Alafair Burke’s new stand-alone mystery, If You Were Here, is a masterful blend of humanity’s highest and lowest, of heroism and dark secrets. As a former Deputy District Attorney and a current Professor of Law at Hofstra Law School, Burke’s novels are consistently authentic, but her real talent is mixing complex plotlines with nonstop suspense. As Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney writes, “Nicely crafted, plenty of suspense to go around, a couple of unanticipated twists—what’s not to like?”
We chatted with Burke about her heroines, her law career and writing in a 7 questions interview.
Describe your book in one sentence.
Trouble ensues after former prosecutor turned writer catches a glimpse of friend who disappeared 10 years ago.
What do you think readers will most like about McKenna Jordan? How is she different from your past heroines?
Is it fair to say that a character will be liked for becoming more likable? Most of my past books feature series characters who evolve slowly. They grow, like most of us, in increments and with subtlety. McKenna, in contrast, endures more trauma and drama than most people experience in a lifetime, which allows her to make enormous discoveries about herself in one little book. She’s also incredibly tenacious, for better or for worse. I think knowledgable crime fiction readers might also recognize that I’ve borrowed some familiar tropes of the genre and turned them upside down (or at least I hope so).
“The horrible things people do to each other—and the ways those acts can bring out the best in others—is tremendously fertile ground for a writer.”
How has your law career most influenced your career as a writer?
I’ve been teaching criminal law for 12 years and, before that, was absolutely blessed to work as a prosecutor for five years. As luck would have it, I happened to work for a prosecutor who believed in taking lawyers out of the courtroom into the community, so I spent about half that time working out of a police precinct. Without that window of time, I wouldn’t be the same kind of writer. Criminal investigations don’t look like most people expect, and the policing world is really very different than the prosecutorial world. It’s really important to me to write about law enforcement in an authentic way.
What do you love most about writing crime fiction?
What is there not to love? The horrible things people do to each other—and the ways those acts can bring out the best in others—is tremendously fertile ground for a writer. I wrote a book a few years ago where every single character was motivated by love. We tend to think about people as good or bad, but I think crime fiction challenges those simplistic assumptions.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?
Write the best book you can write, and block out everything else. It sounds simple, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds, especially that second part.
What’s one bad habit you have no intention of breaking?
The Internet! Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, all the shopping. It’s ridiculous. I compare it to the brief walks I used to take down the hallway to gossip for a few minutes here and there at the DA’s Office.
I’m working on the next Ellie Hatcher novel. She gets pulled into a possible wrongful conviction case. It’s my 10th novel, and draws a bit on work I’ve done in my life as Professor Burke.