Much of the joy of reading Burke’s novels is derived from how easy it is to imagine her plots playing out in the Post or the Daily News — from how essentially New York her stories are in texture and tone. Burke is the author of two series, one featuring NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher and the other Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, as well as the co-author of the Under Suspicion series with Mary Higgins Clark. She has also written several stunning stand-alone novels, most recently The Ex, a terrifically gripping and thoroughly modern crime story of love and revenge. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law at Hofstra.
And as long as we’re talking bio, she’d prefer it if people didn’t confuse her with the fictional Alafair who only appears in her father James Lee Burke’s books. But more on that later.
IVY POCHODA: Your books always make me miss New York. You write about an essential, indelible aspect of New York that makes the city seem impervious to so many of its recent changes.
ALAFAIR BURKE: I’m conscious of that. My first three books were set in Portland, Oregon, and I didn’t have to think about the setting because I knew every street in every neighborhood, which was a manageable thing to do given the way people live there and given the size of the city. So I could write about all slices of life in Portland in a very authentic way without having to worry about it. I think the risk with New York is no one knows every nook and cranny. It’s easy to get caught being inauthentic. So I’m pretty careful not to write what I don’t know about the city. At the same time, I want it to feel like the city where I live now. So when Ellie [Hatcher — the protagonist of one of AB’s two series] walks around, she never mentions if there’s an Olive Garden on the corner. And in The Ex, Olivia doesn’t shop at the Designer Shoe Warehouse that’s across the street from me. She goes to very “New York” type places, and when I mention something like a restaurant, it will be a real place.
But in The Ex you did make up something really big — a giant, catastrophic event in New York City. Was that scary?
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say what happens. Everything that takes place in the book takes place for the most part in real-life New York. But in this version of real-life New York, it’s three years after a mass shooting in Penn Station. I wouldn’t say inventing that was scary to do because New York has gone through so many big, catastrophic things that what I was trying to get at is a moment that changes the city.
It felt sadly authentic.
One thing I am aware of is people will find a real event in there. The fictional shooting in the book could be based on any of the real ones.
I was really struck by how well you controlled your material. I’m sure it’s easy to get carried away writing about major catastrophes and the danger is that they will sound overdone.
I focused on the aftermath of one screwed-up kid who walks into Penn Station one morning and how it affected one particular family who lost their wife and mother in the shooting. I saw no point in having the shooting happen in real time. I think I would have a harder time writing it from the perspective of the shooter, for example, or having the violence happen on the page. It’s just kind of mentioned through summary and news stories.
It’s an interesting choice to have the shooting in the background. It seems less opportunistic.
Before the book came out, I was aware that my publicist had written a letter to reviewers that mentioned the mass shooting, and then the college shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, happened. And the main character of The Ex grew up in Roseburg, Oregon, which was just a complete coincidence. So I sent out a panicked email to my publicist and I said can you just hold that galley letter while I can think about how I feel about this because I don’t want it to look like we’re capitalizing on this event. But how long could I ask them to hold it for?
Until there’s no more mass shootings?
Right. Exactly. Until there’s no more mass shootings, which isn’t soon. Am I going to change Roseburg? She doesn’t need to be from Roseburg. I could make her from some other similar type of town. But how do I know it’s not going to be that town next? How do you pick the town that’s not going to be the next town?
Did you feel compelled to write about mass shooting because of your work as a lawyer?
More out of frustration. When you’re writing crime fiction, you’re writing about the toll that violence takes on communities and families.
Do you think there could be a flood of books about mass shootings coming down the pipeline?
I think people are afraid to write about them because it feels sensationalist. And again, if my book were all about a mass shooting, I would be uncomfortable with it. I think it was a way for me to say some things I wanted to say. But it also served my interest in developing the character of Jack. There kind of needs to be a reason that would make a seemingly sane person want to kill somebody or a seemingly good person want to seek revenge. I could see a good person who lost his wife becoming obsessed with the parent of a 15-year old who cultivated this culture of violence in his child and ignored all the warning signs and who washed his hands of the entire thing and said “not my fault.” And that seemed like a way to achieve the plot I needed and to achieve this particular character.
Compared to your Ellie Hatcher and Samantha Kincaid books, your stand-alones seem really personal. The way I see it, Olivia and Jack are like two sides of your personality. A lawyer versus a writer. I kept thinking the entire time I was reading that Alafair is fighting with herself. Was that intentional?
Well, I think every character probably has some little part of yourself that you draw on. Tomorrow is my 10-year anniversary with my husband Sean. And we’ve been together for 12 years total. And after that many years together you actually kind of do start to forget that there was ever anybody else that you cared remotely about. And when you do think about it, it feels like someone else’s memories. So I just started thinking about how odd it was that I’d occasionally see something on Facebook about an ex and be reminded he still exists. He’s still a human being whose life has gone on. And I started thinking about old relationships and the way you can kind of kick yourself about them. Either that you feel like you messed something up or that you were the bad guy or sometimes you paint him as the bad guy. And if I had to guess, rarely do those stories align, and that’s the premise of The Ex.
Did you make Olivia’s ex Jack a writer for any particular reason? I think writing about writers can be dangerous.
Well, he’s a writer accused of murder so it makes him more interesting!
I like how it’s realistic that Jack is not super-successful. Mostly in books you get either failed, drunken authors who can’t sell a book or some kind of ingénue who’s getting a million dollars for a debut.
So Jack is a writer because I happen to know what that life looks like so it’s easy for me to write about it, or more authentic for me to write about it. But it also serves the plot well because writers more and more are pushed to put their public life out there, which is important to the plot. You have to talk about your own life, right? And Jack’s books are sort of based on his own life and so he ends up talking about his own life. And all that information you put out there, people then have it. And so if someone’s going to set him up for murder, how would they do that? They would take all of this personal information that he’s put out there and somehow use it against him.
Which is scary and funny because you and I both use social media a little bit — not as much as some people — but there is that feeling that that could be done. All that information is so readily accessible that I’m sometimes astonished when people don’t know something basic about me.
Well, a lot of people confuse me with Alafair Robicheaux, my dad’s [James Lee Burke’s] fictional character. They think I live in Louisiana. And that I’m 25 years old and I have a pet raccoon!
And that you don’t exist in the real world.
There’s sort of like a mercenary attitude toward lawyers in this book.
Olivia says at the very beginning that people don’t like her.
Is that how you feel people perceive lawyers?
I think particularly female lawyers, yes. Especially when they are as cutthroat as a lot of male litigators and aren’t looking to be people’s mentors and mothers at work. They’re called every name in the book.
Not to mention that Olivia’s sexually confident.
Are you slut shaming my character?
More power to her, right?
Oh, yes. She’s got a beautiful, married boyfriend. Do you ever go back into your books and realize there’s a theme that you didn’t know was there?
I knew going into this one that I wanted to tap into this thing that people will only admit to when they have had a few too many glasses of wine at night — how they’ll sometimes Google an old boyfriend. Five kids? How did that happen?
We all do it. At least every once in a while. Which reminds me, your use of the internet in this book is really interesting.
I like this idea that you’re lurking, that you can spy on someone but you’re not spying because they put whatever out there. You can keep track of people who may have forgotten all about you. I knew I wanted to tap into the idea that as much as Olivia has tried to walk away from her relationship with Jack 20 years ago, she still can’t stop herself from wondering about him all the time. But when the book was done, I was amazed at how much of it was about infidelity — the way people justify it, the reason why it happens, and like, the completely unanticipated tolls that it takes. Who knew that I was so judgmental about cheating? I was surprised at how many of the turns in the book have to do with people who think cheating isn’t going to be a big deal or they come up with some justification for it and then it wreaks havoc on their lives and other lives in ways they didn’t anticipate. I can’t say more than that without spoiling it.
So you named a petty drug dealer after your dog.
I put little Easter eggs in the books, you know, little inside jokes. Usually, they are references to other crime writers. I think in a previous book I had a reference to like a French bulldog wearing a Hawaiian shirt. That was my previous dog. Michael Koryta and I had a bet on an Indiana State basketball game, believe it or not. And the loser had to use a name in their next book. So he actually has a “Double Simpson” in his next book too.
It’s lucky you guys write so much. If I took that sort of bet, I’d be screwed since I write a book every five years.
You would have a list of like, 10,000 character names.
I know you always say the stand-alones are harder. Is that still the case?
In the series books you go into it already knowing your regular cast of characters. And then you supplement, right? So you already have a lot of the character work down. At least for me, my series characters work in law enforcement, which gives you the narrative arc, really, where you know that there’s a detective or a prosecutor working a case that gives you some kind of structure. But there’s so many more choices to be made with a stand-alone. Where the characters are limitless, the canvas is limitless … I can find it a little paralyzing at times.
Are you working on an Ellie Hatcher now?
I’m working on a big Ellie Hatcher book where she has to go back to Kansas where she grew up. We were talking about the difference between the stand-alones and series characters, so this is kind of a blend of both because obviously it’s about Ellie but it takes her out of her job and she’s with her family. And there’s a whole story from her past that I have to deal with.
That will be fun.
It is but it’s interesting because if I’m going to put her in the past with her family, it’s almost like I have to check for continuity and make sure that everything is consistent. I’m sure no one follows her life well enough to notice, but I’m trying to figure out which of the Hardy Boys did she like? I don’t want to have written six years ago that she liked Shaun Cassidy when she really liked Parker Stevenson. That would be tragic.
Ivy Pochoda is the author of the novel Visitation Street. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.