MysteryPeople Q&A with Marcia Clark

Last year Marcia Clark hit the crime fiction scene with her novel Guilt By Association. Introducing her series character Los Angeles special prosecutor Rachel Knight, it was more hard boiled procedural than legal thriller, and it was one of the fresher reads of 2011. MysteryPeople will welcome Marcia to sign and discuss her follow up, Guilt By Degrees, this Friday, April 20th at 7pm. I recently asked her a few questions about being a new writer, how she has adapted her former life into hr fictional one, and her love of jazz.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: What was more challenging for you, your first book or the follow up?

MARCIA CLARK: Though the second book was no walk in the park, I’d have to say the first book was the more challenging one. Setting up a series requires the creation of a set of characters and a world. And both the people and the world have to offer possibilities for stories and character development that are as limitless as possible, in the hope that you get to write a whole bunch of sequels. In order to do that, you have to think carefully about all your elements.

For example, I think it’s important to give each character a back story that can entertainingly – and believably – have impact on them in current time. In addition, I needed to decide how much of that back story to reveal in the first book. In Guilt by Association, I alluded to a traumatic event in Rachel’s life but didn’t delve into it. I did that for a couple of reasons: first of all, no normal person spills their whole life story the first time you meet them – you know the weirdo who corners you at a party and tells you about how they got dumped by their first boyfriend in junior high because they wouldn’t let him get to second base? That’s not the kind of person who can carry a series because who wants to hang out with a self-obsessed blabbermouth like that? Second of all, Rachel Knight is a private person who has a hard time sharing her feelings even with her best friends and the traumatic event in her childhood is a secret she’s kept from everyone.

She ultimately does reveal it in Guilt by Degrees, but only because circumstances force her to.

So those were some of the challenges in the creation of the book itself. But the most challenging thing about the first book was the devotion of time and energy with no clue as to whether it would ever see the light of day. At the time I wrote it, I was handling a full case load (I take court appointed criminal appeals cases) and I squeezed the book into what little down time I had. Between the book and my day job, I was working about 120 hours a week. I knew I was going to keep at it until I pushed the book into the best shape I could manage, but I also knew that I couldn’t keep up that work pace forever. This book was it: do or die. So…no pressure, right? Laughing.

This is the classic struggle with nearly all first time authors. What if, after all this time, all this hard work, no one likes it? You work alone, night after night, with no assurances that anyone besides your most long suffering friends will ever read it. At times, I felt as though I was kicking the stall in an abandoned barn. But what was worse, albeit of briefer duration, was the waiting period after I sent the book out for the first time. Let me tell you, sending that first book out was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.

MP: Rachel’s police detective pal, Bailey, plays an even larger role in this book. One of the strongest elements in the book is their relationship. How did you design her as a foil for Rachel?

MC: I needed a counterpoint for Rachel. Someone who could be the voice of reason when Rachel’s impulsiveness or recklessness – or emotional baggage vis a vis her love life – got out of hand. But it also had to be someone who was similar enough to her in temperament and common interests that they’d believably wind up as best friends. My goal was to set up a dynamic that allowed for them to bond in both their work and personal lives, with a good mix of comedy and drama. It was very important to me that Rachel and company not only be great at what they do, but also know how to have a good time. And although they rank on each other whenever possible, underneath it all, they have a great deal of mutual respect and admiration for one another.

MP: Guilt By Degrees seems a bit more hard boiled with Aryan Brotherhood gangs and more action. Did you set out to write a tougher book?

MC: I really didn’t. The thing that drives me is the need to create a story that will keep my interest. Writing a book is a marathon, so the story has to be intriguing enough to make me want to stick with it.

The initial spark for Guilt by Degrees was the true story of the homeless man in New York who saw a woman being attacked on the street. He fought off her attacker, which allowed her to escape, but in the process, he got stabbed by the attacker. He lay dying on the sidewalk for hours as people stepped over his body. That story stuck in my heart. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I used that as my jumping off point.

MP: The police officers themselves have more influence and you show a range of personalities in the profession. What did you want to get across to readers about those in the profession?

MC: Really just that: to show the range of personalities in the police force and to explore the fact that there are good and bad, moral and amoral, people in every profession. Not all sociopaths are deranged serial killers…or Wall Street executives – kidding!

MP: You’re relatively new to crime  fiction. What did you discover about the form after you dove in?

MC: Freedom! The absolute joy of getting to set up my own case, create my own evidence, weave it all together and do it “My Way.” Laughing. Having spent so many years dealing with reality, it was very liberating not to have to deal with those limitations. Not that there aren’t limitations in fiction. We forgive a certain amount of literary license, but if an author pushes us too far outside the boundaries of believability, that we don’t forgive. It’s a fine line, as they say, and you risk losing your audience if you fall on the wrong side of it.

MP: On a panel, you said you missed the camaraderie of being a prosecutor. Have you found some with other crime writers?

MC: To an extent. But it can never be the same. You can share stories, discuss plot points, or commiserate over the hard work – because creating novels is unquestionably that – but you always wind up alone in front of your computer for hours, days, weeks, and months at at time. Writing is a solitary endeavor.

MP: You’ve given Rachel your love of jazz. What three albums would you suggest that would turn people on to the form?

MC: Oh no! Lists of favorites always make me go cross-eyed. The minute I choose, I smack my forehead and say: “wait, what about…?” But okay, here goes: “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, “Takin’ Off,” or “Headhunters” by Herbie Hancock, that leaves me with only one more? But…there’s still Mingus, Jobim and Getz, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins…AARRGGGH! How to choose? I guess, in an effort to collect as many as possible, “Jazz at Massey Hall,” with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, and ‘Charlie Chan.’


Join us at BookPeople this Friday, April 20 7pm when we welcome Marcia Clark in person!

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