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Interview: May 9, 2003

May 9, 2003

In this special interview with's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub, and Wiley Saichek), William Lashner, author of FATAL FLAW, discusses his legal background, his characters' personalities, and his future writing plans.

BRC: Victor Carl's personality has been subtly changing. He was a bit of a smart aleck, if an endearing one, in HOSTILE WITNESS. He seemed to undergo a bit of a transformation by the middle of BITTER TRUTH, becoming a bit more serious by the end of that book. In FATAL FLAW his persona is almost dark, almost brooding. Are you deliberately changing Carl's image, or are you merely dramatically demonstrating different sides of his persona over the course of the three novels?

William Lashner: Victor has absolutely changed through the course of the books, you can't go through what Victor went through in HOSTILE WITNESS without changing. They say adversity doesn't test character so much as reveal it, and I think that's true, but I'm also interested in what happens to the poor sap whose inner character is revealed to himself and he's not so sure he likes what he sees. I think over time Victor has realized, with much disappointment I might add, that he has an internal code of honor that will continually frustrate his ever more desperate lunges for success. I think what is happening in the course of these books is that Victor is slowly learning, by trial and error, the terms of that internal code and the price he will pay for honoring it. In FATAL FLAW, for example, he finds in himself a thirst for justice that he decides to quench in his own terms. It is only later that he realizes that the legal niceties are not just for show and that justice without due process is not really justice at all.

BRC: As discussed in your interview with Lisa Scottoline, Hailey seemed to "haunt" the entire story --- she certainly haunted Victor's and Gus's thoughts. From your first mention of the character until the book's conclusion I could literally feel her presence. Was she a hard character to break away from when you finished the book, or did you keep thinking of her even as you turned in the manuscript and started the next book?

William Lashner: Hailey was really a powerful presence for me through the whole book. It was hard to say good-bye to her, but what was harder was getting deeper and deeper into her sad, twisted psyche. There is a scene at the end of the book when Victor describes the crucial moment when Hailey sets in motion all the brutal events of the book and that was truly painful to write. It showed a different side of Hailey, a pathetic humiliated side, it showed the true cost of all that had been done to her, and I hated writing that.

BRC: Victor Carl's practice, like your own, is based in Philadelphia. Are any of the principals in HOSTILE WITNESS, BITTER TRUTH, or FATAL FLAW based on individuals you encountered during the course of your practice?

William Lashner: I had a really varied legal career and dealt with all kinds of different types of individuals. I tried cases against drug kingpins, prostitutes, wife beaters, addicts, Nazi concentration camp guards, investment bankers with suits that cost more than my car. So yes, all of this does go into my fiction. But I also scour the paper everyday, because the stories never end. The spur for FATAL FLAW, for example, was a case in the newspaper about a guy who killed his wife so he could keep giving money to a stripper he thought he was in love with. The book is very different than that case, of course, but the questions of how far we would go for love, and what the heck love is in the first place, are the very questions of the book.

BRC: The plots of your novels, particularly BITTER TRUTH and FATAL FLAW, have been very complex yet laid out quite well, taking your reader step by step along a well-marked path. Do you outline where your story is going before you begin?

William Lashner: I start with a basic outline, and then outline more in depth as I go forward. At the end of every writing day I sit down and outline the next five chapters or so, and that detailed outline is always changing. But one of the things I do, and it started, actually with BITTER TRUTH so it's interesting that you picked it out, is to spend a lot of time, before I start, working on the back story. I think the key to a strong mystery is a strong back story, with all the twists and turns and motivations tightly in place. Then, while it might seem complicated in the telling, what is really happening is that Victor is simply, step by step, in his own inimitable way, putting together the pieces of that story in a way that is dramatic both for the investigation and for the story of the past. If the back story is rich enough for a novel of its own, then suddenly, instead of one intense story of a lawyer trying to find the truth, you get two intense stories which resonate against each. In BITTER TRUTH there were actually three or four.

BRC: One of the most interesting elements of your novels has been your use of private investigators. Phil Skink in FATAL FLAW and the unforgettable Morris Kapustin in HOSTILE WITNESS and BITTER TRUTH come perilously close to stealing the action from Carl. Have you considered writing a novel centering around either of these gentlemen? Or a book told solely through Beth's point of view? Why or why not?

William Lashner: One of the first things you learn in law school is to never interview a witness without an investigator, so you'll have someone to call to stand if the witness changes his story. That gives me an opportunity to play a bit with the PI conventions of the mystery story. I firmly believe that the American PI character, as created by Hammett and Chandler, is one of the most powerful influences on American and world culture. Morris and Skink are tributes to that influence. The single quality that they both possess is that they are crackerjack at what they do. But both characters, I think, are better off in smaller doses. Beth, on the other hand, could carry a book herself and I am actually planning to write one in the near future from her point of view. She's funnier than Victor, and more idealistic, and yet there is some very dark stuff beneath the surface that would shock her if it was ever revealed. My job as a writer is to find the right story that will do just that.

BRC: Fellow lawyer-turned-novelist D.W. Buffa has said that he had an interest in writing before he became a lawyer. Is this the same for you? When did you know you wanted to write books? Was there any particular impetus that made you change careers from attorney to author? And have there been any attorney/authors who have particularly influenced your writing career?

William Lashner: Writing was absolutely first. Law was a fall back, and I fell back into it after I took a year off to write and just wrote horribly. But I was always changing legal jobs and taking gobs of time between to try to write and was pretty unhappy with the situation. Then, finally, the girl whom I was dating, who is now my wife, told me to quit whining about wanting to write and do something about it. So I did. She thought she was marrying a lawyer, but what she ended up with was an unemployed writer, which served her right for opening her mouth. I think she still regrets it.

BRC: How have your former lawyer colleagues reacted to your legal thrillers?

William Lashner: They envy my freedom, I envy their steady paychecks.

BRC: What advice do you give to readers who may be contemplating a career in law?

William Lashner: My first instinct is to tell them to look into medical school. But the law is a marvelous profession, my father was a lawyer, and when things go seriously wrong it is really only a lawyer who will make them seriously right. I never liked the business part of it so much, which might explain why the law firm of Derringer and Carl is always on the edge of insolvency, but when you have a client whom you care about and a cause worth fighting for there is nothing more worthwhile. It can pay pretty well too.

BRC: On your website you mention a number of writers whose style you admired when you were beginning to write. What writers do you enjoy reading today? Is there a favorite book/story/poem you keep returning to for inspiration or just sheer enjoyment?

William Lashner: I try to read everything I can and there are a tremendous amount of terrific writers working in all genres, too many to name. But I can tell you some of the books that I keep returning to for any number of reasons; THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett (the quintessential detective story and the model for what I try to do); WATERLAND by Graham Swift (an almost perfect novel and another model); BURNING THE DAYS by James Salter (Salter's prose is so pure I dip into it now and then just to inspire), MONEY by Martin Amis (too funny for words); ALL THE KINGS MEN by Robert Penn Warren (his rhythms are astounding), ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac (my fist literary hero and again his rhythms are an important influence); THE POETRY OF EMILY DICKINSON (she never stops amazing, how could she be so modern?); SIN CITY by Frank Miller (a comic book that is noirer than noir --- I have the whole series) and HENRY IV PARTS I AND II by Willy Shake (my favorites of his plays, his first great tragedy --- 'A tragedy?' you say: read them again --- and very much in my mind as I write about Victor Carl).

BRC: Sylvia Plath's work is mentioned frequently in FATAL FLAW. There seems to be a recent resurgence of interest in Plath, and your quotations from several of her works indicates more than a passing familiarity with her. Do you have any thoughts regarding the enduring relevance of her work?

William Lashner: Plath is like the Three Stooges in that her work doesn't cross deeply over the gender divide. I must admit to being more a fan of Curly than of Sylvia, and to finding his art more relevant to my slapstick sort of life than hers. Having said that, you cannot read Plath's poetry without recognizing its awesome power, and it is that power that keeps her work alive. While writing FATAL FLAW I was looking for a window into Hailey Prouix and read something in Plath's language that seemed to fit her. One poem in particular, "Daddy" blew me away, it was as if Plath was absolutely writing about Hailey. The poem itself, and Plath's language, plays an important role in the key section of the book. BRC: On your website you mention unpublished works. Are these stories we will eventually get to see, now that you have published three novels? William Lashner: Let's just say that much unpublished work reached that state by merit, and some of mine is no exception. Others I'm quite fond of and hope someday to see in print.

BRC: What is the most difficult part of writing a novel? The most rewarding?

William Lashner: The hardest part of writing a novel, for me, is getting it going, the first hundred pages where I'm still sort of figuring out the direction of everything. The absolutely most rewarding part is when the book starts coming alive for me, when the world I create and the characters in that world start moving about almost on their own. I know I'm there when I start dreaming about the story. Of course, writing a good line is always a thrill.

BRC: What's next for you, and will it involve Victor Carl?

William Lashner: I'm just finishing up another Victor Carl novel, a story of lust and revenge, of photographs of a naked woman and a suitcase full of money --- just the things to have Victor panting --- but at the story's core is Victor's relationship with his father and a tale his father tells him that had a profound influence on Victor's life.