By Rick Reed
Alafair Burke is the bestselling author of seven previous novels, including the Ellie Hatcher series: 212, ANGEL’S TIP, and DEAD CONNECTION, and the standalone thriller, LONG GONE. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan.
Alafair has created two very strong and believable female protagonists, NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, who are sure to give readers a pleasurable read from beginning to end. She developed and grew these series from her own experience with police and criminal courtrooms while serving as a prosecutor, and it is this real experience that is the recipe for excitement and thrills.
Alafair has been featured by the TODAY SHOW, PEOPLE MAGAZINE, WASHINGTON POST, USA TODAY, THE NEW YORK TIMES, MSNBC, and CHICAGO-SUN TIMES. She is one of the finest young crime writers working today. But don’t just take my word for it. Pick up a copy of NEVER TELL.
Sixteen-year-old Julia Whitmire appeared to have everything: a famous father, a luxurious Manhattan town house, a coveted spot at the elite Casden prep school. When she is found dead in her bathtub, a handwritten suicide note left on her bed, her parents insist that their daughter would never take her own life.
But Julia’s enviable world was more complicated than it seemed. The pressure to excel at Casden was enormous. Abuse of prescription antidepressants and ADHD medication ran rampant among students; an unlabeled bottle of pills in Julia’s purse suggests she had succumbed to the trend. And a search of Julia’s computer reveals that in the days leading up to her death she was engaged in a dangerous game of cyber bullying against an unlikely victim.
“The meticulous plotting, coupled with Ellie’s complicated evolution as a heroine, make this Burke’s strongest work to date.”
—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred, boxed review)
“A smooth, compelling read…this entry in the Ellie Hatcher series sings.”
You have a series based in Manhattan and another based in Portland, Oregon? Do you prefer writing about one location over the other?
I wouldn’t call it a preference, but the choice of setting has instant implications for the rest of the novel. I want location to be a main character. I started writing about New York only after I’d lived here long enough to love it and be able to bring it to the page in an unclenched way. I also saw new plot possibilities in New York. My first three novels (the Samantha Kincaid series) were set in Portland, where there is no such thing as anonymity. The plots of those three books took advantage of that city’s small landscape. When I set a book in New York, in contrast, I can’t have characters just happen to know everyone they bump into on the street. I can, however, tap into that uniquely New York feeling of being completely alone in a crowd.
Do you draw your characters from the experiences you had as a prosecutor? Do you still maintain a connection?
I go to Portland multiple times a year. Even though I haven’t written a Samantha Kincaid novel for a while, I always find little ways to include the Pacific Northwest in my other novels, and I have every intention of getting back to Sam when the time is right. I have tremendous loyalty to the region and it’s very important to me to be able to write about Portland realistically.
I also have incredible contacts in the law enforcement and defense attorney communities in Portland. When I spend time with police, judges, prosecutors, parole officers, and defense attorneys, I go right back to that culture and dialogue that motivated me to write crime fiction in the first place. There’s an insider’s way of viewing the world and talking about crime that the average person doesn’t get to hear. When I’m in Portland, I’m immersed in it.
How important is research to your writing?
I guess I’m lazy, because my books tend to require expertise only when it’s an expertise I already have! Some of the components of my work come very naturally given my background — the rhythm of a criminal investigation, criminal law and procedure, and the way the players in the criminal justice system deal with each other. The research I do tends to be isolated to a given book. LONG GONE, for example, was about Alice Humphey, who lands a dream job at a gallery after a long period of unemployment, only to find out that she’s being set up in a big way. That book required research into the economics of art sales and the psychological toll of unemployment.
To write about Julia Whitmire in NEVER TELL, I learned a lot about the pressures that exist for kids these days, especially at the most elite levels, including the abuse of prescription drugs like Adderall.
You worked as a prosecutor for many years. How much do you draw on your legal experience in your writing?
It helps that I don’t need to do research every time a police officer conducts a search or interviews a witness. But in hindsight, my legal background may have been a crutch in my first couple of books. Part of me was saying, “You’re a lawyer, not a writer.” So to earn some cred in the genre, I may have relied too heavily on legal detail.
The legal aspects of my books are still realistic. If anyone were to ask me, “Why didn’t Ellie get a warrant?” I’d have an answer. But I no longer feel the need to put that answer on the page. My priority is the characters and their stories. The work experience helps me create realistic characters and depict their surroundings, but the legal training itself has become less important.
I love your protagonist, Ellie Hatcher! Is she based on actual person(s), and does she share some of your own characteristics?
The only part of Ellie that I intentionally based on reality is her back story in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up there when the BTK serial killer was eluding police. Like everyone else who lived there in the 1970’s, I thought it was normal to learn to check the phone lines to be sure they weren’t cut, to keep the basement door locked at all times, and to barricade myself in the bathroom with the phone if I ever had to call 911.
When the killer was finally arrested after 30 years, I found myself wanting to write about the case, but not about the actual man. By having Ellie come from Wichita, raised by a cop who spent his career tracking a serial killer who was never caught, I was able to show the impact of one person’s act upon an entire city.
Do you have a writing routine? Without giving your ‘special’ place away, is there a special type of place that you like to work?
I’d like to have more of a routine, but because I am also a full-time law professor, I have to write whenever I have time to write. Some days, I might have fifteen minutes to write a few sentences. Other days, I’ll write all day. I try to write everyday, though, just to keep the flow constant.
I write very well at a place down the street called Otto. It’s a Mario Batali wine bar that has a nice crowd at lunch, but never gets very loud (at least during the day). It also happens to have good pasta, wine, and gelato, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Any hints or tips for upcoming authors?
Turn off the Internet. There’s blocking software called FREEDOM that basically turns your computer into a big typewriter. No email. No Facebook. No so-called research where you hop online to look up the name of some song your character would’ve listened to in 1984, and two hours later, you’re still watching old Duran Duran videos on YouTube.
What does the future hold for Ellie Hatcher? Can we expect more in this series?
I don’t have her entire arc planned, but I won’t think of the series as successful unless she crosses a couple of challenges I have in mind. I’d also love to be writing about her when I’m seventy, but I guess you never know.
You can find out more about Alafair Burke and NEVER TELL at www.alafairburke.com.