy to stick with it when no one outside of your immediate household other than your agent might read it.”
But all along he was refining his skills and technique in hashing out plots and developing characters. Self-publishing was what first allowed him to find his audience.
“You can absolutely bet on yourself,” he said. “Getting to the reader is the hard part. Sometimes you feel like you’re one of thousands of people screaming into a howling wind.”
When he decided to go ahead with the self-publishing, he hired a professional editor and cover designer. The three self-published e-books and audio books — ”Drawn,” “Brothers and Bones” and “Jack of Spades”—attracted attention. All three spent time in the Kindle Top 100 and became Amazon bestsellers in their particular genres.
Publishers took notice. In 2014, the Amazon-owned publishing firm Thomas & Mercer, which specializes in mysteries and thrillers, acquired the rights to Hankins’ “Shady Cross,” which also made the Kindle Top 100 and became an Amazon bestseller in its genre.
His second book for Thomas & Mercer, 2015’s “The Prettiest One,” hit the jackpot: it rose to No. 1 on Amazon across all categories.
Along with the sales came some critical acclaim. “Shady Cross” received a coveted starred reviewfrom“PublishersWeekly” (“This outstanding crimethriller from Hankins grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and never lets go”) and “Brothers and Bones” earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.
Hankins said heis grateful for thereviews, but it’s moreimportant that thereaders like what he’s doing.
“The trade reviews help to sell books but it matters more for readers to like your work because it’s your audience, a loyal following, and they’re shelling out good money for your books.”
Hankins said his process of writing a book takes about a year, although “faster would be terrific.”
The plot, or hook comes first. He then begins to flesh out the hook. “Sometimes I’ve been thinking of a character to fit the hook,” he said. Then comes the process of shaping the story and researching the world it takes place in, as well as the criminal and legal aspects of the story.
“After about five months I usually have a first draft, then it’s time to rewrite and revise several drafts and get an editor involved in the rewriting process.”
Hankins has taken advantage of local surroundings in several of his books. “Brothers and Bones” is Boston-centric, while one of the characters in “Jack of Spades” is a State Police detective in Essex County, who has an ex-wife in Swampscott, and Salem, Beverly and Danvers also figure prominently in it. “The Prettiest One” takes place largely in Central and Western Mass. in a fictional city called Smithfield, while the upcoming “The Inside Dark” is based on the North Shore.
“The Inside Dark,” due in July, will tell the story of an aspiring crime writer — sounds familiar — who manages to kill a serial killer and is poised to reap the rewards when things suddenly go awry. Hankins said there are film options out for both “Brothers and Bones” and “Shady Cross,” but still believes they’re “longshots” to ever be produced.
“Usually it’s the breakout books that sell millions of copies and are such big hits that no one doubts they’ll be movies,” he said.
He’s grateful for his success, and the loyalty and longtime support of his literary agent, Michael Bourret, of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC, who “didn’t make a dime from his work with me for the first eight or nine years.”
Times have changed dramatically in the publishing game in recent decades, and authors have had to change with them. E-publishing and e-books have sparked a revolution in the way books are made and read.
“It’s the biggest sea change since the printing press,” said Hankins.
Where will it go from here? What bookstores, if any, will be left in a few years?
Amid all the changes, Hankins said a basic fact about the industry remains true: The public votes with its feet. “If books rise and resonate with the public,they have earned their place.”