Category Archives: writing

Best American Mystery Stories 2009

I am delighted to announce that my short story, Winning, was selected for this year’s anthology of The Best American Mystery Stories. Editor Jeffery Deaver calls the story “clever and moving,” a variation on the police procedural form, which he dubs “a reverse procedural.”

The collection also includes contributions from Michael Connelly, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Bissell, James Lee Burke, Nic Pizzolatto, and David Corbett, among others, all so talented. Featuring “gritty tales told with panache,” Booklist calls this a “must-read for anybody who cares about crime stories.” (Hey, that’s us!)

You can purchase the collection (trade paperback price, about the cost of a movie) here, here, here, or at your local indie.

How the Internet Completed Me

What follows was my first post as a regular blogger for Murderati. After three days of exclusivity on Murderati, I’ll be cross-posting my Murderati posts here as well:

Last week brought the start of law school classes. Today marks my inaugural post as a blogger for Murderati. And last month my sister told me I’m the most confident person she knows. What ties those seemingly unrelated events together is my relationship – at first reluctant and seemingly fleeting, now embraced and habitual – to the Internet.

Google “Alafair Burke.” Go ahead. I do.*

Among the first ten or so entries, I suspect you’ll find the following: My official author website, my faculty biography on the Hofstra Law School website, my HarperCollins author page, a Wikipedia entry, and either my MySpace or Facebook page.

A perusal of those sites would bring a tremendous amount of information about me. Some of it’s pretty basic: where I grew up (Wichita), my folks (James Lee and Pearl), the education background (Reed College, Stanford Law School), my work experience (clerk for the Ninth Circuit, prosecutor, blink-of-an-eye law firm stint, now law professor), the bibliography (five novels, one short story, a bunch of law review articles).

The biographical details also get more personal: the romantic situation (husband: Sean), the dependents (French bulldog: Duffer), even the age that I swore in my twenties I would eventually lie about (39. Really.).

And the personal goes beyond mere biographical facts. There are the photos — not just the posed headshots for the backs of book jackets, but the Facebook scrapbooks: me schlepping my Fodors on my first trip to Italy; me as a living, breathing 1980’s time capsule back in Wichita; me on a boat in a life vest, or perhaps it’s me as a bright yellow Michelin man.

There are also the Facebook wall updates, “tweets,” and author interviews that depict something resembling an actual life. Restaurants frequented. Miles run. Trips taken. Shows watched. Music downloaded. Diets failed.

So what does any of this have to do with the fact that I woke up this morning thinking there was some link between the start of classes, my first post on Murderati, and my sister’s surprising observation about confidence?** Because, prior to my leap onto the World Wide Web, I had more personalities than Sybil on a bender.

Compared to most people, we moved around a lot as kids. Then I went to college in a city and at a school where I knew no one. Same again for law school. I clerked for a liberal judge then went directly to a prosecutor’s office. I went from Birkenstock-infected Portland, Oregon to blue collar Buffalo.*** I spent my days in a law school classroom and my nights (and sometimes early mornings) as a new New Yorker checking out bars I’d seen on Sex and the City.

And somewhere along the line, I got used to adapting. I talked theory with my academic friends. I talked cases with the lawyers. I talked favorite TV shows and the neuroticism it takes to write with my fellow crime writers. I wore frumpy suits in the classroom, fashion-victim wardrobe experiments for SoHo. You get the drift. I unconsciously tailored different parts of my personality to share with the diverse people who made up my daily world.

So imagine my conundrum when the marketing forces of the publishing world pushed me toward an online presence. At first it was just the author website, with the basic biography and a few book tour pictures. Then it was a reader message board, where I slowly found myself responding to my new online friends with personal messages, out there in the virtual world for all to see.

Then, when I published Dead Connection (about a serial killer who finds his victims online), I knew it was time for MySpace and Facebook. I worried. A lot. My peers could see this. My students would read this. OMG, as the young people say.

I began with trepidation, posting initially only about my books. But then writer friends found me, striking up public conversations about not only writing, but also vacation spots, favorite city hang-outs, and dog shenanigans. Then came the long-lost friends from high school with pictures that could have stayed lost longer. There were also the academics, even a couple whose Kingsfield-ian personas are so well honed I never would have imagined they watched Arrested Development or read US Weekly. Suddenly all my audiences were in one place, getting to know the parts of me I had unknowingly kept from them.

I know some writers who have dealt with the online world by creating a separate writer persona. They purport to put themselves out there, but the self that’s out there isn’t really them.

Others have just said no. (I’d list them here, but I can’t find them online.)

But I eventually took the leap. At first it was accidental. An esteemed professor on the west coast messaged me on Facebook about a post I’d written about The Shield. I realized I had lost all control over my professorial image, but, amazingly, nothing happened. They didn’t revoke my faculty ID card. My students didn’t demand a tuition refund. My law review articles still got published. And I was still the same person.

I no longer try to wear different hats for different audiences. I write crime fiction. I write law review articles about prosecutorial power and criminal defenses. I love my husband and dog. I’m fascinated by pop culture. I blog, not just about my books, but whatever I find interesting.

I also hate when authors quote themselves, so I’ll quote fictional prosecutor Samantha Kincaid instead:

“That’s why I’ve always felt so home with Chuck (boyfriend-type-person). He got me. He could take the traits that other people see as so inconsistent and understand that they make me who I am. I eat like a pig, but I run thirty miles a week. I despise criminals, but I call myself a liberal. I’m smart as hell, but I love TV. And I hate the beauty myth, but I also want good hair. To Chuck, it somehow all made sense, so I never felt like I was faking anything.”

I’m almost forty years old. I’m a serious academic (or at least an academic) even though I read Entertainment Weekly. I’m snarky as hell but really am a nice person. And I write some pretty entertaining books despite a fondness for footnotes and big words. I think I’ve earned the right not to fake anything.

So classes started last week. My new students might read this, my first post on Murderati. And I’m all right with that. Because I’m the most confident person my sister says she knows.

But I wasn’t always like this. The Internet made me this way, despite my own instincts. Am I alone in this online transformation? What has your experience been with that vast worldwide web?

I look forward to putting myself even further out there, here on Murderati. In the meantime, hope to see you online, here, here, and/or here.

*Any writer who maintains that he or she does not Google himself or herself should be viewed with great distrust, because good writing requires honesty, and said writer is lying. This particular author is unabashedly honest and therefore admits a propensity for self-googling that is probably diagnosable.

** I still have not fully resolved whether I should construe my sister’s observation as stunning praise or a stinging rebuke. For now, I have opted for the former, giving us both the benefit of the doubt.

*** Long story. Details are findable (of course) on the Internet.

I have joined the Murderati!

I am ecstatic to report that I have joined the talented group of writers blogging collectively at Murderati: Pari Noskin Taichert, Tess Gerritsen, Louise Ure, Robert Gregory Browne, J.D. Rhoades, Brett Battles, Zoe Sharp, J.T. Ellison, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Alexandra Sokoloff, Cornelia Read, Toni McGee Causey, Allison Brennan, and now…moi.

I will be blogging every other Monday at Murderati starting TODAY! So the other Murderati bloggers don’t regret letting me into the club, please check out my first post: How the Internet Completed Me. Hint: My online pals (you!) are mentioned.

The Power of a Presidential Plug

This week the White House released President Obama’s reading list for his family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, and it includes fellow crime writer and friend George Pelecanos‘s “The Way Home,” a fabulous book. The inclusion of a crime novel on the President’s list reminded me of the influence then-President Bill Clinton had on the career of Michael Connelly when he was photographed leaving Washington DC’s MysteryBooks with an advanced copy of Connelly’s Concrete Blonde.

Out of curiosity, and always seeking online procrastination, I checked out The Way Home’s Amazon rank in the hope Pelecanos got a similar bump: #400 after three months in print. Not too shabby. My father’s “Rain Gods” got a nice spike in sales last week after Bill O’Reilly plugged it on his show. My cousin Andre Dubus III got a super-ball-sized bounce when House of Sand and Fog made Oprah’s book club.

Given the power of a president’s or pundit’s plug, why are the backs of novels still filled with blurbs from fellow writers? Should publishers pursue praise from politicians and personalities instead? Sorry, I got carried away with the alliteration there, but I think I’m on to something.

People who aren’t in the business of books might be harder to lock in, and of course there’s no reason to think they know more about novels than respected authors, but if these are the blurbs that will bring books to readers, why aren’t publishers doing more of this? Especially when publishers increasingly share corporate links to the broader news, entertainment, and political worlds?

If you see some unexpected blurbs on the back of my next book, 212, you’ll know I took this little idea and ran with it. Do you think Dick Cheney might like my books?

In the meantime, did I ever tell you about the time Bill Clinton called me about my first novel? The man’s an avid mystery reader and apparently enjoyed Judgment Calls. Now only if I’d taken a picture….
If you enjoyed this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Also, mark your calendars: Monday, August 31, will bring my first post as a blogger for Murderati.

Best One-Star Reviews

Every once in a while, you read a bad review that reveals more about the reviewer than the work being reviewed. Now Johnny Dee of the Guardian has gathered some of those gems from The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper should be mixed with Snoop or 50 Cent. The Graduate is like a Simpsons episode. Citizen Kane needs color.

Read the full list of hilarious one-star reviews here. Send to your favorite author the next time he or she gets a less than glowing review.

In other news, Professor Burke starts teaching Criminal Law next week at Fordham Law School, where I’ll be visiting in the fall before heading back to Hofstra in the spring. I’m also going to start blogging at the end of the month with Murderati. More to come in a week or so.

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Potato, Potahto: What’s in a Title?

With my fifth novel, I joined for the first time the list of authors who have published an identical novel under two different titles. The Ellie Hatcher novel published as Angel’s Tip was published in the UK as City of Fear.

Until then, I had been completely unaware of the double-title phenomenon. I asked my UK editor at Avon why she was suggesting a different title. I thought Angel’s Tip was perfect. In the opening scene of the novel, Indiana college student Chelsea Hart is still getting her party on at a hot Manhattan club when her friends decide it’s time to crash back at the hotel. Chelsea opts to stay out on her own for one last drink. The name of that drink? An Angel’s Tip. The title also alludes to a tip that comes in later to NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher from the father of a previous murder victim. Decent title, right?

Well, little did I know that in the UK, “tip” is sometimes slang for dirt or a mess. Angel Detritus was not what I was after. City of Fear had a nice ring to it, highlighting both the Manhattan setting and the stalking tone of some of the chapters. And the title wasn’t the only change. I had to cut back on a light scene in which Ellie and her partner, JJ Rogan, sing the theme song to The Jeffersons during a stakeout. Apparently George and Weezy weren’t on constant syndication on the other side of the pond.

It turns out I’ve gone and done it again. The next Ellie Hatcher novel will be published as 212 in the United States this spring, but UK readers should look for City of Lies. I know I’m not the only author who’s gone through this. Lee Child had “Running Blind” and “The Visitor.” Karin Slaughter currently has “Undone” and “Genesis.” Nevertheless, I have a hard time wrapping my head around it.

I suppose it’s similar to having a child you call Miguel in Spain and Mike in the US, but do parents really do that? My guess is they don’t, because a name conveys something unique about the thing that it names. The fact that I go by my given name, Alafair, instead of the more convenient Ally, says something about me — nothing concrete, to be sure, but something. It’s because names matter that companies pay market researchers big bucks to come up with brands like Accenture and Apple.

What do you think? How much does the title of the book affect your reading of it? Or the jacket art for that matter, which also varies in different countries? Will readers of “212” and “City of Lies” have identical experiences if the insides of the books are the same, when the outsides are different? Or do the title and the jacket frame the book from the outset, not just physically but psychologically? And what other double-title books are out there?

The Stories Behind the Story

I am writing the author’s note for 212, the next Ellie Hatcher novel, to be published in the spring. Like all of my novels, this one was inspired by several real-life stories. In Angel’s Tip, I wrote an author’s note that specifically identified all of the cases of young women who went missing from luxurious settings that inspired the plot of that novel – Imette St. Guillen, Jennifer Moore, Natalee Holloway. (Unfortunately, that list of similar cases could now include one involving missing woman Laura Garza.)

This time around, with 212, it’s not one type of case, but several news stories — some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t. There’s also a couple of real-world Web sites mentioned in the book that seem too bizarre to be true, which means I couldn’t have made them up.

How much do readers want to know about the stories behind the story? Does the revelation of those ties between life and fiction make the novel richer? Or does it ruin the magic and feel too “ripped from the headlines”?

Thrillerfest Activities

Thrillerfest, the annual conference of International Thriller Writers, was held last week. Aimed primarily at writers, both aspiring to bestsellers, the conference is a great time to catch up with old friends and make new ones.

I wanted to tweet pithy updates from the conference using Twitter, but of course I had no cell phone reception in the enormous Park Hyatt hotel. Instead, I thought I’d share some highlights.

  • Sitting on a panel with fellow writers Hank Phillippi Ryan, Kate White, Julie Kramer, David Hosp, and Jeff Buick, discussing “Is the Job a Requirement: Are Thrillers Better if They Come From Experience?” For those of you who aren’t familiar with Kate White’s work, she is the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and has just signed on with my publisher. Her books are fresh, fun city romps. You might like them.
  • Lee Child giving me a shout-out during his seminar on character development. Lee just read the manuscript of my next book, 212, and used it as an example of a work where the author really let herself infuse every character in the book. Woo-hoo!
  • Meeting my publisher’s sales, marketing, and publicity teams through a Lunch and Learn discussion with fellow authors Steve Martini and Andrew Gross. Both amazing author and great guys to lunch with.
  • Thanking Jeffery Deaver for selecting my short story, Winning, for his forthcoming anthology of Best American Mysteries Stories 2009.
  • Seeing Lee Child and his brother, Andrew Grant, on the same panel. As part of another blood-related duo of writers, it’s fun for me to see how other writers handle the bizarre collisions between family dynamics and the book world.

TV Depictions of Police and Prosecutors

I’m currently working on an essay about television’s changing depiction of police and prosecutors. One point I’d like to make is that the moral lines between the good guys and the bad guys have blurred. Sure, Dragnet had the occasional nnocent suspect or rotten cop, but for the most part, cops were hardworking, played by the rules, and put the public ahead of self. And bad guys were not only guilty, but really bad. Fast-forward 58 years, and you’ve got The Shield’s Vic Mackey killing another cop and The Wire’s D’Angelo Barksdale being a pretty darn likeable gangbanger.

This point alone’s not enough to justify the essay. I’ll have plenty of highbrow commentary about how this change might affect the public’s perception of law enforcement. But, first, I want to make sure I’m being fair about the description of this evolution. What do you think? Are today’s television shows less black and white than they once were (and not just because of the color plasma screens)?

Note: By commenting in response, you grant me permission to borrow your point.

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