School of the Ages


author interview: novelist and lawyer Harper J. Dimmermann says change is the only constant

Posted by Matt Posner on March 17, 2014 at 5:05 PM

Today's interviewee hails from one of my favorite nearby cities to travel to, home of a lot of amazing history, a lot of cool writers, and a pretty scary St. Patrick's Day Parade...  Here is Philadelphia's own Harper J. Dimmermann.  

You have deep ties to the city of Philadelphia, so let's start there. What makes Philadelphia the vibrant and complex city it is known to be?


That’s right…I pretty much grew up here and my folks are actually still here. The city’s changed a lot since I was a kid: tons of gentrification, hip restaurants, bars…that sort thing. And of course we also have the history, which gives the city a real interesting vibe.


What makes Philadelphia such a great place for the action of a novel to take place?


Aside from all the usual intrigue that sort of goes along with urban life, more importantly for me at least, is the fact that I know this city. I think writing what you know is generally a good idea. It sort of helps me to relax and focus on the other parts of the novel, authentic characters, meaningful dialogue, etc.



What would you recommend people visiting Philadelphia do to get the atmosphere of the city (besides the usual tourist attractions)?


That’s a good question because I’m sort of sucker for touristy stuff. I would probably say the art museum. Maybe for some that’s touristy too but for me, it’s sort of this gem up on the parkway, easily rivaling some of the greatest museums in the world yet without all the hype. It’s highly accessible and sometime you almost feel like you’re the only one there.


I love the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the best in the U.S. A few years ago my wife and I saw the exhibit of Dale Chihuly there:  one of the most visually exciting exhibits I can recall.

Now let's talk about your legal career and about the idea of a lawyer as a novelist.




You are very successful as a lawyer.


You’re too kind (I’m blushing).

How did your training in law help you to get better at writing?


Let’s start with the obvious. I went into law because I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do with my life. I always liked to write and law school, in a masochistic way I guess, felt to me like a logical extension of my experience at Vassar undergrad, as an English lit major. I’ve been writing novels for the majority of the time I’ve been practicing and for me, there are perhaps distinct benefits. The first goes back to what I said before about writing what you know. By writing law or employing lawyers for characters (pretty natural, huh?), that sort of takes care of other givens in my book, freeing me up to concentrate on the subject of conversation or the deeper character traits. The second goes to writing I suppose, just as a means of communicating. In law, there’s this expectation that good legal writing is clear and persuasive. I suppose writing this way in a novel can be a good thing too…Sometimes I kick myself, when I feel like I’m not doing that.


How did your courtroom experience influence the way you write fiction?


This is a tough one for me. I’m not a criminal lawyer, which in my mind could easily make this whole process a lot easier for me. All that grit and violence every day could translate well for a novelist on the come. For me, it helps to get things right technically I guess; but admittedly, most of the action in the Hunter Gray series takes place outside the courtroom. The novel I’m finishing now is a dark comedy of all things and doesn’t even involve law. It’s been pretty surreal writing this one.


John Grisham is the obvious example of a lawyer who turned out to be a hell of a novelist. Reflect upon the man and his career in any way you like.


I’ve read Mr. Grisham before and obviously have a lot of respect for him and anyone else who can hit that level of mainstream success; he also strikes me as a humble person, which makes sense to me at this time in my life.


How can you balance your demanding legal career with your new endeavors as a novelist?


I’m a big proponent of doing a little every day and staying the course. I only write a couple pages a day, which at times seems at complete odds with my tendency to lack patience. However, just doing something, anything, can certainly add up over months, years, etc. Repetition and discipline can be really counter-intuitive ideas.


Now let's talk about you as a writer

What is your philosophy of storytelling? Of characterization?

I’m still not so sure whether I even am a natural storyteller, or a worthy one for that matter. I usually start with a simple idea, something that intrigues me enough to devote a year of my life to it and put together the cast, the characters who will occupy this world. I ask a slew of questions such as: Does that character make sense? Do I need that person? Why are they involved? After that I usually start to outline very briefly and then I start to write. After I write for a few weeks, I usually delete everything and start again, with the insights from those first few weeks. Eventually, constantly re-writing as I write, I make it through that coveted first draft. On the one I’m doing now, I pretty much scrapped three previous drafts, which was pretty painful as you might imagine.


What do you think makes a great mystery? A great thriller?


Really good question Matt… I suppose it has to do with keeping the reader guessing without making them feel impotent. That of course can lead to apathy and disinterest. It has something to do then with empowering the reader while disempowering them at the same time and a mutual forgiveness achieved by the end -- enough to get over the inevitable anticlimax.


Describe your books, both the one currently available and the ones that are coming.


The first, which I shelved, was a spy thriller set in Tokyo of all places. The next three sort of go together in a series, and involve this cat Hunter Gray, a pretty cerebral lawyer who keeps finding himself in a bunch of precarious situations. JUSTICE HUNTER was the one I self-published which helped me land an agent. The next two in the series are done and I guess all three are still looking for a publishing home. Finally, this one I’m finishing now is a dark comedy, about this guy who’s dying of cancer…I’ve started the next one too, which has lawyers for characters but will be something of a supernatural thriller.


What writers of any era do you believe have helped you to understand the direction you want to go as a novelist?


I have to admit that every day I feel more confused about the answer to that question. For me, it’s just about completing a novel in a way that makes sense to me at the time. Yet as with everything, change is only real constant in life and frankly my interests and desires evolve the same way; these factors impact my voice (or at least it seems that way up close). Right now, I’d have to say that Russian novelists, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky for instance, are highly educational in terms of the characters and dialogue. That’s gotta be rubbing off on me.


What is your strategy for finding readers and promoting sales of your books?


I’m a big proponent of twitter and self-publishing. For me, doing those two things has made a huge difference. It can be a bit lonely though at times (part of it seems so impersonal and even sterile) so right now I admit I’m craving more of a traditional experience: hooking up with the right agent, editor, publisher, that sort of thing.  



Tell a funny story from your life if you have one.


Does the fact that I have to think about this say something about me, i.e. Harper’s not a very funny guy? I actually can’t think of anything right now, but I’m in the mood to make some of those memories. I’m almost through a very dark time in my life…


What would you like to say to readers to close the interview?


Just thank you for reading and for your support.


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1 Comment

Reply Natalio Valery
7:39 AM on May 17, 2014