Sunday, June 15, 2014

Alafair Burke on Writing and the Law

Alafair Burke - American Crime Novelist, Professor of Law, Legal Commentator… and a Downright Nice Person!

Along with hordes of other readers, I'm storming the gates this week to get my copy of ALL DAY AND A NIGHT!

IF YOU WERE HERE had me glued to the pages. Its back-cover blurb expressed my own thoughts: "Blistering. As carefully plotted as a surgeon's heart transplant!"

With a Phi Beta Kappa key, honors from Stanford Law and the Order of the Coif under her belt, Alafair Burke is, according to Harlan Coben, "A major talent!"

Michael Connelly says "She's got what it takes!"

So what is in this talented writer's future besides crime bestsellers?

  • To qualify eventually for a senior LPGA tour!
  • To provide a loving home (with Sean her husband) for two adorable four-legs - Bogey Duffer Burke Simpson (known as Double) and newcomer Frannie.

I'm delighted to share with you Alafair's responses to my questions on her writerly life.

T. Jacqueline Straw

photo by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Thelma: What sparked this intriguing plot?

Alafair: This book isn’t based on any single case but on a phenomenon. With more than 300 exonerations through new DNA evidence, we are in an era where the once unthinkable is now undeniable: We convict the innocent, we imprison the innocent; we place the innocent on death row.

In this book, Detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner, JJ Rogan, are asked to serve as a “fresh look” team, essentially re-investigating the evidence against a convicted serial killer named Anthony Amaro who is serving a life sentence without parole. I thought that putting Ellie—a true blue cop who now lives with a prosecutor—at the center of a wrongful conviction case could show us a new side of her. Maybe she’d even learn something about her job and the people she works with.

In a way, I’ve probably wanted to write this book for more than a decade. The first murder case I worked on as a prosecutor wasn’t even a prosecution. My job was to help my office get two innocent people released after the real killer exonerated them. It was absolutely fascinating to see, with the benefit of hindsight, the bizarre turns of events that had led to their convictions. As a law professor, I write about some of the causes of wrongful convictions and the role that police and prosecutors can play in them, whether wittingly or not. I don’t think anyone sets out to convict an innocent person, but we’ve learned that there are red flags in the process: leading interrogations, single eyewitness identifications without reliable checks, faulty scientific evidence. Sometimes it just boils down to tunnel vision: once police think they have the right guy, they continue to process every new piece of evidence through that lens.

Thelma: What came first… the characters, the plot, the actual puzzle?

Alafair: The character of Carrie Blank came first. She’s a young defense attorney whose half-sister was a stripper and a drug addict and was one of Amaro’s victims. She agrees to represent Amaro because she believes it’s the only way to make sure the police got the right man for her sister’s murder.

But working on this case brings Carrie back to her hometown of Utica and all the guilt she feels for escaping the rough neighborhood where she was raised. Years ago, I read a lengthy New York Times article calling attention to how difficult it is to break out of class barriers in this country. The article focused on three girls from poor families who were close friends and academic super-stars. Despite getting college scholarships, they all struggled to get through school. They had family obligations, distractions, and a hard time fitting into college culture. Carrie’s backstory grew out of that article.

Thelma: I confess I am most drawn to your standalones. Anything on the near horizon?

Alafair: I am just starting a new standalone this week! I’m really excited about it. But that’s all I’m saying for now.

I also have a book coming out in November that is co-authored with Mary Higgins Clark. It’s called THE CINDERELLA MURDER and is the start of a series based on Mary’s #1 bestseller, I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN.

Thelma: Do you map out a plot in advance - or are you what they call a pantser?

Alafair: Oh, I am definitely a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer. But I usually don’t start writing until I have a good sense of the main characters and their motivations. It’s amazing how well that groundwork can lead you on the plotting journey.

Thelma: What kinds of scenes do you get a real kick out of doing?

Alafair: I love banter. I love fast-talking, quippy, dialogue-driven movies where all the characters are sharp-tongued and quick-witted. My favorite scenes are when Ellie is verbally sparring (in jest, of course, and as sport) with her brother Jess or her parter, JJ Rogan.

Thelma: Why did you start writing novels? You have had a brilliant career in law.

Alafair: I was already a big reader, especially of crime fiction. When I was the District Attorney’s Office in Portland (in the 90s), I got an idea for a book and became yet another lawyer who wanted to write a novel. When I moved to New York, I took a summer off to study for the bar. I figured I’d go ahead and start that book while I was at it. It took me three years to finish. By then, I was a law professor. Much to my delight and surprise, the editors who wanted to publish the novel assumed it would be a series. Who was I to disagree?

Thelma: Do you plan to base other novels on your legal experience?

Alafair: In a way, I would say that every book I've ever written was based in some part on my legal experience. Even when the characters are not lawyers, I am writing about the impact of crime on human lives, which I don't think I would understand at the same level if not for my time at the District Attorney's Office.

Certainly, though, some of my books are more squarely set within a legal context. In fact, the standalone that I am about to start has a defense attorney has a main character.

Thelma: Would you consider setting parts of your plots in foreign settings? If so, where?

Alafair: Ooh, that's a really good question. I do love to travel, and find myself including what I see in my books. For example, I recently wrote a scene set in Anguilla, one of my favorite places in the world. And in ALL DAY AND A NIGHT, Carrie dreams of going to Europe, because she grew up in a neighborhood where people didn't get to do that kind of thing.

I think I would be intimidated to set an entire book in a place I didn’t know extremely well. To me, place is as big of a character as any individual person. I didn't write about New York until I’d been living here for several years.

Thelma: Will you create a strong major male protagonist for a future book?

Alafair: Yes! I think I have written strong male characters, such as JJ Rogan, Jess Hatcher, and several characters in my standalones. (Patrick in IF YOU WERE HERE is loosely based on my husband.)

But the book I’m just starting has a main character who is male. Stay tuned.

Thelma: Can you tell us what's next on your drawing board?

Well, I’m going to try to start this week while I’m on book tour, so it’s hard to say much about it. Hopefully that drawing board will be filling up quickly.

Thelma: What kind of feedback do you get from your legal colleagues?

Alafair: For the most part, I think my fellow law geeks are thankful that they can read a book without major legal mistakes in it, which is a relief. But I've also learned by now that you can’t write a good novel simply by being a lawyer. People don't read fiction for legal detail or procedural information. Too much of it is a distraction.

I had to take more liberties with legal process than usual in ALL DAY AND A NIGHT. Wrongful conviction cases often take years, which doesn't really work for a page-turner. I have the pace of this case much faster than you're likely to find in real life, although I did try to set up for the reader why the case might move extraordinarily fast.

Thelma: Can you tell us what a typical writing day is for you?

Unfortunately, I don’t have “typical” writing days. I’m a full-time law professor, and my students come first. But when I have a day with no other obligations, I try to write as much as possible that day. I also love to write late at night (like really late, where I start falling asleep at the desk). Most importantly, I try to write at least a tiny bit every day. As long as I do that, I always have the characters and voices in my head and can pick up right where I left off when I get a bigger chunk of time.

Thelma: Describe your most comfortable writing environment.

Alafair: A few years ago, I bought a small studio that is all my own, and I love writing there. I also love to write at Otto, a Mario Batali pizza and wine bar near my apartment. I even have the bar manager, Dennis, as a character in the Ellie Hatcher books.

Thelma: Do you run your first draft by a valued first reader?

Alafair: I am extremely lucky to have my editor, Jennifer Barth at Harper, as my most valued and earliest reader. We have done 10 books together now. She’s invaluable.

Thelma: Do you ever plan to write a novel that takes place at another time in the past?

Alafair: That's one thing I can say I will never do. Parts of ALL DAY AND A NIGHT take place in the 1990s, and that's about as much history as I can take.

Thelma: What is the hardest part of the process for you in creating a new novel?

Alafair: Starting is the hardest part. Because I don't plot things out scene for scene, I have to trust my gut about when it's time to start writing. I usually wait longer than I should. You have to trust that you have enough of a sense of the characters to find your way through a beginning, middle, and end.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. Thelma always asks great questions and Alafair your charming answers told me enough about you that I can't wait to read your newest book. The pet picture was inspired!
    Barbara Bent

  2. Yes, that photo of your two wise and alert sentinels is adorable! Do they help write the books???? tjs

  3. Alifair, You must put those pups in a book. A tug on the heartstrings for sure. Loved this interview and thank you for letting us in on your writing life. Probative questions, TJS (going all legalese on you there).

  4. What a great read. Wonderful questions and great answers. It is always fun to hear about how other writers get the stories written.

  5. Hi, folks, Alafair is on the road and I'm sure she is totally dee-lighted by your wonderful comments! God bless each of you!!!!!! T. Straw

    1. You do a great job here, Thelma. God bless you back!

  6. Such fun to read this conversation! I am such a huge Alafair fan.. and what a treat to hear about her thought processes. Thanks to both of you! and xoxo

  7. Sorry, I was, as Thelma noted, on the road when this was posted but really appreciate all the comments. Thanks!