September 17, 2008 / 11:03 AM / in 11 years

Crime writer Alafair Burke draws on legal experience

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Mystery writer Alafair Burke ended up following in the footsteps of her father, crime writer James Lee Burke, but is adamant that the craft of writing is not in her blood.

Alafair Burke's book Angel's Tip is seen in a handout photo. REUTERS/HarperCollins/Handout

A former deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, Burke teaches criminal law at New York’s Hofstra Law School while writing, with her fifth novel, “Angel’s Tip”, just out, the second in a series featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher.

Burke is also the author of a series of legal novels about Portland prosecutor Samantha Kincaid.

She spoke to Reuters about writing and families:

Q: Is it hard to keep two series going at the same time?

A: “I haven’t had to do the two at the same time yet. My first three novels were about Samantha Kincaid and then I had a plot for a story about the anonymity of online dating. It didn’t work in Portland where everyone knows everyone so I decided to set it in New York and try my hand at a detective novel rather than a legal novel which led to Ellie Hatcher. I’d been in New York for five years and it all came together.”

Q: Was it hard to shift to a detective novel?

A: “Not really. With Samantha I was drawing on the experience I had at the District Attorney’s office. But as a prosecutor I spent two years as a liaison to the police and worked out of a police precinct. I would go out with patrol officers.”

Q: Had you always planned to write?

A: “It had never dawned on me. I was always a big reader of crime fiction but then I got to the point where I was surrounded by this great dialogue and these cases in the DA’s office and it started to dawn on me that I had the material for a really good book. But I didn’t start until I left the DA’s office.”

Q: Why was that?

A: “I followed a boy to New York, to the east coast, so I had to leave. I had always meant to teach but I enjoyed my job so much. Following the boy was the kick in the pants I needed. Here I am still in New York, after 10 years with five books and a different boy.”

Q: Did you tell your father when you started writing?

A: “No. I think he always wanted me to but I didn’t tell him until I had finished the draft. He is very proud so if I had told him I was even thinking about it he would have started boasting about it to everybody. He read it before it was published but after I had sold it.”

Q: Did he give you his advice on it?

A: “He told me it was great and his only piece of advice was to put more white space on the page — break up the paragraphs more and make the margins wider. Not very substantive criticism.”

Q: Do you talk about writing a lot now?

A: “No. We exchange stories about the post-publication part, where we are traveling to promote a book, and we now have mutual friends who are writers and book sellers and pass on greetings from them but we never talk about the craft of writing.”

Q: As well as your father, you have cousins who are writers. Does it help to have other writers in the family?

A: “Obviously you don’t inherit prose but I think it makes some sense that there are several writers in one family as you see that it is possible to finish a book which can seem undoable otherwise. Also you can’t write a book if you don’t read books and writing families tend to read a lot.”

Q: You read a lot?

Alafair Burke is seen in a handout photo. REUTERS/HarperCollins/Handout

A: “I used to read five books a week before I wrote. The biggest sacrifice I have had to make is that I can’t read as much any more. I probably only read three books a month or so. Before, all I would do at the weekend was stay in and read all day, and read three books. If it was sunny I’d sit outside and read.”

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: “Read. You have to read a lot of books but you also have to think of yourself as a writer. Treat it like a job.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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