For the latest instalment of In The Dock, Crime and Publishing welcomes someone who is certainly more used to being on the other side of the court room. Marcia Clark is a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who was the lead prosecutor on the O.J. Simpson murder case in 1995. Having co-written a bestselling non-fiction book about the trial, Without A Doubt, she turned her hand to fiction with her debut novel, Guilt By Association, which features the tenacious and wise-cracking Los Angeles D.A., Rachel Knight.
C&P: Hi Marcia, many thanks for giving up your time to answer my questions. First of, what initially drew you to law?
MC: I’d been a Political Science major as an undergrad, so I think the fundamental interest in law related fields was always there. I finished undergraduate school hoping to work in the Foreign Office of the State Department, but the powers that be in those days weren’t keen on hiring women to do that job. So I took a couple of years to regroup and think about who I wanted to be when I grew up. I made a list of things I liked to do – writing was at the top of that list – and when I finished, I realized that list added up to lawyering.
C&P: And why did you decide to become a prosecutor and not a defence attorney?
MC: I didn’t! I started out as a defense attorney. From the first month in law school, I knew I’d only practice criminal law. But I was certain I’d only want to work in defense. For the first few years, when I represented defendants accused of non-violent crimes, I enjoyed it. Then I graduated to the violent criminals and in particular, one case involving the attempted murder of a woman who’d been stabbed nearly to death by my client. That was the turning point. I knew then that I wanted to stand up for the victims, and so I left private practice and went to work for the prosecution.
C&P: You wrote a bestselling non-fiction book a few years back, but what made you decide to start writing fiction?
MC: I always wanted to write fiction – that was what I’d wanted to do since I was very young. I wrote the non-fiction book about the Simpson trial in order to explain how the case unfolded from “day one,” and give the true account of the case from the prosecution standpoint. But writing non-fiction was never a personal goal for me. My true desire was always to write fiction. In writing Guilt by Association I finally realized my life-long dream.
C&P: And are you influenced by any crime fiction writers?
MC: I think I’m influenced by them all: the good, the bad, the incredibly wonderful. In fact, I think I learn more from bad writing than from good. Certainly the good writers provide inspiration. They show one how fulfilling the experience of reading can be when the writer really delivers on character and plot. But in the end, the way each writer accomplishes that goal is unique to him or her. However, bad writing exposes universal flaws – things that wouldn’t work for anyone. When I finish those books, I know that “for heaven’s sake, whatever you do – don’t do that!”
C&P: Rachel is a great character, but how much of her is autobiographical?
MC: Actually, all of the characters are autobiographical. Though Rachel is the lead character and thus the most likely to be viewed as myself, the truth is, every character has aspects of me.
C&P: At different points in the novel, Rachel has to wear a bullet-proof vest, is shot at, and has to wear a disguise to sneak into a prison [to name but a small selection of incidents]. Did you have to do any of this during your time as a prosecutor?
MC: I never wore a bullet-proof vest – though there were times I wanted to! Kidding. But no, I wasn’t in that kind of mortal peril as a prosecutor. This book is a thriller, and in this genre the goal is to make the story exciting. Stretching reality to a certain point is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing in fiction. But that can never go too far, or the reader will turn away. One has to stay within the realm of possibility. So, was I personally in that kind of mortal peril? No. But could a prosecutor be in mortal peril? Certainly. That’s what makes for real suspense in a crime novel.
C&P: And she often carries a .357 Smith & Wesson – which reminded me of Carol O’Connell’s detective, Kathy Mallory. But did you draw upon any female crime fiction protagonists when constructing Rachel?
MC: Not consciously. I really drew upon myself and all my friends and people I’d met in my time as a prosecutor to construct Rachel.
C&P: And how did you come up with the plot? Did it require any research or were you able to draw upon cases that you – or any of your colleagues – worked on?
MC: With nearly thirty years of experience on both sides of criminal cases, I didn’t need to do a lot of research! But the cases that form the basis for the plot in Guilt by Association are not drawn from any real case. They’re purely fiction.
C&P: And what can we expect next from Rachel and the Special Trials Unit team?
MC: My hope is for this to be a recurring series, and that you’ll be seeing Rachel and her buddies, Detective Bailey Keller and prosecutor Toni LaCollette crushing crime for many books to come!
My thanks to Marcia for taking the time to answer my questions. And you can read my review of Guilt By Association here.