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Interview: March 16, 2007

March 16, 2007

Michele Martinez, who was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York for eight years, is the author of MOST WANTED, THE FINISHING SCHOOL and the newly published COVER-UP, which feature Melanie Vargas and her exploits as a New York City prosecutor.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Martinez talks about the struggles of trying to portray the events in her books as accurately as possible, based on her own experiences, and discusses the aspects of her former law career that have helped to shape her writing. She also ruminates on the possibility of spin-offs and stand-alone novels, and shares what readers can expect from Melanie in the future. In COVER-UP, your third book, readers encounter a new, more confident and self-assured Assistant United States District Attorney Melanie Vargas. She is out of her marriage and in another relationship, relying less on family and poised to make a professional --- and possibly personal --- jump, even while she is in the midst of investigating the violent murder of television investigative reporter Suzanne Shepard. One of the attractions of your Vargas books has been the way you have slowly but surely tinkered with Vargas's life while keeping certain aspects of it constant and familiar. Do you write general plots, including aspects of Vargas's life, far ahead of time, or do you wait to begin the plotting until you are actually ready to sit down and start writing a new book?

MM: I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about Melanie Vargas. Yes, she's a fictional character, but to me she's more like a real person who lives in an alternate dimension. Her life goes on and unfolds to me almost in real time. I keep track of her relationships, who's getting promoted in her office, even what's happening in the careers and love lives of secondary characters. Much of this stuff never sees the light of day in a published book, but I still know it. So that part comes relatively easily, and does not require outlining or working out plot points. 

The "crime" aspects of the plots are more challenging. When it comes to the twists and turns that we all love to see in crime novels, I need a detailed synopsis in order to start a new book. Once I begin writing, things do change, however. Clues and motivations are revealed and go on to influence events later in the novel, in which case I have to stop and revise my outline.   

BRC: COVER-UP is a thriller/suspense novel, but possesses many elements of a classic whodunit. There is a gruesome murder at the beginning, a number of possible suspects and a trail of clues that keeps the reader, and Vargas, guessing. When you started writing COVER-UP, what was your jump-off point? Did you begin creating characters, or did you begin with the murder?

MM: COVER-UP was, of all my novels, the most difficult to write. I was a prosecutor in real life for many years, and at times I find the conventions of the crime novel frustrating. There's too much distance between the form of the novel and the reality of life in law enforcement. In COVER-UP as originally conceived, I started with both characters and plot, but they were wrong. They would've made for entertaining fiction, but were too far removed from the reality of life on the streets. As I wrote, I realized that I needed to bring the book closer to the truth. So, I revised and revised and revised. I wrote the first 200 pages over three separate times in three completely different versions. Ultimately, what worked was keeping these very fun characters (the dead TV reporter, the sinister plastic surgeon, the gangsta personal trainer) but plugging them into a different plot --- a more realistic and gritty murder investigation.

BRC: On a related note, all of your novels, including COVER-UP, contain elements of romance and lust, though they remain firmly ensconced in the thriller/suspense genre. In fact, you have been heard to describe your work as leaning toward romantic suspense. Did you envision this when you started writing Vargas, or has the nuance of your writing changed as the series has gone on? 

MM: The romance and sex elements have been there from the beginning. I came to writing about a prosecutor from a career as a prosecutor, not from a career as some other kind of writer. My goal was to translate the reality of life on the job to the page. Law enforcement is a pretty sexy environment --- life or death stakes, type-A personalities, long hours at work. There's a lot of cursing and joking around and, frankly, a lot of office romance. As far as the bad guys I knew when I was a prosecutor, sex and money were their two great preoccupations. When I write criminal characters who are driven by sex, I'm just portraying realistic versions of the guys I met in the drug trade. Oh, and I suppose I should mention this --- writing sex scenes is fun!     

BRC: COVER-UP includes two of my favorite literary scenes of recent memory. The first concerns the fund-raising party for Clyde Williams, a councilman who is on Vargas's suspect list for the murder of Suzanne Shepard. The party takes place in the Temple of Dendur Exhibit at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; I particularly enjoyed your description of this exhibit as I hope to see it in July during Thrillerfest. What research was involved in writing that scene? Were you able to take photographs of the exhibit for reference? Did you write the scene in COVER-UP while you were there?

MM: I used to live a few blocks from the Met, and we had a membership. We would take the kids to the museum on rainy weekends, and the Temple of Dendur is one of the best exhibits for restless little boys because there's plenty of space to run around. I've been there a hundred times, so it was in my file when I went looking for a good location to set a big party scene. When it came time to sit down and write, I went back and made some detailed notes to help my memory.  

BRC: The second of my favorite scenes involved the climactic events that took place in LazerMania, a Times Square arcade. This scene, if anything, was more realistic than the Temple of Dendur vignette. Did you research this yourself, or did you have some help from your husband and children?

MM: Again, LazerMania grew out of my life raising kids in New York City. In my sons' school, which was all boys, the ONLY cool place to have your birthday party was this combination arcade/laser tag place near Times Square. The first time I went there, I nearly had a heart attack at seeing my innocent child in such a crazy environment.  The real-life version is exactly like the fictional one --- dark and confusing and full of serious thugs of the type who were probably packing heat. Yet, all these fresh-faced eight-year-olds were running around like madmen, shooting each other with laser guns amidst the chaos. That place called out to be translated into fiction. One time when I was there for a birthday party, I whipped out my little notebook and took some detailed notes. After that, it was just a question of when --- not if --- I would set a scene there. Hence the climax of COVER-UP, which is probably the most over-the-top thing I have ever written. 

BRC: Did you have the title for this book from the start, or did that evolve with your writing? Do you usually know the titles of your books when you start writing them?

MM: Hmm, with COVER-UP I don't remember when I got the title; fairly late in the process, I think. It's common to go through a number of titles before you get to the right one. For example, with the fourth Melanie book, which is called NOTORIOUS, I had the plot for a long time before I had any title. Then I thought of a title I really liked and slapped it on my proposal, only to discover a few months later that it was being used by another author at my publisher for a book coming out before mine.  That happens a lot --- you'll think of something that you love, and find out it's been taken. Titles are hard.  

BRC: You went from private law practice to the federal prosecutor's office and then on to writing. Lay persons often do not know that certain aspects of the practice of law require not only staggering amounts of reading, but also of writing, with all of it involving working under a deadline. What aspect of your law practice, in either the public or the private sector, do you believe has helped you the most with the craft of writing?

MM: Since you're asking about craft, I'd have to say that writing statements of fact for appellate briefs, and writing summations for trials were the two most helpful exercises. Both involved sifting through mountains of facts and presenting them in a way that made them come alive for the reader or listener. And yes, you go through a lot of practice, a lot of revisions, all under crushing deadline pressure. Now, if you were asking about what was most helpful in gathering material, I'd pick something entirely different. The best source of material was sitting down with the bad guys --- debriefing them, preparing them to testify, hearing their stories day after day, thousands of hours of drive-by shootings and packing drugs and dismembering bodies. Wow, it was an education.

BRC: In COVER-UP you give readers good insight into the backroom politics that go on in the prosecutor's office. How much of this was culled from your own career as a prosecutor? 

MM: All of it. Office politics are huge in government offices. There's no money at stake; it's all about power and recognition. I couldn't write about a federal prosecutor without setting her against a backdrop of life in a realistic U.S. Attorney's Office: who's gunning for which promotion, who's poaching their colleague's cases, who has an "in" with a particular judge. It's all very rich and complex and, I think, one of the most interesting aspects to write about. The portrayal of office politics, along with the very vivid New York City setting, are the two main elements that give my series its texture.  

BRC: You've engaged in the practice of law in the public and private sectors; you are an author; and a spouse and parent. Is there one occupation you have longed to work in and never had the opportunity to do?

MM: Great question! Yes, I've always wanted to run for elective office. Probably in order to do that, I'd need to go back and pick up the reins of my legal career first (which always remains a possibility for me).  

BRC: Many writers occasionally hit a roadblock in their work. What do you do to avoid them, or, alternatively, to break through them?

MM: For me, the only answer is more writing, more "butt in chair" time. Usually, if a book isn't jelling, it's because I'm not spending enough time with it. I'm touring too much or too distracted by real life or whatever, and not "in the book" enough to get the traction. Conversely, when I'm living with the book day in and day out, my mind is always sifting and creating and revising. I'm much less likely to run into roadblocks in the first place and --- if I do --- more likely to see the solutions to them.   

BRC: Will we be seeing more of Melanie Vargas? If so, when, and is there anything you can share with us about the next book?

MM: Yes! I'm nearly done with the fourth Melanie Vargas thriller, NOTORIOUS. As the book opens, Melanie is about to go to trial against the most famous rap star on the planet for a drug-related homicide he committed back in the day. It's a tough case, and she's taking a beating in the press because the defendant is hugely popular and has a well-oiled publicity machine. She's standing outside the courthouse conferring with the defense lawyer (a riveting character who has cameo in COVER-UP, and with whom Melanie and I are both smitten) when something shocking happens. Let's just say the book starts with a bang and never lets up.  Melanie's personal life is in a place that readers won't expect either.  

BRC: Do you have any stand-alone novels planned for the future? And do you have any recurring characters that you contemplate having a series of their own?

MM: Yes, I'm planning to write a stand-alone. I'm very pleased with how the first four Melanie novels have turned out, but creatively, I'd like to try my hand at something different. As for spin-off characters --- interesting question, but no. I once considered developing a chick-lit series about Linda Vargas, Melanie's sister, who's a fashion and entertainment reporter on TV and a very flamboyant, sexy Latina. I may still try my hand at that, but at the moment, it's not on the front burner.