Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Visit with Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke "is a terrific web spinner" who "knows when and how to drop clues to keep readers at her mercy," according to Entertainment Weekly. Her two series feature  NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. A former prosecutor in the Portland, Oregon, DA's office, she currently teaches criminal law and procedure at Hofstra Law School  in New York.

How did NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher come into being as well as Portland Prosecutor Samantha Kincaid?

I was a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, for several years. After leaving to move to New York, I missed my office. I missed Portland and my friends. And as a long-time mystery reader, I had always wanted to write a crime novel. I thought I’d finally learned enough about the world to give it a try, so I started with Samantha Kincaid, who is a prosecutor in the very office where I served.

By the time I was working on my fourth novel, I’d been living in New York for a few years. I thought the anonymity that comes only in a city this big was exciting territory for me as a writer. I was also ready to write a faster paced book with an investigator, instead of a lawyer, at the center. I had a story I wanted to tell that involved Internet dating, and I thought a young New York City detective was the perfect narrator. I actually meant for that book (Dead Connection) to be a standalone, but I knew when I wrote the final chapter that I’d still be hearing more from Ellie.

I love your Duffer Awards. What prompted them?

The only thing I love more than reading books is talking about them. Sometimes I think I only write so I’ll have a work-related reason to talk all day about mystery novels.

I’m traveling less this year for book tour, so I wanted to do some fun things online that would involve interaction with readers I might not get to see in person. A couple of months ago, I gave out some so-called “Duffer Awards” in my newsletter, and my readers thought it was a big hit. I thought it would be fun to let readers vote on a new award every day for a month. And since I don’t like real competitions like smartest sleuth, where feelings can be hurt, I decided that the awards had to be for silly stuff like Best Hat and Most Likely to be Institutionalized. I hope crime fiction readers will stop by every day to cast a vote on each category. And to sweeten the pot, anyone who posts a comment is entered to win signed books and gift certificates to booksellers. The more comments, the more chances for loot!

The awards are at www.alafairburke.com. As I type this, Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller appears to be locking in a win for Most Likely to Marry His Ex-Wife (over Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone).

How do you manage to write two crime series while serving as a Professor of Law at Hofstra University? What’s your writing schedule like?

I honestly don’t know how anything gets done. I Facebook, Tweet, and eat constantly, yet at the end of the year, I usually have a book and a couple of law review articles on my computer. I do try to write every day, and very rarely miss two days in a row. That continuity makes a big difference. Even if I only write a couple of paragraphs on a busy day, I can jump in the next day, fully aware of where I am in the story, how my characters’ voices sound, and how they feel in that moment.

Tell us about your latest release.

I’m very excited about Long Gone. It’s my first stand-alone thriller. I guess I said that about the first Ellie Hatcher book, too, but this time, I think I really mean it. And it’s the first time I’ve written about a character who is outside the criminal justice system.

After a layoff and months of struggling, Alice Humphrey finally lands what she thinks is her dream job managing a new art gallery in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Everything seems perfect until the morning Alice arrives at work to find the gallery gone—the space stripped bare as if it had never existed— with the man who hired her dead on the floor. Overnight, Alice’s dream job has vanished, and she finds herself at the center of police attention with nothing to prove her innocence. There’s also a missing girl from New Jersey, a rogue FBI agent, and Alice’s nightmare family running around the pages, but I promise it’s all one story.

This is a higher concept book than my series novels, and sometimes those don’t end as successfully as they start. I’m very proud of how all the threads come together here, though.

How much of an influence on your own writing was your father, James Lee Burke?

With a father who was writing and mother who was a librarian, we were a family that not only told stories, but thought it was perfectly natural to write them down. My mother would take me to the library every Saturday for a new stack of books. The rhythms of story telling and character creation become ingrained when you read all the time.

Advice to fledgling crime writers?

Read. Read a lot. But don’t try to copy anyone. Figure out what you can offer the genre. And then write every single day – without starting over – until you finish. Once you have a beginning, middle, and end, it is much easier to make adjustments than you’d ever believe. The hard part is getting it done.

How, in your opinion, is the ebook revolution affecting major publishing practices?

I’m a bit like the ostrich in the sand on this one. Or a kid with fingers in ears saying, “La, la, la, I’m not listening to you.” I try to focus on the books and appreciating the readers I have instead of figuring out the business. That said, my sense is that publishers were more panicked two years ago than they are now. They still believe that writers need a conduit between them and retailers (whether electronic or paper). In my case, they are really pushing the idea of growing my readership through e-books. For example, they’re currently offering Angel’s Tip for $1.99. (See how I worked in that plug. Wily, huh?)

What has brought you the most pleasure and satisfaction?

Knowing that someone is reading your work is a grand high. When I hear from readers who say they stayed up all night because they couldn’t put down one of my books, I still want to scream out loud.

Any publishing regrets?

I don’t believe in regrets. Maybe my very first book would have been better if I’d cut back on some detail, but debut novels are detailed for a reason. New writers share some of the same habits. I like to think that every book I’ve written has been better than the rest. As someone who cares more about the longevity of my publishing career than dollars and cents, that makes me pretty content.

Thank you, Alafair.

You can visit Alafair at her website: www.facebook.com/alafairburkebooks
At Twitter: www.twitter.com/alafairburke
and at: http://www.alafairburke.com/ (where Duffer voting is taking place)

Her latest novel, Long Gone, can be preordered from Harper Collins.

7 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Welcome to Mysterious Writers, Alafair. It's great to have you here.

Ricky Bush said...

Thanks for sharing Alafair with us and thank you Alafair for sharing your authorly insights.

J D Webb said...

Love your father's writing, Alafair, and am anxious to jump into your writing as well.

Coco Ihle said...

Wonderful post, Alafair! I gobbled up every word. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm very eager to read Long Gone.

June Shaw said...

What a great interview. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Alafair, I live down south near where your dad came from. Don't know about your mom.

Great work!

Earl Staggs said...

Another terrific interview with another terrific guest, Jean. I especially liked when Alafair said, "I like to think that every book I’ve written has been better than the rest." When asked for advice on writing, I always say, "Make sure the next thing you write is better than the last thing you wrote." If we don't always strive to get better, we get left behind.

Alafair Burke said...

Thanks so much for having me and for the terrific comments!