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Interview: February 18, 2005

February 18, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Michele Martinez, author of MOST WANTED. Martinez discusses her transition from prosecutor to crime fiction writer, the significance of her protagonist's Hispanic roots, and the challenging and rewarding aspects of writing her first novel. What was your inspiration for MOST WANTED?

Michele Martinez: The opening scene of the book literally came to me in a dream --- I kid you not! It must have been my subconscious helping me out, because it happened at a moment in my life when I was agonizing about whether to quit my job as a prosecutor and stay home with my kids. I was greatly in need of inspiration and a new direction. Normally, like most people, I dream about myself or real people that I know. But in this instance, I had a dream about a fictional character --- a handsome, silver-haired lawyer who was murdered and set on fire because of a secret he was keeping. I woke up and wrote it down, and decided it would make a good opening scene in a novel, and that's how MOST WANTED was born.

BRC: Melanie Vargas, the assistant U.S. attorney who is the primary protagonist in MOST WANTED, struck us as being a true-to-life character. Given your background as a prosecutor, how much of you is in Melanie?

MM: We share many characteristics. Melanie, like me, is half-Puerto Rican, comes from modest roots but has an Ivy League education, loves being a prosecutor but experiences great stress juggling her demanding job with being a mommy. But Melanie is also NOT me. She has her own separate life --- a different office, boss, husband, baby, parents, sibling, apartment, etc., etc., than I have. She also faces much more extreme circumstances than I do. I've gone up against dangerous criminals in the courtroom, but never --- thank God! --- in a burned-out basement with a nine millimeter in my hand. I'm happily married, whereas Melanie's marriage is in deep trouble and may not last, meaning she'll face all the challenges of being a divorced mom. Despite the differences, I still like to think that if I were placed in Melanie's difficult (although stylish) shoes, I'd kick butt the way she does.

BRC: What was the impetus behind your career shift from prosecuting to writing?

MM: I was going through a total career vs. motherhood crisis. I think a lot of career-oriented women experience this when they have kids. I loved being a prosecutor --- loved it passionately --- and never thought I would leave. But when my kids came along, I suddenly found myself pulled in a very different direction. I felt guilty all the time --- not only because I wasn't home with my little ones, but also because I couldn't give my job 110% the way I once had. (This struggle very much plays out in Melanie Vargas's life in MOST WANTED) Writing novels about the career I had loved so much seemed like the perfect solution.

BRC: When did you become interested in writing fiction? Was MOST WANTED the first thing you wrote?

MM: Well, yes, MOST WANTED was the first serious piece of fiction I ever wrote, but that makes it sound a lot easier than it actually was. I've always been a very serious writer. In fact, I originally planned to be a journalist --- I was editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, wrote for my college newspaper and had summer jobs in journalism. But then I got interested in politics and government, and went to law school instead. Law is completely writing-intensive. I wrote constantly. Being a clear and fluent writer was one of my great strengths as a lawyer. Not only did I have tons of practice, but after eight years as a prosecutor, I had the thing every fiction writer truly needs --- material. Then I still had to put in literally years at the computer honing my fiction-writing skills to translate all that great material into a novel that would actually be suspenseful and exciting to read.

BRC: Were you always interested in crime fiction, and did this have any bearing on your decision to become a prosecutor? Or did your career have an influence on the books you liked to read?

MM: I've always been fascinated by crime, and that fascination influenced both what I read and what I chose to do with my career. I read some unforgettable true-crime books when I was a teenager --- IN COLD BLOOD and THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG (Norman Mailer's book about Gary Gilmore) leap to mind --- in addition to tons of crime fiction. But my decision to become a prosecutor was about public service as much as a personal fascination with crime. I wanted to help people and give back to the community. I truly believe that eight years spent locking up major drug kingpins, violent gang members and killers made a difference in the world, and I'm very proud of the good I accomplished in those years.

BRC: One of the more interesting subplots of MOST WANTED concerns the multiple layers of office politics. In your experience, was what you saw in the prosecutor's office better or worse?

MM: I would say the office politics in the book are representative of real life. Office politics happens everywhere, of course, which is probably why readers have responded so strongly to that aspect of the book. But in private corporations, the maneuvering plays out more around issues of salary and money, whereas in law enforcement, that stuff just isn't at issue. Instead, what you see is infighting and turf battles over the big cases, over promotions, and sometimes, unfortunately, over personal animosities and feuds. Law enforcement is full of larger-than-life personalities, and while the vast majority are great team players, they're also very competitive. All of which provides terrific fodder for the novelist.

BRC: You undoubtedly encountered some bad actors during the course of your prosecutorial career. Did any of them inspire Slice in MOST WANTED, or did he spring from a nightmare of your own imagination?

MM: There was a guy who was as bad as Slice. He's doing thirty to life now. Is Slice based on him? No, Slice is a fictional character and different in every way. But doing that case, learning about that particular individual, taught me things that made me able to write a character like Slice.

BRC: What was the most challenging part of writing MOST WANTED? The most rewarding?

MM: The most rewarding parts were the moments when it just jumped into my head fully formed and flowed from my fingertips right onto the page. Lots of scenes in the book started out that way. Paul Simon once said about writing music that it felt like taking dictation --- and that's how I felt when I first "got" many of the scenes in MOST WANTED. The most challenging part, I think, was what I had to do with those moments of joyous inspiration to turn them into a suspenseful and exciting book --- edit, polish, discard, start all over from scratch, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Now that was plain hard work.

BRC: Since you wrote this book envisioning a series did you do anything special to set up the future books?

MM: Oh, definitely. First of all, I gave Melanie an office and a personal life full of colorful characters who can appear again and again in future books. Everyone from her witchy boss Bernadette, to her sassy sister Linda, to the cops and federal agents who solve the crimes alongside her. I know a lot more about these characters than shows up in MOST WANTED. They all have childhoods and families and secrets and dreams that could fill whole books of their own. The other thing I did was to solve the Benson murder at the end of the book but leave plenty of unanswered questions in Melanie's personal life --- the biggest one being what will happen between her and the sexy-as-hell FBI agent Dan O'Reilly (see below).

BRC: Melanie's Hispanic background is something we have not seen in many mysteries or suspense/thrillers. Do you feel there is a void in the genre that needs to be filled? Did you have any concerns about confusing non-Spanish speaking readers by using Spanish dialogue throughout the book?

MM: I agree that there are not enough assimilated, English-speaking Hispanic crime-fighters represented in crime fiction given how many there are in real life, and given the huge population in the U.S. that would love to read about them. Certainly, I have personally missed reading about such characters myself. But having said that, Melanie Vargas is really a universal character who anybody of any ethnic background will identify with. Her life is a classic American story. She comes from modest roots, grew up in a tough neighborhood and witnessed violence as a child, but has worked hard all her life and achieved great things. She brings tremendous personal commitment and something of an outsider's perspective to her work as a prosecutor. As to the Spanish dialogue, it's really just a sprinkling here and there to give a flavor, and I think its meaning can be pretty well understood in context even by people who don't speak the language.

BRC: As you are part-Hispanic did writing your character like this mean something to you personally?

MM: Yes, it meant a great deal to me to show a strong, professional, Latina character who is not a stereotype. I am very excited to report that MOST WANTED will be published in Spanish in the U.S. and Puerto Rico this fall under the title "Se Busca" by the Rayo imprint of HarperCollins, so Melanie will reach Spanish-speaking Americans as well.

BRC: How have your colleagues in the prosecutor's office responded to your new status of novelist?

MM: It varies. The vast majority have been thrilled for me and think it's just the cat's meow. A few have been somewhat cooler --- I'm not sure why. Most people who leave that line of work go off to white-shoe law firms or the bench, so maybe they think writing fiction is (sniff, sniff) unseemly. Or maybe they have an unpublished novel of their own in the desk drawer, and they're envious. Who knows. The one thing that's been universal is rampant curiosity about who the characters are based on. (They're all fictional!)

BRC: Who are your favorite authors? And who has had the most influence upon your work?

MM: Crime fiction today is so rich and varied. I have many favorite authors: Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane for sheer brilliance and gripping suspense; Laura Lippman and S.J. Rozan for craft and consistency, and developing a great heroine over a long series; and Janet Evanovich and Lisa Scottoline for the sheer delight and laugh-out-loud pleasure of reading their books. Authors who've had great influence on my work --- the groundbreaking prosecutors-turned-novelists, of course, Scott Turow and Linda Fairstein, who made it all possible by creating this sub-genre.

BRC: Inquiring minds need to know. What's the future for Dan and Melanie?

MM: The moment Dan and Melanie met, lightning struck. They're made for each other and they both know it. But they're also complicated people with unpredictable lives, and whether they'll end up together for good --- married and having babies together --- is anyone's guess. I can honestly say I don't know the answer to that one. What I can tell you, though, is that Dan is definitely in the next book, and he's hotter than ever.

BRC: What can we expect to see from you in the future?

MM: Lots more books. The second book in the Melanie Vargas series is already written, and I'm working on the third. And I have other characters and ideas in my head as well, some of which could work in the context of Melanie's life, and some of which might need their own books.