Back in the day, Alafair Burke lived down the street from MBTB. Although she grew up in Wichita, Kansas, she went to undergraduate school in Portland and worked for the Portland D.A.'s office. She still has many friends here and, as she said, the stories they tell are still about the same people she once knew. She's in town for a little longer this time around; she's trying to finish her latest book, a standalone, that's due at her publisher alarmingly soon. Away from the distractions of NYC in her home-away-from-home, she's making progress. During her brief visit with us, she was relaxed, articulate, and well-fed, after a dinner with MBTB friend and Portland resident, writer Jordan Foster.
Alafair sat down with us and talked about the craft of writing in general and about her new book, Never Tell, in particular. Never Tell is the fourth book in the Ellie Hatcher series. Ellie, unlike Alafair's previous series character, Portland lawyer Samantha Kincaid, is an NYPD detective. She's a little rougher around the edges and has a tougher attitude. Although it may have been easier to draw Samantha's character, which wasn't so far afield from Alafair's own personality and life, Alafair said, "I feel I know Ellie Hatcher at least as well as Samantha Kincaid, and I have no ego involved in this."
Two factors influenced the plot for Never Tell. As a professor at Hofstra Law School in New York, she was surprised when a student told her that fellow students used Adderall and Ritalin to enhance their studying, despite not having legitimate prescriptions for the medications. Secondly, a big part of Ellie's prior story arc was the purported suicide of her police officer father when Ellie was quite young. In Never Tell, Ellie and her partner, J.J. Rogan, investigate the death of 17-year-old Julia Whitmire, the daughter of a wealthy music promoter and his wife. Distraught at her death, Julia's parents insist that their daughter had not committed suicide, although all signs point to that conclusion. They have enough strings they can pull that they force Ellie and J.J. to re-investigate the incident. During the course of the re-investigation, the partners meet kids from the other side of the tracks, ones who are either on the street or a half-step away from that life. They also meet the daughter's schoolmates, kids who are also from affluent and demanding families. Part of what Ellie uncovers is the use of Adderall and other substances by those kids. Of the upper-class kids, Alafair said, "Something is going on with this generation. The kids aren't criticized; everybody's talented, everybody's above-average," a perverted Lake Wobegon with stress, high expectations, money, and sometimes unfulfilled career expectations. She combined this thought with how she wanted Ellie to be personally involved with the case, emotionally connecting the girl's suicide with her father's.
Because Alafair had been thinking about this story for so long, she wrote the book quickly. No, she emphatically said, she's not organized. Writing is "more organic." She said she never outlines and sometimes gets "three-fourths of the way into the book and I'm still making plot choices." She laughed with mock exasperation at herself. When she began to review her book, she said, "You feel that it's all there, but it's not all there." So she started over. "I literally opened a blank page on my computer and started over," she said. (In the process two whole characters were deleted.) It was Alafair's experience working with neighborhoods in Portland as a community liaison for the D.A.'s office that brought her into contact with troubled kids. The fictional "Promises" homeless shelter for kids in her book is based on Portland's legendary "Harry's Mother," an emergency shelter for runaways (now part of the Janus youth programs).
How much more turmoil can Ellie Hatcher's life take? The over-arching storyline of Ellie's life has taken dramatic turns. Well, Alafair mused, "You want a character to get a break," but each of her books isn't "two books co-existing within the same jacket." Ellie's personal story must be connected in some way to the crime story; they must feed off each other somehow. We figure that means Ellie needs to buckle up, because she's still in for a bumpy ride.
As a funny aside, Alafair related how she often drops references in her books to authors she likes. For instance, in Never Tell, as Ellie is rummaging around in a suspect's home, she recognizes a book by an author J.J. likes. There's a picture of a Lincoln Continental on the cover, a tiny shout-out to "The Lincoln Lawyer" series by Michael Connelly. Connelly took Alafair's book on vacation and Alafair later received a terse email from him. "Thanks," he said. In a case of turnabout, Lee Child stuck a reference in one of his books to a "Samantha" in Portland with whom his character, Jack Reacher, spent two nights. Hey, Samantha Kincaid wouldn't be that easy, Alafair thought. Hey, Lee Child responded, it was two nights, after all, tantamount to a long-term relationship for his peripatetic hero. The humor for crime writers, after all, has to come from somewhere.