Never Tell: Q&A with Alafair Burke
- August 23, 2012
A conversation with the creator of the Ellie Hatcher series of crime fiction mystery thrillers.
Sixteen-year-old Julia Whitmire appeared to have everything: a famous father, a luxurious Manhattan town house and a coveted spot at the elite Casden prep school. When she is found dead in her bathtub, her parents insist that their daughter would never have taken her own life. But Julia’s enviable world was more complicated than it seemed. The pressure to excel at Casden was enormous, and abuse of prescription drugs ran rampant. A search of Julia’s computer also reveals that she was engaged in a dangerous game of cyber bullying.
NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher is convinced the case is a suicide, but when the Whitmires use their power to force a criminal investigation, Ellie’s resistance causes trouble for her both at work and in her personal life. And when the target of Julia’s harassment continues to receive death threats, Ellie is forced to acknowledge that Julia may have learned the hard way that some secrets should never be told.
Never Tell Q&A with Alafair Burke
You have such an interesting name. Is there a story behind “Alafair” that you wouldn’t mind sharing with our readers?
I was named for my father’s maternal grandmother, Alafair Holland.
I just want to start with how much I enjoyed Never Tell. You have this incredible ability to keep the drama escalating throughout the novel from beginning to end. When did you start writing? Has it gotten easier? Would you say that it is harder to stay interesting within the same genre? And the same character?
I wrote when I was very young, but once I was in college and law school, I focused on a different kind of writing, with lots of footnotes. But I always read a lot of novels, especially crime fiction. It was during my work as a prosecutor that I got an idea for a book. I started in 1999, and my first book came out in 2003. I’m now finishing my ninth novel and can’t really say it’s gotten easier. If anything, my expectations have gone up. At first, I just wanted to finish a book. Now I want every book to be better than the last. But there’s no shortage of material. I’m fascinated by people. I watch them obsessively. I am the nosiest person on the planet because I’m intensely curious about what it’s like to be someone else. And that’s really what writing requires — imagining the lives of other people, often in very stressful situations.
You have experience in police work, as a prosecutor, and you are a professor of criminal law at Hofstra Law School. How did you decide to start writing novels? Was it your experience in law that encouraged that decision? Or something else entirely?
Yes, it was very much my experience at the District Attorney’s Office that brought me to writing. I was reading two or three crime novels a week. At one point, I realized that I spent every day at work in an atmosphere I really didn’t see portrayed in crime fiction. Law enforcement is a separate culture, but every city’s a little different. By the time I left the D.A.’s Office in Portland, I knew the feel and the sound and the voice of that city’s courthouse and police cultures. I knew I had the material for a book. I spent years thinking about a possible story, but it wasn’t until I left the D.A.’s Office and had a summer off to study for the New York Bar Exam that I decided to start writing. It turns out that making stuff up is a lot more fun than studying for a bar exam. By the end of the summer, I passed the New York bar and had about a third of a book finished.
The sequence of events in Never Tell seemed extremely realistic. I could see why each change in the case occurred and how it led to a new conclusion. Were the events in Never Tell based on your own life experiences in the field of law? How did you get the idea?
Sometimes ideas have come from real-life cases. Other times from a character whose voice starts to dominate my imagination. In the case of Never Tell, the idea started with a desire to explore a certain privileged slice of youth culture. As a law professor, I hear stories from my students about the incredible pressures they are under to succeed. At the same time, they’ve often been raised being told that everyone is above average, nothing is ever their fault, and that there’s always a ready fix to every problem. Increasingly, the ready fix comes from prescription drugs. So I knew I wanted the next Ellie Hatcher book to pull her into the world of extremely privileged, overly precocious, underparented New York City prep school students.
I also wanted the book to be about Ellie Hatcher. That sounds like a dumb thing to say since it’s obviously an Ellie Hatcher novel and she’s the lead investigator. But I didn’t want her to be merely the investigator. I wanted the case to pull out a part of her that readers hadn’t seen before. From that came the story of Julia Whitmire, a prep school student whose body is found in the bathtub of her family’s town house. Everyone, including Ellie, assumes it’s a suicide, but Julia’s family won’t accept it. Seeing them struggle to accept their daughter’s death forces Ellie to realize that her judgment may have been clouded by her father’s own mysterious death.
You seem to like creating strong female characters. Who is NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher? Is she you? Or is she based on someone in your life? Is she someone you wish you knew?
I’m sure that parts of her come from my own experiences, but she’s certainly not me. Someone smarter than me once said that she didn’t write strong female characters. She just created realistic women characters, and women are, in fact, strong. Ellie’s not perfect, and that’s part of what makes her seem like a real person. And, ironically, her frailties and her desire to be a more fully realized person are what make her strong.
Never Tell is the fourth book in the Ellie Hatcher series. How has Hatcher grown as a character since you started writing about her? Have there been any major changes?
The challenge of a series is to keep the character familiar but evolving. Any major change is probably inconsistent with a successful long-term character arc because it will be too jarring and therefore seem unrealistic. But I think readers will see an evolution to Ellie across the four current novels. In Never Tell, for example, she questions her objectivity and starts to doubt her own decision making. In past books, if she’s ever been off her game, it has been because she’s so sure she’s the smartest person in the room. This book finds her less confident, but ultimately, I think readers who care about her will see that she’s better off for it in the end. I hope to be writing about Ellie for a long, long time so I’m glad she’s interesting!
Can you see Ellie Hatcher as a senior citizen?
Yes. But she’s not actually aging in real time. Never Tell, for example, was published two years after 212 (the previous book in the series), but two years didn’t pass in Ellie’s world. I guess that means I’ll need to be writing about her when I’m 101 if she’s going to make it into AARP.
Your books have been featured through many media outlets, such as The New York Times, “The Today Show,”The Washington Post and USA Today. Did you ever expect your audience to be so big? How has it felt receiving this much recognition?
I’m incredibly thankful for readers who’ve made it possible to have a writing career that’s about to enter its second decade. I mean it when I say I want to be doing this for the rest of my life. At the same time, I think it’s a big mistake for writers to be too mindful of an audience while writing. All you can do is write the best book you’re able to write at any given point in your life. The minute you start trying to guess what people want to read, I think the work suffers.
What is your favorite part of the writing process? Who is your favorite crime detective? Are you influenced by any other crime writer? If so, who and why?
Honestly, the best part is finishing. I spend every word of every page of a manuscript wondering whether I’ll ever finish, whether it will all come together in the end. The best part is finishing it, reading it from beginning to end and saying, “Wow, I just did that.” My favorite characters are the ones you feel like you’ve known for years. Every book is like a short visit with a friend. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone are probably my best bookshelf “friends.”
Do you have a favorite book? What genre do you like to read?
Oh, my goodness. This is waaaay too hard to answer. But I’ll say that I still love to read The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. That book and Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books are what made me love mysteries as a child.
Lauren Katz is a rising sophomore at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where she is an English and drama double major and a staff writer for the Arts and Entertainment section of the Kenyon Collegian, a student-run newspaper. Lauren is also a theater critic for D.C. Metro Theater Arts, an online publication. This is her first Q&A for the Washington Independent Review of Books.