By Jennifer Kocher, County 17
Sam Johnstone is a complicated guy with problems. A decorated Army veteran who lost his leg and five men in an IED blast in Afghanistan, Johnstone returned home with scars that he works hard to keep at bay. He drinks too much and pops pain pills and doesn’t care to eat dinner alone.
Now, a half-rate lawyer, Johnstone has recently accepted his job at a law firm in the rural, fictional town of Custer, Wyoming, working for a college buddy.
Along with trying to get his own life back on track, he sets out to help out others while solving a crime or two as the troubled hero in the new legal thriller series by Gillette author James Chandler.
For the sake of drawing clear ethical distinctions between his day job and fictional career, Chandler writes under a pseudonym that he’ll also be referred to in this article to further keep those lines from blurring.
How does one determine a pseudonym? For Chandler, it meant giving his publisher two lists of first and last names and jumbling them together.
The final choice felt like a good one, he said, as it combined his father-in-law’s first name, who had been one of his best friends, with the last name of one of his football favorites, Bob Chandler.
Much like the divide between career and side job, Chandler likewise makes it clear that both his protagonist and fictional Wyoming community in which his characters inhabit have no bearing on his own life, local legal culture or the City of Gillette.
And though there are some biographical similarities between Johnstone and himself – both have law degrees, military backgrounds, a love of fly fishing and a history of substance abuse on top of having played college baseball – Chandler said his characters are very much amalgamations of people he’s met throughout his life and career as well as figments of his own imagination.
Sipping on a coffee at The Local early Thursday morning prior to heading off to his ‘day job,’ Chandler talked about the genesis of his budding literary career, which to this day still feels a bit surreal.
Though he’d published some articles in military history and legal journals, including short stories, as well as self-publishing a book of personal stories about fly fishing, Chandler hadn’t thought much about turning writing into a part-time career until recently when he began sending out samples of his book-in-progress.
Dozens of agents and publishers turned him down. After amassing over 100 rejection letters, he’d all but given up until he attended a 2019 legal conference in Jackson, when something the keynote speaker said made him sit up straight in his chair.
The speaker, retired Virginia circuit court judge and author Martin Clark, told his audience that every time he gives his talk, there’s at least one unpublished author in the audience.
After he was done talking, Clark told the crowd that that person should stop by for a chat.
Chandler took him up on that.
“Are you the guy?” Clark had asked.
“I’m the one” Chandler responded, and the two discussed the piles of rejection slips and the fact that he was about to give up. “Keep trying,” Clark urged.
Chandler returned to Gillette and told his wife he would give it until the end of the year, and two weeks shy of that cutoff date, Chandler heard from Severn River Publishing, and shortly thereafter signed a contract for a four-book series.
Chandler has remained in close contact with Clark and considers him a mentor.
Chandler’s first book, Misjudged, was released this past November, with the next book in the series, One and Done, due out next month.
Apart from the initial thrill of having his series published, Chandler is surprised at how well the first book has done. As of Friday, it was #12 on Amazon’s best legal thriller list, just behind such luminaries as John Grisham and Michael Connelly.
“I recall thinking how happy I would be to ever land a book in the top 100,” he said. “Here we are.”
The fictional world of Custer, with its junk piles on the edge of town, tough-talking oil riggers and propensity for methamphetamine and DUI offenders cycling through the court system, serves as the backdrop for Chandler’s whodunits.
The characters are at once quirky, deeply flawed yet endearing and are drawn from people he’s known throughout his life, both in the western U.S. and his early years in Virginia, Washington D.C. and beyond.
And though the plot sometimes involves lawyers and judges pulling bottles out desk drawers while they oversee cases in the fictional Custer courthouse, Chandler emphasized that this made-up community bears no resemblance to his real life.
“There are no drunk judges in Campbell County,” Chandler said.
Rather, it’s all part of the ‘village’ in his mind borne from years of watching detective shows on TV and reading his favorite authors, including Robert B. Parker, who authored the Jesse Stone series, a character sharing much with Sam Johnstone.
The first book in the series, Misjudged, was the hardest to write, Chandler says, because he had to introduce all of the characters while keeping the plot ticking along.
While he retains a fondness for Misjudged, his beta reader and copy editor prefer the second, One and Done, with its fewer characters and increased emphasis on plot.
Regardless, his writing career out of the gate is off to a smooth start. He and his publisher just signed a contract with a producer for audiobooks to be made of the series. He is not at liberty to say who will be doing the voices, but allowed that it will not be him.
One and Done is available for pre-order and is already nearing the top of the new release charts, and he’s hard at work on the outline for a third book in the series, False Evidence, which will be due in August.
It takes all of his spare time before and after work and cuts deeply into into time for his coveted hunting and fishing excursions to meet these deadlines while also engaging with readers and answering questions, but so far, it’s been well worth the work as he continues fleshing out the rest of his series.
Whether he will eventually turn fiction writing into a full-time career in the next chapter of his life is yet to be determined.
For now, it’s literally one page at a time as Johnstone sets out to solve mysteries and track down the bad guys while potentially falling in love on the side.