It’s a week after the fantastic Murder and Mayhem in Muskego conference and I’m on the phone with my dad. “Did you get to meet anybody famous?” he asks.
“Yes,” I said. “I got to sit down with Marcia Clark, the OJ Simpson trial prosecutor, for an interview. She writes mysteries now.”
Marcia gave a fantastic interview, and I decided the best way to share it was a transcript of the whole thing.
WN: You obviously had a career before being a fiction writer. What made you make that transition and think, hey, I’m going to try this fiction writing thing.
MC: It was actually something that I dreamed about doing as a kid. It was an early passion, an early love when I was addicted to Nancy Drew and I loved crime fiction back then at age five. I had always wanted to do it but I had no confidence, and I had no belief in my ability to earn a living at it, so it seemed like an unwise choice and I went to law school. And then after I left the DA’s office, I eventually wound up working in television and it was based on the DA’s office. They thought I might know something about that, oddly. And I started writing scripts for television and the creator of that show and I went out and created more pilots. And now I just co-wrote a pilot based on the series of books for TNT and we’re in development there. And so writing scripts ultimately gave me the confidence to tackle a childhood dream.
WN: What’s been the most surprising thing that you’ve learned now three novels in?
MC: Four novels in.
WN: Four novels in.
MC: You’re always one ahead, starting on five. You know, it’s funny, everything and nothing. That’s a retarded answer.
What I mean is, I didn’t have any idea what it would be like to write books for a living, let alone fiction for a living. I had written a book about the trial. That’s a whole different thing. You already know what happens, you know how it ends, certainly, and so it’s a whole different discipline. Everything about the experience of being a writer and living that life is surprising to me. So, and nothing is. I didn’t have a preconception of what it would be like.
WN: What, now that you are four books in and starting five, what has changed for you in the process from where you started with the first one. If you could go back in time and tell yourself from a few years ago, what advice would you have given yourself when you were first starting out?
MC: That’s a great question. Let me tell you. What I did in the first book was ignore everything I’d learned in television and decided well I’m just going to sit down and write a book and wound up with this… I don’t know what you call it, but it wasn’t good. And after making some efforts to tweak it, I realized that this sucks. So fireplace. There is where it went; it served its highest purpose. I took another run at it doing the same thing with only a vague outline of an idea of how it was going to end or proceed and then tweaked that for a while, with an agent. Who, at the end of a year, I was realizing I was spinning and it wasn’t getting better and I didn’t want this to go out. The agent said you know it’s not quite where it needs to be, but if you hire an editor, I’m sure it will. I said, no, this book really sucks I need to throw it out. They were all, “No, don’t throw it out”. But no, I threw it out.
I realized I need to write an outline. When you write for television, for each episode of a series, you have to do a one-sheet, that is like a summary of the story you are going to tell. It’s what they call a beat sheet. I thought I need that for my book, I need a beat sheet and I need and outline. I need to go chapter by chapter to see if I have enough action, character development, twists and turns to see if I’ve got a book. I do one line per chapter. Chapter One: Rachel meets the victim. Chapter Two: blah blah blah. I don’t necessarily have to finish the outline, but if I get to chapter 50 and it’s going strong I know I’ve got something. At the end of the day, I’d rather throw out an outline than a book. Having done both, let me tell you. I’d go back and tell myself, write and outline, idiot.
WN: In one of the earlier panels (at Muskego) they were talking about how people assume the character is the author. How are you like her (Rachel) and how are you really different than Rachel?
MC: I think Rachel has all my bad qualities and she has a lot of good ones I don’t. I think of her as my avatar. She’s way better than me. She has so much more of an exciting life than I do. Rachel for me is kind of wish fulfillment. She lives at the Biltmore Hotel. She gets room service and never has to clean her room. But it was important to me that she be realistic. A deputy DA just doesn’t make that kind of dough. She’s got to have a reason and in the first book, and I carry it through, I make sure to tell the reader in every book, she got there because she prosecuted a murder case of the CEO of the Biltmore’s wife and won the case and he offered her to stay there. And he offered her such a good deal, she couldn’t afford to not do it. It was important to me to do that, because I hate it when people have characters who are ridiculous. It pulls me out of the moment and I know, you too. They could never do that and I’m out and I’m gone.
WN: With the Biltmore, that’s a real place. What do you do to make sure you’re getting LA? Or how do you decide, this is how it really is, but I need it to be like this to make the plot work.
MC: If there are mistakes, it’s accidental. I try to deliver LA realistically and much less glamorously than people expect it to be. Yes, it has Hollywood and it is glittery and gorgeous and in the middle of Hollywood, there are streets where all the male hookers hang out and people who are homeless. There’s a lot of sadness and devastation. I try to show the highs and the lows of it. Los Angeles being as big as it is has so many pockets to it, each one feeling different than the other. So one pocket feels like the Midwest and another feels like Manhattan and another feels like the South, depending on where you are. It gives a very rich tapestry for an author so I don’t have to fudge to create interesting situations. Where I have them hang out, if they’re going to dinner somewhere it’s real.
WN: How do you approach the legal side? Are there things that you have to fudge there or are you very rigid with this is how an investigation would have to go?
MC: It is how an investigation would go. I give you a court situation but how we would develop the case and how we would pursue the leads, that’s all for real. The thing that’s fudged is time, I have to collapse time because I can’t expect the reader… it takes me out of the moment if I think things are taking months to develop. In some stories it’s ok, but in these crime stories, I think it’s not so OK. You need the pressure of a time-lock, so I have to have it compressed. I was in the Special Trials unit for 10 years; those cases take a long-ass time to go to trial because you do a lot of investigation and when you’re in trial, you’re usually in trial for about a year, not a few weeks. That I compress for the benefit of the reader because why should I bore you to death. I can rely on others to do that. That would be the only way I take license.
I’m able to tell you stuff like Rachel and Bailey are out at night, they come across a witness who has information at this house and they’re going to get such-and-such and they need to get a search warrant. Ok, how do they do that? They don’t want to lose any evidence, they’ve got to get there fast. We do a telephonic search warrant, that’s for real.
Or conversely, Rachel and Bailey want to get a search warrant. The judge says no. Now what? That happens too.
WN: You mentioned book four is done and book five is started?
MC: I’m working on it. Even now, as we speak.
WN: What else… the pilot?
MC: I co-wrote the pilot. TNT optioned these books for a one-hour series and we’re in development. And hopefully we get to shoot a pilot.
WN: A lot of writers who write series … maybe they’ll start something new. Are you sticking with Rachel and Bailey?
MC: I love Rachel and Bailey I wrote a series because I like series. That said, my books don’t have to be read in any order at all. I catch up the reader in every book. I’ve written four now and I might make book five a standalone, but I’m not in the mood to create another series. I like reading series and I write what I like to read. I like reading series and coming back to these same characters. It’s like a family to me. I know everybody well now, Rachel and Bailey and Toni and what they are going to say and their voices are very distinct to me in my head. If I write book five as a standalone, I will miss them and want to come back.
WN: One of the questions we always like to ask is “What have you been reading?”
MC: There’s so many, it’s a question that always…if I answer it, I’ll wake up and say I should have told her that. Or that! Or that!. So that’s why you shouldn’t give me your phone number. That’s a dangerous thing to do. Nobody wants that. So, the last things I’ve been reading that are really fun; Sean Chercover’s “The Trinity Game,” Marcus Sakey’s, “Brilliance,” Alison Galen’s “Into the Dark”… These are my newest finds.
WN: What’s your writing day look like? Do you have a routine that you follow?
MC: Yeah, I really tend to make myself sit down and start at 10 in the morning. I make myself sit down between 10 and 5 and just keep doing it no matter what. I find that the act of typing makes ideas happen. It’s hard. Sometimes you’re lucky and it flows like wine and it’s all fabulous and most of the time it isn’t and I have to force myself to stay in the chair and keep my hands on the keyboard. But everyday, for at least six, maybe seven hours and push through it. I find, especially, that once I’ve done the first draft, going back to do the rewrite… rewrites are painful because I see what havoc I’ve wrought. I come across lines that are so lame and stupid, I think, I’m glad no one is seeing this. But there’s also a lot of comfort in it. I have the story, the story’s there and I try not to hate on myself too much so I can focus on fixing it and not on how much I hate myself. You have to pull yourself away from the critical mind a little bit. You need to be critical enough to rewrite but don’t get depressed by what you see. It’s going to be better.