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Interview: January 6, 2004

January 6, 2004

Linda Fairstein, a veteran prosecutor specializing in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence, headed the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office for more than two decades. She published her first Alexandra Cooper novel, FINAL JEOPARDY, in 1996. THE KILLS, her sixth novel, is now making its way up the bestseller list.

In this interview with Co-Founder Jesse Kornbluth, Fairstein talks about the development of the plot and characters in THE KILLS, and draws on her own experiences in the courtroom to provide some startling insights into how the criminal justice system operates.

BRC: THE KILLS starts with a present-day custody case and possible rape --- but before long we're concerned with the collecting passion of Egypt's King Farouk more than half a century ago. How did you devise such a diabolically complex plot?

LF: My own reading taste is for complex and complicated plots, neatly woven together. I love this genre for its entertainment, but I also much prefer books from which I learn something. So I like to find a world in which I want to do some research --- the underbelly of our great museums in my last one, THE BONE VAULT --- and this time the fascinating history of Farouk and a slim little object of enormous value. When my husband saw the story of the object in the New York Times  three years back, he pointed it out to me. The writer had referred to it as a Dashiell Hammett-like chronicle. Justin said to me, "Hammett's dead. Let's see what you can do with this mysterious tale."

BRC: The book is sprinkled with observations that seem to come from your own career as a prosecutor. Or are you making these "home truths" up to put defense lawyers off the track? For example: you write that women jurors are tougher on rape victims than men. Is this true?

LF: Although the murders and plot lines in my novels are fictitious, the procedural aspects of Alex Cooper's prosecutorial life are absolutely drawn from my own experience and meant to reflect that pretty accurately. The first hundred pages show Alex in the courtroom with a date rape case. Sadly, the questions the judge asks her (you mean this woman went drinking with the guy and then back to his apartment? what do you think she was looking for?) were pretty typical when I got to the practice of law thirty years ago, and are still kicking around today. And yes, every jury study done confirms that women jurors --- in general --- can be far more critical of the conduct of victims of sexual assault.

BRC: Alex Cooper, your fictional prosecutor, tells her star witness, Paige Vallis, that she must disclose everything to her. But Paige doesn't. Is this typical?

LF: I can't tell you how many times I have stood in my office, about to head up to the courtroom, and a witness has said to me, "There's something else I think you should know." I spent an inordinate amount of time, especially in cases in which the assault had truly occurred, coaxing other details from a reluctant witness. They often minimize facts that they don't think have anything to do with the crime --- like how much they had to drink or whether or not they participated in sexual foreplay before the crime occurred.

Despite their personal views, facts like those are directly relevant to the criminal acts that may have followed. It's not a game --- peoples' lives and liberty are at stake in these trials. I have the distinct feeling that you'll see some of this as the Kobe Bryant case facts emerge. Way too typical, and quite unacceptable to any decent prosecutor.

BRC: Did Farouk really forbid all red cars but his own? Did he really have autographed pictures of Hitler? And as collectors go, what about you --- what do you collect (in addition to great factoids)?

LF: Yes, Farouk was quite a character. Reading contemporaneous accounts and biographies was not only interesting but also fun. He collected red sports cars and had a fleet of them. No other Egyptians were allowed to have them, so when he sped through the countryside the police and army knew it was the king. His 500-room palace was filled with odd collections --- everything from Faberge eggs to American ketchup bottles.

Yes, I do love interesting historical trivia. I collect books --- first editions, especially in the crime and mystery genre, and 19th century British literature, which I studied in college and love to reread. I just bought a Poe manuscript to celebrate when THE KILLS made the Times bestseller list. I also collect antique jewelry, and then there's desk and writing objects … oh well, not enough room in my palace.

BRC: You raise a question in a passage in the novel: coincidence or conspiracy? Alex suggests conspiracies are plot devices --- the stuff of fiction. In "real" life, what do you think?

LF: I'm always slow to buy into a conspiracy theory, so I usually find myself somewhere in between. Major coincidences are always startling to me, and I often look for some mechanism behind them. But I like to have a solid foundation before building the conspiracy plotting on top of it.

BRC: You use your husband's name for a character in the book. And you, like Alex, have a house on Martha's Vineyard. Are there other private jokes? Similarities?

LF: One of the ways I amuse myself in the long process of writing a novel is with the private jokes. My husband, Justin Feldman, has had a cameo in each of the books. He has been most loyal in believing in me and my career transition, and he is my most severe editor, reading my pages critically at the end of every day. In this book he graduates to a speaking role. Like my protagonist, I was sustained through the dark days and nights of my job by the support of great friends and family. So many of them are rewarded with 'good' characters named in their honor … just as some people who have crossed me wind up as the bad guys.

BRC: Alex finds herself in real personal danger. When you were a prosecutor, were you ever a target of someone who you faced in court?

LF: In my thirty-year career as a prosecutor, there were several times that perps crossed the line and threatened me. The NYPD was always quick to respond. Placing the hero or heroine in jeopardy is one of the essential rules of crime fiction, so Alex is in personal danger more often than anyone in real life. Most of us would have hung up our shoes and walked out the door if exposed to physical danger quite so often, but it's part of the willing suspension of disbelief with which readers embrace these novels.

BRC: Alex Cooper has become a compelling continuing character for you. Do you feel her growing and deepening with each book? Do you ever get frustrated and bored with her? Have you ever wanted to write a different kind of book, with different characters?

LF: I'm smiling at your question. Me? Bored with a character who mirrors so many of my own thoughts, passions and interests? This is her sixth caper, and she's still very young and relatively inexperienced. She never bores me, and sometimes she is frustrating because I can't always control her the way I would like to. But I do think that in a series with continuing characters, they have to mature and evolve and respond to their experiences in order to keep them fresh and attractive to the reader.

I do have ideas for several 'stand-alone' novels, and I would love to update my nonfiction book, written in 1993 … so stay tuned.

BRC: What's next?

LF: The next book in the series is called ENTOMBED, and has Cooper and Chapman investigating the murder of a woman found buried in the Greenwich Village house once lived in by the master of this genre, Edgar Allan Poe.