For a while, it seemed like both Taylor sisters had found happiness. Chloe landed a coveted publishing job in New York City. Nicky got married to a promising young attorney named Adam McIntosh and became a mother to a baby boy named Ethan.
But now, fourteen years later, it is Chloe who is married to Adam. When he is murdered at the couple’s beach house, she has no choice but to welcome her estranged sister – her teenage stepson’s biological mother – back into her life. When the police begin to treat Ethan as a suspect, the sisters are forced to confront the truth behind family secrets they both tried to leave behind in order to protect the boy they love, whatever the cost.
Paul Burke: Samantha Kincaid, your first protagonist in Judgement Calls (2003), was a prosecutor (DDA) in Oregon, just like you. Did you always know that your experience in the law would become material for your writing?
Alafair Burke: No, it crept up on me. I was always an avid reader, especially of a crime fiction. I started to notice a dearth of books that really gave an insiders’ look at the behind-the-scenes action at a prosecutor’s office. I became yet another lawyer who thought, “Someday, I’m going to write a book.”
PB: Now you’re a Professor of Law at Hofstra in New York. Your novels still draw on real cases. What are you looking for when you create a fictional thriller?
AB: I know I’m ready to write when I can match an intriguing character with a compelling scenario. Factual developments in a story aren’t enough. They have to be connected to character to work for me.
PB: Apart from ideas for stories, does your experience as a prosecutor/law professor give you an insight into human nature in extreme circumstances that informs your work?
AB: I think so. Working at the District Attorney’s Office, I would see people tested by the experiences that had been handed to them. For two years, I worked on domestic violence cases, and you can’t understand those cases without having empathy. On the one hand, it’s an assault—a criminal case to be handled like any other. But the victim is often still in love with the offender. They share a home and children. My last few books have taken a closer look at what it’s like to have your family dynamics placed under the microscope of the criminal justice system.
PB: If you could make one change to criminal law what would it be?
AB: A quicker and yet more thorough process. Most cases get very little attention from either a defence attorney or prosecutor, and yet leave the parties in limbo for months or even years without a resolution.
PB: The good: Does social media enable you have a link to readers and fans that you couldn’t otherwise experience?
AB: Absolutely. I really do believe I have the best readers. They use social media to meet writers and other readers. They’re kind and supportive. Writing is a isolated job, but I don’t enjoy being isolated as a person. A lot of my readers have become online friends I enjoy chatting with on a break.
PB: The bad: The Better Sister explores the darker side of social media. Chloe experiences horrendous abuse simply because she is a successful woman, sadly her experience mirrors that of a lot of people with a public profile. Are we taking this issue seriously enough yet?
AB: That’s a big, fat Nope. There are all kinds of stories online of women reporting threats and harassment online, but there’s no accountability. The anonymity emboldens people to act horrifically. End anonymous accounts—or even limit their visibility—and it would all change immediately.
PB: The Better Sister raises the concern that #MeToo gives a voice to women in the public eye (I know it’s still very difficult coming forward), but the abuse of many women in everyday jobs is still ignored. Is there a danger that we assume the publicity means the problem is being dealt with when we are only scratching the surface?
AB: I do have some concerns that the evolution of #MeToo moved toward lower level wrongs (if you can put these things on a spectrum, which some don’t want to do), also committed by high-profile men. Has the movement really changed anything for cashiers, waitresses, nurses, factory workers? That story remains to be told, and it’s something that Chloe Taylor focuses on in her (alas, fictional) work.
PB: Do you read crime fiction? What kind of books do you like?
AB: I devour crime fiction.
PB: Do you think crime writing can add to our understanding of crime and society?
AB: Absolutely. Crime writers are tackling some of the biggest issues of our time: the fairness of the criminal justice system, police-citizen encounters, gender and racial equality. And it’s entertaining. How great is that?
PB: The Better Sister is a psychological/court room thriller. Why are contemporary themes in a real world setting so important to you?
AB: I like my fiction to be reflective of the real world, with all its messiness. It’s smarter, but it’s also more entertaining. Things that feel real are more suspenseful to me than pure fantasy.
PB: You have been balancing two careers for years now, you must have a lot of energy and drive?
AB: Ha! The opposite. I am in some ways the laziest person in the world. I can sit in absolute silence for hours, watching a fire or doing a jigsaw puzzle, and be absolutely content. But I do like the work. I’m compulsive about it. But then when I’m not working, I’m lazy.
PB: Contrarily (you said this not me), you are a bit lazy when it comes to research, maybe a reaction to the work that goes into a legal career? How does an Alafair Burke novel develop, is it an organic process?
AB: Yes, it’s another way I joke that I’m lazy. It’s not actual laziness, though. When I need to know something, I’ll do the work to figure it out, though that’s usually finding a smart person who can explain it all to me. But I think the stories I want to tell tend to grow from what I already know, so that’s pretty convenient.
PB: You also write the successful Under Suspicion series with Mary Higgins Clark, how that work? Particularly in light of the above.
AB: We’ve had a ball working together. If one pretty good storyteller like me sits down with a really, really good storyteller like her, it’s amazing how much we can get done in a day. We’ll write very little at first. We’ll talk through character, story, plot and setting, all the things that make a good book good. We get more done in one day than I get done by myself in a month. When you’re by yourself, when you hit a wall, you think, “I’ve got enough for today; I’ll think about this problem tomorrow.” But if you have someone else to work with, she can say: “Here’s how you can fix it,” and I can pick back the thread. You hear about the writing rooms for TV shows — we have our own writing room. I think we’re both enjoying it
PB: Assumptions about the main characters in The Better Sister, Adam, Ethan, Chloe and Nicky, are constantly being challenged in the novel. Do you enjoy playing with readers’ expectations?
AB: No spoilers, but yes, I want characters to be surprising because, like actual people, there’s more to them than first meets the eye.
PB: Do you treat characters differently in a standalone novel as opposed to one of your series?
AB: I hope all the characters all full formed, whether it’s a one-off or a long-term relationship. But the stories are different. I don’t need Ellie Hatcher to have the equivalent of a full memoir take place in one book. The standalones tend to be a pretty comprehensive telling of one character’s story—or at least the part of their story that gives rise to the book.
PB: The Better Sister is a really insightful portrait of the relationship between the two sisters, Chloe and Nicky, how would you describe it? Is this the heart of the novel for you?
AB: Yes, the complicated history of these women, both individually and as sisters, is what makes the entire plot tick for me. They experience this horrible event—the murder of Chloe’s husband, who is also Nicky’s ex—and can’t just make it through the storm the way they might prefer to. They have to deal with each other after years of tiptoeing around their problems.
PB: Finally, can you tell us what’s next for Alafair Burke?
AB: I’m working on a new novel for 2020 and also another co-authored novel with Mary, also for 2020.
Our thanks to Alafair and Paul for this excellent Q&A.
The Better Sister by Alafair Burke is published by Faber & Faber in April (£12.99)