Interview with Linda Fairstein
Do you have to be careful about what you write about? For example, I know
you can't write about cases that you're working on.
There are three things that I stay away from. First I don't write about anything I'm working on and none of the high-profile cases. As you know, I draw from real examples and use the kind of procedural details that police and prosecutors do in investigating the cases, but without linking them to the individuals who have actually been victims and offenders in real cases that I've worked. Perhaps I'll do that some day. I am haunted by a few cases that I would like to write about in factual detail.
I also do not like to do kids in jeopardy for works of fiction. I want the reactions and the thought processes and the emotions of adults that I'm working with. I don't like to read stories about children in jeopardy and children used as tools.
A lot of the violence in my fiction takes place off the page and I just deal with the aftermath of it, how the police handle it, and then how the courtroom system tries to find its way to do justice.
Obviously your professional life overlaps into the subject matter of your books. Is it true that your personal life also spills over into your novels to some extent? I've heard that you've eaten at some of the same restaurants that Alex Cooper eats at.
Yes. This is the lighter part of it obviously and sometimes it's the part that most confuses people, even my close friends. I usually say that professionally, Alex Cooper mirrors my experience and my views but personally she is very different -- younger, thinner and blonder. But the fun with the personal part is when close friends will come up to me and question me about Alex's romantic or social situation. People who know me really well, come and say "I didn't know you were engaged to that doctor when -- when we were in law school." And that's fiction. So the great fun for me is being able to take what I hope is a very authentic, professional side and mix in some of the liberties that I've taken with Alex's personal life.
I know you are interested in victim's rights. Do you find it hard to remain passionate instead of cynical sometimes? Do you try to stay emotionally uninvolved?
I think first I just have to say that one of the things that Ann Rule's books have done -- and obviously not written for that reason but the way she sort of talked about domestic violence, so many people across this country think that that is a problem of the underclass and unemployed and it doesn't happen in middle class and upper middle class society.
What books are you reading right now?
I'm currently reading Ann's new one about Sheila Bellush and it's just such a frightening and compelling story and sort of the ordinariness of the way in which the relationship begins, you bring someone home like this to mother and she'd say you know it's the perfect guy from the outside.
And Never Let Her Go is a book that every reader should have in paperback now. These are stories that people need to read to understand how pervasive this conduct is. And to take away the mask that shields so many men who exhibit this kind of violent personal life.
The bad guy is the expectation. It's terribly depraved conduct sometimes but it's so richly rewarding to work with the victims, the survivors and their families and see those who can triumph over the evil and bad things that have happened.
Those who have lost the loved one often find a way to give meaning to that person's life by becoming involved in legislative reform. The whole victim's rights movement that started in this country around the 1980s was a grassroots effort by families of victims who had not been met well by the existing system. There are so many uplifting pieces and parts of doing this work that I try to show through Alex Cooper talking about it and explaining to her friends because I am questioned so often about what it is that keeps me in it when it seems to many outsiders to be more depressing than uplifting.
Why did you start writing in the first person?
I made that choice when I started to write it because it was very much a decision to tell the story from Alex Cooper's point of view. I want the readers to know this work, and all the pieces. I wanted them to see victimization and then hopefully the result in the courtroom from Alex's perspective.
Who are some of the authors that you read for pleasure?
I could stay with crime all the time. In terms of true crime, I like Ann Rule's books and Dominick Dunne. I love so many of the crime novelists today. I just go back and back to Robert Craig's and I love Lisa Scottoline who writes legal thrillers. I'm just very happy to be writing in the genre where there are so many other wonderful writers.
Do you think it's true that truth is stranger than fiction?
Yes. Sometimes my colleagues from the DA's office and the police department and I sit in my office and talk about a situation and someone will ultimately tell me that I should use that in one of my books. And the truth is that if I wrote that story, no one would believe that it happened. We see and hear things every day that just don't seem plausible because they are so strange. And of course I do try and incorporate some of them. But probably people who aren't very bright commit 90% of the crimes in this country and those stories wouldn't make terrifically interesting reads. But most of my plots -- though I may invent the murder -- the motive comes from the motive in a real case.
Final Jeopardy was based on an actual stalker I prosecuted who has a diagnosed mental condition that I had never encountered before or had seen in the literature. In Likely To Die I changed the setting but it was based on an attempted murder that happened in a hospital at Vanderbilt University. In that case, I was so fascinated that the killer wanted to kill someone for the reason he did.
How do you think the Internet has helped you reach the fans?
I have a website that's actually being revamped for the new publication. I love the mail from readers and even though it takes me a while to respond, I love to answer my fans. I'm very grateful to them for their feedback and support
I'm not looking for fans to give me the plots but things come out of having a conversation with the fans. For instance, when Cold Hit came out some people said, you clearly like your detective character Mike Capman a lot, and Alex likes him a lot. Why don't we know more about his personal life? And I was so selfishly writing Alex's perspective all the time and my eyes had just been closed to opening up more of Mike's personal life. So for The Dead House, I go more into Mike's personal life.
How do you feel about your books being made into successful miniseries?
I chose not to do the screenplay myself because I had no experience doing it and because I couldn't take a 425 page book and cut it to 80 pages and cut out so many of the scenes that I liked.
I think that the strangest part of taking a book to a movie is that these characters exist in my mind's eye and so the readers also have their own ideas about Alex Cooper and Mike Chapman. Then you have a producer or director who have their own ideas about the physical manifestation of these characters. So, I did it with a great deal of hesitation because I know for fans of the series, that it won't please everybody. Overall I was quite satisfied because I thought it was done pretty well.
What's the best thing about your life as a writer and can you sum that up?
From my earliest childhood memories, I just loved books and reading. I love the idea that I too can make a living by telling stories, and then it keeps me in the world where other people love books and the written word.
I think the greatest pleasure for me is that moment of holding the new book, the new baby that I think we're both anticipating right now. It's great and extraordinary feeling.
I think for me the next best moment is seeing someone else who is not related to me and hasn't gotten the copy from me but has actually gone into a store and come out with one of our books and is sitting in an airport or a doctor's office reading it. That's still quite a thrill. It's rewarding even though I can't claim to save lives in Ann's way. But I do get letters from people who have talked now about trusting the system and understanding what's become possible in law enforcement -- because of so many of the things that have happened in my field literally in the last three decades.
I think so much more is possible in terms of what we are able to give women who have been victims of violence and how they can triumph in a courtroom. So to take this -- the professional life and I've had over the last 30 years and to mix it with the great pleasure of writing -- is something I never dreamed I'd actually be able to accomplish. And so it's given me such extraordinary pleasure.
Interview reproduced by permission of the publisher, Scribner.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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