Saturday, 1 March 2014

I come up with characters by watching the world with empathy!

Interview with Alafair Burke 
by Agnes A. Rose

Alafair Burke is one of the most famous American crime novelists. She was born in Ford Lauderdale (Florida) and raised primarily in Wichita (Kansas). She is a professor of law and legal commentator for radio and television programs. Alafair is the daughter of acclaimed crime writer James Lee Burke. So far her books have been translated into many languages. She traces her fascination with crime to the hunt for the serial killer Dennis Lynn Rader, known as BTK (Blind, Torture, Kill), who was active in Wichita during 1970s. In 2012 her novel called “Long Gone” was published in Poland.

Agnes A. Rose: Alafair, thank you so much that you accepted my invitation to this interview. At the beginning I would like to ask you why you started writing crime fiction?

Alafair Burke: I came to writing after being a reader my whole life and an avid fan of crime novels. I was working as a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, reading crime novels in my spare time, and I realized I worked everyday in a place that would make great a great setting for a novel. I became yet another lawyer who wanted to write a book.

My first book, “Judgment Calls”, was a fictionalized mash-up of two different cases I saw as a prosecutor. Since then, the ideas haven't been as tied to identifiable cases, but there's no question that I could not write about the world depicted in my novels if I hadn't been a prosecutor.

Agnes A. Rose: Why are you interested in Dennis Lynn Rader’s history? Does the serial killer’s life motivate you to create your own fictional crime histories?

Alafair Burke: It’s not that one person or anything about his background that interests me, but he was identified as a serial killer who was active in Wichita, Kansas, when I was a little girl there.  My family moved to Wichita in 1978, just as the local police department there was playing – and replaying – the tape-recorded voice of a serial killer who called himself BTK. My parents had relocated us from southern Florida with expectations of a quiet, simple midwestern town. In many ways, we had that in Wichita, but always under the shadow of a real-life boogeyman.
What made this man so terrifying was that we knew so little about him and yet so much – Bind, Torture, Kill. We knew he walked in and out of homes in the middle of the day, cut the phone cords, and could calmly call 911 when it was all over. And we knew he could be anyone.

In crime fiction, there is always closure. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was only after we moved to Kansas that I began pestering my librarian-mother for more mystery stories.

Agnes A. Rose: As I mentioned above your father is one of the most famous crime writer. I wonder if he sometimes advises you how to write or how to create a perfect character to get your readers interested in the book?

Alafair Burke: No.  We are very close and we talk about the business of writing, but he is not a private writing coach.  His biggest influence was to write every single day, even when he wasn’t getting published. I think that dedication shaped how I see writing. You’ve got to write for the right reasons. There are much smarter and more lucrative ways to get a paycheck.

Agnes A. Rose: You are a lawyer. How does your law career have an effect on your writing?

Alafair Burke: During my time at the DA's Office, I not only learned about the culture of the courthouse, but I also worked out of a police precinct for two years. I know the energy of those locations and the natural rhythm of an investigation.

More generally, I think there’s a reason so many lawyers and journalists go on to write fiction. These are jobs where you are flexing the writing muscles everyday that many people stop using in school.  Reporters and lawyers also learn how to weave facts into a coherent narrative.  You know how to build the arc of a story and character.

Agnes A. Rose: How do you create your characters? Are they all fictional? Or maybe some of them come from real life and live around you?

Alafair Burke: Just as my first novel hewed more closely to my day job, my first protagonist, Samantha Kincaid, was a fictionalized, better version of myself. She is a prosecutor in the same office I worked. She has a French bulldog, golfs, and runs (though much faster than I do). But you can’t make every character have your same sensibilities and voice. 

I come up with characters by watching the world with empathy. I wonder what it’s like to be in someone else’s skin.  Sometimes those moments grab me, and a character appears. When I hear from characters, I listen. I don't know whether their stories will make it the page now or later, but I always know it's worth listening.

Agnes A. Rose: The main characters of your books are women. Why?

Alafair Burke: I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Though the book jackets highlight the names of the female characters, Ellie Hatcher’s partner, J.J. Rogan, and her brother, Jess, are essential to those books.  And in my standalones, large portions of the books are written from the perspective of male characters.  But you’re right that my books are very much about the lives of women.  Why wouldn’t they be?

Agnes A. Rose: You are the author of two series of crime novels – one featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and the other Portland (Oregon) prosecutor Samantha Kincaid. Which of these characters is closer to you and why?

Alafair Burke: Oh, that’s like asking me to pick between my kids!  Samantha is much more like me on the surface, as I mentioned before. But Ellie has become like a best friend, or maybe a conjoined twin. She’s different from me in almost every way, but I completely understand her. I actually think I’ve learned things from her.  Does that sound insane?

Agnes A. Rose: The books telling about Ellie Hatcher and Samantha Kincaid are very popular among your readers. Do you think about writing another series of crime novels?

Alafair Burke: I never planned for Ellie Hatcher to be a series character. She was the main character in Dead Connection, which I thought would be a standalone.  But when I finished the novel, I knew I had to keep writing about her.  So who knows what the future might hold.

Now "Long Gone" is the only
book published in Poland
Agnes A. Rose: In 2012 I read “Long Gone” and I liked it very much. This is the first book you wrote as a stand alone novel. Apart from that the main character – Alice Humphrey – is not a representative of the law. What motivated you to write this fictional crime story?

Alafair Burke: Believe it or not, it was the economy. Wait, wait, that makes her and the books sound really boring, doesn’t it? Stay with me! I was reading all of these stories about unemployment – not the numbers, but the psychological toll that prolonged unemployment brings. I started thinking about the risks someone might be willing to take, just to have a job. And I’d walk around New York, seeing all these closed store fronts and started wondering what it would be like to show up to work one day and find that everything was gone. From that came Alice Humphrey. After eight months of unemployment, she’s desperate enough to take a job that sounds too good to be true. And it turns out to be a big mistake. Voila! Book plot.

Agnes A. Rose: On your website your readers can read that in last November Amazon selected your book “If You Were Here” as one of the twenty best crime novels of 2013. Congratulations! What is special about this fictional crime story: its characters or storyline? Or maybe something else?

Alafair Burke: I guess you could say the story came from my own marriage. My husband and I met despite completely non-overlapping paths to New York City. I attended a tiny hippie college in the Pacific Northwest before working as a prosecutor and then turning to writing. My husband went to West Point (the US Military Academy) and served in the army before taking up security management at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Had we not met online, we may never have met at all.

In real life, that lack of common history made it fun to get to know each other from true scratch. But as a writer who spends time occupying a fictional world, I have always wanted to find a way to mine the potential for secrecy in a relationship where either party could be lying about the past. How much do we each really know about the lives the other led before we built one together? What events and people have we chosen to filter from the present? I also felt ready to write about the post West Point and private security cultures that I’ve been privileged to learn about secondhand during my marriage. The world of police officers and prosecutors has been such a big part of my previous books, so trying to bring the same verisimilitude to the military and corporate security was important to me.

From those thoughts came a book about three people: McKenna Wright Jordan, a former prosecutor turned magazine journalist; her husband, Patrick, a West Point graduate who runs security at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Susan Hauptmann, their sole mutual friend. Of course, because I love a good mystery, this relationship triangle had to have a catch: Ten years earlier, Susan disappeared without a trace shortly after introducing her two best friends.

Agnes A. Rose: You create female characters. So, I wonder if your novels are read by men? If so, what do they think about your work?

Alafair Burke: I’m told that about half of my readers are men.  People need to get over the “I only read women” or “I don’t read women” nonsense. Some of the best crime authors working today are women: Karin Slaughter, Laura Lippman, Lisa Unger, Lisa Gardner, Tess Gerritsen. Anyone who says they like crime fiction but doesn’t read at least someone on that list is being silly.

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have your favourite part of the writing process? If so, what is it?

Alafair Burke: Well, the beginning is the worst, because that’s when I’m still finding the characters. Once I reach the middle, I really know these people and get swept up in revealing the layers to their personality and the (hopefully) surprising end to the story. And then when I type “the end,” it’s magical.

Agnes A. Rose: So far only “Long Gone” has been published in Poland. Are there any plans to release other your books in Poland?

Alafair Burke: I hope so! Thanks for helping to spread the word.

Agnes A. Rose: What do you read every day? Do you have your favourite kind of literature or authors?

Alafair Burke: I still read 80 percent crime fiction. Some favorites other than those above are Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, and Harlan Coben. (These are all men since I already mentioned some of my favorite women above.)

Agnes A. Rose: Where do you like to create your fictional crime histories? Do you have your favourite place to write?

Alafair Burke: I can write just about anywhere these days. I write primarily in my home office, but I also do a lot of writing at a neighborhood pizza bar. I’ll go for lunch then stay for hours, working until the evening crowd pulls in.

Agnes A. Rose: What are your plans for the nearest future associated with writing? Are you working on a new novel?

Alafair Burke: I just finished a new book called “All Day And Night”.

Agnes A. Rose: Is there anything you would like to tell your Polish readers?

Alafair Burke: Read “Long Gone” and tell others about it. I’d love to have more books translated into Polish!

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much for this interview once again. I hope that Polish readers will be able to read more your novels in the nearest future, not only “Long Gone”. Finally, I wish you further success and many more great books. 

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for all your comments. Feel free to contact us. We promise that we'll try to answer all of them.