How did you become a writer?
My mother was a librarian and my father was an author, which was the perfect recipe for a chronic storyteller like myself. Growing up, I was lucky to have inherited a narrative tradition from my parents, which has made writing a very natural process for me from a young age. In terms of my genre, it was my experience at the District Attorney’s Office that inspired me to become a crime novelist. At the time, I was reading two or three crime novels a week, but I realized that everyday at work, I was surrounded by characters, dialogue, and an atmosphere that was different than anything I saw on the page with crime fiction. As a prosecutor, I was working directly out of a police precinct, going on ride-alongs with cops, leading in-service trainings, and teaming up on pre-indictment investigations—I felt like I was ready to try my hand at writing a crime novel.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Many people assume my father, James Lee Burke, a mystery author best known for his Dave Robicheaux series, must have served as a significant influence. Surprisingly enough, his actual work did not influence the way I write; my style turned out to be very different than his. Nevertheless, my father’s perseverance and dedication to his work has inspired me to write stories ever since I was a child. I remember watching him come home to write every single day after a long day at work, determined to put his story onto page. And I saw my mother bring that same ethic to her own work as a librarian who also loves to paint. I can thank both of them for having discipline.
Although I did not read my father’s books when I was young, mystery novels have always fascinated me. I used to love reading Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown, a series of mystery books for kids about a young boy who solves mysteries. Later I became a fan of E.L. Konigsburg’s The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which I still love reading to this day. These days, I’m lucky enough to have found mentors in Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Sue Grafton, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Unger…. The list goes on, and for that I am very lucky.
When and where do you write?
I am a full-time faculty member at Hofstra Law School, so my crime writing is a little catch as catch can. If I have a free day, I try to write all day long. I have a studio that I use just for writing. Otherwise, I’ll write wherever I need to: planes, hotel rooms, the bar at my favorite lunch hangout.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Every writer will inevitably face writer’s block in some way, shape, or form, and I am no exception. I certainly have moments at my desk, when I think I am ready to write the next chapter, but there is something that just doesn’t feel right. I figured out that often this feeling comes because I’m trying to mold my story to some advance plan that is no longer working. My preconceptions about plot do not always remain consistent with characters who have continued to live and grow throughout my writing process. While outlining a novel can be conducive to organizing a plotline, I have come to realize that, once a story starts to take shape, I have to let it follow its natural course, regardless of my original plans. I’ve had characters up and die on me when I had intended for them to live, but that is the beauty of storytelling. Every story is an ever-changing entity that I let myself get pulled into, just as I hope a reader will. After publishing eight books and finishing a ninth, I’ve learned to trust that I should simply follow the natural development of my characters in order to avoid stunting a story’s growth. Going back to the characters has been my best escape from writer’s block.
What’s your advice to new writers?
You’re not a writer if you don’t write. And if you’re going to write, you have to think of yourself as a writer. Sounds simple, but conceiving of yourself as a writer can be an adjustment. There are some perks. Buy yourself a comfortable chair. Create a productive working space. Don’t apologize to your family for needing time, space, silence and solitude to write. It is, after all, your job. But thinking of yourself as a writer also creates responsibilities. You have to write. This is not a hobby. It’s your job. Your identity. Your compulsion. Write every day. If you skip a day, make sure you have a darn good reason, and make sure you don’t skip the next one.
Alafair Burke is the bestselling author of eight novels, including NEVER TELL in the Ellie Hatcher series and the standalone thriller LONG GONE. A former prosecutor, Alafair lives in Manhattan and teaches criminal law and procedure at Hofstra Law School.