Write wing: Attorney makes a literary pact with publishing 'Devil'


By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Maybe the devil won't care if you buy this new book, but Flint attorney John Streby will. Because he wrote it.

"The Devil Won't Care" is Streby's second self-published book, following his first, called "Rabbit Stew." The 59-year-old civil attorney, who has spent the majority of his three-and-a-half decade legal career as a sole practitioner, has also gone solo in getting his books out to the public, forsaking the road taken by many aspiring writers of agents and publishing companies.

"It's a brutal business," Streby said of the pitfalls, detours, and roadblocks of getting a book published the old-fashioned way. "Publishers are focused on making profits, not on enhancing the literary landscape."

And although publishers "pay lip service" to the notion they are looking for new talents, "the barriers to entry into that rarified world are formidable."

Breaking new ground by going it alone is nothing new to Streby. Born in Flint, he knew that he wanted to be an attorney since age 12 while watching the television show "The Defenders," even though no one in his immediate family was a lawyer.

"I thought the courtroom scenes were interesting, and decided that what was I wanted to do," he said. "As silly as that sounds, the show dealt with social issues and controversial topics, genuine issues of importance."

Streby graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint in 1973 with a degree in political science, and went to Cooley Law School. After graduating in 1976, he returned to Flint not knowing what field of law he'd enter. He rented space with another attorney, and took whatever cases came his way. He took criminal cases as a court-appointed attorney, abuse and neglect matters, divorces and more. He's now primarily a civil attorney, with a small amount of criminal work.

And for the most part, he's enjoyed it, although "there are stressful times and difficult clients."

One of the ways Streby has released some of that stress and creative energy over the years has been through writing. As a teenager, he said he wrote short pieces about "fragmentary things" for kicks. And he took creative writing classes in high school and college.

As an attorney, Streby wrote legal articles that appeared in the Genesee County Bar Association publication, and several pieces appeared in the state Bar Journal and Lawyers Weekly.

But his real passion came from writing fiction pieces. He tried to develop a few ideas and write screenplays, using his love of some old movie classics. But it never really panned out.

His first novel, "Rabbit Stew," started as a script for a possible movie, but evolved into his first real book. And it all stemmed from a topic tossed about during a lunch with friends in 1980. Streby said one of his friends, now a deceased judge, mentioned how police in Philadelphia would have a detective dress up in a rabbit costume and beat a suspect to obtain a confession.

"I roared when I heard that," Streby said.

He imagined the suspect telling his lawyer the cops beat a confession out of him, and when asked to describe the cop, all he could say was it was a guy in a rabbit suit.

"I'm sure the lawyer would question his client's sanity," Streby said. "But I had my inspiration."

He worked on the movie script for several years, and even tried to raise money for filming it, an idea he now calls "foolish" and "overly optimistic."

He then decided it might work better as a book, and fell into pattern of rising at 5 a.m. to work on the novel for a few hours before heading off to his day job. Streby said he followed an unorthodox method in writing.

"I don't write linear fashion," he said.

He might write a section one day that would appear at the end of the book, and another the next day that might be in the book's beginning.

"It's well into the writing process before I really start to get concerned about sequence and order," Streby said.

Four years later, in 2002, it was finished. The 670-plus page legal and political novel centers around Phil Murphy, a struggling young attorney who represents a young black man falsely accused of being involved in an armed robbery that results in the death of the governor.

After his quest to find a publisher, Streby decided to take matters into his own hands and self-publish the novel.

"I tired of relying on other people to get the book in print and decided to just put onus on myself and I knew I'd get the job done," he said.

So far, he has sold about 600 copies of "Rabbit Stew," making a "modest profit." But he said the feedback he's received from it "convinced me that I am a capable writer." It's a process that he enjoys but can be hard work.

"But I enjoyed every minute of it," Streby said.

Like any writer, Streby said he draws from his own experiences and those in the world around him. He said an interesting phrase he may have heard years ago gets filed into his memory for use someday in his books. Attitudes, the way people talk, the things people say, the things people do all become fodder for some yet-undiscovered scene for his novels.

"What I enjoy about being a writer is the ability to listen to people and store colorful phrases," he said.

The modest success of "Rabbit Stew" and the positive feedback led to "The Devil Won't Care."

He describes his quest for writing as coming from a "personal need, even a craving, to express oneself."

After kicking around an idea for several years, Streby launched into the new novel.

"All I knew was it was going to deal with the rise and fall of a documentary film producer," Streby said. "I didn't have any idea what was going to cause him to fall, or what form it would take."

An avid movie buff, Streby said he drew inspiration from films, particularly 1949's "All The King's Men" and "A Face In The Crowd," from 1957.

"The rise-and-fall theme has long intrigued me,' Streby said.

Both films depict men of humble origins who are thrust by fate into the national limelight.

And Streby notes that the overriding theme is that power corrupts.

"The antagonist in 'The Devil Won't Care' is a troubled man," he said.

The premise of the book revolves around a documentary filmmaker who spins a misleading story of how the city is affected by plant closings, and hurts a number of people, and the town as well.

"The film producer achieves rapid success despite his many personal shortcomings, and is jeopardized by his own excesses," Streby said.

He finished the novel last November. He said this book is not a sequel to "Rabbit Stew" but a spin-off from it. The filmmaker and a few other characters briefly appeared in the first book, but also includes a new cast of characters, although the locale is again Genesee County and the time frame is the late 1990s.

"But the message of the book is actions have consequences," Streby said.

Like all writers, Streby said although he is satisfied with the book, you always see ways the finished project could be improved.

"But at some point, you have to say 'Enough is enough.' A perfectionist could work on something for 10 years, and never get anything done. But I'm more satisfied with this than 'Rabbit Stew' because I've learned a lot on how to be a more aggressive self-editor, and how to tell more with fewer words," Streby said.

He also said his dialogue is his strongest suit, but would like to get better at descriptive aspects in future writings.

He believes there are some similarities in writing and practicing law.

"You have to look at the big picture and be thinking at all times about what is motivating other players to take the positions they take, or do what they're doing, and use that motivation to get some idea what might happen next," Streby said.

And he's already thinking about a third book, a black comedy involving murder and off-beat losers as characters, "but I'm at the starting gate on this," Streby admits. He also is tossing around ideas for a possible screenplay again.

But for now, he has no plans to quit either writing or practicing law.

"I don't plan on giving up my day job because writing is a very uncertain way to make a living," Streby said.

"The money is too uncertain, and if you do it for the money, you've picked the wrong hobby," he said. "But there's always the hope that you'll get lucky and find a guardian angel who loves the book and has the means to open doors. I haven't found anybody like that yet, but I'm still looking."

Published: Thu, Feb 17, 2011