“You can do anything with a law degree.” This statement has been debated, defended, and debunked for years. But Alafair Burke is an interesting example of just how an inside look at the legal system can bolster a career as something other than a lawyer. Burke is a law professor and the author of both the Ellie Hatcher and Samantha Kincaid crime series. We got to sit down with Burke at BookExpo America to chat about her start as a crime writer, being afraid of BTK in her formative years, and the newest book in her Hatcher series: All Day and a Night.
Bookish: Are there any authors you’re stalking this week at BEA?
Alafair Burke: I just found out that Alan Cumming was signing two booths down from me. My editor didn’t tell me until after I was done signing my books and he was gone—she knows I would’ve just found a way to sign books as fast as I could and then run over. And I know Linda Fairstein was signing today. She also had a huge career as a lawyer.
Bookish: You went to law school, practiced, and now you’re a law professor. How has your experience with the legal system informed writing crime thrillers?
AB: It lets me be really lazy, and not do a lot of research! In all seriousness, though, it does help to know the rhythm of a criminal case organically, to know the procedure, and to know who does what. But I think what helps the most is, when you’re a trial lawyer, you learn how to tell a story. People don’t think of cases as stories, but they really should. In a weird way, it mimics the organization of a book, and so I feel like I’m drawing on that as well.
Bookish: Do you find that your career as a legal professional is at odds with your identity as an author, or do they dovetail?
AB: They can be at odds, because sometimes I’m probably more interested in legal procedure than a lot of other people are. I’ve learned that, just because I know something, I don’t have to say it on paper. I really have to cut through what might seem like technical jargon to other people, and focus on character, setting, plot, and not the procedural parts.
But for this book, there really wasn’t much tension at all because the plot of All Day and a Nightinvolves a wrongful conviction and, as somebody who teaches criminal law and writes about prosecutors and things like that, it was a very natural kind of story. I think that’s what drove my interest in the plot—all of the exoneration cases that are happening right now.
Bookish: You write really strong female protagonists in your novels. Why do you think it’s important to have strong female characters in fiction?
AB: I think it’s important that all of your characters be strong in the sense that they’re multidimensional. Part of what got me into writing was I’d read too many books where the women were just props or dead bodies or crying out for help all the time. I found myself really enjoying reading books about women who seemed real, independent, and able to take care of themselves. That’s an important part of my work.
Bookish: What are you reading right now that you’re really excited about?
Bookish: All Day and a Night revolves around the idea of trust. Did you set out to write a book about trust?
AB: I love that you said that because, people don’t believe this, but I sometimes don’t know what my own books are about until I read them. I think about characters and their motivations, but I don’t always think about themes that tie all the characters together. I find that later. When I looked at it, it was really a book where these women were trying to satisfy all of the pressures upon them.
That opening scene with the couple in marriage counseling: He thinks she’s lucky that she gets to stay home all day, and she’s like, “What are you talking about? This is my sacrifice, I don’t want to be home all day.” Then you’ve got the lawyer who feels torn between being her mother’s good daughter, trying to please everybody at work, and trying to find her own identity. And then you’ve got Ellie, very much torn between—literally—her partner at work, and her partner at home. But when you said “trust” I thought, Really it is about trust. It’s about how much do you know about the people in your life, and how much do you trust your own memories about the past?
Bookish: I read that you started reading and writing crime thrillers because of a fascination with the BTK killer. What spoke to you about that case?
AB: I don’t know if it spoke to me as much as it scared the shit out of me. I was a little kid, and we moved to Wichita, Kansas, supposedly because my parents wanted to move me out of South Florida. We didn’t live in a great neighborhood there, and it seemed to be getting worse. So we moved to Kansas and found out there was a serial killer who did very, very gruesome things to his victims. And these victims included children too, which is not common. He really was like the boogeyman.
It was around that time that I got really interested [in the genre.] I told my mother, “I want mysteries, I want mysteries,” and she was like, “What is going on with this kid?” In retrospect, I always wonder if it had something to do with that—the idea that you’d read about something very fictional and bad, and then there would be an ending. There would be closure. I’m wondering if I was always looking for that ending.
Alafair Burke is the bestselling author of eight previous novels, including the thriller Long Gone and the Ellie Hatcher series: 212, Angel’s Tip, Dead Connection, and Never Tell. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan.