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Interview: Mystery Author and Law Professor Alafair Burke

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A good mystery or thriller weaves multiple strands, pulling intrigue from previously hidden corners. In a perfect plot, these strands form a rope strong enough to drag the reader along without release. Alafair Burke’s newest mystery 212 forms this perfect snare by tying together threads from multiple areas of modern society – technology, politics, sex, and scandal unite to form layers of danger and conspiracy.

A brief amount of research on the author reveals even more facets than one of her novels. Daughter of crime novelist James Lee Burke, Alafair Burke is a graduate of Stanford Law School, a former deputy district attorney, current professor of law, and accomplished novelist. The writer of thrillers detailing the perils of social technology also has a comprehensive website, blog, MySpace page, Facebook page, and a Twitter account that gets a workout.

In preparing to interview Burke, it was difficult to know where to start. So, of course, I chose the most important detail among the many…

Two words leapt out at me from your website — cooking, wine. What’s your perfect cooking wine — in the glass or in the pot?

Hmmm… cooking with wine? I usually drink wine while cooking… I do a good braised short ribs with cabernet, though. We’re big red wine drinkers here. All that research showing that it’s good for you takes the guilt away.

How do you balance your teaching career with your writing career?

It’s questionable whether I really balance it. I find myself more and more behind these days. You have to be really diligent. I don’t have kids, which helps. I’m always working on something whether a book, or a law review article that no one will ever read, or teaching. It pretty much means I work a lot, but it’s all stuff I love. 

I’ve heard more than one author say that they have trouble writing about a place when they are in that place, yet your protagonists appear to have followed you across the country (Samantha Kincaid in Portland and Ellie Hatcher in New York.) How do you feel that geography impacts your writing?

I’m the opposite. Though, I didn’t start writing Samantha Kincaid until I left Portland. When I first moved to New York, I had the summer off. I really missed Portland. I missed my office; I missed the office culture. I wrote it out of homesickness, frankly. Every time I sat down at the computer, it was like visiting my old job.

But, I was working on my fourth Samantha Kincaid novel – it’s still half-finished on my computer. I had just finished a scene and something wasn’t quite right. So I did what I always do; I went to the gym, and while I was on the treadmill, I realized that I had Samantha hailing a cab in a residential area of Portland. It’s hard enough to get a cab in downtown Portland.

[Regarding her first Ellie Hatcher novel] …I had been living in New York for a while. I was scared to write it at first; New York is so iconic. So many people know it so well, and if you get it wrong, they’ll call you on it. But, I spent a lot of time out in the city — I soaked it in.

I think the aspect of 212 that I found most fascinating was that you gave us a very complete picture of the lives of the victims. In most crime novels, the victim is more of a prop than a character. Does this treatment of the victims in your novel stem from your experiences with the realities of crime?

That’s exactly right. Even before I wrote, I loved the genre. One thing that bothered me was that in the cat-and-mouse game between the criminals and the police, the victims became pawns. Bodies became irrelevant. You might get a couple of pages about the horrible things that happened to victim number eight, but without knowing about her or the impact on the people around her.

I always try to show something about the victim, or about the impact of their deaths on the people around them. It’s my personal code, I guess.

Recently as I have been doing Internet research on authors, it has occurred to me that the line between information and stalking seems to be narrowing in our society.

[Laugh] Yeah.

But, like most authors, you have a website, Facebook page, blog, MySpace page, and Twitter account. Yet, at least two of your novels focus on Internet-related crimes. With your background in criminal law, what is your take on the intrusiveness of technology?

Yeah, it’s funny. Ironically, given how much I write about how technology can bite you in the butt, I’ve probably done some stupid things online… You have to decide how much to share; I’ve chosen to try to share some stuff to give people a clear picture of who I am.

You take a risk when you share that stuff. In my next book, a woman discloses too much on line – to her peril. [Laugh] And that’s all you’re gonna get. It’s all I know right now.

Technology cuts both ways. Criminals use technology to commit new crimes and to hide their crimes. Law enforcement uses technology to catch the criminals.

In an op-ed for the Huffington post, you reference several well known cases of violence against women (the Jaycee Dugard case, the Annie Le case). You also point out that while women are constantly warned to be vigilant against strangers, nearly half of all murders are committed by someone known to the victim. I have two daughters; all my kids have been given all of the “stranger danger” lectures, but as my oldest approaches adolescence, and becomes interested in the computer, I know perfectly well that her greatest risk doesn’t come from the random encounter, not someone on the street that she can kick and run away from. Based on your knowledge of violent crime, what measures do you suggest we take to protect ourselves?

We have to keep our guard up. It’s hard to do that and not feel that you’ve become hardened.

I met my husband online [laugh] while I was writing a book where the killer met his victims through Internet dating. It’s a situation where you’re at your most optimistic, but, at the same time, you have to assume the worst. I was really careful. I wouldn’t give anyone my phone number. I was always careful about where I met people; I wouldn’t let anyone walk me back home, so that they knew where I lived.

We assume that we know people faster than we really do. Those messages — especially online — they seem so intimate that we think there’s a connection. Or, you meet someone in a bar and you feel like there’s this bond. It’s amazing – people who are very street smart when they’re walking alone put all that aside when they meet someone at a bar.

I couldn’t help noticing that sexual secrecy seemed to play a large role in 212. Even the committed, more acceptable relationships have an aspect of secrecy. What are your thoughts on this?

The best crime novels are all based on people keeping secrets. All lying – you may think a lie is harmless, but you put them all together and there’s a calamity. The book explores the lies and lengths that people will go to to cover up.

In one of my op-ed pieces [for the Huffington Post], I talk about all these affairs and cover-ups. David Letterman — not that I approve of his affairs or anything, but he made the right choice, to realize that he was at a cross-roads — he did the right thing when the choice came.

But, it’d be a better book if he didn’t. That’s what writing is, isn’t it? Imagining what didn’t happen and exploring that.

The press kit for 212 contains a quote from Harlan Coben: “The plot of an Alafair Burke thriller doesn’t just rip from the headlines. She’s one step ahead of them.” In 212, you depict several powerful men seeking to avoid potential scandal, and the havoc this approach wreaks. In several of your op-ed pieces you reference high-profile cases, and I was struck by your op-ed regarding prosecutorial approaches to guilt and innocence. How do you feel that the media impacts the criminal justice system?

Oooohhh… I worked in the DA’s office. I like to think that law enforcement is capable of doing the right thing. But intense media scrutiny (which is more rare than you’d think, by the way) brings pressure to bear, no question. Whether that pressure is good or bad – I’ll leave it at that…

Will we see more of Ellie Hatcher?

Oh yes. I’m working on the stand-alone novel right now. But, I have the next Ellie Hatcher all conceived – that’ll probably be in 2012. I’d like to write three books a year…


I sort of wish she could write those three books a year, too. An author who writes with passion is always a delight. A genre author devoted to the humanity of her characters is doubly so. And, having glimpsed the fast-moving mind that is Alafair Burke, I can’t wait to see where she goes next.

 

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