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William Bernhardt, 2000

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William Bernhardt: Oklahoma's Renaissance Man

by Dottie Witter

It's obvious he's a Renaissance Man, even though his mother, sitting in the audience, kept signaling to him that his bow-tie was askew. William Bernhardt of Tulsa is a best-selling author, a lawyer, a publisher, and the maker of crossword puzzles. He says he's a bad song writer, but the man can quote Shakespeare.

As a child reading "The Martian Chronicles," he realized that these stories weren't just spontaneously generated, but that someone sat down and wrote them. "This was someone's job, and I thought what a wonderful thing it would be to have that ability to create whole new worlds that didn't exist before. I thought that had to be the coolest thing anybody could possibly hope to do," he said.

So he wrote. He received his first rejection letter at the age of 11. "It's true, I've still got it. Mom saved it. And I got a lot more thereafter, but I kept at it and I kept reading," he said.

He has a lifelong love affair with libraries. "Life was always better between the covers of a book. I was blessed that librarians in the Midwest City Municipal Library took an interest in what I was doing and encouraged me to read broadly, not to focus on one niche of literature, but to seek out the best of everything."

He considers himself one of the "lucky ones" because he grew up in a home his parents filled with books, and worries about children today who don't have parents who read to them or who value books.

Thanks to a wonderful teacher, he discovered Shakespeare. "At 12, I could recite all of Hamlet's soliloquies. Not necessarily the best thing for a 12-year-old boy," he noted.

Bernhardt continued to write throughout college.

"It did occur to me that since I probably wouldn't write my first blockbuster the day I stepped on campus, I should learn to do something else as well. I was interested in law, because as far as I could tell, to be a lawyer you had to read, write, and talk. You didn't get sweaty; you didn't have to know calculus. It seemed like a good deal," he said.

His first completed novel was The Code of Buddyhood, sort of a coming of age novel. "It was eventually published by Random House," he said. "Oddly enough, the publishing world did not fall at my feet." Finally realizing that perhaps mother DID know best, at the age of 27, he took her advice to write what he knew.

"What did I know that would be of interest to people? So I thought, well, I have finished law school in Norman--sorry--rode down the turnpike and got a job at a law firm in Tulsa. And I thought maybe there was something there."

If there is anybody left who hasn't read at least one of the "Justice" series, in the first book, Ben Kincaid also had just finished law school, rode down the turnpike to Tulsa and took a job in a law firm.

"I don't know where I got the idea for this book," he noted, tongue firmly in cheek. Someone always asks, but he doesn't see himself in Ben Kincaid. "I haven't solved any mysteries lately."

Several drafts later, he asked himself that important question for all writers: What would Shakespeare do? And the answer, he realized, was kill somebody off. So Bernhardt did, and it worked.

He worked on that first book for two and one-half years, then spent another two and one-half years finding an agent. "She sold my first three books to Random House in less than three months. I was on my way," he said.

Friends and colleagues insist that many of his characters are based upon themselves or people they know, but his characters are composites of many people. "I don't literally base books on events or people, but on the other hand, most of the legal cases in my books have germinated, at least, from some real life case. I try to mention that in the acknowledgements," he said.

A trial lawyer for nine years, he hasn't practiced in more than five years, finding it hard to practice law and write. Something had to go, and he chose, not for the first time in his life, to be a writer.

Don't look for "Justice" in his next Ben Kincaid book, expected out in April. It will be called Murder One.

Using the word "Justice," he said, was helpful in the earlier days for people to recognize his books. "A lot of people have used Justice in their titles, in some cases, pretty obviously intending to mislead people into thinking it's a Ben Kincaid book when it's not. I thought it was more confusing than helpful," he said.

He marvels at events occurring when some "Justice" books were released, leading some to believe the books were based on real life. But Perfect Justice, about a hate crime, was written more than a year before the Oklahoma City Murrah Building bombing, and another book about an African-American athlete turned celebrity turned murderer was written prior to the O.J. Simpson case, he said.

Dramatic changes in the publishing world motivated him to start HAWK Publishing. A growing publishing company in Tulsa. "There's nothing they have in New York that we don't. We have the same computers they do, and we use the same design software that they do. We have wonderful printers in this part of the country. I'll put our books up against anybody's," he said.

The four major publishers now don't publish as many books or as wide a range of voices, he said. "Books go out of print way too soon, and there were a lot of people who weren't getting heard. I saw a real need for an alternative publisher, so I decided to start one," Bernhardt said.

HAWK Publishing has had success getting into chain stores and independents. "If you give them a good book, something they can sell, they're more than happy to work with you, especially if you've got good authors, and they're willing to go make appearances," he said.

His parents were in attendance from Midwest City, but his wife, Kirsten, was unable to attend "for the reason that she is about 10 and one-half months pregnant," he told the dinner crowd. "And if at any time tonight you hear the cell phone at my table go off, this after dinner speech will be even briefer than you dreamed possible." (It's a boy!)

Their two children, Harry, 9, and Kirsten, 6, are wonderful writers, he said. "I learn from them all the time. I'm sure you know some proud papas who are always inflicting their baby pictures upon you. Writers inflict their child's stories upon you, and tonight will be no exception," he said prior to reading two delightful excerpts from his children's works.

Bernhardt is a believer in the Gospel of Matthew, particularly the verse that says you're never a prophet in your own hometown.

"I think there is a tremendous value in programs like the one we have here which bring talented artists from far flung places to Oklahomans so we can meet them and learn about their books," he said. He encouraged people to acknowledge Oklahoma's own rich tapestry of talented artists.

"Sad to say, I think Oklahoma still suffers from culture inferiority complex. I'm always hearing all the good talents are on that coast or this coast," he said.

"I think Oklahoma artists and writers are better known outside the state than within the borders of the state. We have a wealth of talent in Oklahoma, and we need to do a better job of recognizing that."

Watch Bernhardt

Bernhardt on law and his books

Read Bernhardt

The Code of Buddyhood

Read a review of The Code of Buddyhood bullet Find The Code of Buddyhood in BOSS

Blind Justice: A Ben Kincaid Novel of Suspense

Read an excerpt of Blind Justice bullet Find Blind Justice in BOSS


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