Interview with Linda Fairstein
One of the main reasons Linda Fairstein’s novels and characters ring true is that she has indeed written what she knows, bringing to the mystery genre her own experiences as a chief prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where she served for thirty years.
Linda Fairstein’s legal career began in 1972 when she joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. She has had a profound and lasting impact on the way cases are prosecuted, being one of the first prosecutors in the country to begin using DNA evidence in investigating crimes that came before her.
Ms. Fairstein began her fiction writing career in 1994 with the publication of the novel Final Jeopardy which introduced readers to intelligent, dedicated, ballet-loving Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper and NYPD detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, her longtime friends and colleagues. Through the years, Ms. Fairstein has gone on to write several more Alexandra Cooper novels, most of which have hit the bestseller lists.
From Edgar Allan Poe’s home in Entombed (2005) to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Bone Vault (2003), the rich history and landmarks of New York City figure prominently in each of the chilling criminal cases that Alexandra Cooper and her colleagues must investigate.
Her latest novel, Death Dance, was released in January 2006.
AG: Tell us about your new novel, Death Dance. I read it and like it a lot.
LF: Thank you. It’s getting some nice press. I think that’s because so many people—whether in New York or out—can, in a way, relate to the theatre world. My books have become very New York centered. New York is a character in the book. I love exploring a part of the city that is familiar to me but giving it a much darker or more sinister cast. I’ve done that with The Natural History Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Botanical Gardens. The theatre world has always attracted me.
As for the genesis of the book, in 1980 I was a young prosecutor and there was a murder at The Metropolitan Opera which stunned all of us. I had attended a ballet performance there the night before and the next night, Friday, a violinist left the orchestra pit after the second act ended and went backstage because she wanted to meet the guest conductor. When the third act started, she wasn’t in her seat and the woman behind did not inquire about it. She just moved up and stashed the violin under her seat and the orchestra leader played on. And at the end of the evening none of her friends, nobody in the orchestra asked about her.
At two in the morning her husband called the police and they said they really couldn’t take a missing person report until 48 hours had elapsed since the disappearance. They said it was one thing if he had seen her being dragged into a car, but because she was in the opera house they said she must have just walked out of her own volition with a friend. Forty-eight hours later, when they did take it seriously, they did a sweep of the opera house. Her body was found in an air shaft. The killer was a 19-year-old stagehand who was an alcoholic. The girl got lost backstage and he pretended to be taking her where she wanted to go. Once he got her isolated, he attempted to assault her. She resisted and he strangled her to stop her screaming. And what always haunted me is that she was in the middle of the cultural center of New York City with 4,000 patrons, 500 musicians, dancers, actors, and other employees backstage and nobody heard a sound. Nobody heard a struggle. And the show went on, I guess.
I’d gone with the police backstage in the 80s and I discovered that there are entire floors where scenery is stored—Egyptian pyramids and so on. There are rehearsal studios where, of course, everything is soundproofed so when you’re rehearsing your aria, nobody in the next room can hear you. It’s pretty well soundproofed against screams. So I decided to set a story in an opera house, only in my book a dancer is killed, and for entirely different reasons.
AG: That’s interesting that no one in the orchestra asked about her. Maybe it’s the big city attitude. I was in New York for Book Expo at the Javits Center and someone collapsed and they carried the person off. I later asked someone, “Do you know what happened to that poor person?” And he just said, “I don’t know. It’s none of our business.”
LF: I know. It’s very weird how that kind of thing happens. The police did talk to the woman who replaced her that night, but I so desperately wanted to go back and find out what she was thinking—yes I can see the conductor tapping his baton, but when the scene was over did she go down to the locker room? Did she ask what had happened to her? If she had become ill? If she needed help?
AG: I think it’s like that in every big city. It’s just so fast, so busy. When I was in Manhattan, at times I felt as if I couldn’t stand on the curb for any length of time but had to keep moving.
LF: I think that makes it easier to understand. People are just so busy living their own lives.
AG: So when did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
LF: Oh, that was my childhood dream! If you were to go back and look at every one of my yearbooks from early childhood, when they’d ask “What’s your ambition when you grow up?” it was always my ambition to be a writer. I was writing my first mysteries in the fourth or fifth grade—Nancy Drew kind of stories, you know. I majored in English Literature at college and when I used to announce to my family that my goal was to be a writer, my father—who was very loving but also very practical—used to laugh at me and say, “You’ve got nothing to write about. Get a job. Get a career first and then see if the writing comes.” So I’ve always written, but I really didn’t think it was going to be possible.
By the time I’d gotten out of school and had the legal job, I realized how hard it was to break in as a writer, but I never abandoned it. Then in the 1980s I was asked to write a non-fiction book. I had to get the DA’s permission and the permission of the Ethics Board of the City of New York because I was writing about real cases and real people. After I did that, I signed the contract with the publishing company and then one of my biggest cases, a murder case, came up and the book just took the back burner, as it did with every important legal case that came up. So I actually never wrote the book until 1990/91. It was published in ‘93.
After that I realised that I didn’t have to wait until I stopped practicing law to write books. I realised that I could do both at the same time if I disciplined myself. Also, the book was cited as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, which doesn’t do anything in terms of sales, but it really helped when I wanted to take the next step into publishing fiction. It was also featured on the front cover of The New York Times Sunday Book Review, which allowed me to talk to an agent who said, “Try it! You’ve shown that you can write a book. Give me a few hundred pages and we’ll see whether you can tell a story.” So the following summer, of ‘94, I wrote sixty pages of what became Final Jeopardy, my first novel, which I showed to my friend, a literary agent, when I came home in the fall. She critiqued it and gave it back and said, “Do this part over. Do that part over. Tweak this,” so I spent the rest of the vacation revising. My friend began showing it around without telling me, which was really a dream because I didn’t have any of the anxiety. In January of ‘95 she sent it out to someone at Doubleday who was very excited about it. Then my agent sent it to Scribner and there was a bidding war. In January of ‘95, Final Jeopardy was sold on the basis of the 90 pages that I’d written. Then I had a very tough year as I was practising law and scrambling to finish that book by the deadline. It came out in ‘96.
AG: Does the fact that you are a bestselling writer, give you some clout with your publishers to try something different?
LF: Yes. Being bestselling gives you some clout. But right now the publisher and I are both trying to grow the series, and I think one a year in a series is critical. I’d love to do stand-alones, and even to have time for another series, down the road. I have a plan to do a stand-alone some day in another couple of years—maybe something from Mike Chapman’s point of view, too.