ABOUT ALAFAIR BURKE:
Today Pro-Files features Alafair Burke, author of the Ellie Hatcher and Samantha Kincaid mystery series. Her most recent book 212, finds NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher tracing the vicious murder of a NYU student to a website specializing in campus gossip.
Alafair grew up with a love of literature and writing. Her mother was a librarian, and her father, James Lee Burke, was a professor and is a famous mystery writer, best known for his Dave Robicheaux series (played on screen by Alec Baldwin and Tommy Lee Jones). Alafair’s books are very different from her father’s. “If I had to find a commonality, it’s in the characters’ moral code. Dave Robicheaux and Ellie Hatcher both struggle constantly to do what’s right.” She credits both of her parents as her inspiration: “My father wrote ever day... and my mother... took me every week to the public library for a new stack of books. You can’t be a writer if you don’t read and if you don’t have some level of gumption to believe you can put words down on the page. My parents gave those attributes to me.”
Alafair is currently a law professor at Hofstra Law School in New York, but her books draw primarily from her experience as a Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Oregon. As Deputy DA she divided her time between prosecuting domestic violence offences in court, and acting as a liaison to the police department, where she worked directly out of the police precinct and frequently donned a Kevlar vest for night-shift ride alongs. This duality is what led to her development of two extremely different protagonists.
First came Samantha Kincaid, the feisty Portland prosecutor, who bears a great similarity to Alafair herself, as in addition to being dark-haired prosecutors, both like “to run, drink martinis, and hang out with friends.” But, contrary to the current trend, Samantha doesn’t have a dark backstory that motivates her: “Unlike most protagonists in cime fiction, she’s relatively untroubled and it’s only her job that pulls her into this darkness.
After creating her mirror image with Samantha, Alafair wanted to challenge herself by formulating a protagonist who was not only different from Samantha, but who treaded in different emotional waters, “I had to dig deep to imagine a person who was also different from myself,” and in creating Ellie Hatcher, a NYPD detective, Alafair believes that she, too, has grown. Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no similarities, however, they are similarities of background rather than personality. Ellie, like Alafair, was raised in Kansas, and both were greatly affected by a serial killer. Ellie’s father’s 30 year investigation of an elusive serial killer was inspired by the BTK killer. Alafair’s family moved from Florida directly into the killer’s stalking territory and she grew up “check(ing) the phone lines to be sure they weren’t cut” and knowing which room in the house was most secure.
Her own experiences with the justice system are reflected on the pages of her books, but whether it is the victim, the perpetrator or the crime that originally draws her attention, it’s the “underlying human stories” that inspire her writing: “Whether it’s cases I’ve worked on personally or ones from the news, usually the cases that stick with me are simultaneously singular yet universal.” For example, in 212, she drew from the Eliot Spitzer and Neil Goldschmit sex scandals, but she’s inspired by the overall picture rather than the sordid details, and says: “I think readers will be surprised when they see the direction I took from that inspiration.”
Alafair tries very hard not to be affected by what she sees on television, but as she says: “Good lord, I do love it.” Most of her favorite shows have season or series-long arcs (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, The Shield, and Veronica Mars). Although she does usually follow at least one lighter crime show - now that Monk has ended, she’s really enjoying Castle, however, her all-time favorite is 30 Rock: “If Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin covered curling, I’d still tune in.”
What’s shown on television is often far more exciting than the reality of most legal procedures, and unlike many writers and viewers, Alafair knows the difference. As a criminal law and criminal procedure professor, she has to maintain her “street cred” and ensure accuracy. At first, she thinks she may have been “showy about (my) knowledge of those details, and arguably (I) overdid it a couple of times.” She blames this on being insecure about her status as a crime writer, but confident about her legal knowledge. But, now that she’s gained confidence, her writing has changed. “Now that I’m more comfortable about what I bring to the table with character, story, and prose, I’ve been pulling back on procedural details, but everything in the books is accurate, whether or not I actually explain that on the page.”
Next from Alafair will be a standalone thriller set in Manhattan. As a lawyer, one may make the assumption that she maintains a regular schedule and outlines thoroughly before writing, but she couldn’t give us too many details about her forthcoming book, because surprisingly, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen yet! “I always say I’m going to outline... but I just can’t do it. I’m not sure why, since I tend to think linearly about everything else I’ve ever done, including legal writing. But with the novels, I have to let the story unfold on the page.” Though she does try to write every day, and avoids skipping more than two days in a row of writing because “it takes a full day just to get back into it”.
We briefly discussed Alafair’s experiences with publishing and marketing. She is a devotee of all forms of internet promotion, “Facebook, my website, and Twitter put a writer directly in contact with the people who most appreciate their work, which is pretty darn cool.” Although website updates, tweets, etc. can and do interfere with writing, she claims that these efforts aren’t without their benefit: “I wouldn’t have a publisher waiting for my next book if it weren’t for supportive readers.”
An inspiring parting thought from Alafair: “There’s nothing better in the world than to write a book and to have people actually read it.”
QUESTION FOR ALAFAIR? COMMENT ON THE INTERVIEW? Ask her here, or tell us your thoughts further down on this page, or commenting on this blog entry on our Facebook page.
QUICKIES WITH ALAFAIR:
Alafairs’s writing ambience: Home office in my Manhattan apartment with a glass of water on the desk and no noise except the inevitable New York street sounds. (6:37 am right now and it's already heating up).
What Alafair is reading now: An advance copy of Lisa Unger's FRAGILE. She's exceptionally talented.
Alafair’s favorite protagonist (other than her own): Unfair. Can I pick a few? Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, and Kinsey Millhone.
Who Alafair would like to see play her protagonists onscreen: Ellie Hatcher: Kristen Bell or Katee Sackhoff. Samantha Kincaid: Maggie Gyllenhaal would be a dream. And from the very beginning, I've always thought Neve Campbell would be terrific.
Alafair’s favorite TV detective: Vic Mackey (of The Shield).
Alafair’s ideal vacation spot: Either a beautiful European city with great food or a sunny beach and golf spot. Any time with my husband away from work is good by me.
Alafair’s favorite online resource: There's too many to label a favorite, but I have been lucky enough to join the bloggers at Murderati so I'll give a shout-out to my fellow 'Rati.
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