SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH ALAFAIR BURKE

You Don't Own Me (An Under Suspicion Novel) Cover ImageMary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke have joined forces again for a new book in their Under Suspicion series, You Don’t Own Me.

Longtime mystery writer Clark has joined with younger writer Burke in this series about television producer Laurie Moron who has a television show to solve murders.

With this latest book, Laurie Moran is trying to solve a celebrity doctor’s murder while a mysterious person stalks her. The doctor’s wife, Kendra, is the one under suspicion and acting strangely. The show is her chance to explain herself… and hopefully find the real killer, if it’s not her.

I previously interviewed both writers for The Cinderella Murder, the first in the series. This time I was lucky enough to be able to interview Alafair, who was written some excellent novels on her own.

Scott Butki: How did the story for You Don’t Own Me come together? Was it an idea you had or Mary had?

Alafair Burke: We came up with every aspect of this book together.  We talked through various character and plot ideas we had been playing with individually and wove them together into a single story.

Scott: How would you describe the character, Kendra, who is initially seen as possibly being responsible for the death of her husband?

Alafair: I think Kendra Bell is one of the strongest characters that Mary and I have created together.  She put aside her own promising medical career to be a wife to her successful husband, Martin, and a mother to their two children, only to have her seemingly perfect marriage unravel and then to become the leading suspect in Martin’s murder.  She’s sympathetic and likable in many ways, but flawed enough that she might just be guilty. Without giving away the “who done it,” I’ll say that I think most readers will come away thinking she’s more complicated than first meets the eye.

Scott: How do you and Mary divide up the work on the series you are writing together? Do you write alternating chapters or one has big ideas and the other figures out the smaller details?

Alafair: Neither one of us outlines our own solo books, so we have to change things up when we work together.  What really helps is that we both find plot through character. We talk through every single character — who are they, what’s their backstory, what are their biggest fears and secrets, what’s their journey during the book?  The characters lead us to the plot. Only when we think we have it all do we begin writing, and we start with a synopsis that contains every element of the book. That’s a document we pass back and forth until we basically know the book.  One of us then sketches out a first draft, which we pass back and forth to flesh out. That’s the best I can do to explain the process, but we work together seamlessly at this point. I still have to pinch myself sometimes!

Scott: How do you divide up your work on your own novels versus these done on collaboration? For example, I’ve heard of writers listening to different music for one series versus another?  Do you avoid work on your own books when working with Mary?

Alafair: No, I don’t have any of those kinds of rituals.  Maybe it’s an old habit from lawyering, but I can work on multiple projects at once, though I certainly prefer to be doing the deep work on one while editing or tweaking another.  But the work needs to get done, and that’s the priority.

Scott: How did you and Mary go about researching this book?

Alfair: Most of it takes place in downtown Manhattan, which is my neighborhood, so I like to say that all the hours I spend walking around constitute research.  I don’t love actual research, so fortunately, this book didn’t require much. I think Mary and I are both in the habit of writing from what we know.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this story and others in your series?

Alafair: I got hooked on crime fiction through long-running series characters, especially strong female characters like Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton), VI Warshawski (Sara Paretsky), Sharon McCone (Marcia Muller), Kat Colorado (Karen Kajewski), and Irene Kelly.  I’d like to think that Laurie Moran could hang with that crowd. She’s also surrounded by a rich supporting cast, both at home and work. A good series book is like a visit from an old friend, and I hope readers feel that way about Laurie and her gang.

Scott: Last time I talked to you, in December 2014, you were really into Serial. What crime-related programming are you currently into?

Alafair: I have been cyberstalking a few actual cases myself, but am not deeply into any true-crime programming right now.  I am counting down the days, though, for a podcast Michael Connelly is creating called Murder Book. It’s starting in January.

And though it’s not true crime, I just binged the hell out of Ozark and am about to start (finally) Killing Eve.

Scott: Looking back, was the jump from prosecutor to criminal law professor and novelist a big change or more of a natural progression?

The Better Sister: A Novel Cover ImageAlafair: It all felt normal to me, but I’m sort of a weirdo.  I’ve been both a professor and a novelist for fifteen years. It’s hard to imagine not doing both.

Scott: How long do you see this collaboration going?

Alafair: As long as readers will have us!

Scott: What are you working on next?

Alafair: My book, The Better Sister, will be out on April 16, and I’m working on the screenplay for The Wife.

 

Top of Her Game: Alafair Burke’s The Wife

There comes a time in every prolific author’s career when one has to ask “Is there any way for this author to get better? To improve upon their most recent work? To actually write something better than this?” For some writers, they go downhill after their peak—other authors only rise, never reaching that peak exactly (see wonderful examples like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Alex Marwood, and Megan Abbott).  The question now is: has Alafair Burke reached her peak? I sincerely doubt it—a writer of her talent can most likely reach unimaginable heights—yet it is incredibly hard to fathom Burke improving upon her most recent masterpiece, The Wife.

Burke kicks off the year in the grandest fashion, with a book that will compel you to the very end, even without a murder in its very beginning.  From the moment the book begins, we know that Burke’s protagonist has committed perhaps the ultimate betrayal—that against herself, lying for her husband’s defense. I have read this book countless times, as I tend to do before beginning a review, and it never ceases to amaze me—the language is fluid and nearly flawless, drawing the reader in.  The narrator, while incredibly deluded and not necessarily the picture-perfect definition of a feminist, is incredibly relatable.  The book speaks to the issues of our times, many of them dealing with women, rape, infidelity, and the permanence of love.

From the very beginning of the novel, I was roped in.  The reader is startled by the way Burke can transform the most mundane scenes into something extraordinary, ripping out incredible portions of her character’s psyches in ways you would never expect.  I was floored again and again as revelation after revelation was revealed, chapter after chapter.  The book is such a quick read that, when finished, I felt compelled to start it over immediately, unsure if I had finished the novel or just begun.

This is not to say the novel is without a conclusion.  Boy, does it have a conclusion.  Alafair Burke is a master at revealing tiny little secrets that are actually big explosions, unraveling and unraveling her characters and plot until, once untangled, the reader is finally able to uncover the truth.  You think you know the truth from the beginning, and then you might change your mind in the middle, and then be completely floored by the end of the book by the smallest, slightest turn of the story: this is how The Wife works.  And I’m not afraid to call it a new masterpiece of the crime genre.

This past award season, Alafair Burke was nominated for the Edgar for The Ex, which works as a sort of companion novel to The Wife.  They feature similar characters, they are placed in similar settings, but these novels are completely different (and equally brilliant).  Here’s the only issue: this is the year of the female crime writer.  So while I would say that Alafair Burke has the Edgar in the bag, with masterpieces like Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released soon, it’s hard to tell which author will come out on top.  What’s amazing about the crime community is: no one cares.  Each of these authors are improving daily, each new book proving that the preceding novel was only a precursor to something much more amazing and fantastic than the book that came before.  And Alafair Burke proves this beyond a doubt.  From the very beginning, you are hooked.  From the very beginning, you are roped in.  And it’s all Alafair’s fault.

Burke’s newest novel is mind-blowing, spine-tinglingly good and awe-inspiring in ways that very few authors can aspire to be.  Pick up this book and find yourself lost in it.  Pick up this book and hours later, wonder where you have been, and how you got there.  This is the magic that Alafair Burke works in The Wife, which may very well be the Book of the Year.

Guest Post: Manning Wolfe on The Drama of the Law

The Drama of the Law: What’s the Origin of the Legal Thriller?

Guest Post from Manning Wolfe

Lawyer and writer Manning Wolfe was kind enough to contribute a piece to our blog on the early days of the legal thriller, plus plenty of recommendations of contemporary and classic legal thrillers. Her debut, Dollar Signsis a legal thriller set in Austin. Come by BookPeople on Tuesday, July 12th, at 7 PM, for an evening with Manning Wolfe, Martin Limón, and Billy Kring. 

Before I began writing legal thrillers, I asked myself why we love the law and what brought about our fascination with civil conflict stories and those involving people in trouble with authority. I went in search of the origins of the genre and found a rich history of chills and thrills.

What is a legal thriller?

John Grisham, the most well-known attorney writing in the genre says: “You throw an innocent person in there, get ‘em caught up in a conspiracy and you get ‘em out.” I think we must include a bit of education about the law and its procedures, possibly a courtroom scene, and that about sums up the legal thriller. The history behind the evolution would take a book or two to recount. Here are the highlights.

Read More »

MP Guest Post: Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke, cr Deborah Copaken Kogan

Alafair Burke has made a name for herself with her mix of legal thriller and gritty suspense as well as with her new stand-alone novel, If You Were Here. In our guest blog she talks about names and what they mean to a writer.

What’s in a Name?

Thank you so much for the invitation to blog here today.  As supporters of an awesome indie bookstore in Texas, readers here might be interested in something related to another awesome indie bookstore in Texas.

Some mystery readers might recognize a familiar name in my new novel, IF YOU WERE HERE, about journalist McKenna Jordan’s search for a friend who disappeared without a trace a decade earlier.

Yep, that’s right.  McKenna Jordan.  Same name as the owner of Houston’s MURDER BY THE BOOK.

Why the same name?  The short answer is that McKenna’s a wonderful friend and a terrific supporter of the genre, and I’ve always loved both her and the name.  But there’s a much longer explanation.  Here it is, so I can refer people here whenever they ask, as they surely will because McKenna….knows….everyone!

I strive to make my books appear effortless.  For readers to lose themselves in a book, they should be able to believe that story, characters, and settings exist in a parallel world. The writer simply becomes the tunnel for pulling those thoughts onto the page.

For the most part, I’m a tunnel kind of writer.  I see and hear some characters as if I’ve known them for years.

My problem?  These little brats who come to me from the ether never stop and tell me their names!  Hey lady, what am I supposed to call you?

Not much of a whine, is it?  A name for a non-existent person seems pretty easy to conjure.  Absolutely.  In theory.

But here’s an exercise: Let’s say I tell you that a man is a thirty-eight year old lawyer in Chicago.  His name is Robert Simpson.

No, his name is Bob Simpson.

Wait, no, Bobby Simpson.

I don’t know about you, but I just pictured three slightly different people.

Now his name is River Simpson.  Whoa.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with a name like Alafair, but I believe (and my thirty minutes of Google research indicates) that we automatically draw inferences about people based only on their names.  So when it’s time for me to think of a name for a

fully formed person speaking to me from the ether, I really struggle.

When I started the Ellie Hatcher series, nothing seemed quite right for this woman I already saw as a friend.  Ellie grew up in Wichita, Kansas, the daughter of a police detective and bookkeeper.  She lost her father at a young age.  The Wichita Police Department labeled it suicide, but Ellie never accepted the determination.  I knew her route from the teen beauty pageant circuit in Kansas, to waiting tables in New York City, to John Jay College, to the NYPD.   I knew she kept a jar of Nutella and a spoon in her top desk drawer.  I knew she listened to the Clash and the Pixies.  I knew how she felt the first time she took a punch to the face.

But I didn’t know her name.

I looked at baby names from the year of my girl’s birth.  I expended enormous amounts of time looking at cast and crew names on IMDB, trying various combinations of short and last names that might just fit.  Nothing.

Her parents would have given her an old fashioned name, but as a kid, she would’ve altered it to something that still suits her well today.  There’d probably even be a story about what she hated about her given name.  I realized I was searching for something that sounded a little like my mother-in-law’s maiden name, Ellie Hatcher.  I needed to get on with writing the book, so I started using the name as a placeholder, with every intention of doing a search and replace once I figured out her real name.

By the time I finished the novel, there was no going back.  It would be like changing a kid’s name in the ninth grade.  Elsa Mae (Ellie) Hatcher had a name.  I even knew why and when she’d begun going by Ellie instead of Elsa.

In my new standalone, IF YOU WERE HERE, I really knew the two main characters before I started to write, because they are not so loosely based on my husband and me.  (Backstory to the backstory: The greatest compliment we may have ever received as a couple was from my sister, who wants us to go on The Amazing Race.  Unless she just wants to see me fall during some roof-scaling exercise, I think she’s referring to the fact that Sean and I have opposing but complementary strengths and personalities.  Since I can’t figure out how to get us on a TV show, I figured I could use us as the bones for two new characters with our basic skills and personalities, but who face tremendously puzzling and dangerous challenges.)

But what do I name a character based on myself?  Certainly not Alafair, because that’s the name of the author.  And Alafair Robicheaux.  And Alafair Tucker.  I tried Ally, but it sounds too much like Ellie.  And like Alice, the main character in my last standalone, LONG GONE

I had already named the husband Patrick Jordan by looking at my own husband and asking, “What should his name really be?”  Then it came to me.  This main character I knew so well had to be named McKenna.  McKenna (Wright) Jordan.

Fortunately, McKenna was game.  She tells me it was a little hard to get used to seeing her name being bandied about by some fictional character in a book.  I told her that, as a person named Alafair, I could identify.  And I hope that readers who recognize the game will smile to themselves at the insider reference, the way I smile when I see Kiz Rider and Maggie Griffin in Michael Connelly’s novels (both named for booksellers at the wonderful, though now closed, Partners & Crime in New York).

Thanks for the chance to share my little aside here today.