photo: Peter Simon
Ro: This week Jungle Red is thrilled to welcome NYTimes best-selling writer Linda Fairstein, author of the Alex Cooper series, and its latest installment, Lethal Legacy for a two-part interview. Today we’ll ask Linda about her first career and the beginnings of the Alex Cooper series and tomorrow she’ll come back to tell us about Lethal Legacy.
Welcome, Linda! As a native New Yorker I knew your name well before you published your first mystery. You were an Assistant District Attorney in NYC in 1972 and head of its Sex Crimes Unit by 1976. I have to ask you about your first illustrious career - how was it for a young, beautiful blond handling high profile cases such as the Preppy Murder case? Do you think it was harder because you’re a woman?
Linda: Thanks so much for the kind words. I spent thirty years in the office of the New York County District Attorney, and when I took over the newly formed, pioneering Sex Crimes Unit in 1976 (just four years out of law school), I never dreamed work would become a passion. As your readers know, those times were very different for women in many careers. In the criminal law, most doors were closed to us – the Manhattan DA’s office had almost two hundred lawyers on staff, and only seven were women. Had I stopped to think about the challenge of doing that work at that tender age, or had I any of the wisdom I’d accumulated over the years since, I probably wouldn’t have approached the courtroom so buoyantly. But everything seemed possible to me – I’m hopelessly optimistic – and the chance to help victims triumph in cases when they had been denied access to the system for (literally) centuries was enormously uplifting.
Then, in 1986, I was introduced to my three favorite letters of the alphabet – DNA – and that scientific technique revolutionized everything we were doing – exonerating the innocent and making it impossible for the guilty to beat the system. So, yes, the very early days were quite difficult for young women trying to make careers as prosecutors or defense attorneys, but I was supported in all I did by some extraordinarily generous men – including NYC’s legendary District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau, who is my professional patron saint (think my fictional Paul Battaglia) – and by scores of colleagues in the office and in the NYPD who kept me grounded and reinforced the need to never lose a sense of fairness, or sense of humor.
Ro: Were you keeping notes on Final Jeopardy, your first Alex Cooper novel during those early years on the job, or was FJ inspired by a particular case?
Linda: I wish I had been smart enough to keep notes from my first days on the job, but every time I started a daily journal, I’d be overwhelmed by work and witnesses before I got two pages into it. Fortunately, I have a good memory for cases and characters and details, and always loved storytelling. I’d wanted to be a writer throughout my adolescence, and became an English lit major at Vassar for that very reason. My second draw was public service, so I figured I could support myself with a career in the law until I got around to writing. I was asked to write a non-fiction book about our groundbreaking reforms in special victims work, and that became SEXUAL VIOLENCE, published in 1993. Once I’d disciplined myself well enough to do that book and keep the day job, I set out to start my series. Yes, FINAL JEOPARDY was inspired by a particular case – or rather, by the perp in that case. The story I tell is entirely fictitious, but the killer has a psychiatric condition I’d never heard of until I encountered it in a defendant who committed multiple crimes over a number of years…and it fascinated me. So that condition became the hook that launched Coop’s first caper.
Ro: I imagine you have hundreds of stories that would make bestselling novels. Where do you personally draw the line on “ripped from the headlines” stories?
Linda: I really didn’t start writing to tell the stories of cases I had prosecuted throughout my career. I’m hoping to do that someday in a non-fiction book. I love crime fiction and series characters, and longed to be in that world. And while I draw from motives in cases and characters I’ve met, my stories are all original, rather than retellings of cases I actually handled. For instance, LETHAL LEGACY opens with a perp using the ruse of starting a fire outside the apartment of a woman whose home he wanted to enter. He was dressed as a fireman at the time. The young woman smells fire, looks through her peephole and sees smoke – and sees a fireman who is trying to help her. Now who wouldn’t open her door under those circumstances. Pretty clever ruse to gain entry, I thought. That happened in an actual high-profile case after I left the office. I don’t tell the story of the original stalker – that didn’t interest me – but I loved ‘borrowing’ the ruse from the real case, and getting my bad guy inside for an entirely different reason. I’ve got my eight million stories from the naked city, and someday I’d love to tell me. But not in this series.
Ro: I understand that you are good friends with Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order SUV. And how do you rate the L&O SUV team for realism?
Linda: I love Mariska Hargitay! This is her tenth year as Detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order’s SVU. Dick Wolf, who has produced the whole L and O franchise has done a brilliant job. His staff is composed of dozens of ex-cops and prosecutors who craft the stories that are so often ripped from the headlines. Hey – it’s meant to be entertainment, but it has educated so many people about these issues – and in prime time, when I never thought people would be discussing sexual assault and child abuse. Mariska has had such incredible viewer reaction to her character that five years ago she created an organization to help heal survivors of sexual assault. It’s called the Joyful Heart Foundation – and as a proud board member, I can honestly say that it has done extraordinary work in this field, all because of the reach of Mariska’s fictional detective.
Ro: Linda will be back tomorrow to tell us about Lethal Legacy (which I just read and loved), the incredible work that she’s doing with the Joyful Heart Foundation, Safe Horizon http://www.safehorizon.org/ and other victim’s advocacy groups, a super tip and website for forensic research, and what’s up next for herself and Alex Cooper.
Catch Linda in person at Murder 203, CT's Mystery Festival, www.murder203.com