In Conversation With: Linda Fairstein and Jane Stanton Hitchcock
Jane Stanton Hitchcock’s new crime novel—BLUFF—has been on almost every reviewer’s list of most anticipated, best books of this year. Those of us who’ve read each of her novels since she debuted Trick of the Eye in 1992—nominated for Best First Novel for both the Hammett and Edgar Awards—have waited impatiently for this latest suspenseful tale of deceit and revenge, which Hitchcock serves up brilliantly.
I’ve never known anyone like Jane Hitchcock. She’s the best-read person I’ve ever encountered—and can quote lines from Wharton to Tolstoy to Churchill to Balzac at the snap of a finger. She’s dedicated to the craft of writing, turning to a life of crime fiction after creating works for the theater and the big screen—I mean, really, who do you know who has written a play that was staged and directed in London’s West End by Harold Pinter? She’s a glamorous mainstay in a social world most of us only read about in newspapers—dining with lords and ladies, princes and kings, ambassadors—dressed in Chanel and Balenciaga when she isn’t on the treadmill in her sweats.
At some not-too-distant point in time, Hitchcock abandoned ladies’ lunches for the high-stakes poker scene, where she competes in tournaments like the World Series of Poker. She’s married to the fabulous Jim Hoagland, who has won two Pulitzers for his brilliant journalism, and who is devoted to his witty, loving, and wonderful wife.
I met Hitchcock on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1987, when we were both vacationing there. I was a young prosecutor then, longing to write thrillers, and she was the only friend in my pack who believed that I could succeed at changing worlds.
Together, we’ve plotted murders in exquisite detail, exchanged killer ideas, edited each other’s pages, and given book parties—each for the other—more times than I can count. It’s a delight to talk to Hitchcock about her latest triumph.
Welcome back to the bookshelves, Jane! Your readers have been waiting ages for BLUFF. Tell us, please, what brought you to write this heart-pounding story about the murder of Sun Sunderland—the Pope of Finance?
First of all, thank you, dear Linda. You are my heroine, in life and in art. As a prosecutor, you changed laws for women who were victims of sexual violence long before you created your alter ego, Alexandra Cooper, and one of the best crime series about New York. You’ve been my go-to gal for “technical advice” in procedure as well as being one of my closest and dearest friends. And you, better than anyone, know the impetus for this novel because you lived so much of it with me.
As you and watchers of American Greed know, my mother, the first Lois Lane on radio and a celebrated actress, was swindled out of $40 million by her accountant. I’ve spent the past 10 years trying to deal with it in two ways: Trying to make sense of it by writing about it, and trying to forget about it by playing poker. The two pursuits became inextricably entwined in my mind. I wanted to tell my family’s story without sounding self-pitying. That’s when the idea of framing my family’s tragedy into a poker hand dawned.
It’s taken 19 drafts to get to this final version. With each draft I discovered more and more what my dear stepfather always used to say: “Anything you can buy with money is cheap.” I knew I had to write this story as a fun, twisty mystery rather than an autobiography. I wound up mixing murder, revenge, and humor to tell my story using poker as the framework. And, Linda, just as I am “Joan Stafford,” a continuing character in your wonderful books, you are “Lydia Fairley,” whom I describe as “Clarence Darrow in couture” in BLUFF—an homage to our friendship and to your career.
You’ve lived in the world you write about, and you know all the players really well. This book, like some of your others, exposes human nature from an insider’s viewpoint that few of us have experienced. What are some of the surprises in store for your readers?
I think the first surprise is that the heroine of BLUFF is an older woman who commits an unbelievably brazen crime in the very first scene and appears to get away with it. As Maud says: “Older women are invisible and we don’t even have to disappear.” She is a wily poker player who has used her “Old Bat” image at the table to her great advantage, then applies that principle to murder.
Given today’s climate, it’s no surprise that money corrupts. And absolute money corrupts absolutely. My “usual suspects” have always dwelled in the hallowed precincts of privilege in New York society where there is untold chicanery. In BLUFF, these people fail my heroine miserably. She is forced to rely on her dicier poker buddies—who turn out to be more stand-up guys than the society folk she’s known all her life.
Readers—especially mystery buffs—are the hardest people to fool. They can spot whodunit on page 5. So I really tried hard to craft a twisty, engaging story with characters people can believe in and identify with, so these clever readers will follow them—but not necessarily to the place where the reader thinks they are going.
I love a book where surprise meets inevitability. It’s my dream if the reader says, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming. But now it all makes sense.”
You and I have had another great friend—Barbara Peters—and like many International Thriller Writer (ITW) members, have enjoyed Barbara’s hospitality at the great bookshop, The Poisoned Pen. Barbara was one of the hosts of ITW’s first thriller conferences in Scottsdale, back in 2004. What role did she play in getting BLUFF to publication?
Well, to be brief: She published it when everyone else turned it down. She is amazing. She believed in me when others didn’t. I am forever in her debt.
You know more about great literature than any person I know, from classics to modern. Nothing makes me happier than the fact that you apply your style and your sharp wit to our genre—with a backlist that every ITW member should know. Mortal Friends, One Dangerous Lady, Social Crimes, The Witches’ Hammer, and Trick of the Eye—quite a stunning body of work. What brought you to write in our genre—crime fiction?
I didn’t know I was a mystery writer until Trick of the Eye was nominated for both the Edgar Award and the Hammett Prize as the Best First Novel of the Year. Then it dawned on me that I love to write about murder. And the people who love reading about murder seemed to understand me. Mystery fans are loyal and discerning. I’m honored to be in their fold.
I must also say that I’m in awe that you have written 20 wonderful books which are not only rich in character but which, taken as a group, tell the history of the great institutions and hidden landmarks of New York City. I can’t wait to read BLOOD OATH. I just hope my character, Joan Stafford, makes an appearance as usual. If you wrote me out, our friendship is over.
Well, maybe not…
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