At ThrillerFest IX I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Fairstein, the best-selling author of the Alexandra Cooper crime novels. The 16th book in the series, Terminal City, is now available and receiving rave reviews so make sure to pick up a copy. Below is my interview with the author where we cover a wide variety of topics – everything from her inspiration for Terminal City to her friendship with Lisa Scottoline. I hope you enjoy it.
You’re the former Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Clearly your time there heavily influenced your work as a writer. What inspired you to take that first step and write a book?
It’s what I always wanted to do, all my life. If you could find my junior high school and high school yearbooks, it always said my “ambition” or “career goal” was to be a writer.
My father used to role his eyes and say, “You’ve got nothing to write about. Get a job.”
I majored in English Literature in college to be a writer. At the very end of college, the beginning of my senior year, I decided another plan would be worthwhile and I chose law school. I was interested in doing some kind of public service. But I never abandoned my dream or desire to write.
And at first, it happened later when I was asked to write a non-fiction book about the work my colleagues and I had done in that office – in that unit. Then I had a hearing at the Conflict of Interest Board for the city of New York because writing non-fiction, I was writing about real cases and real people, meaning the city would be liable if I wasn’t accurate. So at the end of the hearing, I was almost out the door when I turned around to ask the hearing officer whether I had to come back again if I started to write fiction. Did I need to apply to the city for permission?
Some authors don’t enjoy having their work edited because they feel the first draft is the best draft, while others welcome the feedback and see it as an opportunity to improve their work. What are your thoughts on working with editors and the editorial process?
I welcome the feedback. I think it’s really important. With every author it’s different. My editorial process is the editor doesn’t get the book until it’s completely done. For example, Final Jeopardy was based on 94 pages I had done and my editor didn’t see the manuscript until 10 months later when I finished working on it.
Fortunately, I’ve never had a manuscript returned with notes saying, “This doesn’t work for me. The second half of the book has to be redone. I don’t like the direction of this.” They’ve been lightly edited but I take them very seriously. I can’t think of very many occasions where I’ve disagreed with an editor about a fix that’s important.
But I self-edit as I go along. I start every day by rereading what I wrote the day before, which helps jump-start me back into the process and back into the pages but it also lets me correct or strengthen parts of the story as I go along. And every third or fourth day, I go back and capture 50 pages before, so I’m constantly self-editing until I turn it in.
I’m not in the Lee camp of just starting a book and letting it roll (laughs). Different from most of them, I pick the world, some institution in New York like I did with Grand Central for Terminal City. I pick the world first and then I figure out who would be vulnerable in that world. Then I solve the crime. I need to know that I’m going to get Alexandra out of whatever happens to her by the end of the story.
Unlike most female protagonists in series, she doesn’t have a gun. She doesn’t like guns, so it’s not going to be the easy fix of just pulling a gun out of the nightstand or glove compartment. So, I work out the ending. I don’t have the entire book plotted out. I go a few scenes at a time because by the third or fourth scene I start to notice that that’s when the twists and turns start happening. As you create these characters, they start to take on a life and you need to take them into a meeting, a restaurant or a crime scene, so it’s kind of five scenes at a time of reconstructing the beginning to the end.
Speaking of Alexandra, many authors admit that their protagonists are idealized versions of themselves. Do you share any similarities with your series character, Alexandra Cooper?
Professionally, she has all of my passion for the prosecutorial job. I think, clearly, without even realizing it, when I started writing her it was very cathartic for me to expose what the work was like for people who thought it was such a dark, grim world. She shared those professional passions, and where I take the alter-ego liberties is on her personal side.
Sixteen books later, she’s only aged three years. She has a trust fund, which I didn’t have, so she can move around and have the country house. There’s a purpose to the country, which gives her a place where she is entirely relaxed – a stark contrast to tension she experiences when she’s working in the city. So, it’s only the personal side that I changed her a lot from me.
Long before I started to write, and I still am, an avid reader of series crime fiction so I’m very attuned to that dynamic of the books by those people who are now my colleagues, and I’ve always been watching to see how they’ve done that.
With Alex, she’s learned something from each of the different cases she’s had. And on the personal side, she’s had several romances that have been affected by her casework. So, she’s evolved a lot personally and professionally. It’s about her professional life and how her personal life is impacted by it. It’s an important way to keep things fresh.
Another professional way for me to keep it fresh is I’m still a lawyer and I still stay very current with the forensic work, and I visit the medical examiner’s office a couple times a year to train or lecture there. And so I’ve continued, in each book, to introduce new forensic techniques that I think readers are interested in if they’re reading this kind of novel.
Grand Central Terminal serves as the backdrop for Terminal City. What made you decide to use this iconic landmark as the focal point of your new book?
This was an easy call. I’ve always been fascinated by Grand Central. I grew up in a very un-fancy suburb of Asbury Park called Mount Vernon and Grand Central was my gateway into the city when I would come in, which was not often, with my Mother – Christmas shopping, Radio City, a Broadway musical, or a play.
So, it fascinated me as a kid. I always thought I’d get back to it. I didn’t know until I had started my research, that it was planned as an entire underground city where you could get from place to place – hotels, banks, clubs.
2013 was the 100th anniversary of the centennial of the opening of Grand Central. So, starting in 2012 there were a lot of features about the building because of the upcoming centennial. It just seemed like the perfect moment. I was drawn to it. I kept reading articles that were more and more interesting. I began to take tours, and it really started to come to the fore of all the places that I was considering.
What does a successful day of writing look like for you?
It’s a day that I get up early – seven o’clock. Have coffee, procrastinate for awhile, read the newspaper, email – there’s much more internet use now than when I started this series in the 90s. And then, ideally by 9 o’clock, I am in the story, in the pages, and a really good day for me is if I can work from nine to about one, uninterrupted. Take a break for lunch. I like to swim laps for my summer form of exercise. If I can take a break like that and work till four, that’s a really great day. That’s an ideal writing day: nine to four – with a little exercise and something to eat in between.
Sometimes the ideas just aren’t there or the words don’t come or the story doesn’t move forward. I don’t believe in the luxury of writer’s block, so I keep working through it. I might not accomplish as much on a particular day. Or I might write two or three pages and tear them up the next day because they don’t work.
Once I’m past the first 100 manuscript pages, the days are much easier and longer for me. The first 100 – laying in the story, laying in the clues, figuring it out – those are the fullest for me.
You’re friends with another one of my favorite authors: Lisa Scottoline. How did you two originally meet?
We met as writers. Lisa is much younger than I am. She was a lawyer. Unlike me, she hated practicing law and started writing her books at a pretty early age. Even though she started with paperback originals, she had great success. The first or second one was an Edgar winner, and that’s when I found her through the books.
We first met in 1996. She was someone I sought out because I admired her so much. I love her books and her enormous personality (laughs). And she was very welcoming to me. She was just great, and we stayed in touch.
It’s just been one of those really, really nice things. I adore her, respect her, love her books. And I love that she had lady lawyers early on in a time when there weren’t that many in the business or literature. And recently I met Francesca and that was an absolute joy. That’s quite a duo, as you know.
You’re an active member of International Thriller Writers and you were a presenter at this year’s ThrillerFest. Why do you think this is an important event for established and aspiring writers to attend?
The collegiality is terrific. Here are some of the most accomplished writers who show up and participate with other writers. Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver – these are all people that I read and admired before I got into the game myself. That kind of collegiality, that these people show up, that’s still really exciting for me.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
You need to be in the words. I can’t tell you how many times after a conference people come up to me and say they want to write crime novels but they don’t really like to write (laughs). It’s a bad choice then because it’s very solitary and you have to like it. Sit down, write a blog, write paragraphs. If you’re creative and like fiction, you have to put the pen to paper.
The other thing is reading. You have to be in books all the time. When I’m writing crime novels, I generally don’t read them. That’s when I read classics or non-fiction. And when I’m on the book tour, I’m traveling and picking up everyone else’s crime novels and reading them.
Even if you’re reading things that aren’t in fiction. It’s just being in words, seeing how they’re used and being uplifted by them. I think that to write and to read are the two best ways to get into this business.
What exciting new projects are you working on?
Well, I can’t reveal the direction of my new book just yet. But it will feature the same cast of characters. Not just to keep it fresh, but I’m going to be doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I got the green light from my good friends at Dutton, so I’m going to try and do that.
And Sony Television optioned one of my books: Killer Heat. That’s fun, whether it happens or not. It’s been a very enjoyable process to participate in.