I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Fairstein when she was the National Guest of Honor for the 2018 Florida Writers Conference. Warm and engaging, she has a personal story that is as intriguing as the novels she writes. (Producer Dick Wolf based the character of Assistant District Attorney Alex Cabot in the TV show “Law & Order: SVU” on Linda.) Her latest novel, BLOOD OATH, was just released.
Tell me about your background. Where you grew up, where you live now, education, work experience? Share some interesting things about yourself that we should know about.
I was born and raised in Mt. Vernon, New York – a very middle-class community just outside of New York City. For as long as I can remember, I loved books and libraries, reading stories and trying to write them. I had wonderfully loving parents who were very supportive of my goals. My father used to laugh every time I said that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, saying that I’d better think about a career that would actually allow me to support myself.
I went to Vassar College because of the great English lit program, back in the day when it was a women’s school. By my senior year, I thought my father had a point – I really didn’t have anything to write about!
My other interest was public service (a child of the JKF call to service – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’) and so I thought that law school would give me options to do interesting work. I went straight from college to the University of Virginia School of Law – which led me to my first job in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office – the 7th woman on a staff of 200 lawyers.
I stayed in that job for 30 years, running the country’s pioneering Special Victims’ Unit, and wrote my non-fiction book SEXUAL VIOLENCE and my first five novels in the Alex Cooper series while in that job.
I live in Manhattan most of the year, and have a home on Martha’s Vineyard, where I do a lot of my writing in the summer. My husband and I just bought a home on Gasparilla Island, off the Gulf Coast of Florida, where I have found a glorious new place to write and relax.
Little known facts? I’m still a lawyer. I do a lot of pro bono work representing victims of violence, and consulting on issues of sexual assault. My other childhood dream was to be a ballerina (!) – I took lessons until well into my early adulthood, which is why Coop takes ballet lessons, too. I miss my prosecutorial job every day, and stay close to the lawyers who succeeded me in that work.
What inspired you to write this book? What is the story behind the story?
BLOOD OATH is the 20th book in the Alex Cooper series of crime novels. So many detectives and prosecutors are doing ‘cold case’ work now, solving crimes that happened decades ago that seemed impossible to unravel for so long. This story is the case of one such crime, and I wanted to explore the impact on both the victim and the perp of trying to get some justice so long after the fact. I always draw some of my motives and legal issues from real cases, so the plots are entirely made-up once the issues take hold in my imagination. This is one such story, like the others in the series.
What has been your biggest challenge or obstacle?
I think everyone who writes novels – especially in a series like this – is finding ways to make the characters evolve over time and keeping them fresh. Several books back, Alex Cooper was kidnapped. I thought it was important to have her experience the trauma of the victims she has worked with for so long. In the book that followed, she had to deal with PTSD and see things from that perspective – which affected her relationship with Mike Chapman, and required her to take a leave of absence. Coop is back in top form in BLOOD OATH, and it’s always a challenge to make that happen.
What has been your biggest “aha” moment or success?
The biggest ‘aha’ moment came at the very start of the series. My non-fiction book had been a NYTimes Book of the Year in 1994, but lots of people assumed it was a one-book experience, and that I wouldn’t be able to do fiction. My great friend and literary agent (first of all, a friend!) Esther Newberg encouraged me to try to tell my story about Coop, but not to go too far without showing her pages, just so she could tell me whether to plug ahead or give up. In the early fall of 1995, when I had written 64 pages, I sent them to her, and she gave me some constructive criticism. Just after Christmas of that year, I sent her the edited pages and another 30. Again, it was just for her eyes only! A week later she called me to say that she had decided, without telling me, that the pages were ready to show to editors – so she sent them out to three big publishers. She told me that there was a bidding war for FINAL JEOPARDY, and one of the publishers asked whether I thought I could do two books. I snapped back that I thought I could do ten – that I had always wanted to write a series of crime novels. Esther sold the Alex Cooper series the next day – truly my ‘aha’ moment. I pinch myself when I think that BLOOD OATH is number 20.
What authors do you like to read? What books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I’m a glutton for good books! I love to read other crime novelists, of course. Right now, I’m reading the brand-new Lisa Gardner book. I like Harlan Coben and Lisa Scottoline and Michael Connelly and Andrew Gross and Louise Penny. I love history and biography, too. My next book up is the Andrew Roberts biography, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. I probably write crime novels because I was influenced so strongly by the Nancy Drew books when I was a kid! All good storytellers have influenced my writing.
Do you write every single day? Any writing rituals?
Yes, I try to write something every single day. If I am not moving along in my manuscript, I might be writing an article on some aspect of criminal law or helping a friend edit a piece of work. I think it’s critical for a writer to be living ‘in words’ every day – writing and reading, both of which I love to do.
As far as rituals go, I don’t have many. I am mostly a morning writer. I like to get up, read the newspaper, answer some emails, enjoy a few cups of coffee. Then I like to get right into the work. I stop in the early afternoon for some exercise – swimming or biking or hanging out with friends on a long walk. I never write in the evening – one glass of wine and I’m done with the written page.
What are your interests outside of writing?
I’m happiest when I’m with family and friends, so that’s usually my main focus. I love the company of other writers, and I have a loyal group of former colleagues with whom I stay in regular contact. I have played sports all my life – tennis when I was younger – and competitive swimming. I still love swimming laps and riding my bike (which I get to do every day on Gasparilla – it’s got fabulous bike paths). My husband and I love to travel, so when I take a break from writing, we like to head for some place foreign or familiar – without my laptop.
Share some tips for other Authors or Aspiring Authors: What would you do differently? What would you do the same? Please share anything you think would be beneficial to those reading this.
So many aspiring writers have told me that they procrastinate a lot because they don’t know where they are going with their work. But you can’t write unless you sit down in front of a computer and start in on it. Write! Write something every day – even if it’s just a few paragraphs or lines. You have to enjoy the process or you have chosen the wrong field. It is very solitary and very difficult work, and often slow to show results. It has become harder and harder to get work published, but unless you keep at the writing – and polish your words – you’ll never get to the finish line. And once you do, and you are fortunate enough to be published, it’s a great thrill. Read, read voraciously – because good storytelling is inspirational, and seeing how other writers use the language is hugely helpful. No more procrastinating – get to work!
Renee Garrison is the award-winning author of The Anchor Clankers. To suggest an author interview, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.