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Interview: February 13, 2009

February 13, 2009

Similar to previous installments in the bestselling Alex Cooper series, author Linda Fairstein sets her latest novel, LETHAL LEGACY, in another famous Manhattan landmark, this time giving her readers a behind-the-scenes peek inside the New York Public Library. In this interview with's Maggie Harding, Fairstein discusses what fascinated her about this cultural institution and describes some of the rarities she found amidst her research there. She also explains how she constructs her complex plots, muses on how her former career in the District Attorney's office gave her the discipline she needs as a writer, and reveals what notable locales will appear in the next book in the series. In your books you have given readers an inside look at different notable places in and around New York City. This time, you take them inside the New York Public Library, which is a real treat for bibliophiles. What made you select this as a setting?

Linda Fairstein: LETHAL LEGACY is my 11th book in the Alex Cooper series, and part of my “self-branding” has been my fascination with familiar places in New York City --- museums, art galleries, the smallpox hospital, Governors Island and its military fortresses, the underground water system that keeps the city alive. I love to research and explore them, and layer them into the crime novels, as characters in the stories I tell. I’ve always thought the great New York Public Library is the most important cultural institution in the city. It has a spectacular Beaux Art-landmarked building, guarded by the iconic library lions --- Patience and Fortitude --- and it’s full of incredible treasures, many of which people would kill for. I love the complicated world of collectors and curators, and I’ve been anxious to get behind the scenes for years. When one of my best friends, who is an NYPL trustee, offered me the access, I jumped at the opportunity.

BRC: You are a meticulous researcher, which is something that gives your books so much of their character. When readers pick them up, they feel like they are on a private tour of the location with you as their guide. Can you tell us a bit about how you researched LETHAL LEGACY? How much time did you spend at the library? What were some of the interesting facts and history of that institution that you discovered during your research? Was there anything that surprised you?

LF: My beloved friend made the introduction to David Ferriero, who is truly one of the world’s great librarians. David became my muse, guiding me through the NYPL --- the amazing physical plant, which is a magnificent structure, and has seven underground stories of stacks, and the famed collections themselves. He allowed me to come back, day after day and week after week, while I met with curators in each of the departments. They went into their vaults and came out with things like the last letter Keats wrote to his lover, Fanny, before he died, and the first Gutenberg Bible that was brought to America. The hardest moment for me was to stop researching and sit down to write. I was quite surprised to learn that New York had no public library until this one was created a century ago. I was stunned at the depth and breadth of the collections, just as I was shocked that some wonderfully rare manuscripts live within the library --- and nobody is quite sure where they are. I had no idea that the NYPL had such a stunning collection of rare maps (I simply had to make the head of the map division a character in the book --- she is so wonderful). And then, to learn that when the library opened in 1912, there was an apartment within it for the chief engineer and his family…now all office space…but it gave me some fun ideas for a plot device.

BRC: Readers can assume from your descriptions that you spent considerable time with the rare books in the library. Was there any in particular that gave you pause?

LF: I love books. So there is little I saw that didn’t overwhelm me. I especially liked the multi-volume sets of Descriptions de l’Egypt --- the fabulous series of books created by Napoleon’s troops.

BRC: A priceless map in 12 separate pieces. Is there really such a map or anything like the one in the book? Were you aware of the extraordinary value of old maps before you began your research?

LF: Oh, yes! The one and only Waldseemuller map exists, and the Library of Congress owns it. It was just my fantasy that one more of the 1,000 that were created was hidden away somewhere. Everything I tell my readers about that map and its origin is true. And no, I really enjoy the visual beauty of old maps, but had given very little thought to the history of cartography and the brilliance of the mapmakers who tried to chart the new world without ever leaving home.

BRC: Many will not know about people who endow the libraries and how the collections are established. Since there are so many prominent collectors in New York, did this make it easier or more difficult to develop your characters?

LF: When I created my characters, I simply had to shut my eyes and use my imagination. I have several good friends on the library board and lived in fear that they would never talk to me again. I’m a novelist. As much as I love to draw from kernels of truth and real-life situations, I’m a storyteller, so I go back to the drawing board and create my characters out of whole cloth.

BRC: LETHAL LEGACY has a deliciously complex plot. How do you keep track of the various threads of the story as you write?

LF: I live in my plots for months before I sit down to tell my story. I have an elaborate collection of notebooks --- some are hand notes from my research, and others have plastic sleeves to collect news clippings and stories. Then I have notebooks in which I do my plotting, and meticulously track the clues and red herrings that I lay down. I love complex stories that make the reader work a little harder, and in fairness to the reader, it’s critical for the author (I think) to keep a careful eye on the plot development.

BRC: This latest Alex Cooper novel concerns the investigation of two murders, yet other crimes are uncovered in the process. When you were prosecuting in the New York District Attorney's Office, was it your experience to discover evidence in that way?

LF: One of my pet peeves about crime fiction and movies is that when the “big case” is being investigated, the detective’s desk is always clear and he or she just focuses on one thing. Well, that never happened to me and my colleagues in the DA’s Office! There were yesterday’s cases and tomorrow’s cases, and this one just lands where it does. Sometimes the threads link together, of course, and other times they are completely random. But there’s always a flow of new work.

BRC: Alex's love life runs a nice thread throughout these books, with both her romance with Luc Rouget and the strong chemistry between her and Mike Chapman. For readers they provide an escape from the action and stress that happens within the rest of the story. When you are writing, do these sections come easily and offer you "a break" of sorts as well?

LF: The personal interplay between Alex and her friends is an essential part of her life, as it was mine. I get more mail about the Alex/Mike relationship than anything else in my novels --- I think women really like Mike…and so do the guys who read my books. And Alex needs a love life, doesn’t she? She’s so intense about her work. I do love writing the personal part of her life --- it’s fun for the stories, and it’s a wonderful fantasy for me to live…all these years later.

BRC: There is a welcome absence of profanity in LETHAL LEGACY. What made you choose to write without resorting to much street language?

LF: I have to admit that I was exposed to an awful lot of profanity as a New York City prosecutor handling some of the most violent crimes imaginable. I owe a lot to my first editor, my dear friend Susanne Kirk, who is such a gracious lady and really steered me away from the profane. To be realistic, I think we’d see a lot more in Coop’s world, but that’s how I started.

BRC: As a former Assistant District Attorney, did you find yourself in the field doing investigative work like Alex does? If so, what did you enjoy most about that aspect of your job?

LF: One of the things I pioneered when I took over the Sex Crimes Unit in 1976 was a closer professional relationship with the NYPD. We worked out a plan that the detectives would call us when the assaults occurred, in case they needed help with search warrants or lineups or --- by 1986 --- the groundbreaking forensic work like DNA. I loved being out in the field and Coop is there even more than I was. My mother used to cringe when she’d get to those parts of the book --- “Did you really do that with the cops?” Well, sometimes I did.

BRC: Alex spends much time in restaurants, and the descriptions of the meals are mouthwatering. Do you enjoy cooking, or do you have some favorite haunts that you rely on for sustenence?

LF: I’m like Coop --- I don’t cook at all! I have all my favorite restaurants on my website, under the FAQ section. Alex has to eat somewhere, so why not the places I love? The cool thing is now fans come in from all over the world and leave messages --- and occasionally get a free drink. Check the website.

BRC: How do your plots evolve? Do you know the resolution right from the beginning, or does it sometimes turn out differently than you planned?

LF: I guess it’s the prosecutor in me --- I like to know who the killer is when the crime occurs. I think it’s fair to the reader, again, so that the proper clues find their appropriate places in the story. But as the telling goes on, the plot always takes twists and turns. I just ended my next manuscript in a fabulous Manhattan location I didn’t know existed until two weeks ago.

BRC: You are a very disciplined writer. What can you share with us about that? Since you have begun writing full time, have you altered the writing process for your books?

LF: You ask about discipline. All I can say is that after a prosecutorial job in which I held the lives of many people in my hands --- victims, their families, the accused --- it’s a hell of a lot easier to go into a quiet room and make up a story, using no weapons but my imagination. The hardest part of the writing discipline is that it’s such a solitary way to spend the day. That’s one of the reasons I love my book tours so much.

BRC: Can you cite some authors who have had an influence on your writing? Who do you enjoy reading just for fun?

LF: My adolescent inspirations were Arthur Conan Doyle and Carolyn Keene --- I saw my heroine as a cross between Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes. I’m a voracious reader, never without books. There is so much good work in this genre today --- Crais, Connelly, Coben, Scottoline...I could go on for a long time. I read widely in crime fiction, mostly procedurals and harder-boiled books. I was an English lit major so I always go back to the classics to clear my mind. And I love historical biography.

BRC: Many authors today seem to be promoting certain causes or agendas, even in works of fiction. Are there some thoughts or feelings that you hope readers will glean from your novels other than pure entertainment?

LF: I write to entertain my readers, but I hate books that are just shoot-outs and car chases. So yes, I do like to educate my readers, too. I enjoy using the cutting-edge forensic science techniques that changed my work so radically, and I love exploring New York City’s history.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

LF: I’m just about to turn in the manuscript for Coops’ #12, which you’ll see around this time next year. No title yet --- that’s usually my way. It’s all about political scandals in the city (this was the year for that, don’t you think?) and some of the most magnificent Federal–period architecture in the city, including the mayor’s exquisite home, Gracie Mansion. Coop and Chapman have a major case of human trafficking on their hands. Please stay tuned --- thanks!

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