Linda Fairstein is passionate about putting sex offenders behind bars and had done just that many times, both in real life -- as one of New York City's premier sex crimes prosecutors -- and in her fiction, with her popular series of Alex Cooper mysteries.
Born and raised in Mount Vernon, New York, Fairstein attended Vassar College, where she majored in English literature. She went on to receive a law degree from the prestigious University of Virginia School of Law in 1972. In November of that year, Fairstein was assigned to the staff of the New York County District Attorney's office and was soon heading up the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, where she developed a reputation as one of the toughest prosecutors in the office's history. Fairstein spent the next two decades dedicating herself to nailing the worst of the city's sexual offenders, working on such high-profile cases as the Preppy Murder and the Central Park Jogger.
In 1993, Fairstein was named "Woman of the Year" by New Woman and Glamour magazines. A year later, her groundbreaking nonfiction book, Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape, was named a Notable Book by The New York Times.
Fairstein's first foray into fiction writing was 1994's Final Jeopardy, which introduced the tough, savvy assistant D.A. Alexandra "Alex" Cooper -- a character close to the author's own identity -- who was well received by fans and critics. As Publishers Weekly noted, Alex's "greatest appeal lies in the warmth of her friendships, the humanness of her mistakes and her unswerving devotion to protecting the next female from harm."
Since then, Fairstein has continued to chronicle Alex Cooper's crime-solving adventures in a string of bestsellers that draws on the author's thoroughgoing knowledge of the legal system and longtime affection for the Big Apple. A believer in public service, Fairstein sits on the board of directors of several nonprofit groups, among them the National Center for Victims of Crime, Phoenix House Foundation, and New York Women's Agenda, and has also served on President Clinton's Violence Against Women Advisory Council, New York Women's Agenda Domestic Violence Committee, the American College of Trial Lawyers, The Women's Forum, Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.
In an interview on her publisher's web site, Fairstein explains that her career and her life's mission are one in the same: "I think so much more is possible in terms of what we are able to give women who have been victims of violence and how they can triumph in a courtroom," Fairstein reflects. "So to take this -- the professional life I've had over the last 30 years and to mix it with the great pleasure of writing -- is something I never dreamed I'd actually be able to accomplish."
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Fairstein is married to Justin Feldman, a lawyer who helped run Robert F. Kennedy's 1964 United States Senate campaign.
Fairstein has admitted to having her eye on the post of United States Attorney General, and in fact interviewed for that position in 1993.
Cold Hit made President Clinton's highly-publicized vacation reading list in 1999.
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In the winter of 2005, Linda Fairstein took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
When I was thirteen years old, I read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and that fascinating saga of Scarlett O'Hara against the background of the Civil War kept me spellbound because of the storytelling. I loved the rich texture of the plot, the vivid scenes depicted, and the fact that it was so long and dense in its unraveling. I had written short stories long before that, but it was reading that novel -- the only one ever written by Mitchell -- which made me think I would love to try to tell stories that would engage a reader in the way Mitchell caught my imagination.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?One of my favorite novels is John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I think it is a brilliantly plotted, taut spy thriller, which I first read when we were in the middle of the Cold War and had very different political enemies. LeCarre's characterizations were wonderful, and his themes of personal trust and betrayal played out against world politics were haunting.
Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca is one of my favorite mysteries. What an incredible conceit -- to tell the entire story without ever giving us the protagonist's name. And the twists and turns were so carefully laid in that I never saw them coming. It's a very classy classic.
Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is such a powerful story. I love the intense emotion of it -- again the themes of personal betrayal -- and when I first read it as a high school student I was so thoroughly absorbed by the foreign atmosphere and mores that it helped shape my vision of European and Russian cultures.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were an early and strong influence. I delighted in the wisdom of Holmes, and his ability to use his skills to deduce clues and solve crimes. I go back to his stories often and they never fail to delight me.
Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of the Bizarre and Arabesque was another tremendous influence in my development as a devotee of the crime fiction that I would one day start to write. I remember the nightmares I had after reading stories like "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Telltale Heart," and marveled at the creative genius of this dark storyteller.
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern masterpiece -- and oddly again -- the only novel written by this writer. Not only is the prose elegant, but the lessons about the human conscience and the power of the search for justice have always appealed to my combined interests in law and literature.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is probably Rebecca West's most distinguished non-fiction work. In her description of her travels through Eastern Europe in the 1930's, there are stunning observations about history and the people of the region that foreshadow the horrors of the coming world war.
When I'm not reading crime fiction, I love to read historical biography. It fascinates me to learn about the lives of great leaders -- family backgrounds, triumphs and tragedies that shaped their visions, personal choices made along the way. Two of my favorites are Joseph Lash's Franklin and Eleanor and William Manchester's wonderful series about Winston Churchill called The Last Lion.
Poetry has always been a great joy for me to read, and has been since earliest childhood, when I demanded some verses by Robert Louis Stevenson before going to sleep. So I'd always add a volume -- from Shakespeare's sonnets to my college-age obsession with Edna St. Vincent Millay's works to Philip Larkin -- and throw in just about any of the classics from Blake to Keats.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
My most favorite film is Hitchcock's Notorious, starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. First of all, it's Hitchcock -- so the story is a wonderfully devious mix of foreign intrigue and mystery. The actors are fantastic, the story is taut and riveting, down to the very last scene, and it's got a wonderful romance in the middle of all spy-jinks.
Rebecca is one of the few novels to which I've ever been attached that was made, in my opinion, into a fabulous movie. I love a lot of murder mysteries from the ‘40s and ‘50s --their atmosphere, their noir quality, the style of the acting -- so Dial "M" for Murder, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity -- classics that hold up time after time.
I adore good comedy -- just about anything Woody Allen has done, and especially movies like Manhattan and Annie Hall, which are both brilliant.
I could watch Gone With the Wind every few months and still need a box of tissues by my side, and swoon again over Clark Gable.
Give me a classic movie channel and a bowl of popcorn -- if I can't be reading a good book -- and I'm happy for days on end.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I guess I give away my age -- and my college days in the 1960s -- to say that my favorite kind of music -- in the house, in my car, on the new iPod -- is Motown. I love the great girl groups and the Temptations, and would go anywhere to see and hear Bette Midler, but my all time favorite is Smokey Robinson. Next come the Stones and the Beatles, and maybe a few of the great songs of The Band. For calmer times, I listen to a lot of James Taylor and Carly Simon -- both also staples of Martha's Vineyard, so it's a wonderful connection through the music. I also like Dr. John a lot.
When I'm writing, I can't listen to anything at all that has lyrics -- it's a total distraction and I find myself singing along in the background (not a voice any of you would want to hear). So one of my other long-time passions is ballet, which I studied for several decades and attend frequently. I have CDs of the scores of all my favorite ballets, and find the music both soothing and inspirational when I sit down to write.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Books are always are my list of gifts to give to loved ones, and to receive. In giving, I try to match the interests of my friends or family to new books. I just sent my stepdaughter the new biography of Margot Fonteyn, because we both share a passion for the ballet. One of the really perks of being a writer is that I spend an inordinate amount of time in bookstores -- on line and real time -- and in libraries, so I try to stay on top of everything new and upcoming. It's great fun to introduce friends to crime writers they may not have read -- Harlan Coben or Michael Connelly, Denise Hamilton and Laura Lippman -- it's an interesting and exciting community of authors.
There are very few ways to go wrong with giving me a book as a gift. I love mystery and crime (although you'll have a hard time finding something I haven't already bought myself, pre-ordering on B&N when I know the publication date is near), classics (I majored in English literature in college and hope to read all of Trollope someday), or any interesting biography or historical nonfiction. Books make the best gifts in the world.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I like to start my writing in the morning, with my second cup of coffee, and write for as many hours a day as I can. My favorite place to write is on Martha's Vineyard, where I have a wonderful little cottage away from the house that's like my sanctuary. All my reference works and research, just my writing music, a wonderful view of water and wildflowers -- and always something related to the book I'm writing on my desk. When I wrote Entombed, my inspiration was a several-hundred year old brick taken from the actual house in which Edgar Allan Poe lived in lower Manhattan when the place was demolished a few years back.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I took an unusual path to get to the place I am today. Writing was my first love, from adolescence on. I also had an interest in public service, and decided on a career in the law, putting off my dream to write fiction. Quite accidentally, my career as a young prosecutor took some dramatic directions when my field of specialty -- sexual assault and domestic violence -- became much more "high profile" than they were when I began my career in the law.
What was unusual about my first book -- the nonfiction Sexual Violence -- is that the publishers came to me and asked me to write it. So I never had to deal with rejection slips or the difficulty of being published. Because that book was well-received and reviewed, I had the courage to set about trying what I had always wanted to do, which was write crime novels. So my advice is both to write what you know -- an old adage but one which carries a lot of weight -- and the other is never to give up your dreams. It may take years, but it's quite wonderful when you can make them come true.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write. Don't ever stop writing. You've got to do it every day, and if you don't like the process of writing, don't hope to be discovered. And read. It's so important to be "in" books all the time -- seeing how other writers use words and ideas. There's nothing better for developing your craft than writing and reading.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Linda Fairstein had to say:
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell -- One of my earliest recollections of a great summer read was the first time I picked up Gone with the Wind, when I was about fifteen years old. I love thick, rich sagas for summer reading because it's about the only point in the year many of us get a big chunk of time in which to read, and I like grand storytelling with compelling characters who come alive.
Here was the chance to get lost in a great story -- everything from the historical background of the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the race and class structures of the old South, to the turbulent relationship between Scarlett and Rhett. This is the kind of book that made me long to be a writer -- a complete spellbinder with something for everyone, and classic old-fashioned storytelling.
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk -- I think I was sixteen when I spent a hot summer with this book. Has there ever been a teenage girl who hasn't responded to Wouk's heartbreaking story -- really a period piece that is so evocative of America in the 40's and 50's - about a first love and dreams of career on the stage? It's become a classic and very 'campy' to reread as an adult -- this time it made me smile and laugh, thinking back on how it once made me practicallly weep for Marjorie's personal and professional predicament.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- By college, where I majored in literature, I loved to spend part of the summer with one of the literary classics -- something in which I could bury myself for long days at the beach, without the responsibility of homework or term papers to interrupt. War and Peace is such a brilliant literary masterpiece. If you're ever going to attempt it, try it as a summer vacation read -- it will entertain, educate and enrich you -- and you'll impress everyone around you with your intellectual fortitude.
Plum Island by Nelson DeMille -- Nobody writes thrillers like DeMille, and since I love my books to be dense and richly plotted, he's a winner every time. I can't say too much about the plot because I don't want to give it away, but everything from the setting to the danger and intrigue made this a summer favorite for me. And DeMille has done that time after time, so if it's not this tale, pack one of his others when you head to the beach.
Social Crimes by Jane Stanton Hitchcock -- One of the smartest, wittiest authors I know managed to turn her insider's knowledge of New York society's inner circle into a devilish tale of betrayal and revenge and murder. The book is great fun and the dialogue is dead-on. Set in Manhattan and Southampton, it's perfect around the pool, and wickedly plotted to keep you guessing until the very end. This Hitchcock is much sexier than the moviemaker.
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier -- I can remember the first time I read this book, visiting at a friend's house at the ocean on a stormy summer weekend in my 20's. I still consider it one of the most brilliant novels of suspense I've ever read -- the haunting setting, the terrified young bride (and the ingenious device of DuMaurier's, never to name her), and the mysterious Maxin de Winter. I'm pretty sure I devoured it in one late-night sitting, and couldn't get to sleep after that, nor did I go anywhere near the water the next day. Then get the DVD -- this is one of the few books I've ever loved that was perfectly recreated for the screen.
Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion. Back in a serious mode, and ready for summertime literary fiction, there is no writer I enjoy more than Joan Didion. She's a riveting storyteller, and her prose is spare, smart and stunning. I still have my original hardcover copy of this -- sand in the binding -- and I've reread it many times, getting more out of it each time I do. She is a great chronicler of current affairs in her nonfiction, and one of the finest novelists alive. This book helps prove it.
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope -- I'm determined to work my way through Trollope. So almost every summer for the past fifteen years, I pick one of these 19th century novels from his vast body of work and transport myself to the mid-Victorian English countryside. This is my favorite -- so far -- with it's delicious theft of the family jewels and the wonderful social commentary that disguishes itself within the tale of love and betrayal.
Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré -- I read this book the year it was published, 1964, on my summer vacation between high school and college. Since then, I've probably re-read it a dozen times. I think it's the best suspense novel of the second half of the 20th century -- it's so meticulously crafted that there is not a useless word in the entire book. The characterizations are perfectly drawn, the atmosphere captures the essence of the Cold War world in which we were living then, and the story is enviably well-plotted. Start here and stick with le Carré and the rest of Smiley's people -- it will put a chill in your long, hot summer.
Now, I have to admit that if I were packing my bags for a week in the guesthouse at a friend's summer beach cottage, the luggage would be weighed down by the latest crime novels. I love classics and historical biography and literary fiction, but nothing helps me escape like a fast-paced, intricately plotted thriller or procedural. So this summer, between laps in the pool, give me the latest by Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Lisa Scottoline, Richard North Patterson, P. D. James, Patricia Cornwell... they just can't write them fast enough for me.
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|Linda Fairstein Home
Good to Know
|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Linda Fairstein|
|Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape, 1994|
|Final Jeopardy, 1996|
|Likely to Die, 1997|
|Cold Hit, 1999|
|The Deadhouse, 2001|
|The Bone Vault, 2003|
|The Kills, 2004|
|Death Dance: A Novel, 2006|
|Bad Blood, 2007|