INTERVIEW WITH MICHELE
Q. What made you decide to start writing your first book, Most Wanted?
A. Honestly, it was more like the book decided to write itself. At a time in my life when I was totally confused about whether to continue being a prosecutor, which I loved, or stay home with my kids, who obviously needed me, I literally had a dream that contained the opening scene of Most Wanted. That dream answered a question I'd been asking myself for years: how could I put the vast storehouse of insider knowledge about violent crime, narcotics and law enforcement that was kicking around inside my head to decent use if I left my job? Once I had the first scene, the rest of the book just flowed -- although with many drafts, rewrites, and revisions.
Q. You were a lawyer for your entire career. What made you think you could write fiction?
A. Being a prosecutor is different from being any other type of lawyer. A lot of what I did on the job was investigate crimes side by side with the police, before any arrests were even made. When I appeared in court, I had to stand up in front of a jury and explain complicated, scary events in a way people could understand and relate to. I learned to think on my feet, to speak clearly and to tell a good story -- all skills I use every day in my writing. Also, like many writers, I simply love to read. And I learn a huge amount from reading other writers. While writing Most Wanted, I embarked on a major thriller-reading campaign that helped me figure out some important issues of pacing and plotting. Besides, I had so many great stories and characters in my head -- they were just itching to jump onto the page!
Q. How did you come up with the plot for your next book, Cover-Up?
A. Having lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I've gotten an inside peek at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It was impossible not to notice the unusally close relationships some wealthy, stay-at-home wives maintained with certain service providers, including personal trainers and plastic surgeons. The influence these people wielded in these women's lives intrigued me, and struck me as fertile territory for a crime novel. Once I had that basic concept, the idea of a muckraking celebrity journalist digging around and unearthing that type of scandal -- and paying the ultimate price for her curiosity -- seemed like a natural.
Q. How did you go about the process of starting to write a novel from scratch when you'd never done it before?
A. Nothing magical. I sat down at my computer and started to write the story that was in my head. I worked on it a lot -- hours and hours every day. About halfway through the first draft, I read a bunch of thrillers and decided mine was too slow and, well, too lawyer-like, so I threw the whole thing away and started over again. Practice makes perfect, right? The next draft I really liked, but I knew it still needed work, so I decided to start showing it to people. I also took a writing workshop through New York University and got some great feedback there. Eventually, the book was polished enough to get me my fabulous agent, Meg Ruley, who gave me still more feedback. You get the picture: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Work, work, work. Eventually, we sent it out into the world, and my wonderful editor, Carolyn Marino, loved it, and gave me even more great feedback. The bottom line is, it took lots of hard work, determination, and faith that it would all come together in the end -- not to mention endless pots of coffee strong enough to peel paint!
Q. How are you like or different from your main character, Melanie Vargas?
A. We share many characteristics. Melanie, like me, is half-Puerto Rican, comes from modest roots but has an Ivy League education, loves being a prosecutor but experiences great stress juggling her demanding job with being a mommy. But Melanie is also NOT me. She has her own separate life -- a different office, boss, husband, baby, parents, sibling, apartment, etc., etc., than I have. She also faces much more extreme circumstances than I do. I've gone up against dangerous criminals in the courtroom, but never -- thank God! -- in a burned-out basement with a nine millimeter in my hand. I'm happily married, whereas Melanie's marriage is in deep trouble and may not last, meaning she'll face all the challenges of being a divorced mom. Despite the differences, I still like to think that if I were placed in Melanie's difficult (although stylish) shoes, I'd kick butt the way she does.
Q. Are any of the other characters in your books based on real people?
A. The short answer is no. The longer answer is more complicated than that.
When I write a character, often the first thing I "get" is the character's voice. How do they sound when they talk? Because, to me, writing credible dialogue is the single most important factor in making the book believable to the reader. If I can't hear a character's voice in my head, I can't write the character. While no character in my books is truly based on any real, live human being, I'm definitely heavily influenced by certain people's voices when I listen to my characters "speak" inside my head. And, every once in a while, some real life person makes himself or herself felt in other ways -- whether in a facial expression, a turn of phrase, an attitude. That's inevitable, since all believable fiction springs from close observation of real life. But I can honestly say that all the characters in my books are really and truly themselves, rather than thinly-veiled alter egos of people I know.
Q. What does the New York City setting mean to your books?
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A. New York gives my writing its guts. There's a lot of crime here, and there are also a lot of dedicated, honorable, hard-working people in law enforcement whose job it is to stamp it out. That battle between these real-life forces of good and evil, played out against the always fascinating and vibrant landscape of this city, with all its unforgettable settings and characters, will never loosen its grip on my imagination.
Q. What does your Puerto Rican background mean to your books?
A. Like most people who had one or more parents who were first generation immigrants to the mainland United States, and like anyone who came from modest roots economically, I have a great appreciation for the opportunities that this country can offer. My books will always reflect that at some level. (Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens, but surely the experience of coming to New York and learning English as a child was the same for my father as for any immigrant.) Melanie came up from humble beginnings, but she never forgets where she's from. Like me, she has both a great love for hard work and a tremendous sympathy for the underdog. As for throwing in some Spanish words, or writing about flan or arroz con pollo (yum!), hey, that's plain FUN.
Q. Where do you get the ideas for your books?
A. My first book, Most Wanted, was unusual in that I literally dreamt its opening chapter. But there is no shortage of fascinating characters and crime stories in the waking world. I realized this most vividly during my years as a federal prosecutor in New York. During that time, I led a divided life, safe and serene at home but crime-steeped at work. That's when I learned that crime is all around us. I would hear of seemingly innocent locations that were hotbeds of drug activity, for example. Or smart, savvy killers and drug dealers who carefully maintained "civilian" jobs so they could portray themselves as upstanding citizens when the time came to apply for bail. Once I had a defendant who'd been involved in several murders yet worked as a doorman in a building on the Upper West Side much like the building I lived in. At his bail hearing, he produced letters from several tenants who said they'd known him for years and believed him to be innocent. Of course, they hadn't seen the evidence! Little did they know that the guy in the elevator with them was a hardened killer. With the years of experience I have in the criminal justice system, it comes naturally to me to take an event or an idea from everyday life and spin it out into a realistic, gripping tale of crime and corruption.
Q. How much research do you do?
A. Probably less than a lot of writers who write crime, because I have so much first-hand experience. If a book begins with a particular crime, I already know how the police and prosecutors would go about investigating it, without having to look anything up. But having said that, many details still require research and leg-work to get them right. For example, locations. I often set scenes in places I have been, yet still find that I need to visit the place again and take notes to get it perfect. Or sometimes, I want to write something that experience has not prepared me for. Like when Melanie faces down the bad guy (I won't say which one, so I won't spoil the surprise) at the end of Most Wanted, and her gun runs out of bullets. I personally did not know what that would feel like (other than "Oh s##t!!") So I called a friend of mine in law enforcement who told me how it feels to pull a trigger when the chamber's empty. For The Finishing School, which involves murder, drug dealing and intrigue set in a tony New York City girls' school, I had researched things like the pampered lives of NYC's doggies (manicures, pedicures, Chanel outfits!). And for my next book, Cover-Up, involving a plastic surgeon who keeps Manhattan's rich and famous looking "perfect", I had to research the world of facelifts and Botox injections. But the broad strokes of criminal investigation . . . those I know by heart.
Q. How does your background as a New York City Federal Prosecutor inform your books?
A. Simply put, my insider background makes my books possible. I would not be able to write what I write if I did not have the inside scoop on how the criminal justice system works. It would just take too much research to get it right, and research that wouldn't be possible or available to me without significant contacts in the system. How an investigation unfolds, what the politics are in a prosecutor's office, how the prosecutors interact with the FBI -- all that stuff is key to creating the type of authentic atmosphere that puts a reader inside a story. If I had not spent my previous career doing the job in real life, I'd be writing based on what I'd seen on TV and read in other people's books, and my work would not ring true.
Q. What is your writing schedule like?
A. I could pretend to be one of those writers who gets up at four in the morning and produces 20 pages before the sun comes up. But that would be a lie. The fact is, I hate mornings. The best I can do is keep to something resembling a New York lawyer's schedule, which means I get to my "office" around nine -- if I'm lucky. Okay, sometimes it's later. And if my kids need me, I take a break. But when I'm really in the middle of a novel, I write eight or ten hours a day, so I'm often working late into the night. And I often work weekends -- in fact, I'm writing these words at 11:40 on a Saturday night. Luckily my supportive husband is very willing to pitch in and watch the boys (for example, he took them all day today so I could work!).
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm taking a break from the
Melanie Vargas series to write a standalone thriller that delves even
deeper into the dark underworld of the New York City crime scene.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are trying to get published?
A. The best advice I can give is, treat your writing like a job rather than a hobby. Show up to work on your project every day, with whatever free time you have. Seek out advice and criticism from people whose judgment you trust -- not your mom who's just going to look at it and say "Oh, honey, this is wonderful!" but rather objective people, ideally with some actual experience in writing or publishing. Take their comments seriously. Constantly reevaluate and revise your project until it's the best it can possibly be. Then revise it some more. Getting published is like a marathon. Work your butt off and eventually you're bound to get somewhere!
Q. What are your most and least favorite things about being a writer?
A. I have tons of favorite things about being a writer! First of all, I get to live a double life -- who wouldn't love that? As I write I get to ride along on all Melanie's adventures, whether she’s facing down a vicious killer, flirting with Dan O'Reilly or just changing Maya's diapers. I also love how creative writing is. I not only love reading, but I love music, movies and television. I can let my favorite books, movies and songs influence me, and creep into my work in subtle ways that pay homage to them.
On the down side, being a writer is very solitary. I'm an outgoing person, and logging all those hours alone at a desk makes me a little crazy sometimes. I do find myself walking down the street talking to myself, reciting dialogue out loud. But then I'll have a great day choreographing a gunfight (or a sex scene!), and I'm hooked all over again.
Q. What lawyer-authors do you admire? Do you think lawyers and cops make better crime writers?
A. Certainly some of the greatest crime writers have no professional law enforcement experience. They rely on sheer talent, and presumably some pretty thorough research. That said, I do think insider knowledge can enhance a story. I love reading Linda Fairstein, for example. Here’s a woman who had one of THE great prosecutorial careers in recent memory, and it shows in the truly unusual level of authentic detail she brings to her books. She covers things that matter a lot in real life but that writers lacking her background might not think to include -- like office politics, or turf battles, or how to handle a difficult witness. Other lawyer-authors I enjoy are Lisa Scottoline, who makes the law fun and accessible and leaves out all the boring parts without ever sacrificing authenticity; Scott Turow, who is an astonishingly talented writer, and with whom I feel a great kinship since he -- like me -- is a former big-city Assistant U.S. Attorney. And, of course, John Grisham who basically invented the legal thriller single-handedly. I’ve learned a huge amount about suspense and pacing by reading his books. But then again, consider Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich, for example: two great -- and very different -- crime writers, neither of whom had a prior life as lawyer or cop.
Q. Do you ever miss being a prosecutor?