Alafair Burke is certainly an author to catch up with, if you haven’t found her novels yet. With twelve crime novels to her name, and her compulsive prose and fantastically realistic female protagonists, Burke creates novels which have the reader grasping for the next one. She draws on her experience as a Deputy District Attorney, and is currently Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law. In the wake of the publication of her latest novel, a co-written book with Mary Higgins Clark, The Edge got the chance to interview the prolific author.
Your newest book, The Cinderella Murder is a collaborative work – how was it writing with another author?
I feel very fortunate to have been selected to work with “Queen of Suspense” Mary Higgins Clark on a new series. She is a natural and experienced storyteller, so when we sat down at a table together to discuss plot and character, magic things happened. By the time we sat down to start putting words on the page, we knew the structure and characters of the story so well that the writing came very naturally – plus she is a delightful person.
The Cinderella Murder looks like an exciting approach to the prevalence of cold case television shows – what drew you to the idea?
The characters are spun off from Mary’s last book, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, so the idea of a series based on a TV show that investigates cold cases was completely hers. But I think generally, people are drawn to cold cases because of the potential to bring long-delayed justice.
What initially drew you to crime and law, as a career, and as subject matter?
Oh my gosh, that is so hard to answer. I always wonder if it had something to do with growing up in a town (Wichita, Kansas) where there was an active serial killer. Police did not catch him until I was already a law professor, 30 years after his first murder. Growing up with that kind of violence in the community, with no clear answers, might have made me interested in being part of law-enforcement.
How has your undergraduate degree influenced the way you approach crime and law?
I was a psychology major in college. What I learned there about memory and cognition always affects the way I see cases. People’s observations are inherently subjective, and their memories inherently fragile.
Samantha Kincaid and Ellie Hatcher are such compelling, and yet different characters – how do you create such distinctive characters in two long running series?
My first three novels featured Samantha Kincaid. When I decided to write a novel without Samantha, set in New York City, I wanted to make sure that the heroine was somebody really different from Samantha. Because Samantha was loosely based on my own background, thinking about Ellie really forced me to imagine someone different from myself.
Which of your characters would you love to be able to explore more? Which is your favourite to write?
My favourite character to write is probably Ellie’s brother, Jess. He’s edgy and sort of high maintenance, but also really genuine and kind hearted. He’s the kind of person I think everyone wants at least one of – maybe only one – in his or her life.
What was your favourite book to create? Which are you proudest of?
Oh, that’s impossible to answer. Of course I like them all.
How much does your real life experience intersect with the cases that your characters encounter?
I would not be able to write the books I write if I had not worked as a prosecutor. I worked not only in the courtroom, but spent two years working out of a police precinct. I think I know the voices and personalities that you find in the criminal justice system. I also know what it’s like to work with crime victims, and I try to make sure that the toll violence takes on victims gets reflected on the page, even though novels are for entertainment.
What is your writing process – do you force yourself to work specific hours writing, or do you take a more casual approach?
I wish I were more rigid in my approach. I try to tell myself to write a certain number of words per day, starting small and getting bigger over the course of a book. But because I still teach full-time as a law professor, sometimes I just have to make it happen. I know how to write on airplanes and in hotel rooms. For me, it’s always slow going at first as I’m trying to find the characters and trying to make big decisions that will shape the book. Once I’m towards the end you have to tear me away from the computer.
Do you draw on your experience in academic writing when writing your novels, or do you keep them very separate?
Sometimes the legal issues that interest me as an academic also find their way into a novel. For example, All Day and a Night draws a lot on the many contributing factors to wrongful convictions – and the writing muscles are basically the same. It’s a matter of keeping yourself in a chair and forcing yourself to put words on paper; but the voices are quite different.
Having had your novels translated into multiple languages, how do you approach allowing a translation?
I’ve been fortunate to have my work translated into more than a dozen languages. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to share stories with people who speak and read another language. It’s an awesome privilege.
We have a lot of aspiring writers involved in The Edge – I know it is cliché, but what would your advice be for them?
If you write, you’re a writer, but you can’t be a writer unless you write. I know that sounds simplistic, but that’s the best advice I know. You’re more likely to write if you actually think of yourself as a writer. Get yourself a decent chair, create time to dedicate yourself to your craft, and read. I do not know a talented writer who doesn’t read.
What are you working on currently?
I am working on a standalone thriller, and Mary Higgins Clark and I are also working on the next Under Suspicion novel.
Where do you see yourself going next, in literary terms?
I can’t think beyond those next two books or even the next few chapters!