Q&A: Linda Fairstein, Legendary Sex Crimes Prosecutor, Talks About Writing Mysteries

Linda Fairstein’s Into the Lion’s Den (Dial Books) is the first book in her new series for middle grade readers featuring 12-year-old sleuth Devlin Quick. Fairstein also writes the internationally bestselling Alexandra Cooper novels for adults, which have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Fairstein was Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office for more than two decades and is widely regarded as the nation's leading legal expert on sexual assault and domestic violence. She spoke with The National's John Valeri.

Q: What inspired you to write Into the Lion’s Den – and how did you find the process of writing for a young audience to compare to that of adults?

A: I wrote my first mystery story when I was in elementary school (here’s the ‘cover art’ I designed—my mother actually saved it!), inspired by my devotion to the Nancy Drew books that I devoured as a kid. I actually credit those books for the two careers I settled on—first, as a prosecutor—because of Nancy’s keen sense of doing justice for others and the fact that her father was a district attorney—and second, as a crime writer, hoping to create characters that would appeal to readers the way Nancy and her friends appealed to me. Years ago, I told my literary agent that in addition to writing the Alex Cooper series, I hoped to be able to create a lively young sleuth to fill out my cast of characters. I finally got around to disciplining myself to add a second book to my annual output, and Into the Lion’s Den is the result. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it was to sit down every day and tell a story involving middle-grade kids who saw an injustice and fought to make things right.

Q: Tell us about Devlin Quick. How is she a Nancy Drew of sorts for a new generation – and in what ways do you hope she’ll resonate with readers?

A: I really don’t want to claim that Devlin Quick is in any way a copycat of Nancy Drew. I have too much respect for Nancy—and Nancy has a legion of fans over so many generations—that my plan was to pay homage to Nancy, a tribute to the kind of character she is because she so engaged me in her world for years and years. Whenever I picked up the latest book in the series, I wanted to crawl inside the pages and go wherever Nancy and her loyal friends were going—to find the hidden staircase or discover the secret at Shadow Ranch. My hope is that young readers will enjoy running with Devlin Quick and Booker Dibble, and that their adventures will lure them into a new and exciting world, just as I was drawn in by Nancy as a kid.
Devlin is smart and brave, and determined to do justice when she believes a crime has been committed. She is terrifically loyal to her friends—like Liza and Booker—and she is very fortunate that her mom is the first woman police commissioner of New York City. That connection helps Dev find her way around headquarters and gain the assistance of some great NYPD detectives. Devlin loves to read, too, and is on her school swim team—so I’m hoping that she has lots of traits that her readers can identify with.

Q: As in your adult novels, New York City is very much a character. In what ways do you endeavor to balance entertainment and education – and how might the reading experience instill a sense of curiosity?

A: It’s really critical to balance the two main elements of every book I write. They are, of course, meant to entertain. But just as I use my adult thrillers to gently inform the reader about the issues I grappled with in the criminal justice system, I want these books to have an aspirational side. Devlin Quick is a strong and spirited young woman—in the mold of both her mother and grandmother—and a kid with a great deal of curiosity, too. When reading as a kid, I loved to attach myself to the fictional characters I admired and dreamed about growing with some of the traits they developed in their stories. Dev has no father—very unlike my stable family life—which is a challenge she struggles with, and her mother Blaine has worked hard to surround Dev with a surrogate family and friends. I hope the kids who enjoy her capers will also respect her loyalty, her love of books and reading, her sportsmanship—developed as a swim team member—and her keen sense of justice. And I want to give this to readers cloaked in an adventure that is meant to be great fun.

Q: What are the keys to engaging children in reading – and how can this book be used as a catalyst for that? Also, do you have other recommended reading for kids?

A: I wish I had a great answer to how to engage kids in reading! For me, it was a pleasure in my life for as far back as I can remember. First, my mother reading me to sleep at night—I especially think of the sing-song poems of Robert Louis Stevenson that I found so enchanting. I was always happy to have a good book to keep me company if my friends were busy or it was a rainy day at home. My older brother, who is extremely smart and grew up in the same household, was far less interested in books. What caused that difference between us? I wish I knew.

I think of kids I knew who were not readers until Harry Potter burst onto the scene. I credit the genius of J.K. Rowling and the power of her storytelling for converting so many young boys and girls to becoming devotees of literature.
I’m hoping that if kids find it fun to be with Dev and Booker and Liza—if they can dream big about aspects of the stories that appeal to them—it will broaden their horizons about other books as well.

For middle age readers, I love a recommending a mix of classics and new fiction. There are books I could read over and over again—like The Wind in the Willows and Charlotte’s Web—and there are new characters like John Grisham’s Theo Boone: Kid Lawyer and David Adler’s Cam Jansen Mysteries—which delight me, as they do their young fans. One of the things I like best about my book tour is getting to spend time in bookshops and libraries that offer such a rich range of attractions to this age group.

Q: You also write the bestselling Alex Cooper novels. What do you foresee as being your focus in the years ahead – and how have you been able to structure your work ethic for increased creative output?

A: I really thought that writing one series a year—my Alexandra Cooper crime novels, of which there are now 18 (!)—was more than enough to keep me on my toes. And I swore to myself never to delegate my writing to a ghost or a team, though that plan has worked well for others. But envisioning Devlin Quick coupled with my desire to write something in the vein of the Nancy Drew books that I so loved to read got the better of me. I just needed to sit down and see if I could channel the voice and vision of a 12- year old – a kid sleuth for all ages, really. Once I decided that I couldn’t get the idea out of my system, I just hunkered down and got to work. As usual, it means more discipline, and less time with my husband and my friends. But writing Into the Lion’s Den was as much fun as I’ve ever had sitting in front of my desktop, so I guess that helped the flow of my creative juices.

Q: What comes next for our pals Devlin and Alex?

A: I’m happy to report that just as Devlin Quick is introduced to readers, I’m about to turn in her second story, which will come out in 2017. The title is Digging for Trouble – and starts in Big Timber, Montana, where Dev and her friend Katie are invited to be volunteers on a fossil dig in the ‘badlands.’ Things happen, as you might guess, and then the action comes back to NYC (Dev’s ‘jurisdiction’, if you will) and to the great American Museum of Natural History, where some of the clues are hidden.

Alex Cooper will also be back in 2017 in a novel called Deadfall, which picks up right where Killer Look left off.  It explores the deadly world of wildlife crimes abroad—with some local drama at the Bronx Zoo.

John Valeri wrote for Examiner.com from 2009 to 2016. His "Hartford Books Examiner" column consistently ranked in the top ten percent of all Hartford, National Books and National Arts & Entertainment Examiners. His reviews have been excerpted in more than fifty titles written by popular authors ranging from Wally Lamb and Debbie Macomber to James Patterson and Marcia Clark. John regularly moderates author interviews and book discussions at bookstores, conferences, and libraries throughout Connecticut; he has also appeared on television and radio. John currently contributes to The National Book Review, The News and Times, The Strand Magazine, Suspense Magazine, and CriminalElement.com. He made his fiction debut in Tricks and Treats, a Halloween-themed anthology published by Books & Boos Press this fall. Visit John online at www.johnbvaleri.com.