Most folks—at least those of us who were sentient beings in 1995—will remember Marcia Clark’s name from the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She was the lead prosecutor on the case, and one of its most public faces. Without a Doubt, her account of the trial co-written with Teresa Carpenter, spent nine weeks on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Since leaving her legal practice in 1995 Marcia has hosted a variety of shows for CNBC and MSNBC, appeared as a commentator on such programs as Larry King Live, The Today Show, and The Early Show, been a legal correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, contributed a column for The Daily Beast, written scripts for a legal drama on the Lifetime Network, created pilots for FX and VH1, and is currently collaborating a pilot for Lifetime. And now she’s written a novel, and it’s a fine one.
Guilt By Association, out this past April from Mulholland Books, gives us a heroine for the ages, Rachel Knight—D.A. in Los Angeles’ Special Trials Unit, a smart woman with a smart mouth who most definitely doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When Jake Pahlmeyer, her friend and coworker, turns up dead in a seedy hotel with an underage male hooker, the two of them victims of an apparent murder-suicide, Rachel is sure there’s more going on than meets the eye. But the FBI has moved in on the case, which means she’s supposed to stay clear, and at any rate she’s busy enough with the extra work from Jake’s high-profile case load. Fortunately for Clark’s readers, though, Rachel Knight doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do, and her investigations—both legitimate and unauthorized—make for an intelligent, fast-paced thriller. There’s something here for everyone: a panoramic view of L.A., from its detention centers to its gated communities, an incipient—but not overbearing—romantic interest, and the refreshingly believable camaraderie between Rachel and her true-blue girlfriends, fellow prosecutor Toni LaCollette and detective Bailey Keller. Guilt By Association is clever and irreverent and a lot of fun, and I’m pleased as can be that Marcia Clark was able to talk with me about it over the past week.
LF: Marcia, I had a great time with this book. The plot and the characterizations were rock-solid, and I enjoyed the whole ride, but what I think I loved most was the relationship between Rachel, Bailey, and Toni. It’s a completely girlfriend-centric setup—they’re not competitive, and they don’t undercut each other or bitch behind each other’s backs. They really take care of each other, both physically and emotionally, and I get a very strong sense of the bond between these women powering the action. I know a thriller has to be fairly fast-paced by necessity, but that dynamic was believable at least partly because of the energy the three women generated between them. And I like the subtle message that these kinds of friendships are really important. Are those types of professional (and cross-professional) friendships something you’ve encountered in your working life, or is that some wishful thinking? And if you did develop those relationships with women you worked with, was there an us-vs.-them thing going on with the men? I know you’ve said it was a real boys’ club when you started at Special Trials.
MC: The relationships depicted between the three women is based on reality. I did have friends like that in the office. Of course, there were women who did reinforce the stereotype of the backstabbing competitor too, but I chose not to focus on them because… I didn’t want to. We’ve seen enough of that, haven’t we? But was there an “us vs. them” mentality among me and my female buddies with regard to the men? Not really. The dividing line tended to be between the prosecutors who were political ass-kissers always gunning for the big case or the promotion, who were better at the brown-nosing than doing the work—and those who loved the job, meaning the cases, the trials, who didn’t care about promotions or having their name in the papers.
LF: This is kind of an awful gender question, but do you feel like your target or ideal audience is female? It’s not a girlie story at all—it’s definitely gritty—but at the same time we always know what Rachel’s wearing, and there’s not a lot of technical courtroom back-and-forth. When I was snooping around I read an Amazon review by one guy who was complaining that you took too much time setting up the background and relationships between the characters, which made me laugh because that’s what made it really hum for me. But then again… I’m a girl. And I’m not reading much Scott Turow or John Grisham. What are your thoughts on the thriller/gender line? Is that a bullshit label people slap on books with strong women characters who have inner lives, or is it something you’re consciously addressing?
MC: Regarding the thriller/gender line issue, although I want to say there’s no difference in the way men and women write, I think there is. That’s not to say that women can’t write gory or scary—not at all! But in general, I find women thriller writers are more inclined to explore the psyche of a character, to examine the back stories and experiences that led them to become what they are. By way of contrast, the men tend to give you the more superficial action figures with much less attention paid to their psychological landscape and how it got that way. I guess what I’m saying is that from what I’ve seen, women write more personally complex stories. I know that’s a generalization, and there are certainly men who don’t fit that mold, but by and large, that’s the difference I see.
Personally, I’ve always found books that address their characters’ back stories and emotional/psychological underpinnings far more interesting. So I don’t consciously target a female audience, I just write what I like.
LF: You’ve talked a bit about some of your false starts and trashed first drafts before this book saw the light. Did you always have Rachel as a clear character, or was it a process getting to her? She has such a great voice. And I know you’ve said she’s very close to you, so I’m wondering if it was difficult figuring out how much of yourself to put into her—especially given how much time you spent under the hot lights during the Simpson trial—or if it felt good to craft this version of yourself and give her adventures in public. Or was it maybe a combination of those?
MC: The creation of Rachel went both fast and slow. At first, I made her so hard-boiled she was thoroughly dislikable. Then I tried so hard to make her someone who was “nice” that I made her a mealy-mouthed ninny. When I finally stopped “trying” to make her anything, and just let her be a real person, the dialogue carried me into a natural, easy rhythm that rolled right into the Rachel Knight you see in the book. As for how close she is to me—well, I’m writing her so she can’t be all that far off! But then again, I think that one way or another, all the characters are me. So Rachel has some aspects of me, but certainly not all. I’ve said that to the extent Rachel is lovable, she’s someone else, and to the extent she’s flawed—that’s me! I do love letting her be the 2.0 version of myself—someone who’s more fearless, gutsier, and of course MUCH better looking!
LF: It’s funny you say that, because out of all the characters I didn’t have a really strong picture of her—not a flaw at all, but because reading the story was like one of those POV video games, when you’re looking out through the main character’s eyes. The others’ reactions to her were so much about her personality and actions, not how she looked, and that made her a strong character for me. But when I did need to imagine her, I just used your cover photo, heh. Really, I think that was indicative that you wrote her well—I was much more interested in what she was doing than how she looked while she was doing it. But hey, if you say she’s a knockout I’ll take your word for it.
Speaking of point of view, I have to say I thought the fight scene was great, very painfully believable. Were the mechanics of it difficult to write? I have no idea where I’d start.
MC: The fight scene! OMG that was so hard to write! I had to go over and over it—my agent gave notes on it, and then I had to fix it some more. For me, the only way to do it is to envision the action in detail and imagine how it would really go down. That’s not as easy as it sounds, and I’m so relieved to hear you found it believable! It was important to me to deliver a character in Rachel Knight who could fight her own battles without falling into a man’s arms, but I didn’t want to make her a cartoon. Whatever she did to take care of herself, it had to be believable.
LF: I know you’ve done a lot of scriptwriting over the past few years, and I know that has real constraints in terms of pacing and formula—you have to set up everything and resolve it in an hour, or 90 minutes, minus commercials. How did that experience transfer to writing a novel? Did you miss the limitations or was it liberating?
MC: I loved script writing! It’s a much more restrictive experience in many ways, with a strictly limited page length, the story delivered mainly through dialogue, etc., but it’s a fun, challenging way to write—sort of like haiku. A book gives you much more latitude, you can develop a more complex story and really get into the inner workings of your characters—and you can take your characters anywhere. You don’t have to worry about a studio or network budget that requires you to limit expensive action and outdoor scenes. But I think the experience of writing scripts really helped me with the novel, both in the discipline of learning how to use dialogue to move the action and understanding the importance of delivering three-dimensional characters through their actions.
LF: You obviously have to possess a certain amount of emotional armor to go into court and argue for the prosecution—did that come in handy while promoting the book, or is it a totally different animal?
MC: The book tour was tough from a physical standpoint, but meeting the people and doing the interviews was largely a total pleasure. No armor needed! What a welcome change of pace that is! But I do think the experience of trial work and talking to juries, etc. came in handy, because I wasn’t daunted by appearances in front of crowds. I think without that experience, it can be a little rough to all of a sudden have to stand up in front of an audience and talk about yourself, your book, and the writing process.
LF: I know you’re hard at work on the next book in the series, and I promise not to ask too much about it. But I’m wondering if we get to hear more about the childhood trauma that Rachel alludes to, or more background on how the three women got so tight. I know there’s a story there! You’ve set yourself up good characters that you’ll be able to do a lot with.
MC: You will absolutely hear more about Rachel’s childhood trauma in book two (tentatively titled Guilt by Degrees) and that was always the intention. I didn’t want to spill everything about Rachel’s back story in the first book—that would’ve been like the nutball person you meet at a party who introduces herself and then proceeds to tell you all the intimate details of her last breakup, the mean girlfriend who stole her boyfriend in third grade, and the ugly dress she had to wear to the prom. Normal people reveal themselves bit by bit, and past traumas generally emerge only as they become relevant because of something that’s currently happening. I wanted my characters, and especially Rachel, to be revealed in that more natural, relatable way, too. As for the story of how they all met and became close, I’ve thought it would be fun to do a prequel at some point. But for now, I want to move the characters forward to show who they are today so that the reader gets a fuller sense of who they are before I dial us back in time to show who they were. It’s my hope to make this an ongoing series that lasts for a long, long time!
LF: You’ve said you love crime and courtroom thrillers. What else are you reading/have you read that made an impression on you?
MC: A lot of writers have influenced me. James Ellroy’s writing, the characters he creates and their moral complexities. not to mention the intricacies of his plots—I could go on and on—he’s an inspiration. Robert B. Parker, the way he delivered serious crimes with humor and style—David Baldacci does this well also and with lots of incredible action. Parker also managed to inject social awareness into his stories as well, which I loved. And Armistead Maupin—the beautiful way he created a fascinating world populated by intriguing, quirky and often lovable characters—ultimately inspired me to want to write a series, as opposed to stand-alone novels.
LF: And what is it about paramedics and firemen? Is there some secret cute test they have to pass that we don’t know about?
MC: I have conducted an informal study regarding the cuteness factor among paramedics and have determined that they MUST have to pass some kind of test. How else could they all be so damn good-looking?
LF: Marcia, thank you SO much for taking the time to chat with me about the book. It’s a great story—you’ve really come out of the gate running—and I absolutely look forward to whatever comes next.
MC: Thank you! It’s an honor and a pleasure.
While we’re waiting for Marcia to finish up the next book in the series, I have a copy of Guilt By Association to give away. Either leave me a comment here OR
send an email saying something about firemen or paramedics (hey, we already did cowboys last week) before 12 noon on Friday, June 17. I’ll put the comments and emails in the randomizer, and the lucky winner will get a copy.
There are some great photos of settings from the book on Marcia’s website. If I ever get out to L.A. I am heading straight for the bar at the Biltmore Hotel.