Thursday, January 20, 2011

Interview with Linda Fairstein

I'm honored to have the perfect meld for this week's Thriller Thursday - a former prosecutor who became a novelist. Linda Fairstein is the author of the New York based mysteries that feature Alexandra Cooper.

She has a dozen books out and a new one coming. I am particularly fond of her work not just because she's a former ADA but because she shares my view that a city can be a vibrant character in the book. I have Paris, she has New York. If you haven't checked out her books, I urge you to do so, she's a big-time, big-shot famous mystery writer for a reason (she has a writer's cabin on Martha's Vineyard, for pete's sake!).

I give you Linda Fairstein.

Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

My earliest childhood plan was to be a writer. Wrote short stories and poems constantly...and by high school, when I listed it as my ambition, my father (whom I adored and who was enormously supportive) used to roll his eyes and say..."You have nothing to write about - you need a career, a job." I went to Vassar - then an all women's college - to major in English literature because of writers like Mary McCarthy and Edna St. Vincent Millay. By my senior year, I came to think my father was right, and decided to go to law school because my second love was the idea of public service. In fact, that education took me straight to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, where I spent thirty years, and winding up with plenty of things to write about. I was always motivated because I never gave up the dream that I would get back to writing some day. And I do believe that writing well is a critical skill for a good litigator.

What is your writing schedule?

My writing schedule is very uneven. I'm still a lawyer and do a lot of pro bono work for victims of violence. Also, I use a lot of history in my novels, so I spend several months a year doing research. When I finally hunker down to write, it is usually during the summer months, when my husband and I move up to our home on Martha's Vineyard. I have a small cottage apart from the house which is extremely tranquil and remote. I try to spend as many hours a day as I can block off to get into the words, into the story, and write until late afternoon.

Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

I keep very extensive clippings files, with stories - the more odd the better - that interest me. All of my plots are original - not ripped from the headlines - but I often find interesting detail or character traits or motives in the clips that provide a little extra color in the novels.

Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

Oh, yes, I'd love to try a different genre...someday...but for now I am thoroughly engaged in my series of crime novels. My first book was actually non-fiction, and I would love to update that some day. I'd like to do a young adult series...and maybe something more 'literary' - but right now I'm having too much fun with my regular series characters.

You're famous for Alexandra Cooper, have you ever thought about launching a new character, someone very different?

I'd really like to do a book from the point of view of Mike Chapman, the homicide detective in the series. That would be the first character I'd like to try. I have such a great time writing his dialogue, I'd really like to get inside his head.

Are there special challenges having a woman as your protagonist? (In terms of either the story itself, or perceptions and biases of readers/editors).

I would say there are two special challenges ( really good question) to having a woman protagonist - although both pale by comparison to having had a career as a woman prosecutor in the early 70's! First is the fact that she really needs to be able to get herself out of trouble by the end of a story (can't rely on the guys to do it for her in this day and age), and since I don't believe in using guns, I've got to plan the ending pretty carefully, as I begin to plot the crime. The second is that many male readers don't navigate to women writers and protagonists. For me, Mike Chapman has been a big draw to my male readers, although that was not the reason I created him. It's been a lucky side-effect.

New York city plays a big role in your novels, just as Paris will in mine. Do you see the city as a distinct character or just a convenient setting?

New York City is quite intentionally a major character in my novels. As you can tell, I love the city, and I am constantly fascinated by the history that surrounds me every day. I love scratching the surface of the most elegant places in town and finding the dark underbelly. In the 1980's, we really did have a murder at the Metropolitan Opera House - a musician killed backstage between scenes while four thousand people sat in their seats and heard nothing. I had to 'go there' - and it became the genesis of my novel DEATH DANCE.

How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels, the “art” so to speak?

I put a lot of energy into the language, and I guess that's the English lit major in me. Good dialogue, I think, makes or breaks a crime novel, and I work hard to create distinct characters with their own manner of speech.

Who are your favorite authors?

I read voraciously in this genre - all the classics, and my contemporaries like Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Lisa Scottoline, Brad Meltzer. I especially enjoy finding new writers trying to break in - like Hilary Davidson and Karen Bergreen in 2010. I love John Le Carre. And then I always go back to Anthony Trolloppe and Dickens and the dense Victorians while I am working on my own fiction. The language just lifts my spirits.

If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Two pieces of advice: read... and write. I think writers need to be in other people's words all the time. Read constantly - for voice and character and plot and language (and joy). And write. Write something every day.

Do you outline your novels?

I don't do a heavy outline, but I am meticulous about plotting. As soon as I know who I am going to kill and why, I plot the ending. Maybe it's the prosecutor in me, but I want to know that Coop can get out of the situation safely and realistically (well, for a novel) and that I can lay in clues which will make sense to the readers, who tend - in this genre - to be very smart.

Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

I think the best 'how-to' is to read widely and deeply in this genre. See how the pros do it and have done it for the last century. There are so many fine books on the shelves, and there is a lot to learn from those who have written them.

You have a book coming out in March - tell us about it

The next caper in my series is SILENT MERCY - Coop's 13th adventure. My plan was to set the book in the city's glorious religious institutions, many of which have really interesting history. Then the current events drew me in - some of the bigotry and persecution - so I think it's a 'bigger' book than I had planned.

What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone? authors, readers, publishers,
I'm not sure who the e-book trend benefits, but I guess it's here to stay. I happen to love books. We've got a kindle and I-Pads, but I have yet to break down and read a book electronically. I love the texture and smell and feel of a book, and I hope to be among the last holdouts...


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