Marcia Clark’s Guilt by Association, the first novel starring Los Angeles prosecutor Rachel Knight, was released to critical acclaim and success in 2011. The paperback of Guilt by Association came out in March, and now, Rachel is back in the gripping Guilt By Degrees. A former prosecutor herself, Clark has a deep fascination for the wheels of justice and contemporary criminal trials. This laces Guilt By Degrees with a gritty authenticity sure to appeal to fans of Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller series. Like her lawyer-writer compatriots Scott Turow, John Grisham, and William Lashner, Clark understands the nobility of the legal profession and knows how to craft a thrilling narrative.
Ms. Clark spoke to Mulholland Books about her long-standing passion for the mystery novel and the process of crafting a new Rachel Knight adventure in Guilt By Degrees. This is the second of a two-part interview.
We pick up our conversation by continuing to discuss Ms. Clark’s writing process:
What’s your writing process like — do you have a set number of pages or goals for a day? How do you get from the idea and outline process to putting words on the page?
What I like to do is give myself a little bit of a road map, so I’ll bang out one line or even a paragraph per chapter, just to set myself in motion…I don’t sit down at a set time everyday because I’m working criminal appeals and I have other things going on that take up time in unpredictable spurts. But I do sit down every day, especially when I’m writing the first draft, seven days a week, and I write for as long as I possibly can. I make it a minimum of ten to fifteen pages a day. I feel like it gives me pacing, it keeps the pace of the story going if I’m in it continuously. So that first draft is a real bitch (laughs), because I’m writing constantly, seven days a week and a minimum that is a pretty long minimum.
Now, it doesn’t happen invariably — some days are bad, I get only five pages done, but it pretty much goes that way so the first draft gets done in a month and a half.
Once that first draft is done, what’s the rewriting process like? Do you take a break, do you revise as you go, or do you start immediately on rewrites?
I try not to revise as I go, because that makes you redo, and redo, and redo, and you don’t move forward. And you lose pacing–that sense of urgency and you’re living with your characters, what are they going to do now? There’s always some type of pressure in a case to get things done, whether because you’ve got a trial date looming or you’re going to lose a witness who’s gonna run away or going forget, you’ve got to trace down your evidence before it deteriorates. There’s always some type of time pressure, and if you keep going back, you’re going to lose that sense of urgency — I will, anyway.
So I have to stay with it, and I don’t find it’s very helpful to keep rewriting. I did that with in the first book. I’d go back, and fix this and that and think of this and that…and now what I do is I make notes, so that when I finish the first draft, when I go back, as I’m going to literally go back line for line, I can insert or add whatever notes I’ve given myself.
The rewriting process…what do they say, “it’s all in the rewriting?” That’s where I really feel I shape things and give it more twists and more nuance and color. You kind of set out the bare bones of the actions and the way it’s going to flow and in the rewrite is where you give it all the richness. But it’s a long process, I try to walk away. I walk away for as long as I can–a minimum of a week–to let things fly away out of my head, so that when I come back, I bring as fresh eyes as I can to the party.
And then literally start with “Prologue.” First word.
Is there an example–without spoiling anything, of course–from Guilt By Degrees where you added something when you were rewriting? Or maybe you had to take something out all together that changed the way you were shaping the novel?
Of course, the last thing that happened is the one that comes to mind — by no means it’s not limited to this, but towards the end of the book there’s a big event that happens that literally becomes life and death for both Bailey and Rachel. And Rachel realizes in the aftermath that she put them in that place because of her obsessive nature, because all she could focus on was justice and the capture of the bad guy, because she had her blinders on that way. She’s used to being a little personally reckless with herself, but she realizes for the first time that her singular focus and obsessive drive for justice, which in part stems for what happened to her sister, caused her to put Bailey in harm’s way as well.
I went back a few times to make it clear that she’s had an awareness here, an epiphany, about how crazy she can get, and how dangerous that is, not just for herself, but the people around her. At first, when I first took a pass at it, I neglected it. I took my second pass at it, I overwrote it. I took my third pass at it, trimmed a lot away, because I don’t want characters to explain themselves. I hate self-referential writing…you’ve got to show it–they do it. So I didn’t want her to go in this long, Hamlet-like soliloquy…It wound up getting trimmed down to just a few lines, but hopefully the lines are evocative enough of the epiphany that I hope to convey.
I’m curious about the language — how to choose which particular words to use. One of the things I was impressed by is you’re able to use description to put the reader in places we haven’t seen before, certainly places in Los Angeles that we haven’t seen in this genre before. Is that something you’re conscious of as well? How do you stay aware of your style and your language, or is that something you’ll go back and look at during the rewriting?
You know, I’m not aware of it, I have to say. I didn’t take English composition courses and I don’t have an MFA because I went to law school instead, so I’m not really…I just kind of write it the way I see it. What I strive for is to put the reader there with me, to see the parts of Los Angeles that are not very much described but are very much a part of the city, and to get a sense of the enormous differences and variation in the city, because it’s so geographically huge and spread out. Los Angeles from one end to the other can take you hours to get through, and that’s unique to Los Angeles. And in each pocket of the city you have differences that are enormous. In one part of the city you can feel like you’re in the Midwest, in another part, New York, in another part, Miami. It’s that kind of variation in this city that makes it so fascinating to write about.
So what I try to do is try to convey the differences you can encounter in just one city in just one day. Like in Guilt By Association, I very deliberately described the sense of going to Mordor to Heaven, in going from the Men’s County Jail downtown to the Pacific Palisades, one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s an effort on my part, always, to make it feel like you’re there, and deliver the sights, the smells, the sounds.
You, John Grisham, Scott Turow are all lawyers. What is it about the fact you have some of the more famous writers in the genre who are also lawyers, who are able to tell good stories? Do you think there’s something about being a lawyer that lends itself to being a good storyteller, or being good at fiction?
First of all, I love being put in a category with John Grisham and Scott Turow! (laughing) I’m not so sure I belong in the same breath with them, but I think there is definitely something about being a lawyer that translates very easily to this kind of crime fiction. Lawyers, especially criminal lawyers, but civil lawyers, too, are storytellers. Especially trial lawyers. That’s what you are — you’re a storyteller. You get up in front of the jury and tell them a story.
And you put together all the facts and all the evidence into a story that’s as compelling and dramatic as you can make it, to tell your story effectively. And that’s what you do in a novel. I think it’s a pretty natural transition from one to another.
As a final wrap-up, is there one thing you’d like readers to know about this novel, your fiction, or Rachel, as a whole?
I think what I would say in general, I like to deliver stories with some meat on their bones, with the kind of twists and turns that keep us interested…that I like. I deliver the story I like, I think that’s the honest truth. But also with humor.
Number one, the truth of the matter is between prosecutors and cops, there has to be — especially detectives, homicide detectives, if you don’t have a sense of humor, you cannot survive that job. It’s too grim, the realities of it are too harsh, and if you don’t have a really strong sense of humor, you will not make it through. And so homicide detectives are some of the funniest people I’ve ever met. And that’s is the truth of the camaraderie, the banter, the way they live, they way the see the world…I had a couple of detectives tell me “wow, you really nailed it.”
These are serious crimes, they’re dramatic crimes, but the story is delivered with a heavy dose of humor and fun, and also a deep love and bond between the three women of this book — Bailey, Rachel, and their friend Toni — that underlies and drives all of the stories, and will drives all of the books. And of course, there’s the love interest, that of course happens, because they live in the world and they’re real people. There’s a balance here. It’s not a grim procedural…There’s richness and life and humor and fun involved.
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, the national bestselling thriller GUILT BY ASSOCIATION introducing DA Rachel Knight, and is a frequent media commentator and columnist on legal issues. She lives in Los Angeles.
Brendan M. Leonard is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and crime fiction junkie living in New York City. He has written for CHUD.com, The Rap Sheet, and January Magazine. There are days he worries about becoming Ron Swanson. Visit his blog here, or follow him on Twitter here.