Author Interviews: The Harvard Square Grills Crime Novelist

Author Interviews: Author at work

(Author Interviews Note by Paul Levine: The closest I ever got to Harvard was in 1973 when its law school offered me admission to its LL.M. program. I was just about to graduate from the University of Miami Law School and thought I wanted to be a professor. Oh, that was a long time ago! Anyway, I was a new father and needed a paying job, not more tuition, so I reluctantly said “no thanks.” This week I sat down with Mary Yuhas of The Harvard Square who grilled me with questions, both literary and personal. (Hemingway was unavailable). This is adapted from her article, which appeared February 12, 2014).

Author Interviews: Lawyer-Turned-Novelist Paul Levine

The author of 18 novels, Paul Levine won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, and James Thurber prizes. A former trial lawyer, he also wrote more than 20 episodes of the CBS military drama “JAG” and co-created the Supreme Court drama “First Monday” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. The critically acclaimed international bestseller To Speak for the Dead featuring Jake Lassiter was his first novel. Levine is also the author of the Solomon vs. Lord series and the thrillers Illegal, Ballistic, Impact, and Paydirt. His most recent novel is State vs. Lassiter. He is a graduate of Penn State University and the University of Miami Law School.  More information on his website.

Author Interviews: The Q & A

H.S.: How did you begin your writing career?

Paul: I blame windsurfing. I was on vacation in Maui and got injured windsurfing off the North Shore. It was hard to walk so for two weeks. I had nothing to do but lie on the beach. I had a pen and a yellow legal pad, which was useful because, at the time, I was a lawyer. I was thinking about a case of mine in which an old man’s busty secretary set up the theft of $2 million in negotiable bonds from his home office. In real life, the story was fairly boring. I got the bonds back; no one went to jail, but I saw possibilities for fiction…involving windsurfing.

H.S.: So you started writing in longhand on a legal pad?

Paul: This was a long time ago.  A “laptop” was a dance in a strip club.  Anyway, I scribbled one sentence on the legal pad: “The old man loved money, gadgets, and large-breasted women, and at the moment, he had all three.” It’s the first line of fiction I ever wrote unless you count all the legal briefs I filed over the years. The sentence got me started. It opens chapter one of Riptide, one of the Jake Lassiter series.

Author interviews: Paul
Paul’s image of himself hurrying to court as a young, nasty lawyer

H.S.: Your novels “often have a sly, sardonic tone,” according to Wikipedia.

Paul: They’re one to talk.

H.S.: Seriously, you often write about murder trials, and yet you often bring humor into play.

Paul: As Jake Lassiter points out, there’s a hilarious sign in every courtroom in Miami: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.” Then there’s Steve Solomon who makes up his own rules: “When the law doesn’t work…work the law.” Let’s just say that, having tried cases for 17 years, I have a healthy skepticism about what Lassiter terms the “so-called justice system.”

Author Interviews. Paul as lawyer
As a young trial lawyer, the author tries to look older and wiser. As an older man, he attempts to look younger and hipper.

H.S.: If you were starting out today, would you look for an agent or publish via an e-book?

Paul: I would definitely try the traditional approach of a getting an agent and a legacy publisher. Self-publishing a single work without a backlist is very, very difficult. How many ebooks are out there? Five million? Six million? More? How do you get noticed? The optimum way is the old hardcover/paperback deal. Or trade paperback by a recognized publisher.

The Equation: Writing Equals Rejection Squared

H.S. Did you ever have doubts about your writing ability, especially after harsh criticism or literary agent rejections? How did you handle it and what do you suggest to others?

Paul: I am filled with self-doubt! I am always surprised when a story works, or dialogue zings, or a character becomes real. I wrote two books on spec that never sold to publishers. Yes, that hurt. I also now see the weaknesses in those books. I also wrote many spec features that didn’t sell to Hollywood and wrote TV pilots (both hired by the networks and on spec) that didn’t were never made. There should be an equation. Writing equals Rejection Squared. Advice? Handle it! Persevere. Don’t whine. Put your butt in the chair and write!

H.S.: What’s the biggest mistake first time authors often make?

Paul: Impatience, which causes poor writing. With beginning writers, there’s a tendency to think you’re done when you’ve finished with your first or second draft. Unless you are a genius, which I’m not, you’ve just reached second base. To score a run, you’ve got to rewrite and rewrite. Hemingway said, “all good writing is rewriting.” Take his advice. Rewrite and polish.

Author interviews: Hemingway shoots
When he wasn’t polishing his prose, Hemingway was polishing his aim.

H.S.: Any other tips for first-time-authors?

Paul: Read good authors in a field you enjoy. But DON’T copy their style. There’s nothing worse than a faux Elmore Leonard. Read books about story structure and writing novels. There are really too many to recommend, but Stephen King’s book On Writing comes to mind. And, of course, write!

H.S.: Is it easier or harder to get into writing today than when you started?

Paul: It’s harder to break into traditional publishing than when I started in the 1980s with Bantam because there are fewer major publishers. There has been some growth in smaller, independent presses, which is good, but the flip side is that the amount of the advance is generally less. But then, there is the new world of self-publishing on the internet with Amazon and its competitors. Nothing wrong with that, but there seems to be a myth that self-publishing ebooks is an easy way to riches and fame. That’s not the case.

H.S.: Author Interviews wants to know: how long does it take you to write a book?

Paul: From idea to concept to research to outline to writing and revisions, it takes me nine months to a year for most of the series books. I already have my protagonist and his world in my head. I don’t need to drive to the courthouse to see what a courtroom looks like. For standalones, such as Illegal, it took closer to a year and 1/2 to two years Part of the book is written from the point of view of a young Mexican woman and part from her 12-year-old son’s POV. I was terrified I could not write in the voice of a 30-year-old female illegal alien. In the end, I believe it turned out well.

H.S.: How did you break into writing TV screenwriting?

Paul: I became friends with fellow Penn State grad Don Bellisario, the creator of “Magnum, P.I.,” “Quantum Leap,” and “JAG,” among others. He enjoyed my books, and I enjoyed his shows. When he wrote the two-hour pilot of “JAG,” he shared it with me. I told him I liked it very much, but did television really want a show about Navy lawyers? (What did I know! The show ran 10 years and about 220 episodes). Anyway, in the third season, Don asked if I wanted to write a script as a free-lancer. I’d written a couple of TV pilots that hadn’t gone anywhere, and I thought I understood the voice of the show and could write those characters, so I did it, and the episode aired pretty much the way I wrote it.

Author Interviews.  Paul's credit
The television writer gets immediate gratification (or sorrow). It’s just weeks from script to air.

The next year, I freelanced another script for “JAG,” and the year after that, Don asked me to move to Los Angeles and work full-time on the show. Initially, I didn’t want to do it. But I had just written one of those spec novels that didn’t sell. So I took the job, which frankly paid WAY more money that I expected. And the Writers Guild has a helluva health plan and a pension plan, something book authors don’t get. Of course, occasionally you have to stop working and hit the picket lines.  I’m a big believer in unions, by the way. Without Hollywood unions, there’d be no royalties, pensions, or health plans.

Author Interviews: Strike
The author with fellow scribblers Larry Moskowitz and Randy Anderson bring Disney to its knees during the 2007 strike.

In my second season on the show, I took an idea to Don for a drama set at the Supreme Court, focusing on the interactions between the justices and the law clerks. (It was loosely based on my Supreme Court thriller, Impact.) Don liked it; Les Moonves at CBS liked it; and it became the short-lived “First Monday.” Don and I co-wrote the pilot, which starred James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning and folded after 13 episodes, with some of the oldest demographics in the history of television. Or as I like to say, we were a hit with the crowd between Medicare and the mortuary.

Author Interviews: First Monday
The coveted “Created By” credit. Even more coveted if the show succeeds, which “First Monday” didn’t

H.S.: Any Author Interviews tips for writers interested in script writing?

Paul: Read Robert Towne’s script of “Chinatown.” Read “Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee. And good luck.

H.S.: Any truth to the rumor that you steered a nuclear submarine?

Paul: One of the perks on “JAG” was that the writers got to hang out with the U.S. Navy, without having to be in actual danger. One day, we flew from a naval base to an aircraft carrier. The landing was pretty cool. Another day, we spent on a Los Angeles class attack submarine. And yes, they let me steer it for about 30 seconds. No international incidents occurred as a result.

H.S.: Finally, thank you for sitting down with Author Interviews.  What’s in your future?

Paul: I read a lot of emails from readers. The ones who don’t point out typos are evenly divided between writing a new Lassiter or another in the Solomon vs. Lord series. If anyone out there has an idea, I’m open to it and can always be contacted through my website. And, living in Miami, I am still trying to make the perfect mojito.

More information on the Paul Levine Website.

Grisham Books in Order and “Sycamore Row”

John Grisham, the king of the legal thrillers, has a new book out.  So, what’s new about that?  For more than two decades, Grisham has been writing about a book a year, starting with “A Time to Kill” in 1989.  We’ll consider both the new book and all Grisham books in order.

What’s interesting about “Sycamore Row,” this year’s release, is that it brings us back to the Ford County Courthouse and some characters of “A Time to Kill.”

SycamoreRow

You’ll remember that riveting first novel was a story of race, violence, and small time prejudices.  In some ways, it echoed the themes of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  (The film version starred a young Matthew McConaughey as lawyer Jake Brigance, Samuel L. Jackson as his client, who had killed two men who raped his daughter, and Sandra Bullock in a supporting role.

According to Wikipedia, the idea for the first book came from a real case:

“As he was hanging around the court, Grisham overheard a 12-year-old girl telling the jury what had happened to her.  Her story intrigued Grisham and he began watching the trial. He saw how the members of the jury cried as she told them about having been raped and beaten. It was then, Grisham later wrote in The New York Times, that a story was born.

Musing over what would have happened if the girl’s father had murdered her assailants,

Grisham took three years to complete his first book, ‘A Time to Kill.’  Finding a publisher was not easy. The book was rejected by 28 publishers before Wynwood Press, an unknown publisher, agreed to give it a modest 5,000-copy printing.” 

Grisham Books in Order
Grisham Books in Order: “A Time to Kill” was the first

Now, defense lawyer Jake Brigance is back in “Sycamore Row” in another racially charged trial.  I’m looking forward to meeting Grisham on that familiar terrain.  Now, let’s move on to the Grisham books in order.

Grisham’s themes are clearly defined. Corruption, greed, and untidy justice permeate his work. Large corporations and Big Money exert cruel power over the weak…until a lawyer (usually flawed) takes up the cause.   This rings a bell with me. Behind the judge’s bench in every Miami courtroom is the sign, “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.” You can see the sign, barely, in this goofy publicity shot of me when I was flogging my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” many years ago.

Author Paul Levine in Courtroom
Lawyer/Author Paul Levine in Courtroom. The sign behind the bench reads: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.”

My fictional lawyer, Jake Lassiter, examined the sign and cracked, “There oughta be a footnote. Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and overlooked by lazy judges.”  I think Grisham’s protagonists  would agree.

But back to Grisham’s oeuvre.   It was Grisham’s second novel, “The Firm,” that rocketed him to the top of the charts and spun off the hit Tom Cruise movie.  A young attorney is seduced by the pay and perks at a Memphis law firm that is actually a front for the mob.  Chaos and murder ensue.

The Firm

 The rest, as they say, is history.  Omitting the “Theodore Boone” young adult books and some non-fiction, here are:

GRISHAM BOOKS IN ORDER

A Time to Kill (1989)

The Firm (1991)

The Pelican Brief (1992)

The Client (1993)

The Chamber (1994)

The Rainmaker (1995)

The Runaway Jury (1996)

The Partner (1997)

The Street Lawyer (1998)

The Testament (1999)

The Brethren (2000)

A Painted House (2001)

Skipping Christmas (2001

The Summons (2002)

The King of Torts (2003)

The Bleachers (2003)

The Last Juror (2004)

The Broker (2005)

Playing for Pizza (2007)

The Appeal (2008)

The Associate (2009)

The Confession (2010)

The Litigators (2011)

Calico Joe (2012)

The Racketeer (2012)

Sycamore Row (2013)

GRISHAM BOOKS IN ORDER: A FAVORITE QUOTE

Yes, the man is prolific. Just typing all those titles wore me out.  I’ll leave you with a quote from young lawyer Rudy Baylor, a classic Grisham underdog in “The Rainmaker,” who takes on a massive insurance fraud case against overwhelming odds.  “I’m alone and outgunned, scared and inexperienced, but I’m right.”

Paul Levine

The Books of Scott Turow

Scott Turow and Paul Levine in Los Angeles…

The two heavyweights of legal thrillers, John Grisham and Scott Turow, have new novels out at the same time.  We examined Grisham’s blockbuster “Sycamore Row”  in a prior blog.  Today, let’s take a look at the books of Scott Turow, starting with his law school memoir and concluding with his current bestselling “Identical.”

First, a bit of  Turow’s background.  He graduated with high honors from Amherst, studied and taught writing at Stanford and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School.  He is also president of the prestigious Author’s Guild and still practices law part-time.  According to Wikipedia, “Turow works pro bono in most of his cases, including a 1995 case where he won the release of Alejandro Hernandez, who had spent 11 years on death row for a murder he did not commit.”

Scott Turow

The Books of Scott Turow

ONE-L

(1977) Basically a journal of Turow’s first year at Harvard Law, it is still in print and required reading for anyone contemplating the rigors (and mortis) of law school.

PRESUMED INNOCENT

(1987) My favorite legal thriller of all time. Prosecutor Rusty Sabich goes on trial for the murder of his colleague…and mistress.

THE BURDEN OF PROOF

(1990) Sandy Stern, the defense lawyer in “Presumed Innocent,” suffers a tragedy when his wife commits suicide and thus begins a journey of self-discovery and another foray into the criminal justice system.

PLEADING GUILTY

(1993) Money and a star litigator go missing from a law firm, and it’s up to an ex-cop turned lawyer to find them…and trouble.

THE LAWS OF OUR FATHERS

(1996) Judge Sonia Klonsky, from “The Burden of Proof” narrates a complex tale involving a murder trial. As is frequent in Turow’s novels, secrets of the past emerge in explosive ways.

PERSONAL INJURIES

(1999) A P.I. lawyer with a penchant for bribing judges gets nabbed. Wearing a wire to trap others, he is supervised by FBI agent Evon Miller (who will re-appear in “Identical”). Their relationship is the heart of the tale.

REVERSIBLE ERRORS

(2002) This one has it all: a man on Death Row, a reluctant defense lawyer, and possible new evidence that can exonerate the condemned. Not an original concept, but in Turow’s hands, a richly woven tale.

ORDINARY HEROES

(2005) Family secrets are again at the heart of the story, but this one is a change of pace as a man searches for the truth about his father’s combat and court-martial during World War II.

LIMITATIONS

(2006) The shortest of Turow’s novels, “Limitations” was originally published in The New York Times Magazine. A judge, a rape trial, and questions about morality are at the center of the story.

INNOCENT

(2010) Rusty Sabich from “Presumed Innocent” is back. Now, he’s a judge having an affair…and accused of killing his wife. One of my favorites.

Which brings us to…

The Books of Scott Turow
The Books of Scott Turow: “Identical” is the latest

IDENTICAL

(2013) A state senator runs for mayor just as his identical twin is released from prison, 25 years after pleading guilty to the murder of his girlfriend. The novel is said to take its inspiration from the myth of Castor and Pollux, identical twins born to Leda, after she was raped by Zeus. (I have to confess I had no idea Zeus was such a lout). Early reviews have been mixed. Writing in “The New York Times Book Review,” Adam Liptak complained:

“‘Identical” is stuffed with so many themes and reversals that readers may end up feeling the way you do after a long family meal with too much talk and food: disoriented, logy and a little nostalgic. Turow has many gifts. He might consider being a little more parsimonious in doling them out.”

At another point in the review, however, Liptak states:

“Still, the rich, sharp courtroom scenes, always Turow’s specialty, are the best parts of the book. He is particularly good at showing how judges use minor rulings to nudge a case to their preferred outcome.”

Now, Turow doesn’t need my help selling books. But, as always with reviews, it’s better to read the book…and make your own decision.  What’s your verdict on the books of Scott Turow?

Paul Levine