Author Marcia Clark: Media 'Changes the Way Lawyers Act' in Trials
If you became conscious sometime before 1994, you probably associate the name Marcia Clark with O.J. Simpson and the sensational murder trial of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. But in recent years, the former prosecutor has turned her experience to the page, penning thrillers starring Los Angeles Special Trials prosecutor Rachel Knight and LAPD Detective Bailey Keller. Clark tells us that in her newest book, "Killer Ambition," she takes readers into a fictional, media-crazed trial of a Hollywood power player. When the media gets involved in a murder case, she tells us, "that kind of attention changes the way the lawyers act, it changes the way the witnesses act." She also reveals that it was "fun to be able to show someone [wealthy and powerful] being taken down," why Los Angeles is a great setting for crime fiction (as opposed to New York) and whether lawyers nowadays read legal thrillers.
Bookish: What are you most excited about with the release of "Killer Ambition"?
MC: This book is a little different. The other ones ["Guilt by Association" and "Guilt by Degrees"] are primarily investigation. You see Rachel and Bailey working the case, and then they bring it to a conclusion--basically, the case gets filed. But in "Killer Ambition," [Rachel] investigates and then takes the case to trial: You go all the way through a trial with them. So it was really fun to do. It was really fun to be able to make the judge say what I wanted him to, make the lawyers say what I wanted them to. [Laughs.]
"Killer Ambition" is set in Hollywood, and the daughter of a billionaire director--think Steven Spielberg, James Cameron--is abducted. And then Rachel winds up going to trial against a major power player in Hollywood. I was able to tell the truth about what it's like to handle a high-profile case, a media case, and deal with the press all the time and deal with the invasion of private life all the time. So I was able to deliver a lot of real-life experience. It was fun.
Bookish: Have you been waiting for a long time to be able to put your experience with a very high-profile case on the page?
MC: I was not consciously waiting. I just came to this place where this was the right case for [Rachel] to do that. The thing that I thought of first wasn't, "Oh, I want to go to trial." The thing I thought of first was, "Oh, I want to do this kind of crime, with these kind of victims and these kind of people," and it just naturally fell into, "Well, they should go to trial."
Bookish: Is it inevitable that extensive media coverage in a big trial like this will affect the case itself, or do you think it's possible for a court case to remain "pure" even though everybody's talking about it?
MC: I do think it's impossible. You have constant commentary, and everybody's being scrutinized; everybody's talking about it endlessly. And that kind of attention changes the way the lawyers act, it changes the way the witnesses act. Everybody's aware of the focus [on them]. So you can never say it has no impact.
Bookish: I suppose it would be like reading the reviews, if you're a stage actor, in the middle of a run.
Bookish: Or maybe an author reading her book reviews?
MC: [Laughs.] Reading book reviews is like that after the fact. It's done already. But I'd be surprised if lawyers were watching television to see what people were saying. But maybe not. You want to kind of stay on top of that in a way so you get a feeling for the zeitgeist--what are people feeling about this witness, that witness, that sort of thing. You'd want to know.
Bookish: There's no way to prevent a jury from watching all of that too, right?
MC: Unless they're sequestered.
Bookish: How does that work?
MC: If they're sequestered, they're put in a hotel and they don't get to watch television--or they get closed-circuit TV, which is "Friends" reruns and stuff like that. They don't get to see news or anything that might have to do with the case. But other than that, no, you can't stop them. They're ordered not to, but when they go home at night, you can't control what they're doing. Nobody's watching them. But if they're watching television, if they're reading the news, if they're doing that stuff, then they're contaminated. They should be bounced off if anybody finds out about it.
Bookish: What was it like writing a trial and putting yourself in the mindset of both sides? Is it like trying to play chess against yourself? How do you approach that?
MC: Just the same way I actually do a trial. I was a defense attorney before I was a prosecutor, and so knowing what the defense is going to try to do is something that you have to do constantly when you're in trial. I always went to trial knowing what they were doing. So I was always in both mindsets anyway. "Oh, they're going to do this, then I'm going to do that. Then they're going to do this and I'm going to do that." That's how it really is when you're trying lawsuits, and so writing the book that way was pretty easy.
Bookish: It does sound like a chess game--you're thinking three or four moves ahead.
MC: Yes. Absolutely, it is.
Bookish: And do you know when you're cornered three or four moves before it actually happens?
MC: Sometimes. But sometimes not. There are bombshells that happen in court. Especially when the defense doesn't share discovery of material the way the prosecution does, and so surprises always happen. Things pop out without warning.
Bookish: No wonder legal thrillers are so popular--they make for the perfect drama.
MC: I agree with Scott Turow: A courtroom is inherently dramatic. You walk into court--it's like an ER, you know? Life and death is going on there. And it's moment-by-moment, and it's packed with energy. And even though you think you know what a witness is going to say, you can be wrong. Witnesses surprise you. So, yes, it's really fun to do.
Bookish: So, a Hollywood mogul--tell me more about that character.
MC: Well, the defendant is a Hollywood power player. I don't want to give it up, because that's kind of a twist in [the book]. I've worked a lot in Hollywood and been around a lot of these people, and it's really fun to be able to deliver some of the quirks and ways that they live. It's a very rarefied existence they live, very different. They're extremely powerful and extremely wealthy. Very few people in this world get to live the way they do. And so it's fun to be able to show someone like that being taken down, and that's part of the fun of the story, I think.
Bookish: What is it about L.A. that makes it the perfect setting for thrillers?
MC: L.A. is such a unique place because it's all freeways, it's all streets and it's all cars. So, you have to manage the topography; it takes [a long time] to get places, and you're stuck in a car with people a lot. Rachel and Bailey are stuck in a car a lot. They do a lot of sharing and talking there.
And there's also an incredible range--you have Bel Air, which is a platinum-level neighborhood, all the way down to Compton or some of the really poor neighborhoods and everything in between. You have the glitzy side of Hollywood, you have the seedy side of Hollywood. Every little pocket of Los Angeles County is almost like its own state. It has its own way of being and own way of feeling, and parts of it feel like the Midwest and parts of it feel like the East Coast. It's a rich tapestry.
Bookish: What part is your favorite?
MC: All of them. Really, all of them. I love going from the high to the low and all the ways in between. I love being able to show that range.
Bookish: Which book have you been recommending recently, and over the course of your entire life, what do you think is the book that you've recommended the most?
MC: Oh my God. A bunch of stuff. I think it was Sarah Waters, "Fingersmith." Wonderful book. And overall--I can't pick one overall. I've recommended a vast range of books, from Anita Shreve to Armistead Maupin, "Tales of the City," to James Ellroy, "L.A. Confidential," "Blood's a Rover." God, I can't even narrow it down. [Laughs.]
Bookish: What are the books that you think of as quintessential Los Angeles novels?
MC: Ooh. I was going to say Ellroy. But his [books] are period, you know what I mean? But for that period, boy, does he capture it. He's got it. [Laughs.] "L.A. Confidential." Yes. His prose is so specific and so powerful--you can see it and feel it.
Bookish: Do you think that lawyers read a lot of legal thrillers?
MC: That's a good question. I avoided it for a really long time. But when "Presumed Innocent" came out, I had to read that. [Turow] delivered it so well. He delivered the reality of the prosecutor's office and the politicking, the backstabbing as well as the dynamics of the trial and the chess game that it is. He really did a perfect job of that. And I really do think he is the originator of the genre. I don't think anybody considered "legal" "thriller" to be two words that would go together in a good way, you know? But now we know it's a whole genre unto itself, and it's so wonderful. So I think probably they do. Now they do, now that it's become something that people can do well.
Marcia Clark is a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who was the lead prosecutor on the O. J. Simpson murder case. She co-wrote a bestselling nonfiction book about the trial, "Without a Doubt," and is a frequent commentator on legal issues in high-profile trials, for multiple shows on CNN/HLN, NBC and ABC.