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So What Do You Do, Linda Fairstein, Bestselling Crime Novelist?

Decades working for the DA inform this author's suspenseful series and tenacious work ethic

By Diane Clehane - June 24, 2009

-Photo by Peter Simon

Linda Fairstein proves the old adage true: Write what you know. After a headline-making career in New York's District Attorney's office where she spent 25 years heading up the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, Fairstein left to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Using the wealth of experience she gained from the gritty gig, she created a fictional heroine, Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, who has been solving sensational crimes in an international bestselling book series (11 and counting) and shows no signs of slowing down.

Nor does Fairstein: Churning out a book a year, the bestselling novelist maintains a rigorous schedule of writing, researching and promoting her work that she approaches with the same passion she brought to the DA's office. It's no wonder she served as inspiration for the female leads of Law & Order SVU. "I wish I got residuals from it," jokes Fairstein. "Both Mariska Hargitay and Stephanie March have become good friends because they've become very involved in the victims' advocate movement. The three of us are on the board of Safe Horizon."

Before Fairstein took off to her Martha's Vineyard home for the summer to begin writing her next book, she makes the case for keeping your day job while writing and using the Internet to "blatantly self promote" and comes out against Kindle. "I hate the idea," she says. "I'm such an old-fashioned book person."

Name: Linda Fairstein
Position: Crime novelist
Resume: Author of the bestselling series of crime novels featuring fictional Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. Her 11th book, Lethal Legacy (Doubleday) was published earlier this year. Worked for three decades from 1972 until 2002 in the office of the New York County District Attorney, where she served as chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit for 25 years and prosecuted a number of notable cases, including the Robert Chambers' "Preppy Murder" case in 1986.
Birthdate: May 5, 1947
Hometown: Mount Vernon, New York
Education: Vassar ("The last all-women's class, which I'm fiercely proud of.") BA in English literature; University of Virginia School of Law.
Marital status: Married to Justin Feldman
First section of the Sunday Times: The 'Book Review.' "I'm heartbroken because I always saved the 'City' section for last, and as of last week it no longer exists. I can't tell you how much material I got for my series from the wonderfully arcane little articles in it."
Favorite TV show: Law & Order SVU
Guilty pleasure: "Reading mysteries."
Last book read: "The Maze of Cadiz -- it's a first novel by a writer I've never heard of, Aly Monroe, and it's a mystery set in Spain during World War II. I'm in the middle of it, and it's really quite wonderful."

Prolific doesn't begin to cover it when describing your writing career. Where do the ideas come from? Do they germinate for a long time in your head or do you find things just come to you?
Most of them germinate because I am doing one book a year. Lethal Legacy was the 11th in the series. The 12th [Hell Gate] has been turned in and will come out in February or March. Now I'm researching the 13th in the city, visiting sites -- which is how it usually starts for me -- getting the texture of whatever setting I'm using. Then, when we go to the Vineyard at the end of June, I try to write some part of every day.

Something may or may not fit into the world I'm going into for my next book, so that's why I have notebooks. I keep clippings of everything. Yesterday, there was a story in the Times about a black woman Pentecostal who has become a rabbi. My next book is about religious institutions in New York, so I may find a place for her. I draw from real life a lot -- but not the stories. I've never told the story in the 11 books I've done of a real case or a real crime, but I draw from motives and then use my imagination to create my own story. Plotting takes a long time. I very much have to be in the story that I want to write now. I hear a bit of something that's fascinating to me and know I can work it in somewhere down the line.

Lethal Legacy takes place around The New York Public Library, and you always have plenty of New York landmarks populating your novels. How valuable has that been to you in telling the story and setting the mood?
It's been very important for me because I don't like books that are just car chases, shoot-outs and action without substance. I spend a lot of time on a book -- at least a year writing, researching and then marketing -- so for me it's always much more interesting to learn something. In my second book, I looked at a New York institution; in that case, it was a large hospital that was like a small city. I created a fictional hospital that sounded a lot like Bellevue, where a doctor was murdered in the 1980s. From then on, I've done museums, the Roosevelt Island smallpox hospital, and art galleries. I just love having places that are real and very rich with history, and then I let my imagination loose. They give me mood and texture. The books are meant to be the kind of entertaining escapism that most people come to crime fiction for. I think every reader comes away with knowing something more than they did when they started the book.

"[Writing] the first 100 pages, I could be in the dentist's chair having a root canal, and it's the same feeling. It's so hard for me to start the story and get the reader's attention from the very beginning."

You became a novelist after a long and successful career as a prosecutor. What was the motivation factor behind the move?
If you went back to my junior high school and high school yearbooks, every time I was asked what I wanted to do, the answer was 'to write.' I wanted to be a writer. My father, with whom I was very close, loved crime novels. My mother couldn't even read mine.

Your mother didn't read your books?
(Laughs) She read them, but she never read any other crime novels. When she started to read my books, it would terrify her to think that the fictional character was my voice. She would ask, 'Did you really go out in the middle of the night like that? Were you in jeopardy?'

So was it your father who inspired you to write about crime?
The gene came directly from my father. When I would tell people, 'When I get out of school, I want to be a writer,' he used to say to me, 'You have nothing to write about. Get a job. Get a career.' When I graduated from Vassar, I wasn't good enough or ready to lock myself away and think that I could make a living writing. My second call was public service, so I went to law school from college thinking I would find something in the law that would be a vehicle for public service. The dean of the law school was my criminal law professor and took an interest in me. He told me the best place to be to learn your skills and do public service is the Manhattan DA's office. There were about 200 lawyers in the office -- seven of them were women. Frank Hogan was the DA at the time, and Mr. Hogan openly didn't think that women should be in that workplace. He said it was not the right place for a woman of my educational background. The dean pressed for me to be the woman getting in that year. Of the 12 entering lawyers in that class, I got the woman's spot. I fell in love with the work instantly. It sounds so odd because of the violent nature of the work, but for me, the law connected on a very human level.

Hogan died two years later, and [Robert M.] Morgenthau became the DA in 1976. The sex crimes unit was only about 16 months old, and he asked me to take it over. There were four lawyers when I took it over, and DNA had not even been on the horizon. I was there exactly 30 years in the office. I stayed because of that specialty. It just became a passion for me.

It's very difficult for writers right now. If you don't have a big name or a platform, your chances of getting published -- let alone having a bestseller -- seem pretty slim. What advice would you give to novelists trying to break through? Do you think the market is receptive to untried talent?
It is so very difficult now. In 1993 I wrote a nonfiction book [Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape] that I was asked to write, about sexual violence. It was not a bestseller, but it was reviewed because of the topic on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, which will never happen to one of my novels. When I started to write a novel a year later and three houses bid on it, I was well aware it was not a better first novel than anybody else's. But it was the great good fortune of having the real job and that the publishers knew -- spoken or unspoken -- that a huge marketing tool would be this unit that I had created and grown. I thought that I was giving the books an authenticity and that my difference in the genre would be bringing the authenticity of my work, and I knew that's how they were marketing me.

Publishing has suffered the same ways every business has suffered because of the economy, but then in different ways because of e-books and publishing on-demand. It's a business in which many of us have been paid way too much in advance. The big money goes to the big authors. It's become a catch-22: if you've got a name, they print more of your books; they advertise you, and you're more likely to be reviewed.

Breaking through has become harder and harder and harder. People do it. I would say, keep your day job and write. Most of us who start writing are doing something else at the time. I can't tell you how many times during events I do traveling around the country, someone will say, 'I really don't love writing, and I'm trying to do this book.' You've got to like it because it's very solitary work. You've got to be able to discipline yourself to do it. It can't be a casual thing where you say, 'Every eighth day, I'm going to write.' You need to write something every day.

I'm always fascinated by the way writers write. How do you do it? Where do you do it? What's your process?
I am a day writer. I've never done a thing at night. The Post-it company should love me because next to every chair, next to my bed -- wherever I am -- there are Post-its. Lines of dialogue, a word, all kinds of things come to you at the oddest times, like just when the lights go out. The luxury I have now is, at the end of June for almost four months, we go to Martha's Vineyard, and I have a separate little cottage where I go to write. I treat it like a job. I have coffee with my husband in the morning, and I leave him with The New York Times -- which is why he's the morning reader and I'm the night Times reader. I walk a hundred yards away from the house to my cottage. I turn on my music -- which has to be classical music without words. I can't write to anything with lyrics. I'm a ballet aficionado, and I write to the scores of the ballets I love. It's the same ones over and over.

I've been on a February/March publishing schedule, so I have three months that are marketing, travel and books tours. [In] April, May and June, I'm still traveling, doing author stuff, and begin the research for the next book. This is not the next book -- Hell Gate, based on political scandals in New York and the history of the only three Federal period mansions still standing in Manhattan, which all have a political history. The book I'm researching, number 13, will not be about religion because, shamefully, I don't know enough about religion to do it, but about religious institutions in the city. I never knew until I started doing the research for this book that there is an original St. Patrick's Cathedral called Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott and Prince Street -- it's one of the city's most amazing treasures. I'm going to all these places. In some instances, I just walk around and get what I need. In many of them, I'm getting tours from the basement to the bell tower.

Then, generally, we get up to Martha's Vineyard in June and stay until Columbus Day. That's when I organize -- I'm plotting in my head the whole time. I have no idea who is going to be murdered and where, but I'm getting ideas for settings and suspects. Some time in early July, I start to write and I go to my writing cottage every day. I plan for seven days. Most of my friends know to leave me alone from 9 [a.m.] until 3 [p.m.]. I try and write seven days a week, but usually it comes down to five because something interferes -- somebody comes for a weekend or a family thing.

What's the toughest part of writing for you?
For me, with the first 100 pages, I could be in the dentist's chair having a root canal, and it's the same feeling. It's so hard for me to start the story and get the reader's attention from the very beginning. You want to open and know where you're going and have a strong scene. I try to lay in not only the characters, but clues and suspects early on so that eventually the ending will make sense to the reader. You don't want them to guess [what happens], but I want them to be able look back and say, 'She was there.'

The happiest point for me is mid-manuscript. Most of my books are between 400 and 440 pages, so somewhere around page 200, there's this moment where I feel like I've broken the spine of the book and it's sleigh riding downhill. Alex knows where she's going and how she has to get there. I'm never finished by Columbus Day, but I like to have half of my story told, because for me the first half is harder to tell. Ending well is critical. Then I come back to the city. I'm usually a month or so later than what my contract calls for, but I'm determined to get the manuscript in before the book tour. This year, Lethal Legacy debuted on February 10th and literally, on February 9th, I hit 'Send' on the [new] manuscript. It was rough -- I needed the denouement -- but I said, 'Here's your story.' That gives me great freedom when I go on the book tour.

"There is an enormous amount [of marketing] that can be done on the Web... The other thing the publishers did for me for this book, that I wouldn't do without from this point on, is this video [tour] where they took me into the library. Just a minute about your book -- it's so viral."

You have an intense book tour schedule that combines many different types of events. How do these engagements come about? Do you book them or do they come through your publisher?
It is an interesting combination. Many authors are introverted and shy and don't like this part. I love it. I think it's the prosecutorial side of me, used to being in the courtroom and talking. Because I'm a quote-unquote bestseller, there is a national tour. A lot of the chains and the great independents who have hand-sold me from the beginning send requests to the publisher, so the publisher does set up the main portion of the tour. There are a lot of independent mystery book stores in many cities. In New York, we have Mysterious Book Shop. The Poison Pen is in Scottsdale, Arizona and I go to Arizona for one night just for that book store. They'll sell more than 350 books a night. There are hundreds of people that show up, but [owner Barbara Peters] has got a mail-order business of first edition signed collectibles. I'm not Tolstoy, but there is a huge business in first edition, current, modern mysteries. [David] Baldacci, [Michael] Connelly -- everybody goes there. It's like going to Mecca. You sign your books, and then you sit in the back of the store for two hours signing hundreds of books that will be mail-ordered. There are stores like that all over the country -- Murder on the Beach in Del Ray, Florida is another one. These book stores are really important for authors like me because not only have they been good to us from the beginning, they'll take a first-time author and hand-sell them and help make them. When you're bigger, it's payback. You go back, and they can sell hundreds of books. Those are the tour things.

What I get directly to me is a lot of requests from organizations like the Junior League in a particular city because they're doing domestic violence work. The women's shelter in Naples, Fla. has a lunch for 900 people, and I'll keynote that and they'll sell books. April, May and June in New York is great because there are so many organizations in New Jersey and Connecticut that have spring book and author lunches. I just did the Morristown, N.J. book and author lunch with Andrew Gross, who used to write books with James Patterson and now writes thrillers on his own. There were 350 people there, and I would be shocked if everyone didn't buy a book. There's a book festival on the Vineyard every other summer, and a mystery authors' brunch that I keynote annually at one of the bookstores there. I'll do a number of events over the summer.

I'm still a lawyer. I do a lot of cases for victims of violence -- usually pro bono -- so I get a lot of requests from organizations directly that want to hear me do a talk about that. I don't want money from a nonprofit organization. If they want to sell books afterwards, great. I just forward the requests to the publicist working with the publisher.

You don't have your own publicist?

What should an author do that doesn't have a platform and doesn't have the bucks to launch their own PR campaign?
Use every friend you have that has PR ideas or can make important introductions. Alumni magazines are great. In the back of every quarterly is a page, 'Books By...' How many people a year write books? It's free. You send it in to them -- the jacket art is there in color and whatever description of the flap copy is there -- and that mailing goes to thousands of people. Professional journals and magazines are also good.

In these difficult economic times, you can talk to PR people. Don't assume you have to pay $20,000. Ask them to target particular outlets. If you are not a candidate for Oprah or the Today show, and you're going to 10 cities around the country and you want to hire someone to get you the local radio shows, you could probably do that for $5,000. See if you can get a modified PR tour for an amount you can afford.

Your Web site is very well done. You must be a great proponent of marketing online.
I think there is an enormous amount that can be done on the Web. It's very, very important. The other thing the publishers did for me for this book, that I wouldn't do without from this point on, is this video where they took me into the library. That plays separately on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble's Web site when you [click on] the book. I did separate introductions for each. They were paid for by Doubleday, and I have no idea what they paid. I don't think it's hard to do -- you could probably have a friend do it with a camcorder. Just a minute about your book -- it's so viral. It's especially important for the readers 40 and under who live online.

I'm finding a lot of authors are asking each other to blog about their books. I do a blog that I haven't done in months, but I'll get back to it this summer. If I like someone else's book, I will blog about it. Blogs wind up everywhere. In the mystery world, there is a daily Listserv called DorothyL -- it's got about 3,500 members, most of whom are librarians and book sellers, so a lot of authors join it. They talk about the newest books and crime novels. I tell mystery writers to join. It's free and you can blatantly self-promote. MJ Rose does Author Buzz. It's not very expensive. My publisher laughed at it at first. The first year she came out with it, I did it. I've had huge response from it. I want to say it was around $600. I don't know what it is now, because the publisher now picks it up for me.

Get a Web site -- the more attractive, the better. There are a lot of bestselling authors who don't have a lot of bells and whistles on their sites. Mine is not expensive to maintain at all. During the tour, I'm constantly updating. I'll gear up again in anticipation of the new book.

Speaking of technology, what do you think of Kindle?
I don't own one. I don't want to own one. I think it's going to end up hurting books and booksellers. I'm the same way about newspapers online. People say, 'Look, you can read The New York Times.' And I say, 'Not the way I want to.' (Laughs) I hate newsprint on my hands, but I like a newspaper.

What's been your greatest success?
I think for me, it's the prosecutorial career, which in entirely almost every sense was accidental. There is not a book signing in the country that I've done where there are more than 20 people that somebody hasn't come up to me and said, 'My sister was one of your cases,' or 'I was one of your victims,' or 'You saved my life in 1975.' That career, which I miss every day, is by far and away the greatest success in my life.

What about your biggest disappointment?
There are individual cases that haunt me. There is one in which I didn't convict a man for the rape of a teenage girl who, when he was released, killed another woman. There was a Brazilian woman who was killed in Central Park, and her killer has never been found. My team and I worked for months on that case. I had a good number of those failures in the '70s -- that with the forensics of the '90s, we could have probably have [solved]. Letting people down in those cases -- you live with that.

How would say you've gotten to where you are?
Most of my fortitude and my compassion comes from my parents. I had a very strong and loving family unit. My parents brought me up to believe if there was something I wanted to do and I worked hard enough, I could do it.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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