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An Interview with Marcia Clark: Part I

Marcia Clark’s Guilt by Association, the first novel starring Los Angeles prosecutor Rachel Knight, was released to critical acclaim and success in 2011. The paperback of Guilt by Association came out in March, and now, Rachel is back in the gripping Guilt By Degrees. A former prosecutor herself, Clark has a deep fascination for the wheels of justice and contemporary criminal trials. This laces Guilt By Degrees with a gritty authenticity sure to appeal to fans of Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller series. Like her lawyer-writer compatriots Scott Turow, John Grisham, and William Lashner, Clark understands the nobility of the legal profession and knows how to craft a thrilling narrative.

Ms. Clark spoke with me about her long-standing passion for the mystery novel and the process of crafting a new Rachel Knight adventure in Guilt By Degrees. This is the first of a two-part interview.

You’re a former prosecutor and a lot of being an attorney is crafting a narrative. Was that something you always had an interest in? Were you a big reader as a child? What kind of got you interested in the idea of telling stories in general?

I was a big reader as a child. From, like, three. And murder mysteries in particular got to me when I was really young.  I mean, Nancy Drew was somebody I was reading when I was six. So I’ve always been kind of wedded to this genre. I have to say I think I thought about writing, I loved writing when I was a kid, but I never believed in the ability to live that way…you know, indoors. And so I thought I didn’t have the confidence to try it. And then, even when I was a prosecutor, I was still reading murder mysteries–addicted to James Ellroy. I would literally work all day on murders and come home and then read about it and then watch Law & Order. You know, total immersion. This is kind of a life-long passion for me, I’ve always kind of been like this, so to speak.

I think what got me the confidence to finally try to write a book is having the experience of writing in Hollywood, writing scripts. That got me doing it, and so I thought, “you know, I really want to try to write a book.” (laughing) I had, thank god, no clue how hard it would be! Scripts are short, they’re like haiku, and you bang them out in a week. You may rewrite a bunch, but you bang them out pretty fast because they are so much shorter. And writing a book was daunting, but I was in it to win it. I really loved it and I just wanted to do it anyway. I persevered for years before I turned out something that was worth sending out for someone to read.

You mentioned that you are a fan of James Ellroy. That’s really fascinating. What about his work appeals to you so much?

I think his ability to deliver a really bizarre set of characters and situations that is entirely somehow believable…These are unusual characters, they’re fringe characters, their situations are odd. And yet, stepping into the world, I believed every word of it. And I thought “That is just such an amazing gift.” It’s also a gift that gives you great insight into the world, into characters, into places and things that you wouldn’t ordinarily know. I love that.

I think the other inspiration that I had was Armisted Maupin, on the end completely of the spectrum. Tales of the City…that was, again, the ability to deliver a world with quirky character that were somehow very engaging and very warm. I loved the idea. That’s what gave me the idea of writing a series. “I want to do that too.” I want to create a world that I can go back to over and over again, share with readers over and over again, like a family that you watch develop.

And so the idea of revisiting the [real] world of a prosecutor, which I love…where there was a real sense of community with the cops, with fellow prosecutors, and that the wonderfulness of working a job that was a mission, and not just a job. You know, the belief that you were fighting for something important in the world and helping the victims. It was just a wonderful, great feeling. And so I wanted to go back to that world and share it, and have an ongoing series about it.

It’s definitely something that comes across in both books. What can you tell readers about this second novel, where you got the idea for it, and what fans of the first book can expect from this one?

I can tell because I’m just finishing my third book that every book has its own inspiration from whatever hits me at the time that I’m working up the book.

With the second book, I was inspired by a completely different dynamic. I was inspired by a true story of a homeless man who was killed in New York–this was in Queens, I think. He was killed in the process of trying to defend a woman who was being attacked by somebody on the street. He got stabbed, and lay on the ground after the attack–she got away, he saved her–and he was left to die, bleeding out on the sidewalk, while people walked past him, took pictures of him, stepped over him…It was one of those amazingly heart wrenching stories, and it did get press, and I thought I want to write about that.

There were also, then, stories that I had been interested in that involved white supremacists…I’m also fascinated by the bias people bring to a case when it’s time to judge guilty [or] not guilty. People bring biases that they’re both aware of and unaware of to every case. This is always true. The biases that are of most concern are the ones they’re not aware of, because, generally speaking, I think jurors come in to do a noble thing. They want to convict the guilty. They want to acquit the innocent. They want to follow the evidence. But they can be undermined by the biases they’re unaware of.

Night at my StudioOne of those biases is that women don’t commit violent crime. Women won’t do certain things. They won’t do bloody, violent crimes. They won’t harm their loved ones in that kind of way. We see it in Casey Anthony. I think there was bias definitely in play there. I call it the Pretty White Girl Exception, but it also had to do with the unwillingness that a mother could kill her baby in the manner indicated in that case. It was cruel, it was horrifying, and cold-blooded to think that a mother would drug her baby and deliberately suffocate that baby by duct-taping its face and throwing it in the woods. No, we don’t want to believe that women would do these things. I think that bias came into play, and they looked for any other solution to this problem, and they found it her father, who was a much more “believable” suspect in their mind.

I think those kind of biases come into play, and it reminded me again of Lizzie Borden. What nobody remembers about her is that — in honesty, the Casey Anthony case did not inspire the story because the story was almost completely written by the time I was aware of the case, but Lizzie Borden did inspire me, and the memory that she was acquitted. What people forget is that yes, she was the only suspect standing tall for the whole thing, but they acquitted her. They never did find anyone else to blame for the murders, and it seems pretty clear in hindsight as I look at the evidence–she did it! But nobody wanted to believe she did it. Nobody wanted to believe a woman could take matters into her own hands in a bloody, gory way, and commit a crime like that.

So I wanted to explore a woman like that–and Lizzie Borden continued to live her life…she seemed to rather thrive, and she did just fine. I liked the idea of having a female sociopath who was not just a killing machine. I’m very, very weary of all these serial killer stories. Serial killers are statistically insignificant when it comes to real crime, and I do want to stay as close to real crime as I can. But sociopaths, generally speaking, are simply flawed characters who always act out of their own self interest. What they tend to have is no conscience, so when it’s to do something to help themselves, protect themselves, defend themselves, unlike you or I, they don’t necessarily think in terms of what needs to be done and resist screwing someone over or committing a violent act. They’ll go straight there, because they don’t have a conscience. But that doesn’t mean they’re killing machines looking for reasons to kill everybody. Not the case. So I wanted to create a character, more sociopathically speaking,  realistic.

And in general, I like to try to tether my stories, my characters to some kind of realism. Keep one foot on the ground, so to speak. You can’t tell the complete truth in terms of real crime, because real crime is very boring and very simple. The story’s over very quickly: Johnny goes into a liquor store and shoots Brucie–done. That’s a very short story, so of course we have to embellish, but embellish in a way that take you step-by-step through the crime, through the investigation, in a way that has logic to it, in a way it really would happen.

So after coming up with a premise and a story based on the elements I’ve told you about, I thought, “okay, what really would happen?” “And how would this woman deal with her life after the crime? What would Rachel do logically? What would Bailey do logically to solve this case?” And from there, once you get the premise, I work it through in a way that’s as real as it can be to what police and prosecutors do.

You mentioned you were working as a screenwriter before starting writing books and fiction. How did that inform your process? With screenwriting, it can be fairly outline heavy–do you outline before writing a novel? Once you’ve got that idea, like you were discussing, how do you proceed through sitting down and writing a first draft?

You know, I do outline, but it’s not really a very good outline. (laughing) I outline because I think as I write. I do better thinking in motion. Sometimes I think as I’m walking. I hike with the dogs, and I beat stories out in my head that way. If that’s not possible, writing as I’m thinking helps me to do it.

I know some writers say they like to think of one premise and just let it fly as they go on the page. I think Hollywood kind of got me in the habit of thinking through outline form–at least the bare bones of the story. But when I say I don’t outline well, I do outline, I write it all out, just for a sense of security, not necessarily in a form that anyone understands, but I do. But then, the thing is, I change it radically as I write. I’m wondering whether, as I get more experienced and more confident, I might dispose or dispense with that initial steps, because the story winds up being so much different than the outline. (laughing)

You have quite a bit of experience as a lawyer and as a prosecutor. At this point, is research still very important to you? Do you check in at the DA’s office, or speak to police officers? If you still research, what’s the process like?

I don’t research because I lived it. I keep current on the way cases are being handled today because I’m still practicing law. I handle criminal appeals in which you don’t have to go to court, you just read transcripts and look for technical errors and write briefs. But it lets me read through many many many many trials that are happening today. So that’s part of the ongoing research that’s part of my life.

This is the second novel in a series. Do you feel an obligation to your reader to either inform them of the events of the past book? Can a reader pick up Guilt By Degrees in the shop and be informed of what’s going on and enjoy it without having to go back and read the first one?

I deliberately wrote Guilt by Degrees in a way that would give people the chance to get right on board with it without having to go back to read Guilt By Association. Certainly, it helps, I think, to have read the first book, because you get to see, as we call it, “the meet cute.” Graden and Rachel, and that’s kind of a fun dynamic to see how it starts out from the very beginning…she’s doing her thing, he’s doing his, and each of them is very wedded to their job and doing it correctly, and neither one of them wants to put up with the other one’s issues.

In Guilt By Association, she wants to be in on that crime scene, she wants to see what’s going on. Graden sees that she shouldn’t be there, and throws her out, and she’s pissed. So it sets up a dynamic for two very strong people who are very wedded to their jobs. You don’t get to see that happening from the very beginning in Guilt By Degrees, but you do learn about their relationship, and you do learn about Rachel’s traumatic childhood history–more so in the second book than the first, and that was on purpose, too–so you don’t need to have read Guilt By Association, and I did that deliberately so that people could pick up the second book and jump right in.

But I always think it helps to have seen a series like this, where you have recurring characters, from the beginning, so you can enjoy the development of them. Rachel in particular is a character who plays her cards very close to the vest, guards her privacy very jealously…she’s not somebody you’re going to meet at a party and is going to spill their guts and tell their life story. You know that guy. (laughing) “And then, I was in junior high…” and you’re looking at your watch going “Dude, I gotta go–what was your name again?” Rachel’s the opposite of that. She doesn’t like tell anybody anything about her personally. She’ll talk to you endlessly about cases, but not about herself. And so, in the first book, I thought “Okay, but this character, then, is not going to spill her guts about her childhood trauma, which she’s taken great pains to distance herself from, and hide.” She has a lot of survivor’s guilt about it. It’s something that she doesn’t like talking about, and as a result, keeps it very quiet and under wraps as best she can. I thought she’s not to reveal to the reader–or to anybody–until she has to, until her hand is forced. So you don’t learn what that trauma is in the first book, but in the second, only because her hand got forced, she does reveal it, and then the reader will find out.

So I think there’s some nuance you can miss if you don’t read the first book, but there’s no sense of not understanding who the characters are when you just pick up the second book.

The conversation continues Thursday.

Marcia Clark is a former LA, California deputy district attorney, who was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder case. She wrote a bestselling nonfiction book about the trial, Without a Doubt, the national bestselling thriller GUILT BY ASSOCIATION introducing DA Rachel Knight, and is a frequent media commentator and columnist on legal issues. She lives in Los Angeles.

Brendan M. Leonard is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and crime fiction junkie living in New York City. He has written for CHUD.com, The Rap Sheet, and January Magazine. There are days he worries about becoming Ron Swanson. Visit his blog here, or follow him on Twitter here.