Alafair Burke: Her Literary Life

For many, a love of reading begins early in life, often encouraged by our parents. Furthermore, sometimes a passion for stories developed in childhood can lead to more than simply being a bookworm. Here crime author Alafair Burke remembers how her mother, a librarian, and her father, a writer, had an influence on her own literary life.

Alafair Burke writes …

Writers are asked all the time how they became writers. I’m not sure any of us can answer that question definitively. How can anyone know exactly why she is the way she is, without the ability to turn back time and live a different life?

But there’s a natural human tendency to try to attribute cause to effects. In my case, a few contributing factors to my writing path leap out.

According to my parents, my obsession with crime coincided with the news that a serial killer was active in our otherwise calm neighborhood in Wichita, Kansas. The murderer called himself BTK. I learned at the age of eight that it stood for “Bind, Torture, Kill,” which is what this man liked to do to women and some children, in their homes, often in the middle of the day.

Continuing with cause and effect, that obsession with crime – and the desire to bring people like BTK to justice – probably contributed to my desire to want to become a prosecutor. And it was at the prosecutor’s office that I realized I was immersed in a world rich with the kind of characters and dialogue that I wanted to see depicted in fiction. I began working on what would become my first novel, Judgment Calls, set in the very same office where I worked as a prosecutor.

That chain of causation sounds plausible enough. But my best guess for why I’m a writer would be incomplete if I didn’t talk about my parents. My mother was a school librarian. Every Saturday morning, she would take me to what was left of downtown Wichita, Kansas, for mommy and me time. We would see $1 matinees of movies like Herbie the Love Bug and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Then it was on to the public library for a new stack of books for each of us. And then I would sit on the floor of the Macy’s clearance basement, starting my new books, as she searched futilely for a big enough bargain to fit our family budget.

Where was my father these days? Writing, on a manual Royal typewriter, at a makeshift desk he constructed from cinder block legs and a door for a top.

When people asked me what my parents did for a leaving, the answer was easy: Mom was a librarian, and Dad was a writer. What I didn’t understand at the time was that my father was out of print. After an early run of three critically acclaimed novels by my second birthday, he lost first his publisher, then his agent. But he kept writing. He would write every single day, with no promise that anyone would ever read a word of it.

After ten years of being out of print – ten years – one of his new manuscripts was published as a paperback original. Three years later, an academic press published a collection of his short stories. A year after that, that same press published in hardback a novel called The Lost Get Back Boogie, which had been rejected by more than a hundred other publishers.

When I really think about why I’m a writer, the image I have is of those Saturdays. My father – sitting at that desk, producing his work, no matter the outcome. My mother – instilling a love of books in her daughter, while simultaneously creating a quiet space at home so Dad could write. From them, I learned that it was absolutely possible to put stories on a page, but never inevitable that the stories would find an audience.

My parents probably had no way of knowing that those Saturdays were creating two writers in the family.

Alafair Burke’s books include her Samantha Kincaid series, the standalone thriller Long Gone, and her highly acclaimed series starring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, the most recent of which, Never Tell, was a Kindle bestseller. A former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair is now a Professor of Law at Hofstra Law School, where she teaches criminal law and procedure. Her first book for Faber is If You Were Here and there are more to come.