Q&A With James L'Etoile

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Q&A With James L’ Etoile

James L’ Etoile is the author of seven novels and his upcoming work, Face Of Greed will be released on November 7th of this year! In his past life, before becoming an author, James was an associate warden in a maximum-security prison, hostage negotiator, facility captain and director of California’s state parole system. James uses his 29 years of experience in these fields to write his novels, short stories and screenplays! 


Q: James, would you like to talk about your upcoming novel Face Of Greed, and how you came up with the idea for this novel?

A: Thank you, Bianca. I appreciate the chance to talk about Face of Greed, the first novel in a brand-new series. Face of Greed introduces Emily Hunter, a smart, snarky detective with the Sacramento Police Department. She’s the one they turn to when the stakes are the highest.


Face of Greed begins with a home invasion gone horribly wrong. A powerful political influencer is killed in the course of the robbery and the motive for the attack isn’t immediately clear. Emily begins to believe there is much more going on than a simple home invasion. The crime at the center of this story was influenced by one of the first murder cases I worked on.

In the real-life version, three gang members forced their way into a home, held the family hostage while ransacking the place. The homeowner was killed after opening a hidden safe. The gangsters claimed the victim was a drug dealer who owed them, and he was shot when he refused to make good on his debt. They also tried to claim the killing was in self-defense when the victim pulled a weapon from the safe.

Their story quickly fell apart. The jury didn’t believe their wild claims. There was no indication of drug sales from the residence and no weapon was found near or around the safe. And one-by-one, the gang members turned on one another confirming our original belief they targeted the home because the victim was a successful real estate broker who was rumored to keep large quantities of cash on hand.

For Face of Greed, I took this scenario and changed it a bit. What if there was something unseemly going on with the victim? What if there were secrets held in that floor safe?

Q: Have you always wanted to be an author, or did this realization come while you were working in the state prison system? 

A: I didn’t begin writing until after I retired from working in California’s prisons. I read a book one morning and it wasn’t particularly good. I’d read the author before, but this one wasn’t up to their usual standards. Something about it made me say, “I could do better than that.” It was a challenge—a challenge to myself. Could I really write commercial fiction?

I wasn’t sure I could pull it off even after attending workshops and writers’ conferences. Until I thought back to one of the first jobs I held as a probation officer preparing presentence reports for the sentencing judge.

A presentence report gives the judge a complete picture of the case and the defendant. I would interview the convicted person in the jail and get their take on the offense. Did they express remorse? Blame the victim? I read all the investigative reports, interviewed the detectives, spoke with the victim, or the next of kin, all to get a sense of the defendant and the crime. All this information would be cobbled together in a narrative for the judge. Years later, it dawned on me that I’d been writing crime stories all along.

The realization that I’d done this before was enough to give me the confidence to take on writing crime fiction.

Q: Was the transition from being in a maximum-security prison to becoming an author easy or difficult? Why was it easy or difficult? 

A: The biggest difference between where I worked and what I do now are the people. In prison, I’d have to wear a stab resistant vest and hope to come home with no additional holes in my body. High stress and high tension over time takes a toll. It was hard to unwind after twenty-nine years. Writing became therapeutic, in a way. I was able to purge a lot of trauma onto the page. The surprise to me was that the community of crime fiction authors were incredibly supportive of one another. I didn’t expect that from people who write about crime, violence, and things that linger in the shadows.

Q: If you are currently writing your next book, can you reveal any details about it or is it too early to say?

A: The sequel to Face of Greed is tentatively titled River of Lies. It’s again set in Sacramento and takes a look at a series of arsons in the city’s squalid homeless camps. Emily Hunter discovers the reasons behind the deadly attacks aren’t what they initially appear to be. Who stands to gain from eliminating camps along the city’s riverfront?

Q: Has your experience being a hostage negotiator, working in the parole system, or assignments as a facility captain,  or associate warden in a maximum-security prison, helped you create the heroes and villains in your books? 

A: Despite spending a career behind bars, I don’t write prison books. But those characters and situations tend to stick with you. They do find a way into the stories as a piece of a character, or an inspiration for a scene.

Q: What was it like for you to be an associate warden in a maximum-security prison, part of the parole system, or a facility captain and a hostage negotiator? I imagine being an associate warden in a prison and a hostage negotiator especially, must be a dangerous and scary job. 

A: It can be a dangerous place. But if you get hung up on that, you’d never be able to do your job. We had training and worked with some of the best staff in the business. We counted on one another to watch each other’s backs and made sure we made it home at the end of the shift.

Q: You are a screenwriter as well as an author. Which screenplays have you written for in Hollywood and have you written the screenplays for your books? 

A: I’ve written a few scripts “on spec” for television series. “On Spec” means I wasn’t contracted to write them but sent them to the studios for consideration. It’s always a million to one shot. Although my scripts for Dexter and The Women’s Murder Club weren’t put into production, I did earn some award recognition for them, and it helped me learn how to tell a story for a different entertainment medium.

Q: What is your advice to anyone wanting to juggle being an author and a screenwriter as you do?

A: They are completely different skill sets. Writing a screenplay is much more compact than a novel. You have limited screen time to lay out your story. It helps to be able to visualize the content you’re putting on the page, because, after all, the screenplay will become a visual product in the end. In terms of balancing the two, I tend to spend much more of my time writing long form fiction—especially now with contracts for two books a year. 

Q: Whether Hollywood has the rights to your work or not, who would be your ideal cast to play the characters you created? 

A: It’s always fun to think about whom might take the roles for the characters you create. I think Angie Harmon (Rizzoli & Isles) would make a great Emily Hunter. She’s smart and has a dry wit. Javier Medina, Emily’s partner, needs someone who can keep up with her and have a softer side. Will Trent’s Ramon Rodriguez would be perfect.

Q: What is your advice to anyone wanting to be a hostage negotiator and being a warden at a prison? 

A: My advice—don’t. It’s a very different world inside. The political pressures to reduce prison population and lower recidivism have made it a much more dangerous place. Public safety isn’t the primary consideration these days—it’s all about the budget savings from closing a prison or letting people out early. That doesn’t make it safer for any of us.

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his award-winning novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, and director of California’s state parole system. His novels have been shortlisted or awarded the Lefty, Anthony, Silver Falchion, and the Public Safety Writers Award. Face of Greed is his most recent novel. Look for Served Cold and River of Lies, coming in 2024.You can find out more at