Alafair Burke is the author of numerous novels that have earned her a reputation for creating strong, believable, and eminently likeable female characters. She is also the daughter of the great crime novelist James Lee Burke. She has a new novel out, If You Were Here. Alafair met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about identity and law.
Tell us about If You Were Here.
The book jacket version: journalist McKenna Jordan is chasing down the latest local media phenom – an unidentified woman who rescues a teenage boy after he falls on the subway tracks. When she manages to find a grainy video of the incident, she’s shocked to see that the mysterious woman looks exactly like her friend, Susan Hauptmann, who disappeared without a trace a decade earlier.
The search for a long lost friend is a familiar plotline in crime fiction, but what made this story special for me is the intermingling of the past with the present. Susan was McKenna’s friend, but she was also a former West Point classmate of McKenna’s husband, Patrick. Digging into the reasons Susan may have disappeared forces McKenna to take an honest look at where she was in her own life ten years ago, where she stood with Patrick, and how well she really knows her own husband. At an even larger level, I think the book is about the way[s our smallest choices have the power to determine not only the paths of our lives, but the lives of others.
As a former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Oregon, and Professor of Law at Hofstra Law School, how has your knowledge of law helped inform your fictions?
I know the flow of a criminal investigation and prosecution at a fairly organic level, and that flow tends to shape the arc of my novels. It helps that I can depict procedures in a believable way without having to do research, of course. But most important, I learned a lot about the culture of law enforcement when I was still in practice. There’s a language and a vibe to a precinct, and when it’s not depicted with authenticity, readers know it.
Revenge is a popular theme in much crime fiction. To what extent do you think revenge is lawless justice and does its appeal lie in the feeling that the law fails many victims of crime?
I’m not a huge fan of raw revenge stories. Maybe I’m old fashioned and still believe that our imperfect justice system is the best system out there. For me, revenge stories only work if the audience truly believes there’s a reason for the hero to work outside of the system. Then you can let those stories rip.
Do you think the best detectives have strong criminal shadows?
I think the best detectives have empathy. Perhaps in some instances, that empathy comes from understanding one’s own dark side, but I don’t believe that’s necessarily the case.
How much do identity and the manipulation of identity play a part in your novels?
I’ve had a few books where identity plays a central role in the plot. Dead Connection, for example, is about a serial killer who uses an internet dating service to locate his victims. Having met my own husband on the Web, I was fascinated by the potential to create fictitious identities and the idea of people falling in love with a wholly fabricated profile. In both NEVER TELL and IF YOU WERE HERE, there are characters who create new identities in a attempt to start over again, raising the question of whether it’s really possible to part from one’s past.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Whatever gets people reading is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. Other people will have to figure out how to make pricing fair, how to have gatekeepers to quality, and the usual concerns. I try to keep my head down and write the books.
Your father, the great crime novelist James Lee Burke, has included you in his novels. How does it feel reading about yourself in his fictions and how has being his daughter influenced you as a writer?
There’s no doubt that having a writer for a father and a librarian for a mother shaped my passions for reading and writing. Our house was filled with books, and every member of our family is a storyteller.
As for Alafair Robicheaux, Alafair is a family name that she and I share, but she’s a separate (and fictional) character.
What are you working on at the moment?
I just finished a new Ellie Hatcher novel, ALL DAY AND A NIGHT.
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger woman?
Drink more water, and don’t wait until you’re thirty years old to get a passport.
Graham Greene famously wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
To describe the ice as only a sliver might actually be too generous. Most of the writers I know have the ability to study other people as if they have entire trays of ice in their veins. But it’s not just detachment that serves a writer well in writing about the human condition. It’s a unique combination of empathy and detachment that really does the trick. One moment, you’re sitting like a stranger on a cloud, looking down at one of the many pawns buzzing around his planet. The next, you’re living inside him, shedding tears. How crazy is that?
Thank you Alafair for an informative and perceptive interview.