When Barbara Peters, owner of The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, introduced Alafair Burke to the audience, she said they had both graduated from Stanford. They went on to mention other authors who went to Stanford - Michele Martinez, Diane Mott Davidson, Tess Gerritsen, Twist Phelan, and
Yxta Maya Murray. Barbara said when she was in school, Wallace Stegner was their famous graduate, and they used to say John Steinbeck failed Freshman English there.
She went on to say that Alafair lives in New York now, and teaches at Hofstra Law School. Burke said she recognized some of us in the audience, so, since last year she has a new haircut, and she wore pants this time because she had on a short mini-dress last year, and the high stool made that uncomfortable.
Burke is on tour for her latest crime novel, Angel's Tip, the second book to feature NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher. She switched series, from the Samantha Kincaid series to the Ellie Hatcher series because she had a plot idea. She met her husband on an online dating service. They've known each other for five years now, and, they've discussed how they met. They can't come up with any chain that would have brought them together, other than online dating. They have no links. She said she can come up with six degrees with Kevin Bacon, but not with her husband. That plot didn't work for Samantha Kincaid, but it was the perfect plot for New York. And, she wanted to switch to a police procedural. This idea became Dead Connection. It was meant to be a standalone, but after writing it, Alafair knew that she wanted to keep seeing Ellie. She said it must come from the equal treatment of kids ideas from her parents. Samantha had three books. Now Ellie will have three.
Angel's Tip is the second book. It's a story that could only be set in Manhattan, where there are fancy clubs designed to make you feel special. They pay B-List celebrities to hang out so that people feel important. Alafair said there was a real life case in Manhattan involving a girl named Imette St. Guillen. Her friends went home; she stayed for one more drink at a club, and she was killed by the bouncer. It was a heinous case. She said she could have seen herself doing that ten years earlier. She would have been the one saying I'm fine, and I'm going to stay and have one more drink. The young feel invulnerable. That makes you feel safe. In Angel's Tip, Ellie catches the case of a young woman who stayed at the club after her friends left, and was murdered. Then it gets more complicated. There are connections to cold cases.
Barbara asked Alafair if she liked writing about the risk factor. Angel's Tip features girls from the Midwest on spring break. Burke said she writes about the trendy parts of New York. Manhattan is now famous for being safe and wholesome. She wants to convey a sense of danger by setting the books where people are letting their guards down. Angel's Tip combines alcohol and very young women surrounded by glitz and a luxurious fantasy.
Alafair was asked if all of the victims would be women. She said she does have a dead man in the next book. But, most serial killers tend to be male, and its a sexual crime. Barbara mentioned Chelsea Cain's books featuring a female serial killer, Heartsick, and then Sweetheart. She said the first one is violent, and the other isn't quite as violent.
Burke said she likes the continuing character because she has so much to say about Ellie. She doesn't know what she'll do after the third book, another one about Samantha, or another one with Ellie.
It brought laughter when she was asked about collaborating with her father, James Lee Burke. Her answer was an explosive, "No!" She said that brings flashbacks of him trying to teach her to drive. Her brother ended up doing it. Burke said she's never been collaborative, even as a lawyer. But, she can't imagine writing with her father because their style is so different. He doesn't outline, and she has a few pages of notes. They just couldn't do it. However, his character, Dave Robicheaux, does make a cameo in Dead Connection.
Burke said she feels guilty when she reads books about serial killers because so often the women are just pawns. The reader never knows the victim in most books. In her Ellie Hatcher books, by telling it in third person, she can explore who the victims are. That point of view also allows her to reveal things that Ellie doesn't do. She wants readers to know the effect of violence after what she saw working in the D.A.'s office. Her victims are fully realized. It's a challenge to make other characters fully realized, not just the hero. In most serial killer books, there's tension, what her editor calls the heavy panting chapter. With those books, readers don't feel worse for the victim than they do for the killer.
Alafair went on to tell a story about an unnamed author friend who had emails from readers with the last book, saying I know that person wouldn't do that. The author said, but I created the character. After 17 books, I know how the character acts. Barbara laughed and says, as an editor, she does ask authors, would the character really do that.
She went on to say that when authors have died, she doesn't hear people say, it's too bad the author died. They say, but what about..., and name the character.
Burke is working on her third Ellie Hatcher book. She has no title for it yet. She hates doing titles. She'd rather jut write the insides. She said Angel's Tip was originally going to be called Last Call, but James Grippando used it. She said they exchanged email. She told him he stole her title, and said, now help me out. He said, "Can't help you out."
Angel's Tip is the name of a drink, the type a girl from the Midwest might drink. It works as a drink, but also because a tip came in on a cold case. A father dreamt about his daughter, who was a victim. He called Ellie, and said this sounds crazy, but I dreamt about my daughter, and I feel the cases are connected. The title works both ways, as Angel's Tip.
Alafair said it's difficult to come up with Ellie's romantic life because she has no experiences like that. She said she and Sam are much more similar. She had to reach a little deeper for Ellie, and be more creative. She has trouble making up boys as love interests, because she herself always likes the same types. She said when she met her husband, there were weird similarities between him and Sam's love interest.
Since Maricopa County is doing The Big Read, discussing The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Barbara mentioned that Hammett himself was a P.I. without a successful personal life. So, his character, the Continental Op, did not have a successful personal life. Detective novels were straight detection because it was thought that relationships would slow down books. It wasn't until the late 80s, when romance writers started writing mysteries, that character and personality were brought into mysteries. Now, they are defined more by character than plot at times. Michael Connelly said he purposely made the fifth Harry Bosch book strictly a cop case, not something personal to Bosch. A friend told Alafair that eventually Ellie would have to have a case that was not all about her. She said in her favorite books, you get to know the character, and a little about their personal life. According to Barbara, after Sherlock Holmes, the focus was on plot. Then it was pure detective story. Now, it's the crime novel. Alafair likes the world created where characters have families, and a life. She skips the sexy, steamy scenes when she reads, though. She doesn't like that in a crime novel. Barbara said the romance writers are to blame. But, fashions come and go in books. Hopefully, the paranormal will die down. Books go in cycles because subjects interest people. There are three books out right now about the Salem Witch Trials.
In the books by Alafair's father, Dave Robicheaux's daughter, Alafair, was found in a plane crash. An audience member said to her, "You weren't really rescued from a plane, were you?" She said, no, and she wasn't named after the character. In his book, Heaven's Prisoner, Robicheaux names his adopted daughter after Dave's mother. Alafair herself, and the character, were named after her great-grandmother.
Barbara mentioned that the only person she knows named after a character is Dirk Cussler, who really is named after his father's character, Dirk Pitt. When Dirk was born, his mother was wiped out, so Cussler said he went out and wrote down the name, Dirk.
An audience member said when Kathy Reichs was there, she mentioned that Alafair was part of a group called In the Shadow. Alafair said she and Kathy talked at Thrillerfest, and Kathy made up the group, but she didn't know it had a name. It's a potential support group for relatives of well-known authors. She and Jesse Kellerman, son of Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, exchanged emails when his first book came out. There was a sidebar to an article about him, called "Other Famous Spawn." Burke and Peters then mentioned a few of them, Kerry Reichs, Joe Hill, Stephen and Tabitha King's son, John LeCarre's son, Amy Tan's daughter, Alistair Maclean's daughter. Alafair said it's not so surprising that writing runs in families. To write, you must be committed. It's more believable if you saw someone else do it. And, you must read a lot. It doesn't hurt to be in a family that reads a lot, and fewer families are doing that. An audience member told her that you can't trade on that family name after the first book. People won't come back if it's just the name, with no substance.
When asked how she had time to write, she said after she moved to New York, she didn't know anyone, and had lots of time to write. Now, her husband and dog force her to be more efficient. She has a job that forces her to write, but it's slow-paced writing. She teaches just seven hours a week, preps for classes, attends faculty meetings, and meets with students. But, she's learned to be efficient. She takes her laptop with her. The internet is the biggest distraction. When she worked at the D.A.'s office in Portland, she had the idea for the Samantha Kincaid books, but no energy to write. Now, her perfect writing day is to stay in her pajamas, and write all day.
I had three ARCs of Angel's Tip autographed after Alafair Burke's program. Watch for this week's contest, starting Thursday night.
Alafair Burke's website is www.alafairburke.com
Angel's Tip by Alafair Burke. HarperCollins, ©2008. ISBN 978-0061561023 (hardcover), 352p.