Interview with Linda Fairstein: Part 3

This is last installment of my three-part interviewwith bestselling crime novelist, former Sex Crimes Unit chief prosecutor of the New York County District Attorney and advocate for rape kit reform, Linda Fairstein. Be sure to read the other two installments here and here.

Sarah Tofte: Back to the question of your career path and how you came to be a writer. What is it that gives you the ability to imagine the world to be different than it currently is?

Linda Fairstein: People always assume because I’ve done this work for so long that I must be a dark person. I’m very much an optimist, and I’m very upbeat. My work primarily is not with offenders and the bad guys and the perpetrators, it’s with people who’ve experienced the worst trauma you can have in a criminal setting. To be part of that solution in the early days and to this minute of being able to give them something, to know that there was a way to restore their dignity and to do it with compassion, that was what kept me there for a very long term.

Now when I went to college, my dream was to write–to become a writer–and I went to a college where Mary McCarthy and Edna St. Vincent Millay and these iconic women had gone. I realized by the end of my college career that was not happening for me and yet I never abandoned that dream, which is what I came back to much later. When I got to law school, although I knew I wanted the DA’s office, it didn’t occur to me until I got to that door for an interview that it wasn’t easy to do as a woman. I mean it was just mind-boggling to have somebody say, “young lady, you can’t go to court because they’re talking about blood and guts.”

I was just very fortunate to benefit from the feminist movement. People don’t often like to say that anymore, but really it was the feminists of the sixties who kicked those doors open a lot and I benefited. So that vision was supported by the Dean of the law school, who had recognized the passion that I had and supported me in it. People often say, “how did you have the fortitude to do it?” If I had been 10 years older and more mature, I think I would have never stayed to do it. But I had that optimism of youth, and there’s nothing you think you can’t do. I was as competent as these guys, and these guys gave me a chance. I got into it and just loved it and I did have the ideas to expand [on the reforms I was speaking to you about]. That was from the firsthand experience of having women sit with me in a room and tell their stories.

When I first got there I had to say, “here’s the law. This may be the ugliest thing you’ll ever hear in your life, but it’s your word alone. You could convict the same guy of robbery if you identified him in a lineup, but because you weren’t taken to a hospital or the hospital didn’t collect evidence, there’s no medical evidence that shows you were raped. He didn’t have the knife on his person last night, so that means the law thinks you consented. You’ll have to go home.”

I mean that was what literally happened with the first rape victims I met. So within a year, the laws changed and a lot was better already. I was the beneficiary of good luck, serendipitous timing and I had the right attitude. I fell in love with the work. I mean it’s an odd word, but it was so uplifting.

ST: Do you think that being an optimistic person can make you such a strong advocate for a victim?

LF: That was what I could use to carry a reluctant victim with me who would say, for example, “my sister was raped four years ago and the jury didn’t believe her.” I would think about how that was four years ago and with the law and science of four years ago. And this is what we have now. I would think, “boy, can I do something with this now.”

ST: What do you think when people come up to you at events or book signings and disclose to you that they are survivors?

LF: That is one thing that Mariska, through Olivia Benson, and I have in common. When I first met Mariska, she said that people were writing to her and disclosing for the first time in their lives. I get that. If I’m at a book signing and there is a line of 10 people, there will be one who wants to talk to me about their case. If it’s 300, there will be five people in line saying that they want to talk to me about their cases. For example, I just gave a speech with Cy Vance, the DA, and one woman told me about her case from 1973 that Martha [Bashford] and Melissa [Mourges] solved.

It’s all over the country, you know. There are people who have done what I’ve done, but there are places where there’s just never been that little ray of hope to take somebody forward and that’s what I love about Joyful Heart. That’s what I love about everybody’s spirit at Joyful Heart. That’s what I love about Mariska’s vision to put this together, because it’s exactly what my experience has been. But she’s got much wider reach and she’s given me that with her, and it’s lovely.

ST: How did you finally decide to put the pen to paper to write a book?

LF: I never figured I’d do it until after I hung up the prosecutorial shoes, but in the late eighties a publisher came to me and asked me to write the nonfiction book,Sexual Violence. I went to [Proescutor Bob] Morgenthau and I went to the City Ethics Board, and everybody said “fine, just don’t do it on city time.” So it took forever. I had a couple of big cases and didn’t get to do it. [Sexual Violence] was published in 1993.

Then I said to my husband, “you know I’ve always wanted to write crime fiction; that’s been the dream.” I went back to Morgenthau and asked him if I could. I think nobody took it seriously, no one thought that it would work.

I felt I had to write what I know, so I had the female protagonist in a non-traditional role with my composite detectives. I wish I’d known Chris Meloni, because he’d have had a starring role.  One of my best friends, Esther Newburg, a great literary agent at International Creative Management, told me to stop whining about wanting to write a book. She said I already had the hardest thing to get, which is an agent and in my case, a friend who would read my pages and tell me if I can do it. So I sat and down and just started to write.

I went off on this summer vacation of ’94 and Ester said, “don’t get carried away. Everybody thinks they can write a book.” So, you know, I played tennis, I swam, I antiqued, I did what I did. But I wrote about 65 pages of a book. I gave it to her at the end of the summer and she told me to keep going. At Christmas, I gave her the next–I think I had 90 pages. I didn’t think she could do anything with it until the end. Then she called me right after Christmas, she said, “where are you now?” I told her I was in a cab. She said, “no, but where’s the cab?” I look out the window–I just lectured at NYU Law School. I said, “well, it’s on 23rd Street and Park Avenue.” She said, “I want you to remember where you are when I tell you that there are three publishing companies that are bidding on your first novel.”

That was FINAL JEOPARDY that came out in 1996. And now SILENT MERCY is the thirteenth book in this series. I pinch myself. It really is a dream come true. It’s thrilling.

Writing keeps me in the public service work, too. There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t call the “Ms” [Martha and Melissa] or people from my old office. I’m still a lawyer. I go to continuing legal education classes and learn about DNA and cutting-edge issues.

In the new book, why the women who are killed has to do with religious institutions. They’re all victimized for their beliefs. It’s sort of about the prejudice and bigotry against women in many organized religion settings. So I love to find some real issue and then weave a story out of it. HELL GATE, my last one [which came out in paperback on March 1], was based on political scandals. HELL GATE was all about that kind of scandals that you read about in the news. I drew it all from real cases.

So it’s my old interest, my respect for the law, my love of literature–crime novels, if you can call them that. It’s about putting them all together. It’s fun.

ST: What part comes first when you’re thinking about a new book, or is it different for every one?

LF: It’s usually established since they’re continuing characters, which is kind of like cheating. Because they’re friends now and I don’t have to create a whole new detective. So usually it’s a setting or a theme. Every story has a backdrop of a historical New York City section. I love to look at some setting where, from the surface it looks very elegant and familiar to all of us, but if you dig a little deeper there’s something treacherous underneath.

I also love cutting edge forensics. The third book wasCOLD HIT in 1999, which came from the first time I saw that expression in an FBI article in The New York Times. It’s dynamic because it’s always ongoing and there will always be some breaking technology, DNA will continue to be refined and used more broadly. My ears and eyes are open and I keep extensive clippings and files.

ST: Do often think to yourself that something you see or hear around you would make a good character or plot?

LF: Yes–even the snips of conversation you hear at the next table. You just find things in the most unexpected ways.

ST: So are there any other dreams that you have?

LF: My cameo in SVU never happened! When that dream is fulfilled, I’ll be okay.

ST: Well, thank you so much for taking the time, especially in the middle of all the preparation for this big tour.

LF: The book tour, yes. I love it because you know, the books are in the box. It’s been finished, it’s just a launch. It’s just fun to be with people who like to read and who like these stories.

You know for me it’s such a nice intersection because when I’m in the bookstores I’ve never done an event where somebody doesn’t raise their hand and mention Law & Order: SVU, even if they don’t know that I know Mariska, or don’t know about Joyful Heart. It’s always a nice way for me to feel connected to her and to the organization.

Linda Fairstein’s new novel, SILENT MERCY, is being released today, March 8th, by Dutton. In addition to being an author, advocate and former Chief Prosecutor of the New York County Special Victims Unit, Fairstein also serves as Vice Chair of the Joyful Heart Foundation’s Board of Directors.

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