A Conversation with Marcia Clark and Sebastian Rotella

Criminal Courts buildingFormer Los Angeles deputy district attorney Marcia Clark, and reporter Sebastian Rotella, a former correspondent and bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires for the Los Angeles Times, both took the “write what you know” adage to heart when they sat down to write their first novels. Clark’s novel, Guilt By Association, out this week, features Los Angeles D.A. Rachel Knight, who takes on the case a young woman who was assaulted from a prominent family. Rotella’s novel, Triple Crossing, an August publication, is a thriller about the criminal underworld at work along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and a young cop who goes undercover to bring it down. Here, the two writers talk about how their day jobs have influenced their writing, in both obvious and subtle ways.

Marcia Clark: For me, one of the best parts of the experience of writing Guilt By Association was if I didn’t have enough evidence, I could back up and add more. “Backspace, backspace, backspace… and we found a fingerprint, a fiber, DNA!” I could make a case as strong or weak as I wanted to.”

Sebastian Rotella: There’s no doubt about that. When you’re writing stories about the Latin American underworld or terrorism, you’re so careful about what you can and can’t say. You might be using a document that tells the truth to a certain point, but then you have to limit yourself from making the connection. When you’re writing a novel, it’s good to apply those rigors, but then you say, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m in charge here!” It’s a good exercise to make it as realistic as possible, but there is the fun of having that creative control over how the action is going to unfold. I think both of us went through that.

MC: I think that’s where you and I come from the same place. We’ve both been limited by the truth and what can be proven in the past. But with a novel, you can say the things you suspect or even know, but can’t necessarily prove. But the experience of having been a prosecutor or a journalist makes you write fiction that’s logical; you build a case on the page that makes sense based on what you know could have been proven in a courtroom. Yes, you have the freedom from restrictions but you don’t want to stray so far that it becomes insane.

Rio Grande SR: When I was writing, I would think, “How would this scene happen based on things I know about an interrogation or an arms deal?” All of it is grounded in past experience and knowledge. That part of it was a lot of fun. There are a couple of scenes in the novel that are inspired by secrets, things I was told that I believed to be true, but I was not able to get quite enough sourcing to write in a newspaper story. But in the novel, I did end up using them to at least inspire moments.

MC: Yeah, that’s cool, that ability to write what you believed even if you couldn’t prove it is really liberating. The other cool thing is to be able to have fun. The world is hard; life is hard. I want to have a good time and I want my reader to have fun. If there’s one thing that was absolutely true in the DA’s office it was that there was plenty of punking each other, plenty of put-down-y banter. It made for a lot of camaraderie. It was very necessary in the midst of the miserable crimes we were dealing with. Making my book fun and helping people get away from life–this was a great opportunity to do that and lighten things up a little bit.

SR: There is a mysterious process I experienced; it feels like subconsciously you’re working on the novel even when you’re not. When you sit down [to work on your novel] and your plot has evolved–it’s like it was gathering steam in your head. Maybe because you’re so active and your mind is working intensely, something is going on where the creative process continues to work even if you’re not focused on it.

MC: I totally agree. When I was writing the novel, I was handling a full caseload, which is an 80-hour-a-week job by itself. There is something really cool about going from one world to another. You have the ability to expand in a book in a way you don’t have anywhere else. You can enliven all sides of the characters. It was a beautiful experience as well as a totally exhausting one. There were times I’d look back at what I’d written and realize, “that came from ‘this case’ or ‘that case.’ You’re not even aware of it. It’s interesting to realize after the fact, how your former job affected your writing.

SR: It’s a mosaic of impressions. It comes together in a way that’s not always very direct, but that’s what creativity is all about.

MC: Good point. It always seems to happen somehow on this kind of subconscious angle. Things come through essentially, not literally. I hope it enriches the writing and makes it more real. It does to me, anyway.

SR: Absolutely.

Originally published, in a slightly different form, on PublishersWeekly.com

Sebastian Rotella is an author and award-winning reporter. He has covered international terrorism, organized crime, homeland security and immigration for Propublica and the Los Angeles Times where he servied as bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires and covered the Mexican border. He was a Pulitzer finalist in international reporting in 2006. He is the author of Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border (Norton), which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1998.

Marcia Clark is a former LA, California deputy district attorney, who was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder case. She wrote a bestselling nonfiction book about the trial, Without a Doubt, and is a frequent media commentator and columnist on legal issues. She lives in Los Angeles.