interviews

BEYOND the LAW

In the Fall 2017/Winter 2018 edition of the Maine Bar Journal, Dan Murphy interviewed me about how I balance my life as a writer with my life as a lawyer in his ongoing feature, Beyond the Law.

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Q: How did you become a crime fiction novelist?

A: I was a journalist before I became a lawyer. I began writing at a very young age—fiction, poetry, and journalism—trying it all on. I was editor of my high school newspaper and studied journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, where through the co-op program, I worked as a reporter trainee at the Boston Globe. I grew up reading the Globe, so it was really thrilling for me at age 20 to work in that newsroom. When I was at Northeastern, I also studied creative writing with Robert B. Parker, who wrote, famously, The Spencer Series. At the time, he had published a few books, and was at the point where he was about to let go of teaching and write full time. I took two courses with him and believe the second was one of the last courses he taught, either my junior or senior year. It was one of those cool things that happen in your life that you tuck away for later. After graduation from Northeastern I became a journalist and moved to Maine, where I worked at the York County Coast Star down in Kennebunk.

Q: How many years were you at the York County Coast Star?

A: From 1980 to 1986. It was a great experience, but eventually, I wanted to move on and do something different. I was interested in the Maine Times and the Press Herald, but they didn’t have any openings. I covered the courts for the Star, which allowed me to meet an awful lot of lawyers, several of whom asked if I was considering law school. I hadn’t, but with their encouragement, I did. So, journalism led me directly to law school. I went to Maine Law and then set about building a legal career. But all that time, the writing thing stayed in my mind because first and foremost, before I was anything else, I was a writer. When I was doing litigation and appellate work I poured a lot of energy into writing briefs. Now I confine my practice to transactional work and I’m really precise with words when drafting contracts. The writing part of lawyering matters a lot to me.

About 10 years ago, I’d been living on Peaks Island for a dozen years and was getting ready to move to the mainland. I loved living on the island and knew I would miss it. I also realized I would have the chance to substitute something else for the time that it took to commute back and forth. At that point, I realized that it was high time to start writing fiction. I started noodling around before we moved, and once we settled in our new home I made sure to create a physical space for my writing. I took a couple of classes and eventually developed the most critical thing—a daily writing habit. I made the commitment to myself to write every day. The book that had been rattling around in my brain with a newspaper reporter protagonist began to emerge. I originally thought that if I could write two pages a night, I’d have a book in six or eight months. And, of course, that is funny, because I soon learned it takes years to hone a book to where you are happy with it, and able to send it out, find an agent, and sell it to a publisher.

Q: Could you describe your writing routine for our readers?

A: I usually get to work early in the morning and if I’m having an efficient day, I can leave around 5:00. Those are the really good days. I don’t ever write fiction when I’m at my office unless I come in on a weekend specifically for that purpose. On workdays, when I’m in the office, I’m lawyering. I owe that to my clients. I owe that to my partners. But whatever time I manage to leave on a workday, after I step out the back door of 57 Exchange Street, I begin to think about writing, and where I am going with the book. I have a quick supper and write a couple of hours in the evening. There are days when my writing time gets shortened up a bit, but every day I make sure to set aside time for writing. Right now, I’m in the final revisions of a manuscript, so “writing” means taking apart every paragraph and looking at every word to make sure it does what I want it to do. When I’m actively writing, I usually try to get about 1,000 words down each night. Sometimes the words come very, very quickly, and other times it’s like pulling teeth.

Q: What was your first crime novel?

A: My first book is called Quick Pivot, and has as its protagonist a contemporary newspaper reporter named Joe Gale. Joe has deep respect for journalism and for the role of journalism in a democratic society. Primarily he covers crime and the courts, but like most local newspaper reporters, he’s a generalist. As the book opens, Joe is touring a defunct textile mill being redeveloped into condominiums. He and the developer are walking through the basement where a construction crew is knocking down a wall, and a skull comes flying out of the rubble. It turns out the skull is that of a man who once worked in the mill’s finance department, who disappeared in 1968. He vanished around the same time as half a million dollars went missing, which was a lot of money in 1968. It’s long been assumed he embezzled the money and left town. So when his body is found in the mill 44 years later, it’s obvious that not only did he not steal the money, but also that somebody murdered him and made him the fall guy. Joe Gale uses the old notes of his late mentor to help reconstruct what happened in 1968 and uncover the facts that weren’t discovered at the time. The story moves back and forth in time, with every third chapter occurring in 1968. It was a lot of fun to write, and to pull out historical photos and other data to figure out where things were in Portland at that time.

Q: Did you receive some nice feedback for your first work?

A: Yes. It was great to hear from people, both from the area and from away. Really gratifying.

My second book in the Joe Gale series, Cover Story, is set in Machias and involves a murder trial. The best reaction to that book came from a friend who said he was reading it on his deck on a hot summer day with a glass of iced tea sweating on the table beside him. When he was reading a scene that occurs during a blizzard, he had the urge to get up and put on a sweater, because the book transported him into the dead of winter. What a compliment!

The third book in the series, called Truth Beat, takes place back in the Portland area. It involves the murder of a Catholic priest who stood with the victims when the priest abuse scandal broke. He stood up to the bishop, who was inclined to sweep things under the rug. He advocated for the victims very strongly and ran support groups for Catholics who were devastated by the scandal. This made him some enemies, and that, it was assumed, led to his murder. But as is always the case with mysteries, there were other factors at work, things no one knew. Joe Gale was acquainted with the priest personally, and his coverage of the case is key to figuring out who killed Father Patrick, and why.

Q: Where are these books available?

A: This series is only available in digital format. All three books are easily available anywhere you would buy an e-book. My publisher is Carina Press, and my books are available through its website. They also can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple, depending on whether you have a Kindle, a Nook, or an iPad.

Q: Are you currently working on another book?

A: I’m just finishing up the manuscript for a book that I’m calling Big Fish. If it’s published, it may be under another title, but that’s my working title right now. I’m about send it to my agent in the next week or two. Hopefully, we will be able to sell it and have it published in both paper and digital versions.

Q: Is the new book a crime novel?

A: Oh, yes. It has as its protagonist a Portland criminal defense lawyer named Neva Pierce. She’s the daughter of a criminal defense lawyer here in Portland, who was a flamboyant, high profile kind of guy. She had no interest in following his footsteps. Fresh out of law school she landed a job in Boston at a high-powered, white-collar defense firm. Through a series of circumstances, she lost her job at the Boston firm the same week her father dropped dead of a heart attack. So she moved back to Portland to wind up her father’s law practice. One of the conflicts she faces is whether to stay in Portland, or move to a bigger city, for another shot of what she thinks of as “the big time.” In Big Fish there is, of course, a murder to sort out, as well as a large burglary case in which she represents a key figure. Neva—which is short for Geneva—is an interesting character in that she wrestles with both personal and professional conflicts. I’m very excited about this book and I have a plot sketched out for two more books in the series.

Q: What is it about writing that gives you pleasure?

A: I love storytelling. I come from an Irish family where storytelling was central. My mother and her side of the family were big storytellers. I remember as a kid sitting around and listening to people tell a well-crafted story, and being amazed by their skill. I also was a big mystery reader growing up. As I kid, I thought a lot about actually writing a book myself, and spent a lot of time dreaming up plots and characters. It began to come to life when I was in college and had that opportunity to study creative writing, but then I put it on hold for a while. It gives me pleasure to imagine people into existence, and create complex stories that say something about the human condition through characters who are multi-faceted people. It’s a challenge, and it’s a lot of fun.

Q: Do you have any influences as writers or folks who inspire you to write?

A: One big role model was in my law school class—Julia Spencer-Fleming. She practiced here in Portland briefly, started a family, and then started writing. She’s a wonderful writer—a New York Times bestseller—who is just so skilled at what she does. Anyone who hasn’t read her books really ought to get out there and find them.

Q: What’s the best advice you have ever received?

A: You shouldn’t proofread your own work. That advice really has two levels of meaning. Literally, of course, if you insist on proofing your own work, chances are you’re going to miss errors. But it’s also good counsel in a larger sense, because in law and in writing, the help of other people is vital. If you invite others to help you and you embrace what they have to offer, your work will shine.

There are a lot of crime writers in Maine. We are very supportive of each other and work hard to become more skilled at what we do. We hang out at various conferences where we participate on panel discussions and workshops. And sometimes we just get together to have fun. For example, there is an event called Noir @ The Bar that happens a couple of times a year over at Bull Feeney’s. It’s a Sunday afternoon gathering where a dozen or so local crime writers get up on stage and do three-minute readings from their work. It’s always a great time.

I’ve also been involved with the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA), a statewide organization for writers, which has been a wonderful thing for me. MWPA helps people interested in writing plug into the community and find support. This goes back to my best advice, which is to ask others for help. Support from colleagues is essential, both in law and writing. Nobody can do this alone.

DANIEL J. MURPHY is a shareholder in Bernstein Shur’s Business Law and Litigation Practice Groups, where his practice concentrates on business and commercial litigation matters. BEYOND the LAW features conversations with Maine lawyers who pursue unique interests or pastimes. Readers are invited to suggest candidates for BEYOND the LAW by contacting Dan Murphy at dmurphy@bernsteinshur.com.


July, 2014 interview with Brenda Buchanan, author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series

Q: Maine is the setting of all of your stories. Have you always lived there?

A: Not in Maine, but almost always in New England. I was raised in the Central Massachusetts city of Fitchburg, a paper mill town about an hour northwest of Boston. I spent my first two years of college in Knoxville, Tennessee (go Lady Vols!) then transferred to Northeastern University in Boston for the rest of my journalism studies. I moved to Maine in 1980, a few months after graduating from Northeastern, and I’ve lived here ever since.

Q: What attracted you to Maine? What keeps you here?

A: In a practical sense, I was attracted to Maine because it meant my first professional job in journalism at the York County Coast Star in Kennebunk. Until then I had little experience with Maine. My older brother was a Coast Guardsman stationed on a South Portland buoy tender in the 1960s, so I’d made it as far as Portland when I was a little kid, riding in the way back of the beach wagon, asking if we were there yet.

When I moved to Maine in the fall of 1980 I was mesmerized by its natural beauty – truly bowled over by it. I also was delighted to find myself living among such fascinating people. Those two things – the daily opportunity to experience the stunning Maine coast and the chance to live among so many interesting, talented, caring people – are the reasons Maine has remained my home.

Q: Like your character, Joe Gale, you were a newspaper reporter. How did you come to pursue that line of work?

A: I wanted to be a newspaper reporter pretty much as soon as I learned to read. Everyone in my childhood world read newspapers – way more than they read books. Multiple newspapers, every day, and then talked about what they’d read.

My maternal grandfather had emigrated from Ireland (County Mayo) and learned the ways of his new country by reading newspapers. So my mother got the habit from him, and at 92, still reads the local paper every day.

Growing up in Appalachia during the Depression, my father’s formal schooling was cut short by the need to help put food on the table. But my Dad loved to read, and he read at least two newspapers each day to keep himself informed about all kinds of topics. Local politics. The economy. Sports.

In Irish-Catholic families of that era, it was a huge deal if one of the kids became a nun or a priest. The religious life was not for me, but in my little girl’s mind, being a newspaper reporter was almost as holy.

Q: How did you go about pursing your “calling?”

A: I joined the staff of my high school paper in 1972 and, with a couple of other firebrands, set about turning it from a low-key school booster sheet into a lean, mean investigative machine. Shortly after Title IX was adopted we undertook a detailed review of the enormous disparity between spending on boys and girls sports, and wrote about the legal consequences the school could face if it didn’t create more opportunities for girls. The story got us in a bit of internal hot water, but it resulted in the hiring of a new athletic director who committed himself to creating a quality athletic program for girls.

At Northeastern University I took full advantage of the co-op program, which allowed me to alternate classroom semesters with semesters working at a newspaper. I was fortunate to wind up at The Boston Globe, at first answering phones on the city desk and helping the copy editors. My final year I was a reporter trainee on the “lobster shift,” driving all over Boston (and sometimes all over Massachusetts) covering stories that happened in the middle of the night. It was an absolute blast and the kind of education you can’t get from a textbook.

After graduating from Northeastern, I moved to Maine and was a reporter at the Star for a half-dozen years, covering Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Ogunquit and the courts. I also had a weekly column, called By The Bye, the same name as my blog. (I have been accused and found guilty of sentimentality.)

By 1986 it was time to move on to the next thing, which turned out to be law school. So my journalism career ended before the internet and the newsroom downsizing and all of the other slings and arrows that my former colleagues have endured. I’m grateful to those who taught me how to be a newspaper reporter, and stand in absolute awe of those who are still doing it.

It’s critically important that the kind of journalism traditionally done by newspapers continues to be done, even if the delivery method is electronic rather than paper. Stories like the Watergate break-in, the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church and the terrifying scope of the NSA surveillance program would not have come to light but for the extraordinary work of newspaper reporters. And the small town dailies and the weekly newspapers are as important as the national newspapers. If there’s no systematic coverage of the local Town Council and Planning Board meetings, who’ll sound the alarm when favors are granted or bids are rigged?

Human nature demands watchdogs and good journalism costs money. As a society, we can’t afford not to support vigorous, independent reporters.

As you can tell, I still think newspaper reporters are almost saintly.

Q: How did you start writing fiction? And why crime fiction?

A: When I was at Northeastern, I studied creative writing with none other than Robert B. Parker. I took two courses with him a year or so before he eased out of teaching to write full time. He was an engaging teacher and a thoughtful critic. But I had my sights set on journalism, and didn’t write fiction again for years.

In the early 2000s – Joe Gale, Christie Pappas and Rufe Smathers started whispering in my ear. I imagined them into existence over the course of a few years, along with the Town of Riverside and a few fictional scenarios. I eventually started writing on an occasional basis. At the end of 2008, I promised myself I’d make it a daily habit, and I did. Every evening I sat down in front of the computer and stayed there until I’d written two pages. On weekends, I would usually write more than two pages, but always kept to the two-page minimum.

I was in a writers’ group at that time, which was enormously helpful. The other members were good writers who were willing to read my work and give feedback, and let me read their work and give them feedback. That process spotlighted my bad habits, and taught me to both use and question my instincts.

Why crime fiction? Because it’s what I read. My childhood faves were mystery and suspense, and that’s never changed. I imagined myself Nancy Drew’s sidekick until I was about ten, then moved on to adult mystery. These days I love character-driven work with a strong sense of place. Louise Penny. Val McDermid. Julia Spencer-Fleming. Paul Doiron. Tana French. Peter May. Kate Flora. Steve Ulfelder. Too many to name, actually.

Q: Is Quick Pivot your first book?

A. It will be my first published book, but it’s actually the second book I wrote. Like a bottle of red wine, the first one needed a little time to breathe.

Q: Tell me about your spouse.

A: Diane is my most constructive critic and my biggest fan. I am lucky to have found such a smart, loving, supportive woman with whom to share my life. She is endlessly patient with me in general, no small feat. She never complains when I ask to read passages to aloud to her, or for help working through a plot tangle. And she loves my characters as much as I do.

Q: Who is your favorite character in Quick Pivot?

A: What a question! I love every one of them. Joe, of course, running around with his journalist’s heart on his sleeve in 2014, when it’s more fashionable to be cynical. Paulie, because he’s an amalgam of a number of older reporters who taught me what was what. Joan, because she didn’t let a broken heart break her spirit. Helena, for being so determined and strong, and MacMahon, for never letting go of a tough case.

Q: Is Riverside based on a real mill town?

A: It’s based on several: Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where I grew up, was primarily a paper mill town, as was Westbrook, Maine, where I live now. Biddeford and Lewiston, Maine, where the mills turned out textiles famous the world over, also served as inspiration.

All are proud towns that have seen more downs than ups in recent years due to global economic trends that made it cheaper to make paper and weave textiles elsewhere, first in the South and eventually offshore. The loss of manufacturing jobs devastated entire communities across New England, and though it has taken decades, many are now on their way back.

Fitchburg, Lowell, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Westbrook, Biddeford, Lewiston and so many others are re-inventing themselves as vigorous, exciting places to live and work. I’m especially happy when I see 150 year old brick edifices made vital again, renovated to serve community needs for affordable housing and economic development.

Q: On to some fun questions. Favorite item of clothing?

A: Wool socks. I wear ‘em all year long.

Q: Favorite game as a child?

A: Baseball. I played a mean first base. I’m still a devoted Red Sox fan (some would say fanatic.)

Q: Favorite pizza joint?

A: Flatbread in Portland, Maine.

Q: Beer or wine?

A: Beer, especially one of the Maine craft brews. Or Guinness.

Q: Most embarrassing moment?

A: It has to do with my know-it-all attitude when I was eight years old, making my First Holy Communion. It’s a story told best after a couple of pints.

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