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A Conversation with Alafair Burke

BangAlafair Burke is a lawyer-turned novelist and the creator of two of the most memorable female crime fighters on the scene today: NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. Jen Forbus is a tastemaker in the crime fiction community and the force behind Jen’s Book Thoughts. Here, they discuss writing great characters, changing perspectives and the best bulldog on earth: The Duffer.

Jen: Hey Alafair!  I thought I’d start off by asking you how you define a great female character.

Alafair: Thank you for jumping back in, Jen. The greatness of a female character should be the same for any character. I like characters who feel real. Who have backstories. Who have good days and bad. Who have unpredictable and yet fully explained reactions to their environments. Who are flawed but likable. Whose voices ring in your head long after the book is closed.

When we see that kind of greatness in female characters, I think we admire it all the more because we sometimes get used to — and perhaps even expect — female characters to fall into one a handful of stock stereotypes: the supportive wife, the hooker with a heart of gold, the femme fatale. I like to think that the women I’ve created are the kind of women readers can imagine themselves knowing and liking in their own lives.

Jen: So do your characters evolve from women you know and like; do those real life women influence how you create characters? Do you feel other writers have influenced how you create characters? Or are they simply organic to the creation of the story?

StreetwalkingAlafair: I don’t consciously base characters on real people, but I believe that characters formed in the subconscious reflect the writer’s observations of the world. Nearly ten years ago, when I first moved to New York, I was watching a young woman on the sidewalk beneath my apartment window. She was gorgeous and graceful and appeared, from a distance at least, to be very well attired. I found myself thinking about the glamorous lives people live in the city, so different from my own upbringing. Then this woman I was envying looked around quickly before removing a pastry from the top of the corner trashcan and eating it. Several years later, I found myself wanting to write a novel featuring women who were living double lives in New York City, doing desperate things to fund a seemingly luxurious lifestyle. Many readers opined about possible real-life inspirations for the story, but I truly believe that the idea for the novel that became 212 began with that glimpse outside my apartment window.

I am not an outliner. I have a rough idea of the story I’d like to tell, but I never know which characters will take a lead role until I start writing. In my new novel, LONG GONE, for example, I set out to write a story about a woman named Alice Humphrey, whose perfect life turns out to be based on lies. After I started writing, I began hearing from a missing teenager and her mother. I started thinking about the two of them, assuming they’d turn up in a book years from now. Before I knew it, their lives were entangled with Alice Humphrey’s. I used to wring my hands, trying to get a cognitive grasp on the writing process. Now I try harder just to trust my instincts and let the story and the characters take over.

Jen: Speaking of Alice Humphrey. LONG GONE is your first stand alone novel and this is the first time your protagonist hasn’t been in law enforcement. What motivated you to step outside that realm and look from the perspective of the victim?

Alafair: I loved writing my first six novels in the Samantha Kincaid and Ellie Hatcher series, because I know the flow of a criminal case at a cellular level. Telling a story through the structure of an investigation or a prosecution is very natural for me, but it can also be confining. Even within the procedural form, I found my plots becoming more ambitious than the usual procedural structure of following a single case from the viewpoint of a single investigator. In both series, I started using multiple character perspectives so the reader could see what the world looked like through someone else’s eyes.

When I got the idea for LONG GONE, I knew it would not be an Ellie Hatcher novel. It was right when the economy was getting really, really bad. I take morning walks through the village, and every day, I’d see yet another boarded-over storefront. Literally, a store would be open to customers on Monday, and completely gone on Tuesday. I started to wonder what it would be like to go to work one morning to find that your entire professional life had vanished overnight. That’s the kind of story that has to be told from the perspective of a civilian. Police and prosecutors are just the bystanders.

Jen: So since this isn’t a natural – cellular level – story concept, what did you find to be the most challenging in writing LONG GONE?

Alafair: Imagining a criminal case from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the power, contacts, or knowledge of police or prosecutors was more challenging than I expected.

Alice is savvy, but her background is in the arts and one of privilege. She’s sophisticated in a cultural sense, but when it comes to street-level knowledge of what bad people can do, she’s a little naive. Fortunately, she’s got a quick learning curve, so I think readers will enjoy watching her transformation.

Another challenge of leaving the procedural form was that I had a lot more freedom about whose voices to follow in any given chapter. Freedom’s a wonderful thing, but, man, choices can be difficult! I couldn’t have handled a book this ambitious ten years ago. I’m confident enough now to trust my instincts as a storyteller and to let the characters drive the story in the way that seems most natural.

Jen: Some of the voices you follow in LONG GONE are male voices. Were they challenging? Did you have to make new adjustments for those voices or did they come naturally?

Alafair: You’re referring to Jason Morhart, a small town detective, and Hank Beckman, an FBI agent in Manhattan. They’re both two good men working in law enforcement, trying to do the right thing, but they’re almost like opposite sides of the same coin. Morhart’s all cornfed optimism, while Beckman — well, he’s got some issues of his own to work out.

I’ve written chapters from the perspective of male characters before, but I suppose never as much as in LONG GONE. I never consciously made a shift in my writing process, though. Maybe it’s because I sometimes joke (to the concern of my husband) that I’m a man stuck in a woman’s body, but I found Hank and Jason to come as naturally to the page as any female character I’ve created since I first started writing Samantha Kincaid.

To be honest, Samantha will probably always be the easiest for me to write, because her opinions and humor and background and sensibilities are pretty much my own. I guess I was staying cautiously within my comfort zone when I first started writing. (That’s a fancier way of saying lazy.) But I’d like to think that I’ve created memorable male characters in Chuck Forbes (the Kincaid series), Flann McIlroy (DEAD CONNECTION), and JJ Rogan (ANGEL’S TIP and 212). Hopefully readers will enjoy getting to know Morhart and Beckman, too.

Jen: Ironic that you should joke you’re a man stuck in a woman’s body. I recognized traits in both characters that I thought were reflections of you. Beckman, for example, in his musical interests. I love how that permeates your characters. It’s like there’s a little of you in all the characters.

New York City [dark place]LONG GONE has many of your trademarks as well as some of the differences we talked about. New York plays a very distinct role in the book. You bring that setting to life again in LONG GONE. In ways you remind me of Linda Fairstein. Each time I read another book, I feel like I know another element of New York.

The pop culture weaves its way into this book. And your wit. I also noticed the homage to Sebastian. So, I’m sure everyone…including you, Alafair…are wondering if there’s a question here. I guess it’s what was the most fun for you about this book?

Alafair: Aw, the comparison to Linda Fairstein makes me do a happy dance. I have so much admiration for her as a lawyer, writer, and person.

I had a tremendous amount of fun with LONG GONE. More than any of my previous books, I really knew as I was writing that I was creating a true page turner for readers. The plot has a lot of layers. I think even the most seasoned readers will find some surprises.

As usual, I planted a few little nuggets for careful readers. There’s a Jack Reacher reference, sort of a wave to Lee Child, who was kind enough to give Reacher a couple of nights with Samantha Kincaid in BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE. Ellie Hatcher makes an appearance. I love that kind of insider stuff.

And of course I always love bringing my favorite city to life. Writing about New York always helps me see the city through new eyes. I’m pretty lucky.

Jen: Well, I’m sure I don’t speak purely for myself as a reader when I say I think we end up pretty lucky on our end. I always get excited when I know there’s a new Alafair Burke book coming.

Before we wrap up…or the Mulholland folks kick us out…I have to ask the obligatory family question because I’m sure it’s on everyone’s mind. What’s it like to live with The Duffer?

Alafair: Ha! Yes, it’s true. No matter how many books I write, it seems I’ll forever be known as the Duffer’s mama. The Duffer is a very spoiled, yet very sweet French Bulldog. He absolutely cracks me up. If he could talk, he’d sound like Buddy Hackett. He’s famous in the neighborhood, on my Facebook page, and in his own mind, and living with him is the ultimate treat. Other members of my family are also doing well.

Jen: Thanks Mulholland for having us, and letting me hang out with my hero. About 20 or 30 books from now when Alafair gets her Life Time Achievement recognition can someone fix it so I can introduce her? Please?

ALAFAIR BURKE is the bestselling author of six novels, including 212, Angel’s Tip, and Dead Connection in the Ellie Hatcher series. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal Law and lives in Manhattan. Long Gone, her first stand-alone thriller, will be published by Harper in June 2011.

Jen Forbus has spent the better part of her life not knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up: she’s worked in the classroom, as a tech writer, a spec writer and a software programmer. These days she’s back in the education realm, coordinating adult professional development at the National Association of College Stores. Her love of crime fiction was ignited by Linda Fairstein and Robert Crais who hooked her on their respective series. From there the obsession snowballed and Jen’s Book Thoughts was born. Jen is also a regular contributor to CRIMESPREE MAGAZINE.