FOR BOOK CLUBS: Q & A INTERVIEWS FOR BOTH UNDER OATH AND UNDER FIRE
Norm Goldman, an editor at BookPleasures.com conducted the following interview for Under Fire.
Norm: I noticed from reading the inside cover of Under Fire that in 2010 you were hailed as one of the next faces of Boston crime fiction by the Boston Globe. How does it feel to receive such a compliment?
Margaret: I was flattered to receive such a compliment and full page spread from the Boston Globe. The feature ran following the death of Boston author, Robert B. Parker, who is famous for the Spenser novels. Like Parker, my novels are set in Boston with conflicted detectives and a wily old Irish criminal defense lawyer, Buddy Clancy, who teams up with his niece, Sarah Lynch. My characters and their stories are pulled right from the streets of Boston and tossed into the mix of a courtroom drama and legal thriller.
Norm: Why were you interested in becoming a criminal prosecutor?
Margaret: As a young girl, I fell in love with the law by watching Perry Mason episodes on television. I viewed the courtroom as an intellectual stage. After law school, the DA's office provided me with the best trial experience. I started out in a high crime area, and was thrown into the fire with all kinds of cases and issues involving constitutional law. The criminal courts are also teeming with colorful characters to write about.
Norm: How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Margaret: I've always had a passion for reading and writing. I wrote my first book in college based on the life of the Russian novelist, Feodor Dostoevsky. Meeting people from all walks of life and writing about their unique stories keeps me going. I also get energized from readers who tell me I've kept them up all night and ask when the next one is coming out.
Norm: What was your creative process like when you authored Under Fire? What happened before you sat down to write the book? Did you write from your own experiences?
Margaret: As a prosecutor, I tried arson cases with the Massachusetts State Police fire investigators and canine handlers. Arson cases are difficult to prosecute: key evidence is often destroyed in the fire. Thus, I combined several real cases and decided to create a compelling courtroom drama out of them. Before I sat down to write Under Fire, my friends in law enforcement helped me with the forensics research. They conducted a live burn, fire investigation, and a mock trial based on the facts of the book. I even suited up to fight the fire!
Norm: Did you know the end of your book at the beginning? As a follow up, what is the most favorite part of your book?
Margaret: I had an idea how I wanted the book to end and I stuck with it for the most part. My novels follow the structure of a trial from opening statement to verdict; however, I like to weave a face-paced thriller subplot to take the readers out of the courtroom. Sometimes I don't know where the subplot will lead me. My favorite parts of the book are the dramatic courtroom cross-examination scenes.
Norm: What is required for a character to be believable? How did you create your principal characters in Under Fire?
Margaret: I have to know my characters inside and out. The protagonist, Sarah Lynch, has a bit of me in her. She's a former gang unit prosecutor and aggressive trial lawyer. Buddy Clancy is based on a crafty criminal defense lawyer I used to try cases against. These characters have taken on a life of their own at this point. Clancy can write himself.
Norm: What is your secret in keeping the intensity of the plot throughout the narrative of Under Fire?
Margaret: I outline the plot before I get started, and as I write each chapter, I keep Stephen King in mind. In his book, On Writing, he says you have to have "the gotcha." So, I ask myself, does this chapter make the reader want to keep reading until the wee hours of the morning? Does it have "the gotcha?"
Norm: Do you believe you have already found “your voice” or is that something one is always searching for?
Margaret: I've found my voice in the legal thriller genre through Sarah Lynch and Buddy Clancy. However, I'd like to explore options outside the genre someday. I've always been interested in historical fiction.
Norm: What makes a good legal thriller?
Margaret: Readers must be entertained, but also walk away thinking about some of the key legal and/or constitutional issues that confront Americans today. For example, Under Fire delves into the misuse of eminent domain, and the greed behind certain lucrative real estate development projects. I like to expose both sides of a case, and persuade my readers to open their minds, and view certain issues from a different angle.
Norm: It is said that writers should write what they know. You clearly know about criminal law. Were there any elements of the book that forced you to step out of your comfort zone, and if so, how did you approach this part of the writing?
Margaret: Yes. Under Fire features a Muslim immigrant woman standing trial for arson and the murder of a heroic firefighter. I had to go out into the community and find a Muslim woman, which seemed daunting at first. I didn't know any. So, I asked around and a friend introduced me to a lovely Muslim immigrant from Senegal. I spent a summer getting to know her and learning all about her experience as an immigrant, her religion, and culture, which greatly enriched the novel. This experience turned out to be my favorite part of the writing process.
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Margaret: I'm an avid reader and sometimes I'll put a book down when it becomes too contrived. That's why I like to base my novels on actual cases. Joining a writers' group and reading sections out loud as you go is very helpful. If I go over the top, my writers' group will tell me, and I'll re-write the chapter. Sometimes we'll have a good laugh at the crazy ideas.
Norm: What is next for Margaret McLean?
Margaret: Under Oath, another legal thriller, is hitting bookstores in April! I'm also writing my third Buddy Clancy and Sarah Lynch book, Under Treason.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your book(s) and is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
I encourage readers and bookclubs to contact me through the website if they have any feedback or questions about the writing process. Thank you for interviewing me and enjoy the books!
Riveting Legal Drama: An Interview about Under Oath with William Bentrim of Pick of the Literate
Thank you Ms. McLean for agreeing to be interviewed. I greatly enjoyed Under Fire, your previous book which I reviewed on this blog. In a world often grossly overpopulated with legal dramas, real and fictional, your books glow with an understated intensity. Your characters are memorable and your plots intriguing. I guess now that I have established or ruined my credibility by admitting I am a fan, I guess I will get to the questions.
1.) Why did you write this book? What initiated this particular burst of creativity?
A: Charlestown is a working class Irish neighborhood of Boston, which is only one square mile, but it had the highest unsolved murder rate in the country for decades. I lived there and would say hello to a man everyday on my way home from work. I’d see him sitting on his stoop, smoking. One day, I didn’t see him anymore. He was murdered and his murder still remains unsolved. I witnessed the frustration of the homicide detectives as they dealt with this pervasive code of silence: don’t see anything, don’t hear anything, and never talk to cops. I became consumed with this street code of justice and why it permeated Charlestown. The Mothers against Murder group and their determination to end the code of silence also deeply influence my writing.
2.) Does your story line develop organically or is it a gestalt before you begin?
A: I start with an idea for a trial, which has a structure from the opening statements to the verdict. I weave the story around the trial. I also create a general outline with character biographies. As the novel progresses, I use a chapter by chapter working outline.
3.) What is the most difficult part about writing a book?
A: When I’m working on the first draft of a novel, I have to force myself to stop procrastinating and forge ahead. It’s so easy to focus on anything but writing, especially when I’m busy marketing and promoting the latest novel. It helps to jot down ideas and sketch the next scene on a legal pad, and then type that into the manuscript. At the end of a writing day, I stop mid-sentence for it’s easier to pick up where I left off the next morning.
4.) Do you have a favorite character in the book and if so why?
A: My favorite character is the protagonist, Annie Fitzgerald. She is the prosecutor in charge of the unsolved murder cases; thus, it is incumbent upon her to break the age-old code of silence in Charlestown. At age eleven, Annie witnessed a tragic event in her family’s bookstore in Charlestown involving her father and the code of silence, which forced the family to close the store and move out. Years later, Annie comes back to Boston with a personal vendetta to change Charlestown and extinguish the code of silence. As the trial unfolds against crime boss, Billy Malone, Annie becomes consumed with convicting him, exploits her prosecutorial power, and a lead witness ends up dead. Annie has to acknowledge her mistake and forge ahead in this impossible case for the government.
5.) What do you like the most about writing?
A: I like creating complex characters who must overcome challenges and make changes in their lives. I’ve also co-written a play, Under Oath, which features Annie Fitzgerald and Buddy Clancy. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing these characters come to life on the stage. The play is currently in development with the Actors Studio in New York City.
6.) Where do your new story ideas come from?
A: My stories evolve from a combination of real, controversial legal cases and/or trials. Characters and dialogue come from my experience trying hundreds of cases as an Assistant District Attorney in a high-crime area. Lately, ideas are born from interviews and forensic research for my radio show It’s A Crime out in LA.
7.) What advice has helped the most in your writing?
A: The best advice I’ve received is to spend less time on the first draft. The process is similar to creating a multi-tiered wedding cake: mix the ingredients, get it baked, and then spend more time on the frosting and decorative details. It’s important to keep writing everyday with the goal of producing that first manuscript. The storyline and characters are honed in subsequent drafts.
8.) Do you have something new in the works?
A: I’m working on the first draft of Under Treason, another legal thriller starring defense attorney Sarah Lynch (the protagonist from Under Fire) and her crafty uncle, Buddy Clancy. A CIA agent stands trial for treason and crimes committed in violation of the Espionage Act in federal court.
9.) Who is your favorite author and why?
A: Harper Lee is my favorite author. She inspired me with To Kill A Mockingbird. I loved how she incorporated such rich themes and characters into a courtroom drama.
10.) What advice would you give for the want to be writer?
A: Participate weekly in an experienced writer’s group and join organizations such as Mystery Writers of America. It’s so important to have a support group. Writing a novel can be lonely and daunting. I’d also suggest attending writers conferences for they are a great venue to hone writing skills and to meet other authors, agents, and editors.
Thank you for answering my questions and I know I look forward to your next book.