Linda Fairstein: “There is no more important element than literacy in building strong communities”
By Keith Raffel
Sherlock Holmes said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I’ve followed the master’s advice and concluded that-improbable as it may sound-Linda Fairstein has cloned herself. How else could the 2010 International Thriller Writers Silver Bullet Winner have accomplished so much?
Hell Gate, her latest novel, is the twelfth in the series featuring Alex Cooper, head of the Manhattan DA’s Sex Prosecution Crimes Unit. And these books are not just run of the mill. The Daily Beast made Hell Gate “a hot read” and called it “superb, intense, gripping” and “frighteningly realistic.” As is customary for a Fairstein thriller, Hell Gate zoomed on to The New York Times bestseller list when it came out in March.
As if writing a bestselling series weren’t enough, Linda boasts an impressive and groundbreaking career as a prosecutor for the people of New York. She founded the country’s first “special victims unit” and then headed it for 25 years. In that role she served as lead attorney and directed prosecution for all major crimes involving sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse in Manhattan. Perhaps her most famous case was the “Preppie Murder” of 1988 where she prosecuted Robert Chambers for homicide.
But of course, the Silver Bullet is an award given for community service, and Linda is an exemplar in that area, too, having spent countless hours advocating for female victims and literacy programs. Linda serves on the board of Safe Horizon, the country’s largest victim advocacy organization and is heavily involved in the national organization Literacy Partners. For fifteen years she has spearheaded an annual event called “In Her Own Words,” which uses literacy efforts and authors to raise money. She herself has been responsible for raising more than a million dollars. She’s also on the board of God’s Love We Deliver, a charity that feeds terminally New Yorkers primarily though an event called “Authors in Kind” which has raised additional millions.
To further support literacy along with her lifelong love of libraries, she involves herself in fundraising efforts and events for the New York Public Library-the setting for her book Lethal Legacy-and the Chilmark Public Library on Martha’s Vineyard.
While juggling all this, Linda manages to move, along with her husband, between residences on Martha’s Vineyard and in Manhattan. What with all the moving and her list of literary, prosecutorial, and charitable accomplishments, who could blame her for being a crabby misanthrope? Yet, evidence indicates she’s charming, friendly, and supportive. (Or at least one of her clones is.)
Several years ago when Josh Getzler was returning to publishing as a New York literary agent, his wife and mother-in-law gave him a lunch with Linda they’d won at (where else?) a charity auction. Josh recalls, “Linda was so charming, witty, and encouraging that I left the restaurant and told my wife it had been a lovely 12 years, but I was leaving her for Linda Fairstein.”
Past Silver Bullet Award winner, the bestselling author David Baldacci, perhaps said it best: “Linda Fairstein is the whole package, a terrific writer, a public servant who kept people safe from real predators, and a woman with a huge heart who gives so much back. I’m honored she considers me a friend.”
When I got the chance to discuss all this with Linda, the first question I asked was just how this cloning business worked.
KR: In researching one of your thrillers did you learn something about cloning you’ve taken advantage of? You’re writing bestsellers, you live in both New York City and Martha’s Vineyard , and you’re working for charities like Literacy Partners, Safe Horizon, and God’s Love We Deliver. There must be at least two of you, right? How do you do it all?
LF: I’m looking for an expert in cloning . . . I think I’m running out of speed! Of course, most of us who write start out with the “day job,” so we’re used to focusing and getting a lot of work done. For me, the prosecutorial job always came first-people’s lives were at stake-and it was really 24/7 work, since so many of the calls (and most vicious crimes) came at night. As much as I love to write–and I really do–it has none of the emotionally difficulty of making life-and-death decisions that my partners in true crime and I made every day of the week. The charitable work was a natural outgrowth of public service-when I started in the DA’s Office, there were no victim advocacy groups, and my three favorite letters of the alphabet-DNA-hadn’t been sequenced for forensic use. My work on non-profit boards-Safe Horizon, God’s Love We Deliver, the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, and the Police Athletic League-is enormously satisfying as a way to contribute to the communities so intimately connected with my legal work. As my husband is fond of saying, I do it all on “his” time.
KR: Enough about any suspected use of biological breakthroughs to handle your workload. Let me say congratulations on winning the Silver Bullet Award. What does it mean to you?
LF: What an honor (and thrill, truly) to be awarded ITW’s Silver Bullet. I love the organization, read widely in the genre, and have had a life-long devotion to public service. There is no more important element than literacy in building strong communities and giving individuals-children and adults–everything they need to change their circumstances and elevate their spirits. I’m a great fan of those writers who came before me-Sandra Brown, David Baldacci, Brad Meltzer-and grateful to all who have recognized me for this tremendous award.
KR: What causes really get your heart pounding?
LF: As a young prosecutor, I was handed the assignment of running the country’s first ‘special victims unit’ in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office-at a time when there were no services for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, or child abuse. My colleagues and I forged a new system by drafting legislation to throw out archaic laws, and by pioneering innovative techniques to help victims triumph in the courtrooms. Advocacy for victims of violence has been my primary passion, and I learned early on that it is thoroughly intertwined with my other childhood passion-a love for books and libraries and literature. Only by giving women and children the tools they needed to become independent adults-the ability to read and learn and be educated-could we move them from crisis to confidence.
KR: So when you were with the Manhattan DA’s office, your job was to prosecute sex offenders. That’s your hero Alex Cooper’s job, too. Why did the two of you end up there? How much of the job is to support the victims?
LF: I had a much rougher time getting to my post in the Manhattan DA’s office than did Alex Cooper. I graduated from law school at the University of Virginia in 1972. There were 200 lawyers on staff, and seven were women. Like many jobs at that time, criminal trial work was considered unsuitable for ladies-and the legendary district attorney Frank Hogan told me that the work was too tawdry for a woman of my educational background. Only after his death two years later did I work my way into a courtroom, and was then given the assignment of the special victims unit. I can give you countless stories about that ancient history-most of them in my non-fiction book, Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape-but Coop is too young for all that baggage. That prosecutorial work is all about doing justice. Alex first has to make the decision that the crime occurred and the right person is charged before she presses to trial. Once certain, then supporting the victim is as important as getting a conviction. Our unit was the first of its kind, so we taught ourselves everything about how to do this better, aided by the incredibly smart men and women of the NYPD and the brilliant advances in forensic science.
KR: Beyond giving them a “gripping yarn,” are you trying to get a message across to readers in your Alex Cooper thrillers? Can fiction help repair the world?
LF: There’s no question that great fiction is uplifting and thought-provoking and able to provide solace or give me someone else’s misery in which to wallow when I’m down. Yes, my novels are meant to entertain, but also to gently educate. There are very few thrillers I don’t enjoy, but I’m not so much a devotee of the car chase and the endless shoot-out. I like a great entertainment, but prefer those from which I come away a little smarter. The books I write are meant to give the reader both pleasure and something more to take with them. That’s the plan.
KR: Most authors are heads down, trying to balance a day job and getting out their next book. Do you have any recommendations on what they can do to help others?
LF: I can’t imagine life without a charitable involvement, and for those of us who write, literacy is such a natural. We’ve all got a local library-whether it’s a stunning research facility like the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue or my local little Chilmark Public Library. For me, that’s where my love for reading began. When we ran out of books at home, my mother would take me every other Friday to the library to pick out five new ones to take home and devour. As writers, it’s our libraries that buy more copies of our books at the outset than most retailers will sell. So in terms of advancing literacy, libraries are a great place to start. With all my other causes, I have set up ‘book and author’ events that encourage literacy, raise money for the charity, and let me bring in scores of thrilling friends to fill the tables. Helping others takes very little time, gets us out of ourselves, and does a world of good, no matter how small the venue or cause.
KR: Your latest, Hell Gate, is just out, right? How’s that going?
LF: I’m just about finished with the Hell Gate tour, and I’m delighted. I’m one of those writers who likes the tour-the writing is so solitary and I really enjoy being in bookstores and libraries, and learning from readers what they like and who they are reading. For me, it was a great success. The book debuted on the NYT list at No. 9, and nationally at BN at No. 7 . . . and I saw scores of friends around the country. Dutton, my new home, has been wonderfully supportive, which makes going on the road a lot easier. Now I’ve got a load of literacy luncheons for non-profits all spring, which are great fun and keep the book going, too. And what to do about all those vampires out there, before next year’s tour???
Linda Fairstein’s website: www.lindafairstein.com
THE BOOKS IN LINDA FAIRSTEIN’S ALEX COOPER SERIES
Hell Gate (2010)
Lethal Legacy (2009)
Killer Heat (2008)
Bad Blood (2007)
Death Dance (2006)
The Kills (2004)
The Bone Vault (2003)
The Deadhouse (2001)
Cold Hit (1999)
Likely to Die (1997)
Final Jeopardy (1996)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ITW member Keith Raffel held a top-secret clearance to watch over CIA activities and founded an award-winning Internet software company. Steve Berry said Keith’s latest book, Smasher: A Silicon Valley Thriller, “skillfully carries the reader triumphantly from one climax to the next.” More about Keith at www.keithraffel.com
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