Would you say you're following in the footsteps of
your father, James Lee Burke?
Actually, when it
comes to mysteries, you could say my father followed in my
footsteps. Many people don't know that he published several works
before turning to crime fiction with The Neon Rain, so no
one thought of my father as a mystery writer during my formative
years. I, however, was a huge fan of the genre. I plowed through
the entire Encyclopedia Brown series and used to steal time with
my dad's manual Royal typewriter to hammer out page turners like
"Murder at the Roller Disco." So, for the record, I beat my dad to
the mystery punch.
he's been a huge influence on me. What I really think I inherited
from my family more than any particular writing style (or talent
for that matter) is a narrative tradition. The Burkes are people
who tell stories, and I grew up watching my father work a
full-time job and then come home and write every single day to get
his stories on paper. That clearly affected me and turned me into
someone who is able to sit down and write. People have asked if I
worked to find my own voice. The work would be in trying not to
have a different voice. My father is a man of his generation
raised in the south, and I'm not. So of course our works are
Kincaid, your protagonist, is a district attorney. What led you to
choose this profession for her?
I guess this goes
back to the rule of write what you know. I was a Deputy District
Attorney in Oregon, so my personal experience with crimes and how
they are solved comes from that perspective. I also think that the
role of the prosecutor is fascinating and relatively unexplored
territory. Most accounts of the criminal justice system - both
fictionalized and not - tend to tell the story of a trial from
the defense perspective. One gets the impression that a crime is
committed, the police either get their man or they don't, and then
the defense goes to work trying to prevent a conviction. The story
that's rarely told is the prosecutor's. A bad prosecutor can blow
a good case through incompetence or apathy or press a bad case out
of blind ambition. Prosecutors are entrusted with a tremendous
amount of power and responsibility. Doing the job well requires
incredibly hard work and good judgment.
profession allow you any flexibility or options other professions
Sure. As a
prosecutor, Samantha gets to straddle the line between the
investigation stage of a case and the trial. If your protagonist
is a cop or a PI, she runs the show during the chase, but then
falls to the background when it comes time to put on the proof. A
defense attorney's a player during the trial, but has little room
to maneuver before court proceedings start. I enjoy the
flexibility Samantha's position gives me to unfold the plot either
during an investigation or as part of a trial.
Kincaid modeled on anyone you know?
educational and professional experiences are definitely based on
my own. Like me, Samantha graduated from Stanford Law School and
turned down more lucrative job offers to work as a state court
prosecutor in a city she loved. I like to think that her most
noble characteristics - her desire to stand up to perversions of
justice and always feel good at the end of the day about the
decisions she made - are shared not just by me, but by most
people. Hopefully the reader will see in Samantha a woman with an
almost consuming determination to do what is right, no matter the
personal cost. I saw that obsession in some of the people I was
lucky enough to work with in Portland. They're some of the finest
people I've ever known, and I intended Samantha to embody their
In some ways,
Samantha's clearly better than I am. She's taller, more diligent,
and could beat me in a race without breaking a sweat. As for some
of Samantha's more neurotic traits, I plead the Fifth.
currently teaching criminal law at Hofstra. Do you draw any
inspiration for your fiction from your work?
I remember as a
law student watching an episode of Law and Order. The
detectives were about to take a guy into custody outside his
apartment, and the older guy told the young one to wait, then made
the arrest after the suspect opened his car trunk. I had just
learned about a rule that lets police search the "grab area"
around an arrest, and I thought it was so cool to watch the show
and understand why the detective had done that, so he could search
the trunk without a warrant. I see my students react the same way
to law taught through pop culture.
competition between you and your father?
No way. He's way
too cool to compete with.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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