Thursday, September 13, 2007

Interview with Alafair Burke

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

When, how, and why did you decide to become a writer? And what made you decide to become a lawyer?

I came to writing as a reader. My early favorite books as a child were mysteries, and I remained a lifelong fan of the genre. And of course I’d always been interested in crime. That’s why I became a prosecutor. But it wasn’t until I was at the D.A.’s Office--surrounded by fascinating stories, hearing the stylized way of speaking, seeing how real policing and prosecuting worked–-that I started to think I had enough material to try my hand at writing.

You went to law school in California, worked as a deputy district attorney in Oregon, teach law on Long Island, and live in New York City. Where did you grow up? To what extent, if any, have childhood, family, and a sense of place affected your writing?

To add some more geography to my resume, I grew up as a little kid in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and then grew up some more in Wichita, Kansas. My whole family has always moved around a lot. I think you can tell when people have had nomadic lives. It makes you a good observer. It makes you sensitive to changes in dialect and perspectives. You don’t take for granted that any particular thing you’re used to is the way it is for everyone else. That helps in writing, especially in creating a sense of place, by helping you really identify what makes a specific region unique.

How do you write? Do you have any rituals? Do you need privacy, or can you write with other people around you? How much do you revise? What do you love about writing or the creative process? What, if anything, do you hate or fear about it?

I prefer to have an entire day completely open to write, in which case I tend to stay in my pajamas until 3 pm, go to the gym, then come home to a shower, more PJs, and more writing. I rarely have those kinds of days, though. I’ve learned to write on a lap top in airports, hotel rooms, and restaurants. I’ve learned to get in whatever time I can at the computer each night when I’m done at school.

As far as process, I try to get everything as good as I can get it as I go. The next day, I start by reading what I wrote the day before and tinker as appropriate. Then I’ll do another couple of rounds of big revisions once I’ve got a complete manuscript. What I love, and hate, about writing is the complete solitude of it. Not just physically, but intellectually. You start with a cursor blinking on a fake piece of paper depicted on a screen, and then you have to make choice after choice after choice until an entire book is complete. That’s fabulous freedom. But for someone who has a hard time deciding what to eat for dinner each night, it can be terrifying. I’m actually happiest during editing. I love tinkering. I love the big renovations you can make to the tone of a book with relatively small changes. But the actual creation of that first draft still scares me to death (although I of course love it when it’s over).

After reading your new book, Dead Connection, I’d like to know whether you outline. Surely you didn’t create that complex, tightly woven plot just writing into the mist—or did you?

I start with a synopsis that lays out the bare bones plot—who did it and why. It’s usually about 10 pages. For Dead Connection, that synopsis included all of the various layers of the story. I do not prepare a scene by scene outline. I usually have only the next two or three scenes in mind as I write.

You’ve been going great guns with your Samantha Kincaid series. Yet after three books, you’ve started a new series with Dead Connection: cop instead of prosecutor, New York instead of Portland. How come? Will you continue to write about Samantha as you develop your new protagonist, Ellie Hatcher?

I had an idea for a great plot that didn’t work as a Samantha book. After meeting my husband online, I wanted to talk about the darkest potential of meeting people on the internet. To pull it off, I needed to set the story in a city where people enjoyed real anonymity. Portland lacks that. Big time. New York doesn’t. And I wanted the pace to be fast. Police investigating cases move faster than lawyers prosecuting them. So NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher was born. I originally intended Dead Connection to be a standalone, but Ellie has so much potential as a series character, I want to see that through. I’ll find a way to get back to Samantha, though. She’s my girl.

How do you coordinate your different worlds—the law, academia, the literary and mystery community? Is finding time a problem? You’ve certainly integrated your legal knowledge and experience into the novels and done it very well indeed, as an impressive roster of peers attest, including Linda Fairstein, Tess Gerritsen, Sue Grafton, and Lee Child. Are your law students at Hofstra aware of your reputation as a writer? Do they read your books? Have you ever thought of assigning them as required reading?

Ha! That would be a fast way to sell some books, but, no, I haven’t made them assigned reading. (A colleague, however, did, in his law and literature class.) I honestly have no idea what my students think. Only a few bold students have talked to me about my books. Apparently one study group would invoke the question “What would Samantha Kincaid do?” when studying criminal law. Quite a few former students show up at readings, but I suspect the vast majority of my current students are too busy trying to learn how to be lawyers to bother with my fiction.

You wear yet another hat, as a consultant for Court TV and other television and radio programs. How did you get that gig, and is it fun?

As a law professor and former prosecutor based in New York, I get phone calls from time to time asking for commentary. As long as I’m available, I agree to do it. Otherwise, I can’t complain about the wanna-be celebrity lawyers who use those gigs to make a name for themselves by being as outrageous and obnoxious as possible.

What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any spare time?

I run and do Pilates. I spend a ton of time doting on my French bulldog Duffer. My husband and I golf, go to way too many restaurants, and appreciate wine.

I’m sure every interviewer mentions your famous father, esteemed writer James Lee Burke. How do you feel about that?

I appreciate the strong feelings people have about his work, and it’s natural that those feelings would be the start of finding common ground when people first meet me. I’m more perplexed when people confuse me with the fictional Alafair Robicheaux. My mom put it best years ago when she said, “How do you think I feel when people are surprised I’m not Bootsie?”

Your dad is known for his extremely lyrical writing; he’s one of those writers about whom critics tend to say that he “transcends the genre.” To what extent, if any, has his writing influenced yours? Does he read your work in manuscript? Does he critique it? Do you read his?

I like to think that his dedication to writing rubbed off on me, but our books are completely different. We talk about books like family members, not workshop partners. No drafts. No edits.

How long have you been living in New York, and what made you decide to switch coasts? What do you like about New York? What do you hate about it?

I’ve been in Manhattan for four years now. I love that I can walk to anything I need and can have egg whites delivered at two in the morning. I hate the hassle of any car travel in or out of Manhattan.

How much touring do you do to promote your books? Do you enjoy it? Does any moment stand out? An encounter with a reader that was particularly moving or funny or embarrassing?

I’ve been going to 12-15 cities each summer. It’s a ton of fun, about as close to living like a rock star as I’m likely to get. It’s tangible proof that real people out there are actually reading my books, which is pretty darn cool. Stand out moment? This summer, a woman at a reading screamed out of fright when I read the opening scene of Dead Connection.

What’s next for Alafair Burke as a writer, professionally as an attorney and law professor, and personally? What goals and dreams are on your to-do list for the future?

I have an incredible husband, a wicked cool dog, and two jobs I actually like and am not horrible at. As long as I can keep all of that going, I’m good. If I had to be greedy and ask for more in the future, I want to play in the ladies’ senior LPGA.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Alafair, I was so pleased to hear you wear your pajamas all day when you're writing. I keep telling my husband it's a writer thing, but hard evidence that it's not just me was helpful. :)

Lonnie Cruse said...

Count me in as a pajama writer as well! Thanks for the terrific interview, Alafair. As to you wanting to play in the Ladies' Senior, that's my dream too. Let me know when you make it and I'll come clap politely for you.