Lawyers are storytellers, and the shift from legalese to prose may not be too far a leap for some. In this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast, host Rocky Dhir talks to Mike Farris about his career as an entertainment lawyer and book author. They discuss the inspiration behind his books and delve into Mike’s writing process. They also talk about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” Texas lawsuit in which Mike represented the plaintiff, which then led to a non-fiction book co-authored with his client.
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State Bar of Texas Podcast
Lawyer to Author — A Look at Mike Farris’ Interesting Career
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Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice, with your host Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hi and welcome to another adventure on the State Bar of Texas podcast. Today our journey takes us somewhere none of us has ever been, inside the mind of Mike Farris. Mike is a Dallas Entertainment Attorney who has achieved the dream of becoming a published author, several times over in fact, how did he do it, how can we do it? Well, let’s find out.
Mike Farris, welcome.
Mike Farris: Thanks Rocky. It’s good to be here.
Rocky Dhir: Well, Mike I hope you have a very open mind today, because there’s a bunch of us that are going to be walking around in it for the next 40 minutes or so.
Mike Farris: I have a very open mind I just have to make sure that nothing falls out.
Rocky Dhir: You and me both, you and me both, luckily nobody ever wants inside my head, so if there’s stuff moving around in there nobody really cares, but yours is a different story. So gosh, how many books have you published at this point? Give us an idea.
Mike Farris: I’ve published 12 at this point. Now one of those was a pure ghostwriting assignment, so although I’m credited in the acknowledgments as an Editor, I don’t have my name on the book itself, but I have 11 where I’m the author.
Rocky Dhir: Wow, and what got you interested in writing as opposed to before — you’re an entertainment lawyer, so you litigated, right?
Mike Farris: Right. I’ve always been interested in books. When I was a kid, I was a big Hardy Boys fan. In fact, every year for Christmas and my birthday my mother would take me to a Kmart in Oak Cliff. We live —
Rocky Dhir: I remember Kmart.
Mike Farris: We lived in Duncanville at the time. We’d go to the Kmart in Oak Cliff and I could pick out two Hardy Boys books, every year Christmas, my birthday. So I grew up reading, love to read and actually first started writing, a little bit of creative writing when I was in junior high school, but never seriously until about 15-20 years ago.
Rocky Dhir: Now it’s interesting for — you can’t see it from where you’re sitting as a listener, but I’m actually sitting here in Mike’s home office, his home office study, and the walls are literally lined with books. And I don’t mean like e-books, I don’t mean like on a Kindle or on your iPad, I mean it’s, it’s shelves of books and apparently this is just the tip of the iceberg, right?
Mike Farris: Yeah I have about 20 boxes of books up in the attic, because they won’t fit on the shelves. I have another room in the house it has about four or five bookshelves also full of books.
Rocky Dhir: Any of these rare books or are they?
Mike Farris: None of them are really rare books. I think the closest thing I have to some rare books is I actually have a set of what we called the Waverley Novels.
Rocky Dhir: I’ve heard of those. I’m old enough to remember that.
Mike Farris: Well, the reason why I have those is because when I was in graduate school I worked in the summers moving furniture and we moved a guy who had a box of books that he was throwing out and I asked him if I could have him and he gave them to me. I took them home and they’re still on my bookshelf.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Now Mike, I remember in February of 2017 reading in the Texas Bar Journal, there was a book review, one of your books. It was ‘A Death In The Islands’
Mike Farris: Right.
Rocky Dhir: Now if you would, the book review kind of tells us the backdrop, but can you give us maybe the really abridged version of what the background is, but what I really want to know is what got you interested in writing about that particular topic? Let’s explore that a little bit.
Mike Farris: Okay. I will start with the background on it.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Mike Farris: In 1931 a young naval lieutenant’s wife in Honolulu claimed that she had been assaulted and raped by five Hawaiian boys. Five young men were arrested brought to trial, the jury was out for 96 hours before they declared a hung jury, but it was clear from the evidence that not only had they not done it, there was a strong chance that the woman had never been assaulted in the first place.
But while they were out pending a retrial the supposed victim’s husband, mother and two sailors kidnapped one of these guys who were out on bond, tried to coerce a confession out of him and in the process they killed him.
Rocky Dhir: And this is one of the defendants?
Mike Farris: One of the defendants, they killed one of the defendants and they were caught then trying to dump his body in the ocean. The supposed victim’s mother was a Socialite from Back East who had come to Honolulu to be with her daughter. Her friends from back home raised money and they hired Clarence Darrow to come out of retirement and defend the murder charge that was then brought.
Rocky Dhir: So this isn’t the typical Darrow story, right? Usually we hear of Darrow is as kind of defending the underdog and you would have expected him to be defending the young Hawaiian boys, but in this case he’s actually representing — he’s a bad person if you will —
Mike Farris: He — in my opinion Darrow was one of the villains of the story. I actually was surprised, because one of the things that he did was he put a witness on the stand to suborn perjury and he knowingly did that. He was a — what he did was he put the gun to kill the young man in the hand of the husband, because the husband was the only one who actually had under his theory of the honor killing, the right to avenge what had happened to his wife when it actually was one of the sailors who had killed the young man. Darrow knew that the husband had not done it but put him on the stand to testify that he did it in a state of insanity. And I have a real problem with that.
Rocky Dhir: Tell us about Darrow’s theory of the Unwritten Law.
Mike Farris: Darrow’s theory is that regardless of what actually happened, a husband has the right to avenge the dishonor of his wife. So in this instance, if you believe that these five young men had actually assaulted her, then the husband had the right to avenge what was done and he should have been acquitted based upon, it basically jury nullification and that was what he threw to the jury.
Rocky Dhir: That would be unheard of today, but back then he apparently made this argument with the straight-faced thinking that this would fly.
Mike Farris: He did make it with a straight face. In fact, in his in his memoir, he even talked about the fact that everybody knew that his clients had done it. And so he was trying — he’s trying an insanity defense coupled with the unwritten law defense hoping to get them off.
Rocky Dhir: So it’s interesting. One of the things you were saying was that you had trouble with the way Darrow went about representing his client. So as lawyers and especially when you’re a young lawyer, a law student, you’re taught to zealously defend your client or zealously represent your client, it sounds like you think maybe Darrow overstepped that line, went beyond mere zealousy and did something, maybe unethical or —
Mike Farris: I think highly unethical. I think there is — when you understand that Darrow knew that one of the sailors had actually killed — Joseph Kahahawai was the young man who was killed. When you understand that Darrow knew that it was one of the sailors who had killed Joe and not Tommy Massie, the husband of the supposed victim, yet got Tommy Massie to get on the stand and say that he had the gun and he’s the one who killed Joe, that’s highly unethical, may even be criminal behavior.
Rocky Dhir: What got you interested in this particular topic, and not only that, what then got you to say, I’m going to sit down and write a thick book about it? I mean we’re talking — we’re talking hundreds of pages?
Mike Farris: Yeah it’s about 350 pages on the book.
Rocky Dhir: Lord.
Mike Farris: My wife and I love Hawaii. We visited there. I think we’ve been 15 or 16 times. So but about 20 years ago we were in a bookstore in Hilo, on the Big Island basically books, and I found a paperback book that was written in 1966 called ‘Rape In Paradise‘ by a journalist who had actually sat through the trial in 1932.
And I was fascinated by the story, but I just kind of let it sit for a while, but overtime I was more and more drawn to that story. What I realized was there been five books written about it; three were published in 1966 and two were published in the early 2000s, but none were written — three were written by journalists, two were written by professors. So the one by journalist, read like a newspaper article, the one is by professors, read like academics and what I wanted to do was to tell the story to a more commercial audience, to a wider audience.
So I actually wrote the book in the style of a novel, similar to I’d say in cold-blood, where Truman Capote took a true story but in effect novelized the telling of it, not the facts, but the telling of it.
Rocky Dhir: To make it read more like fiction, even though it’s true.
Mike Farris: Even though it’s true, but I also had the benefit of I had — there were two trials, the rape trial, the murder trial, I had the trial transcripts. When all was said and done, the Pinkerton Detective Agency came out and did a huge investigation, because after the murder trial the prosecutor had to decide whether or not to retry the rape case, which it had a hung jury.
So they hired the Pinkertons to do that and the Pinkertons came out with a 280 some-odd page report. I got access to that. I got access to police interviews, witness statements, contemporary newspaper articles. So I was able to put the facts into the story, but tell it in the style of a novel.
Rocky Dhir: When did you start writing this, like what year?
Mike Farris: 2016 — must’ve been probably late 2015, the book was published at the end of 2016.
Rocky Dhir: So at this point, did you have a day job or was this what you did all day, be an author?
Mike Farris: I was practicing law at the time.
Rocky Dhir: All right. So this is — I think for many of us, this might be the really, the fascinating story behind the story. So you are a practicing lawyer, right, you’ve got hours to bill, you’ve got fees to collect, you’ve got all that stuff that lawyers do it, but then you’re reading trial transcripts on a case that you’re not getting paid on and then you’re reading this 250 page Pinkerton Report and then at some point you sit down and type out a 350 page novel. How did you — how do you get the time to do this?
Mike Farris: Well I have found over the years that when you really love doing something, you find the time for it.
Rocky Dhir: And this was your passion, was writing?
Mike Farris: This was my passion which was writing and to tell this particular story.
Rocky Dhir: Now, this obviously was not your first book, correct me on this was not, what was your first?
Mike Farris: My first book was a book called ‘Manifest Intent’.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Mike Farris: When I wrote it, I couldn’t get it published, but over the years, I sort of taught myself, I learned, learned how to rewrite, learned how to structure stories and ultimately, was able to get my first book published I think in about 2003-2004 or something like that. Then went back and reworked ‘Manifest Intent’ and ultimately got it published.
Rocky Dhir: Now, so you started writing ‘Manifest Intent’ in, you said about — I guess this have been the late 90s.
Mike Farris: It was in the late 90s is best I could recall, because like I said it’s sat for quite a while before I went back and reworked it and then got it published.
Rocky Dhir: As you said the best I can recall it, this is not a Senate Panel.
Mike Farris: It’s not, no, but I’m also at that age where recalling sometimes is a chore.
Rocky Dhir: I feel you there. So late 90s, at this point you’re clearly in the midst of your law practice, and so you made this decision to start writing, did you have a passion for writing at that point or did you sort of make a decision that I’m going to just leap and do this?
Mike Farris: I did have a passion for writing and actually by the late 90s, I had actually stepped away from law practice for a while. So it must have been more like the mid-90s when I started this book, because I was still, I was a partner at Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox when I wrote the book.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Mike Farris: But then in the latter part of the 90s, I basically had my first retirement from law practice and spent time with my wife traveling and doing some other writing and things like that and then went back to law practice.
Rocky Dhir: So when you were a practicing lawyer, can you again, if you can recall senator, can you walk us through maybe your typical daily schedule, right, you go to work and then you have to write. Tell us about how you structured your days and your weeks around writing?
Mike Farris: Yeah back then, I did my writing in the evenings. I was like I said at Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox, I did surety and fidelity practice, so it was a business litigation practice. So on any given day you had depositions, court appearances or you were in the office doing research. So I wrote in the evenings.
Now, when I got into the 2000s and was practicing with a different firm, I would get up early in the morning and try to spend an hour to an hour and a half each morning, writing. Now, I just kind of do it when the spirit moves me.
Rocky Dhir: So when you say each — then does this also include weekends, did you, were your weekends taken up with writing or did you manage to do other things?
Mike Farris: Sometimes on weekends, sometimes not. I was never a person who had a rigid structure of when I had to write and I know some people who have hours set aside during the day and they write every day, I can’t do that. I have to be in the mood, I have to feel like it.
Rocky Dhir: Got to feel the muse at that point, right, because if you don’t, then what are you going to write about it, that’s what I would struggle with. If I set aside 7 to 9 a.m. to write and I’m not feeling it, I’ll be sitting there surfing the Internet.
Mike Farris: Right, and I also have to have sort of a block of time set aside, an undisturbed block of time, I’m not one of these people who can sit down and write for 30 minutes and then go do something and come back and I’ve told people before I might have half a day set aside, this is my writing day and if my wife comes in and asked me to take out the trash, I feel like it’s just blown the whole day, because it’s interrupted my writing process which — it’s an exaggeration, but I can’t just do bits and pieces like some people can.
Rocky Dhir: So when you write you’re writing for two or three hours just straight?
Mike Farris: Yes.
Rocky Dhir: Get up maybe to refill your water or do something like that, that’s it?
Mike Farris: I do and I listen to music while I write.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Now, how do you — this is what would scare me about writing a book or even attempting to do it, and I imagine many people would feel the same way. How do you battle the blank page, right, you got this blank computer screen staring at you and it’s a cursor that’s blinking very teasingly, how do you overcome that? Do you just — do you just write whatever’s in your head or do you structure it first, what goes through that process?
Mike Farris: The reason why I can only write when I feel move to do it is that very reason. I can’t just sit down like this is my time to write and sit down and I can’t think of anything, because I typically have. I thought it out in my head, I’ve turned it over, I’ve come up with ideas and it reaches the point where, okay, it’s time to get it out and put it down on paper. That’s when I sit down and write.
So I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down in front of the blank page and felt like I’ve had writer’s block, but it’s because I have resolved it before I sat down.
Rocky Dhir: You’ve kind of ruminated over it for a course of days or weeks or whatever.
Mike Farris: Pretty much. I have told my wife and she told other people about that first book that I wrote, which even though we couldn’t get it published for a long time, I basically wrote it in my head during a summer working in the yard. I would go out to mow the yard and just for an hour or so at a time, I would think about the story idea.
Rocky Dhir: It’s this house where we’re sitting in now, isn’t it?
Mike Farris: That was a house over at East Dallas.
Rocky Dhir: Oh okay.
Mike Farris: Yes, now my later books I’ve written mowing this yard.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. So lesson for all you lawyers out there that want to become authors, go mow your own yard.
Mike Farris: It’s an inspiration and the beauty of it is it, you’d be surprised how quickly the time passes, when you’re mowing the yard.
Rocky Dhir: And you’re thinking about this book of yours.
Mike Farris: Thinking about it, yes.
Rocky Dhir: Now when you do sit down to write and you’ve got this book written in your head, do you edit as you go or are you just writing what’s in your head and then you worry about editing later.
Mike Farris: I worry about editing later. To me, the most important thing is to get it down on the page.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Mike Farris: I have learned though that over the course of doing these things what I now do in a first draft it used to take me three or four rewrites to do, but that’s just the process of repetition and learning from trial and error. But I need to get the whole thing out first and then I’ll go back and edit it.
Rocky Dhir: What would you say is there a particular challenge that’s unique to lawyers when it comes to — because when we write in a litigation style, it’s a very different style than writing, writing a novel or even historical fiction or historical account. Is there something lawyers need to kind of train themselves to do or not do when it comes to writing the style of writing that you’re doing now?
Mike Farris: I think so. I think a problem that I’ve seen in lawyer writing — this is typically unpublished lawyer writing, is they do tend to write like lawyers as opposed to write like a novelist telling a story to a commercial audience.
The other thing is particularly those who do legal thrillers, legal dramas, they know what they’re writing about and they make one of two mistakes. One is, they don’t tell the reader enough to really understand what’s going on or they tell the reader too much which bogs them down in the minutiae of litigation practice, negotiation, maneuvering and things like that.
Rocky Dhir: To some extent do you have to take liberties with – I mean obviously when you’re writing a true historical account, that’s different, but if you’re writing something that’s maybe fictionalized to some degree, do you take liberties with the rules of procedure and kind of gloss over some of that for the non-lawyer reader?
Mike Farris: I try not to. I try to stick to the rules, at least the rules in Texas as I know them, they may be different in other states. But to me, it lends to the credibility of the story.
The last thing you want is to get emails because I have gotten a couple of emails recently. I got one from a guy in Australia because in my book ‘Fifty Shades of Black and White’, which is nonfiction about lawsuit that I was involved in, I went to Sydney, Australia to take depositions and I got an email from him talking about supposedly enjoying the book, but I misspelled some Australian place names.
Rocky Dhir: Oh. I mean at least he was kind enough to tell you about it, so you know for next time.
Mike Farris: He was one of them, I take him at his word. The other was Sydney Harbour, and I spelled at H-A-R-B-O-R, and he said it’s actually O-U-R and well, we’ll just disagree on whether or not I can do the English, the American spelling.
Rocky Dhir: We won the war dang it.
Mike Farris: Yeah exactly.
Rocky Dhir: So here’s — let’s talk about Fifty Shades, because that was actually something I wanted to ask you about because it’s an — it’s fascinating. I don’t know how many people know your involvement with that. So most of us think of Fifty Shades of Grey as a movie showing a lot of skin, right, that’s kind of the reputation.
For you, this was a case that you actually had some skin in. So tell us about this.
Mike Farris: Right. Fifty Shades of Grey is actually a trilogy, there were three books Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.
Rocky Dhir: And all the movies have now come out?
Mike Farris: All the movies have now come out. Those three books were originally published by a company called The Writer’s Coffee Shop, which was made up of two women in Texas and two women in Australia.
Rocky Dhir: Again Australia.
Mike Farris: Well that was the case that I was in Australia on.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, got you.
Mike Farris: Yeah. But they operated as a partnership in publishing the book, but they never signed a partnership agreement. So when they sold the publishing rights to Random House, which was a three-year deal over the course of three years, Random House would pay 50% of the royalties to The Writer’s Coffee Shop and 50% of the royalties to the author.
One of the women in Australia took the position that because there was no partnership agreement signed, it was her company. And so she signed as the CEO of The Writer’s Coffee Shop but instead of using the partnership-employer identification number from the IRS, used her personal tax file number from Australia, gave Random House her bank account information in Sydney, Australia and then over the course of three years collected something in the neighborhood of $45 million in royalties without accounting to her partners for any of it.
So we filed suit in Texas in Tarrant County to get a declaration that The Writer’s Coffee Shop was a partnership.
Rocky Dhir: And why Tarrant County, is that — that’s where your client was living?
Mike Farris: My client lived in Tarrant County.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Mike Farris: There were a lot of contacts that the Australian woman had with Texas. She had actually had been to Texas a number of times. She was promoting ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ on WFAA-TV. At least one of the things that she did that was the subject of the lawsuit was to terminate my client and another woman did that in Tarrant County.
Rocky Dhir: I see.
Mike Farris: So we sued in Tarrant County. Again, for that declaration that my client was one of four partners entitled her share of the profits.
Rocky Dhir: And then did the other partners step into the lawsuit as well?
Mike Farris: The others, yes and no, they did not get involved as parties in the lawsuit. The other two actually testified on behalf of the defendant, although their testimony was inconsistent in all over the place.
One of the women testified that there was no partnership and in the next breath was admitting that she had signed documents on behalf of a partnership.
Rocky Dhir: Interesting.
Mike Farris: The other woman in Australia, interestingly, never said that there was no partnership, what she said was when it was all put together she decided not to be a part of it, which is a far different thing from there is no partnership.
Now the jury ultimately found that she was a partner, so that’s why they were four partners found by the jury instead of three.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Now, was this Tarrant County State Court or were you in Federal Court?
Mike Farris: It was in State Court, and one of the things I wondered about was whether or not they would remove it to Federal Court, but they didn’t. I also anticipated that since the defendant was in Australia that she might default, which is what I actually anticipated would happen because there’s no treaty between the United States and Australia for the enforcement of judgments.
And in order to enforce the Texas judgment in Australia we would have to go to Australia, file a separate proceeding and one of the things that we would have to establish was that the Australian residents submitted to the jurisdiction of the United States Court. Had she defaulted we couldn’t have done that. But she appeared, hired a lawyer, and defended the lawsuit.
Rocky Dhir: Any idea why she decided to appear?
Mike Farris: I don’t know.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Now okay, so that case and that story was obviously something you were personally involved in as an attorney, what about your other topics? How do you go about choosing what you want to write about? Is it always a legal story or is it something that you just found interesting? Walk us through that process.
Mike Farris: It varies. This one obviously was something I was involved in and actually got my client to assist in writing the book to tell the lawsuit, about the lawsuit from her perspective but also what had happened from her perspective, while I wrote from the perspective of the attorney, but I have one book that’s historical fiction that is said in World War II Honolulu in what’s called Hotel Street, which was the red-light district in Honolulu. So was a factual backdrop of World War II red light district in Honolulu.
Rocky Dhir: So you have to do your research for that one to see what it was actually like in 1932 in Honolulu in the Red Light District.
Mike Farris: Did have to do some research for that, yeah and there’s quite a bit of information out there on it, no books had been written about Hotel Street. There were chapters in some books about Hotel Street.
I have other books that I have written where it was just an idea that came to me. There have been others where actually cases that I have worked on things happened, which triggered ideas.
Rocky Dhir: I’m sitting here trying to think about what I would write, if I get inspired one day to write I don’t know what I would write about. What’s your advice to an attorney who says, I mean I know many of them who say I’d love to write the next great American novel or get published, what would be your advice for how they choose something to write about?
Mike Farris: That’s going to vary from individual to individual, but I would say first of all write something that you’re interested in. What is it you like to read? Those kinds of things typically are going to be best for you to write about or at least in that genre because you’re familiar with the conventions of it, you’re familiar with certain things about it.
I also — you hear the adage over and over again, write what you know, but I have a corollary to that when I teach writing classes and that is know what you write. If you’re interested in something, don’t be afraid to do research because the historical fiction I wrote, I began doing research about the Red Light District in a Hotel Street area in World War II, it triggered ideas for the book, because I was doing the research.
So write what you know, know what you write, but write what you’re interested in, whatever you have a passion for. If you’re writing because you’re going to be the next John Grisham and be a millionaire, I would say don’t bother. If you’re writing because you have a passion for a story, something you feel like you need to tell, that’s what you pursue.
Rocky Dhir: Is that what you found is true of say the Grishams and the Stephen Kings and these authors, are they doing the same thing, just writing about things that fascinate them or do you know?
Mike Farris: I think a lot of them get started that way. The story I have heard and I’ve not heard anything to the contrary, but John Grisham’s book ‘A Time to Kill’ which was the first book he wrote, he got the idea from that sitting in a courtroom waiting to be called for a hearing in a case and listening to the hearing that went on for.
If you think about the book ‘The Firm’, which is about the mob controlled law firm in Memphis, although it’s a thriller, it’s a commercial story, it’s a commentary on legal ethics.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Mike Farris: So there are things that I think people are passionate about, that get them started. Now what happens is after a while there are only so many things you can be passionate about, and then I think you just sort of come up with all right, what’s going to sell, but you’ve got to be out there in the game first before you can do that.
Rocky Dhir: What about the process of getting published? I know you said you had challenges with your first book getting that published and then it happened sometime later. How do you think a new author should sort of navigate that minefield of publication, because I think most lawyers don’t really — we’re not familiar with that. We might know how to write, we might have ideas in our heads, but getting that disseminated might be a whole different ball of wax.
Mike Farris: Yeah. It’s not easy. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, I don’t know how you view it, it is easier to get self-published these days, because of the internet and eBooks and things like that, and but I think it depends upon your motivation. If you have a personal story that you just simply want to get out there and you’re going to get behind it and promote it, maybe that’s the way to go.
Rocky Dhir: To self-publish.
Mike Farris: To self-publish. But I also think that there’s a problem with self-publishing for some people because there’s no quality control, and so I think if you’re seriously interested in pursuing writing as opposed to I have this one-shot thing that I want to get out there, I would at least start by trying to get an agent, trying to get a royalty paying publisher and that’s not easy to do. But that would be where I would start.
And one of the things I would advise all people who want to write is read, read, read. It’s amazing to me how many writers I have talked to in the past or who want to be writers and they can’t even tell you who their favorite author is, they can’t tell you what kind of books they like, they just want to as the saying goes, they want to have written but they don’t really want to learn how to write.
Rocky Dhir: Interesting. So I’m trying to think of and I don’t know if you’ve met any of these highly published authors like J.K. Rowling or John Grisham or any of these folks, I’m trying to get inside their heads and think what they must have been going through when they were first writing their very first books. They didn’t know if they’re going to get published, they don’t know if anybody is going to look at this.
So I guess you sort of — you create the art and then you worry about the publishing later or would you say you do it the opposite way?
Mike Farris: I say create the art and worry about the publishing later, because if you create the art then you’re doing it because you are an artist. If you worry and which is not to say don’t understand the world, don’t understand the business behind it, go to writers conferences, read books, learn about the business of writing. But if all you’re interested in is the business as opposed to creating the art, then I think you should go into business.
Rocky Dhir: Do you think writing books would make us better lawyers or do you think being a lawyer helps you write better books?
Mike Farris: I think it works both ways. I think being a lawyer helps you write better books because lawyers are storytellers, but I have also found that I learned things about storytelling from writing that helps me in litigation, in a presentation of a case and development of a case.
The other thing I’ve learned is that writing particularly if you’re writing prose, makes you a better legal writer, because you shift over a little bit from legalese to what’s the best way to communicate what I’m trying to say.
Rocky Dhir: And that was actually a question I wanted to ask you, so you sort of preempted me and I’m glad you did, because it’s a — this is a debate I think sometimes in the legal writing world is do we write “like lawyers”. I’m doing the little quote thing with my fingers, but do we write like lawyers or in legal briefs, should we try to write more like more as if it is prose? Have you experimented with that in your legal briefs back when you were practicing? Did you actually write the facts section of a legal brief as if it was a story?
Mike Farris: I didn’t, I would say that I have experimented with it, but I learned when I started writing books and writing prose even back when I wasn’t being published, that I preferred a plain English style, because it doesn’t really matter how smart your writing sounds if your reader is not understanding it or not getting the point, then you sort of wasted your time.
It’s I think the same thing when you’re arguing a case to a jury. If you get up there and you use $3 words when a $0.25 word will do and you’ve got jurors who can’t follow what you’re saying, you’ve sort of undercut your position, where — that’s why I think the best part of jury is jury argument is being able to tell your case like a story.
Rocky Dhir: So let’s maybe think of an illustration, the typical legal brief. Let’s say, let’s say it’s a slip-and-fall in a mall or something like that. We might say well on January 10, 2019 the plaintiff was walking along what appeared to be a smooth surface and slipped and fell on something invisible and there was no — there’s no wet floor sign.
The other way would be to say, let’s say her name is Jane Doe. Jane Doe woke up in pain, and you kind of start from the premise of she woke up and then trying to piece together what happened and it turned into more of a compelling narrative, if you will. It may not be what most judges are used to and what most lawyers are used to writing but maybe it makes it more exciting or more thrilling. As a lawyer, as a practicing lawyer which of those two would you adopt if you had to write a brief?
Mike Farris: I actually sort of came down in the middle on that because I don’t want it to be too much like reading a novel because so much of storytelling, a novel telling is you sort of — you’ve got your twists and turns and spring your surprise, twist at the end.
I think particularly as much as judges have to read, if a judge can read a paragraph heading or a sentence or two from a paragraph and get the gist of what you’re saying, if that’s all they read, it just skim through a pleading and read the first paragraph or the first part of its paragraph then you’re halfway there. So I sort of fall in the middle of that.
Rocky Dhir: So you’re not going for readability, you’re going for skimmability.
Mike Farris: Pretty much, pretty much but skimmability and understandability.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Mike Farris: But the most important thing is that they be able to understand what you’re saying, if you can be clear and concise that’s half the battle.
Rocky Dhir: But you want to be able to do that quickly.
Mike Farris: Yes.
Rocky Dhir: Or rather the reader needs to be able to do that quickly because they’re trying to digest information.
Mike Farris: Yes.
Rocky Dhir: In very rapid-fire. Does it matter which court you’re in front of?
Mike Farris: It matters absolutely which court you are in front of, and you need to sort of learn the judges, what the judges’ style is, what the judges like, I have been given to understand there are judges who want legal writing to read like legal writing.
But it’s also part of being a lawyer is every time you get a new case, you learn as much as you can about the judge and you learn as much as you can about the other lawyer, you learn as much as you can about the case but you have to sort of adapt your style to what your audience is.
Rocky Dhir: So let’s say we’re many decades into the future and you look back on your life, would you want to be described as Mike Farris attorney, Mike Farris author? What’s your identity? Are you more of a writer? Are you more of an attorney?
Mike Farris: Oh gosh that’s a tough question.
Rocky Dhir: We ask tough questions here.
Mike Farris: You do. I certainly don’t — I don’t find my identity wrapped up in being a lawyer.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Mike Farris: I think I’ve enjoyed being a lawyer sometimes. I have not enjoyed being a lawyer sometimes. I would much rather just simply be known as — I don’t know — somebody — a nice guy.
Rocky Dhir: Mike Farris, a nice guy who wrote a lot of books.
Mike Farris: I could go with that. I could go with that.
Rocky Dhir: How many more books do you think you have in you?
Mike Farris: Oh gosh I’ve got research in right now for two non-fiction books and I’ll probably get started on at least one, I’ve got to decide which one I want to do get started on this year, probably this spring and I have outlines for about three or four other novels in file folders and then who knows.
Rocky Dhir: Can you give us a teaser as to what maybe some of these books would be about without revealing too much because obviously we want people to read the books.
Mike Farris: I can. The two non-fiction books and I’ve done research on one is it was sort of inspired by my novel which was called ‘Isle of Broken Dreams’ which is the one that was set in World War II Honolulu.
Rocky Dhir: Sure, on Hotel Street.
Mike Farris: On Hotel Street. But to actually do a non-fiction book about that world of Hotel Street, the Red Light District in Honolulu there is a character in my book ‘Isle Of Broken Dreams’ that was inspired by a notorious prostitute in Honolulu named Jean O’Hara who had literally had a feud with the vice squad of the police department and she was at one point set up and charged with attempted murder. So I have information about that case but I also want to write about the non-fiction world surrounding it, sort of set the context of what that case was about.
Rocky Dhir: Is this going to be about Jean O’Hara or is it going to be more about some other characters in that story?
Mike Farris: Both. It’s going to be about how basically the world of prostitution in Honolulu particularly during the war and how it sort of developed but it’s an incredibly interesting world. The prostitutes actually went on strike at one point.
Rocky Dhir: Really?
Mike Farris: Because the provost marshal, after martial law was declared was freezing the price that they charged and they wanted to raise their prices. So they went on strike.
Rocky Dhir: I got to say, Mike having met you seem like a pretty straight-laced guy and now you’re going to be writing this whole book about prostitution which I think is — it’s fascinating, you’re able to explore that world and yet still be this upstanding lawyer it’s a juxtaposition.
Do you ever find yourself stepping back and saying whoa look at my life, I’m kind of got a feat in several different worlds?
Mike Farris: Yeah it’s interesting my mother-in-law when she read my book ‘Isle Of Broken Dreams’ she just sort of shocked and I had explained to look, it’s called research, it’s not like I’ve actually been there but I think there are human stories to be told in that world.
The world of prostitution in Honolulu a lot of it was white slavery and so the idea I came up with was a young woman coming to Honolulu thinking she’s going to be an entertainer, she’s going to be a singer she has all these aspirations and gets trapped into this world of prostitution and her struggle to get out before it basically ruins her soul.
Rocky Dhir: There are stories like that happening today too.
Mike Farris: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: This is as much a contemporary story is it?
Mike Farris: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: As it was from the 1930s.
Mike Farris: And that’s the thing that touched me about the story is sort of gave rise to the idea of this character who she’s in it, and she’s fighting for her very soul.
Rocky Dhir: Do you think you’re ever going to stop writing?
Mike Farris: As long as I love it, no.
Rocky Dhir: You just keep on, keeping on.
Mike Farris: I just enjoy it, to me, it’s fun to create characters, it’s fun to create worlds. I started out writing fiction but I’ve gotten more into non-fiction these days. The other nonfiction book that I have in mind is the story of the Japanese in Hawaii who were placed in internment camps during World War II.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Mike Farris: There’s a lot told generally about the internment camps but very little about what happened in Hawaii.
Rocky Dhir: That should be a fascinating read too and it’s for darker reasons but it is a very fascinating period of our collective history.
Mike Farris: It was actually an event in Hawaii they triggered the executive order that Roosevelt signed. There was a privately held island in Hawaii called, Niihau and a Japanese zero that was shot up during the Pearl Harbor attack crash-landed on Niihau and convinced the Japanese-Americans storekeeper on the island who ran it for the Robinson family who owned it to help him escape. He thought he was going to make his way to the coast and be picked up by submarine and sort of a period of three or four days held the residents of that island basically terrorized him, until he was caught and killed but the actions of the Japanese storekeeper and his wife were pointed out to the President as examples of how you couldn’t trust Japanese even if they were Japanese-American which led to the executive order.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. I’m looking forward to that book. Now for people that want to kind of keep up with you, maybe contact you and learn a little bit more about writing what’s the best way to keep up with you, stay in touch with you, how should people get in touch with Mike Farris?
Mike Farris: Sure I have a Facebook page, can get in touch with me through Facebook. I also have a website which is just michaelfarris.net.
Rocky Dhir: Okay so either one of those.
Mike Farris: Yes.
Rocky Dhir: Okay well very well. This is unfortunately all the time we have for today and I tell you time flies, Mike I could talk about this all day. I want to thank Mike Ferris joining us and allowing us to take a tour in the inside of his head. Mike this has been fascinating.
Mike Farris: Well thank you. I hope it wasn’t too scary in there.
Rocky Dhir: No, no, it was great, I can spend all day. And of course, I want to thank you, the listener for tuning in. And of course, the good folks at Legal Talk Network for helping us sound so good and we can never forget LawPay and their generous support of this podcast. You rock LawPay.
If you like what you heard today, please rate, review and subscribe to us in Apple podcasts or on your favorite podcast app. Until next time, remember life’s a journey folks. I’m Rocky Dhir signing off for now.
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