Linda Fairstein (EXCERPTS)
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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
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
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
Her latest novel,
was released in January 2006.
AG: Tell us
about your new novel, Death Dance.
I read it and like it a lot.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
I think that makes it easier to understand.
People are just so busy living their own lives.
So when did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
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
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.
Does the fact that you are a bestselling writer, give you some clout with
your publishers to try something different?
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.
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