HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a multiple New York Times best-seller? Not the acclaim, which would be wonderful, but how it would feel to be writing a book that everyone is waiting for, everyone is anticipating, everyone is figuring will be another hit.
Like, for instance, Linda Fairstein. What mystery reader has not read some or all of her books, and what mystery author has not wondered “HOW does she do it?”
And that is exactly what I wondered too…so I asked the fabulous Linda to take us on a guided tour of her writing brain, and let us in on how her brand new book Terminal City evolved. And it is fascinating!
(I know this is different from my usual Not Quite Twenty Questions. Maybe we’ll ask her to answer those another time!)
HANK: On day one–what did you need to begin Terminal City? What was the first moment of the first idea?
LINDA: Terminal City is the 16th book in my Alexandra Cooper series of crime novels. As many of your readers know, I was a prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s Office for 30 years, in charge of the country’s pioneering sex crimes unit – and that’s the job I’ve given to Coop.
One of the things I do in the series is center each book in a world that explores some aspect of New York City history. They are places we’ve all been to or seen in the movies, but most have dark undersides. There really was a murder of a young musician between acts at Lincoln Center, while 4,000 people sat in their seats (Death Dance), and while Central Park is the most glorious place on this island, my unit prosecuted more than fifty crimes – some of them homicides – during my tenure (Death Angel).
So the first moment of the first idea for this new book was the question of where to go in the city. I’ve long been fascinated by Grand Central Terminal – the colossal centerpiece of Manhattan – since my earliest trips to New York City, holding my mother’s hand as we made our way across the concourse. Last year, it was the terminal’s centennial, and so many wonderful stories –some of them dark and mysterious – surfaced in books and articles everywhere. All I needed was some good reading material, a few behind the scenes tours, and a vivid imagination.
HANK: Page 50– is it what you thought it would be? What fabulous idea did you have here? (Were you still researching?)
LINDA: The terminal was absolutely everything I hoped it would be and more. It was like unlayering something that had many levels of skin. Hidden staircases and rooms which don’t appear on any blueprints of the building. I had never known its creators envisioned an entire ‘terminal city’ underground, beneath the streets of Manhattan. For me, the research rarely stops. I get to this point in the story and begin to create a scene, and realize I might be able to find another angle, another bit of intrigue, to build into my plot. It’s the great fun (sometimes punctuated by a bit of torture) in writing novels.
HANK: Page 100–what surprises were in store? Were you having a good time writing?
LINDA: Was I having fun? A great question.I must say I love to sit down and write the first two chapters of a book. I’m back with my characters (one of the joys of doing a series) who have become my pals, and they’re inside my head, talking to me. But then the next eighty pages or so, for me, are the toughest. I’m trying to create a tight plot, introduce some of the suspects, lay in some clues because crime fiction readers demand ‘smart’ and ‘fair play’ in their stories, I think. I’m not always having fun until I reach about half way through the manuscript. I love what I’m doing at the keyboard, but it’s not always fun.
HANK: Page 200–What did you learn. what were you thinking?
LINDA: Writing novels is a constant learning process, which is one of the most exciting things about it. At this point, I’ve kind of realized that this book will actually get done. That there is a story coming together. In Terminal City, this part becomes fairly dense. Some of my readers thoroughly enjoy the history I explore, which gets heavy here. Others want the faster pace (stay tuned…coming later) of the unraveling of the mystery. That’s a constant balancing act and usually reaches a peak at this point in the manuscript.
HANK: Page 300–were you excited, inspired, bemused, worried?
LINDA: So this is the point at which I really get excited.Usually, this is past the point of worrying (although I hate books that end badly, so I always worry about sticking the landing). And rarely would I use the word ‘inspired,’ as much as I would like to. I love writing the last quarter of the novel. The story line is all crystal clear at that point, and I feel like I’m barreling along. For me, the first one hundred or so pages are like pulling a heavy sled uphill. Then I’m on a plateau for awhile, just telling my story. Then I get on that sled on the top of a peak and just let ‘er rip, all the way to the end.
HANK: You typed THE END–did you?–What goes through your mind?
LINDA: There is always a rare combination of total euphoria and relief when I type THE END. I was behind schedule this time – never for any good reason – and so it’s a wonderful feeling to get to the finish line. I never cease to be amazed that I have completed another book, so I often have a good ‘happy’ cry. And later, always, a stiff drink that evening.
HANK: You are such a star, such an indisputably successful author–is that how you felt at the end of your first draft?
LINDA: You’re always so generous to me. I felt good at the end of the first draft because I make my revisions throughout the process of writing. Every day as I sit down to write, I start by re-reading the work of the day before. Sometimes, I go back to the very beginning and read it all as a piece, editing myself throughout the process. I find it helps the pacing of the story a lot, it catches many of the word echoes or repeats, and keeps me on a good timeline. So I am constantly revising and editing, which means things don’t change a lot for me when I get the draft back from my editor. Again, some joy at finishing, and always some relief.
HANK: When you read the printed pages–were there moments when you thought–hey, I wrote this?
LINDA: This is a very funny question – a really good one. I bet only writers really ‘get’ this. Absolutely true. There are times I reach a line of dialogue that stands out and I think to myself, ‘way to go’ – I did this? Or a good clue I had forgotten I had thrown in. Sometimes I go back to one of the earlier novels, looking for a description or a fact for the backstory, and come across a surprise from one of the books that simply makes me smile because I had forgotten I had written the lines. This is a writer’s bit, I think. It’s just sheer fun.
HANK: Readers, do you share the same feelings as you progress (or not!) in your books? I love that Linda sometimes feels apprehensive, and sometimes feels delighted—I think that’s so reassuring!
And of course, a copy of Terminal City to one lucky commenter.
HANK: When you walk into Grand Central now, what do you think?
LINDA: There’s hardly a day that goes by when I’m in the city that I don’t go near Grand Central, on foot or in a cab. The building (so glorious) has always grabbed my attention – it has a lot of majesty, and there are 750,000 people who use it, visit it, pass through it every day. Having inhabited it for the better part of a year, and used it as a crime scene, I’ll never look at it the same way again. I love being there.
HANK: What is your wish for Terminal City?
LINDA: My wish for Terminal City is that readers come to feel the same way about GCT as I do. It’s a majestic, colossal, historic, dynamic and inviting place to be. My novels are meant to be entertainments of course, so I want the reader to be drawn into the mystery, suspense, and thrills of the story. But I also want to introduce them, gently, to one of the great treasures of New York City.
Thanks so much to you, Hank, for such a generous interview!
LINDA FAIRSTEIN is the author of the bestselling series of crime novels featuring Manhattan DA’s Office sex crime prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. The sixteenth novel – Terminal City – was published by Dutton in June, 2014. Fairstein is an honors graduate of Vassar College and the University of Virginia School of Law, where her classmates created a Public Service Fellowship in her honor. For thirty years, from 1972-2002, she served in the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, and continues her legal work for victims of violence to this day.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 30 EMMYs, 12 Edward R. Murrow awards and dozens of other honors for her ground-breaking journalism. A bestselling author of six mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. National reviews have called her a “master at crafting suspenseful mysteries” and “a superb and gifted storyteller.” Her newest thriller, THE WRONG GIRL, has the extraordinary honor of winning the 2013 Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel! A four-week Boston Globe bestseller, it was dubbed “Another winner” in a Booklist starred review and “Stellar” by Library Journal. She’s on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. Watch for her next novel, TRUTH BE TOLD, on October 7, 2014.