Walter Walker, a high-powered attorney writing outstanding legal thrillers, is back after a self-imposed, sorely missed absence of almost twenty years with the publication of CRIME OF PRIVILEGE, rated “a stunning thriller” by GoodReads. His “god-given talent,” recognised by James Lee Burke, is focused on a concern for social justice embodied in American values inculcated by family, church and school.
CRIME OF PRIVILEGE “ is not only a first-class legal thriller, it is an astute examination of our society and how we are corrupted by power and money” –Nelson DeMille.
The nephews of a famous politician rape a woman in Palm Beach. Young George Becket is a silent witness. His reward comes in the form of admission to law school and then a low level prosecutor’s job with the Cape Cod District Attorney.
Years later, the father of a murdered girl approaches a lonely, unfulfilled George Becket. Nobody seems to want to investigate her brutal death. Increasingly certain that the same person who committed the rape is responsible for the murder, George sets off on an investigation that takes him to Idaho, Hawaii, Costa Rica, and France, and that is as much about restoring his own self-worth as it is about finding the killer. As William Landay writes, “a twisting, engrossing, irresistible detective story.”
Walter started writing as a college student, where one of his teachers was Philip Roth. His third manuscript over ten years— the award winning A DIME TO DANCE BY — was the first one published. With his law career at a peak, he can now write again and savor the fruits of talent and perseverance, enjoying life with his wife in their Marin County, California and Cape Cod homes, skiing, traveling, cycling long-distance and whitewater rafting.
Walter Walker graciously allowed himself to be interviewed for The Big Thrill, sharing with readers hitherto unpublished aspects of his personal, professional and creative life.
Let’s start with a brief introduction.
I am a San Francisco trial lawyer, with homes in Marin County, California and on Cape Cod. I started writing in college at the University of Pennsylvania, where one of my teachers was Phillip Roth. I came out to California to go to law school, with an idea of getting into politics, which I did, briefly. While going to law school, I began reading a lot of Hammett-Chandler-Ross McDonald and decided I could “do that.” I wrote a book while I was still in school and through my employer, a well-known Congressman, got a literary agent who insisted I was wonderful and yet was absolutely unable to get my book published. On graduating, I took a job in D.C. and wrote a second book, which also did not get published. By getting him to read my rejection letters, I was able to get a New York agent to read my third novel. He said he did not like it, but really liked the way I wrote. So he told me to write another, which I did. That one was A DIME TO DANCE BY, which he sold to Harper & Row a week after receiving it. Overall, it was ten-year journey from starting to write to getting published.
After training as a lawyer, you started a successful writing career with the publication of A DIME TO DANCE which won the 1983 award for Best First Novel by a California Author. You then put writing on hold for the practice of law, ending up as a finalist for California Trial Attorney of the Year. Now that you’re back to writing, how will this affect your commitment to writing and law?
Actually, I was off and running with the publication of A DIME TO DANCE BY. It had so many good reviews that I received multiple contract offers and had five books published in ten years, with steadily escalating advances. Meanwhile, I was practicing law full time and raising a family. My “time crunch” arose when I opened my own law firm. Instead of that giving me more time to write, it gave me less because the people who worked for me often only worked as hard as I did. It is only because I reached the point of security where I am now in terms of my standing in the legal profession and the team I have working with me that I have been able to return to writing every day.
To what extent do your surroundings influence your creativity?
As a trial lawyer representing people who have been injured or whose family members have been killed, I see people in stress all the time. I learn from interactions. Interestingly, it is often not the very thing on which I am working that gives me inspiration, but something connected with it. For me, the process of fiction writing stems from the question, “What if?” In litigation, “what ifs” abound.
Does your creativity in any way influence your surroundings?
A trial lawyer, a litigator, is a story-teller. I am always looking for ways to tell my stories in the most effective, communicative way, one in which the listeners say, “I get it,” without me having to come right out and tell them what they are supposed to get.
What leads you to plan a book? And do you write to an outline or let the plot and characters guide you?
I have written books a variety of ways. CRIME OF PRIVILEGE came about when I was on the rebound from being told a previous manuscript was not good enough. My wife and I went to Palm Beach to visit a fraternity brother from college and while sulking there I began to develop the germ of an idea: What if the fix was in on a famous rape trial and what if the fix was done in a very subtle way that could never be proven? I started with the idea on April 1 and was done with the book on November 11. In my previous novels, I had success with writing from an outline (RULES OF THE KNIFE FIGHT), writing 500 pages of handwritten notes until a story emerged (A DIME TO DANCE BY), and letting the characters guide me (THE IMMEDIATE PROSPECT OF BEING HANGED). THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY had its inspiration in John Dos Pasos and his U.S.A. Trilogy. I wanted to write a book that was a pastiche of recordings, such as newspaper columns and scorecards.
Where does the strong sense of social justice and redemption that stand out in your writing come from?
My legal specialization is plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, in which I represent the little guy against big insurance companies and big corporations with unlimited funds. The defendants in my cases usually know why something occurred and it is my job to find that out. Our legal system contemplates that by the time we actually get to stand before a jury, the little guy, by dint of hard work, will be on equal footing with the big guy. I find that concept exciting, rewarding, and in keeping with the mores I was taught by my family, in church, and in school.
In what way does the practice of law and creative writing help or hinder each other in the pursuit of social justice?
It is only through litigation and a free press that the powerful can be controlled and forced to do “what is right.” See, for example, the lawsuit that exposed the Ford Pinto and its gas tank that was put in the back of the vehicle and kept there even after Ford’s engineers realized it would cause the car to burst into flame if rear-ended. See the improvements in airline and pharmaceutical safety and compare them with the recent fires at manufacturing plants in Bangladesh and Pakistan, where civil litigation is virtually unknown. Similarly, creative writing exposes things that would never be known, or, equally important, never realized. By putting the public in a character’s place, by making the reader feel what the character feels and understand the reasons the character feels that way, the writer can present perspectives that people simply may not have had the opportunity to consider.
How can literary vigilantism challenge society?
I do not feel I engage in such a thing and I would not want readers to think I am on any sort of vendetta. What I am interested in is exploring the ambiguities of morality. What is “the right thing” to do? Can “the right thing” change with different circumstances? How are “right things” recorded — in other words, there is what actually happened, what each side says happened, and what a jury or a newspaper (etc.) decides happened.
What do you do when you’re neither writing, nor preparing a case, nor slugging it out in a courtroom?
I’m an avid amateur athlete. I played rugby for 25 years, played competitive softball for longer than that, and engage in long-distance cycling and whitewater rafting. I have skied all my life and hope to continue doing so. My wife and I love the beach and love to travel. This year we are going to Southeast Asia in the fall.
Walter Walker is a trial lawyer in San Francisco and the author of five previous novels, including the award-winning A DIME TO DANCE BY. He has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California and lives in Marin County, California, and on Cape Cod.