Scratch a lawyer in Washington and you’ll find a writer. It could take a lot of digging, however, to find another Stephen Horn.
The Bethesda, Md., lawyer’s first and only manuscript to date a legal thriller called “In Her Defense” that he wrote as a hobby was published last week to critical acclaim and is being given major marketing treatment by publisher HarperCollins.
Its cover, by Chip Kidd, one of the book industry’s hottest designers, is the embossed front of a satin-slick black briefcase, the kind that is so ubiquitous on the Washington scene.
That isn’t the usual treatment for a novice, especially one like Mr. Horn, 53, who claims he began the project as “entertainment for myself.” His wife, Kerry, urged him to send the finished work to a New York agent who was won over almost at once.
“The key moment in a writer’s life, I learned, is when an agent asks a writer, ‘What is it about?’ I said ‘legal thriller,’ and he groaned, ‘another Grisham wannabe.’ I didn’t have the slightest idea when I sent it in how he would react, so when he said later, ‘Well, maybe there is room for another,’ it was a shock.”
He also learned that, in the publishing trade, a “thriller” is when a murder is about to be committed and a “mystery” is when the murder has taken place early in the book.
Technically, he has written a mystery story, a first-person narrative that draws heavily on his own diverse experiences in the law.
Before the book’s submission to publishers, the only recommended change was shortening the manuscript. Changes suggested by HarperCollins were likewise relatively minuscule, he says.
“In Her Defense” the title he and his wife both settled on became a selection of the Literary Guild/Doubleday Book Club in part because, in words of a club editor, “Well-written legal thrillers sell. And because he has a woman in the title.” Women are known to buy a majority of the books sold in the country today.
His wife, he says, contributed to his portrayal of the strong female characters. He also had in mind “a little bit of the Lauren Bacall character in ‘To Have and Have Not.’ You know, the line when she says, ‘If you want anything, just whistle.’” The book is replete with fast-paced dialogue that seems ready-made for the screen. Everybody who has read it, he says, suggests a “wannabe” cast of high-profile film stars in key roles.
Now busy on a second book, Mr. Horn practices law full time like his favorite author-lawyer, Scott Turow. As general counsel for the Boston-based Allied-Domecq Corp., owners of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, among other well-known brands, Mr. Horn is a commuting family man. The Horns are parents of 15-year-old Caitlin and 12-year-old Benjamin.
Not without some pride, and a little wonderment, he says he “broke every rule” along the way not even bothering to read one of those proliferating how-to-write books until he had finished.
“If I had, I would never have done it. You would be paralyzed.” When he finally did manage to skim an anthology on how writers write. “I saw that some writers are very methodical in their approach. Others do it because they don’t want to know how the book turns out. The second was my own method, which reassured me that I wasn’t off base.”
“No, candidly, I didn’t study the genre. I didn’t know the marketplace at all, so as not to be told that 35 other books are out now on the same subject.” What he does know about writing, he says, “is when it gets in the way of the story.”
But with a first book he is convinced that “You have no sense of how well you did, because it is such a subjective experience and because of the tremendous pressure you are under.” It’s a far cry from building a bird house for the first time, he says, when “you know intuitively how well you did.”
“In Her Defense” took Mr. Horn years, writing “evenings, in the middle of the night and on airplanes.”
“Plot problems what will happen next I can solve at any given time of day. I can go into a zone and shut everything out and think about it. Sometimes it’s hard to get it out of my head and onto the paper. My wife would look over my shoulder sometimes and would go ‘uh huh.’ When she said ‘yuh,’ I would hit the delete button.”
A native of the Bronx, N.Y., Mr. Horn was an industrial engineer before he became a lawyer. He graduated from Rutgers University, which he attended on a football scholarship and worked for New Jersey Bell Telephone before doing service as a company commander in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. Later, he entered Seton Hall University’s law school on the G.I. bill to be near a girlfriend in Union, N.J.
“It’s not like World War II, where you had a long transition time on a ship. We were in Vietnam, and then 72 hours later, we were home. One week out of a jungle, I was in a law school class.”
Between 1973 and 1978, he was a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and then went into private practice with a colleague. Lacking clients in their early days, the pair took court-appointed cases defending the indigent for $20 an hour.
His time at Justice wasn’t without any drama, either.
“It’s an interesting experience when you are lawyer who goes from community to community to prosecute police the bread and butter work of my job at Justice police who abused the rights of citizens. At first it was very hard to get a conviction. Then public perception changed. There was more willingness on the part of juries to convict when police used excessive force in the line of duty.”
In 1978 he achieved a certain notoriety as a “whistle blower” and resigned from his job, along with three other prosecuting attorneys. They were upset over the failure of then-Attorney General Griffin Bell to indict FBI employees who supposedly had lied in a case charging them with using illegal means to obtain evidence against the Weatherman radicals. The four felt there was no guarantee that in the future they could tell anyone who lied under oath that he would be prosecuted for perjury.
They said it in public with Mr. Bell’s approval, and his discomfiture, sitting before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.
And during Mr. Horn’s first week at Justice, he witnessed the resignation of both the attorney general and his deputy during the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, Oct. 20, 1973. (President Nixon had asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, then investigating the White House tapes in connection with the Watergate break-in. Mr. Richardson refused, as did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus; both resigned.)
At the time, he worked under Stanley Pottinger, who was head of the Civil Rights Division. Mr. Pottinger since has become a novelist whose latest work Mr. Horn found on a shelf in a bookstore the other day not far from his own.
“I was laughing, saying to myself, ‘Here we go again.’”