It's in the blood

When your dad is ac­claimed crime fic­tion writer James Lee Burke, you can’t help but end up writ­ing bril­liant crime fic­tion too.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By CON­NIE OGLE

WHEN she was in Pri­mary Three, Alafair Burke’s par­ents moved the fam­ily from coastal South Florida to land­locked Wi­chita, Kansas. The move was for­tu­itous, but young Alafair was more than a lit­tle scep­ti­cal.

“They took me from Florida kick­ing and scream­ing,” re­calls the au­thor, the daugh­ter of a school li­brar­ian and best­selling crime writer James Lee Burke, who was teach­ing at Mi­ami Dade Col­lege at the time.

“Par­ent­ing was dif­fer­ent back then. Kids didn’t have a say. They’d move us in the middle of the school year. They didn’t bother to tell me we were mov­ing to Kansas – it was my brother who showed me where Kansas was on a map. I was like: ‘ Where’s the wa­ter?’ It seemed im­pos­si­ble to me. I was cry­ing when we drove away be­cause I would never get to meet and marry Andy Gibb.”

The idea was that Wi­chita was a safer place to grow up. But quickly the Burkes learned of the ex­is­tence of the city’s BTK killer – short for “Bind, Tor­ture, Kill” – and soon Burke was be­ing schooled in safety mea­sures, like all the kids in her new neigh­bour­hood.

“We hadn’t un­packed the mov­ing boxes when TV re­ports that there’s a se­rial killer on the loose,” says Burke, who’s now a pro­fes­sor of law at Hof­s­tra Law School in New York.

But Burke cred­its her child­hood in­ter­est in that ter­ri­ble case for a ca­reer path that led her to Stan­ford Law School, a job as a deputy district at­tor­ney in Port­land, and even­tu­ally to write 13 crime nov­els, two with best­selling writer Mary Hig­gins Clark.

With two se­ries un­der her belt – one in­volv­ing NYC de­tec­tive El­lie Hatcher, the other star­ring Port­land deputy district at­tor­ney Sa­man­tha Kin­caid – Burke has also writ­ten three stand- alone nov­els, in­clud­ing her lat­est, The Ex ( Harper). In The Ex ( re­viewed, right), crim­i­nal de­fence at­tor­ney Olivia Ran­dall finds her­self drawn into a mur­der in­volv­ing her ex- boyfriend Jack, a nov­el­ist ac­cused of killing the father of a teenage spree shooter whose at­tack on Penn Sta­tion killed Jack’s wife.

Olivia is re­luc­tant to in­volve her­self with Jack again – her bad be­hav­iour de­stroyed their re­la­tion­ship years ago – but she knows he couldn’t pos­si­bly have mur­dered any­one.

So she takes the case, al­though a smart pros­e­cu­tor warns her Jack is guilty and that she’s blinded by old feel­ings.

Burke – 46 and hap­pily mar­ried – be­lieves the idea of the one who got away is uni­ver­sal.

“Any­one who has ever Googled an ex un­der­stands that feel­ing,” Burke says. “You don’t want them back. It’s just this cu­rios­ity that, wow, that per­son is still out there but now a stranger to me. It’s like the Adele song Hello.”

You say the BTK killer piqued your in­ter­est in crime – is that why you chose to write about it?

When I was old enough to re­ally be think­ing about the fu­ture, it was fur­thest thing from my mind be­cause my dad was so good at it. Some peo­ple want to pick up their par­ents’ trade. I went in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion and went to law school.

Law school brought me to this. I be­came a pros­e­cu­tor – not what I thought I’d wind up do­ing – and mean­while I was read­ing crime fic­tion.

I was one of those lawyers think­ing, “Some day I’m go­ing to write a book.” When I was read­ing and a pros­e­cu­tor would show up on the page, I’d think, “That’s not what my job is!” un­less I was read­ing Linda Fairstein.

I thought I lived in a world that would be in­ter­est­ing to see fic­tion­alised. But I re­ally just thought I’d write one book and be a law pro­fes­sor and have the book on my shelf and say, “See? I wrote a book!”

How has the crime fic­tion land­scape changed since you first started writ­ing?

I think that there is an in­creased re­spect both for women writ­ers and for crime fic­tion about women. I guess I would dis­tin­guish be­tween the two – there’s a lot of over­lap.

Ini­tially when I would show up at crime fic­tion con­fer­ences, I would be put on the cozy pan­els. The only thing the writ­ers would have in com­mon is that we’d be women.

There’d be one cozy writer and three other women, one writ­ing po­lice pro­ce­du­rals, an­other writ­ing le­gal thrillers, one writ­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­pense. ... That has changed.

I also think hav­ing a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, that used to mean an as­sump­tion of a cer­tain kind of dainty book. Those stereo­types are end­ing ... there are so many women writ­ing such di­verse crime fic­tion.

An­other change is that crime fic­tion has be­come more sprawl­ing ... more am­bi­tious. The cam­pus has got­ten a lot big­ger.

Why are read­ers so drawn to crime fic­tion?

Crime fic­tion gets ghet­toized, but good crime fic­tion does ev­ery­thing lit­er­ary fic­tion does. It’s got mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, a sense of place – and things hap­pen!

Peo­ple like crime fic­tion be­cause it’s al­most like be­ing on a roller coaster. In the middle of the book, ev­ery­thing feels chaotic, the pieces aren’t com­ing to­gether. But then you un­der­stand how X con­nects to Y, and the roller coaster stops, and you ease back into the sta­tion. You get past the un­com­fort­able middle, and you feel ev­ery­thing is right.

You’ve writ­ten two books with Mary Hig­gins Clark. What’s col­lab­o­rat­ing on a novel like?

It’s re­ally fun. More peo­ple should do it! If one pretty good sto­ry­teller like me sits down with a re­ally, re­ally good sto­ry­teller like her, it’s amaz­ing how much we can get done in a day.

We’ll write very lit­tle at first. We’ll talk through char­ac­ter, story, plot and set­ting, all the things that make a good book good. We get more done in one day than I get done by my­self in a month. When you’re by your­self, when you hit a wall, you think, “I’ve got enough for to­day; I’ll think about this prob­lem to­mor­row.” But if you have some­one else to work with, she can say: “Here’s how you can fix it,” and I can pick back the thread.

You hear about the writ­ing rooms for TV shows – we have our own writ­ing room. I think we’re both en­joy­ing it. – Mi­ami Her­ald/ Tribune News Ser­vice

a ily busi ess Burke didn’t plan on fol­low­ing in her fa­mous father’s foot­steps but it seems in­evitable that this law pro­fes­sor is now also a crime fic­tion writer. — alafair­burke. com

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