Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
January 13, 2017 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
The name Linda Fairstein looms large in both legal and cultural circles, in particular for her groundbreaking work as a prosecutor of sex crimes in New York City. After graduating with honors from Vassar College and the University of Virginia School of Law, she joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 1972 as an Assistant D.A. She was promoted to the head of the sex crimes unit in 1976, where was a pioneer in both the perception and the prosecution of rape. Fairstein, who left the District Attorney’s office in 2002, mined her extensive legal background to write a series of crime novels featuring Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper (begun in 1996 and still going strong), as well as the 1993 nonfiction book Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape in which she examines society’s sexual attitudes, reflects on myths about sexual violence, and traces the evolution of rape laws.
Now the lawyer-turned-novelist has channeled her considerable talents in yet another direction, with the introduction of Devlin Quick, a 12-year-old protagonist who seems equal parts legendary girl sleuth Nancy Drew and the kind of bright, inquiring girl Fairstein must herself have been.
Yona Zeldis McDonough: What prompted your leap from wildly successful adult thrillers to a middle grade mystery series?
Linda Fairstein: My leap is not as radical as it would seem! I remember that the Nancy Drew mysteries were the first novels that I fell in love with as a series—with a protagonist who kept returning in book after book, with a loyal cadre of friends, to solve the endless series of crimes that seemed to plague the little town of River Heights. I wanted, at times, to climb into the pages of the book and become part of Nancy’s world. The 16-year-old sleuth seemed so very sophisticated to me when I was nine or 10—her courage and sense of decency, her smart suits and her blue roadster. Once I started to write for adults, I knew there would come a time when I would try to write a series for kids. My sleuth is a city girl, of course—and only 12—so she is a bit edgier and is introduced to the world of forensics by her very strong single mother, who is NYC’s first woman police commissioner. There is a lot of ‘girl power’ in this series!
YZM: Your time in the ADA’s office definitely influenced the books in your adult series; is the same true here?
LF: Yes, it’s quite obvious that my time as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office really influences the character of Alexandra Cooper in my long-running series for adult readers. Some of that is the old adage ‘write what you know,’ and much was my keen interest in showing readers what the work was like for me when I entered a job that was very non-traditional for women in the 1970’s. That experience certainly influences Devlin Quick, too. Her mother, the Police Commissioner, had been a prosecutor before the Mayor appointed her to that post, so Devlin grew up very much aware of her mother’s sense of justice and her commitment to ‘doing the right thing.’ In many of the fictional scenes, Dev tries to think things through just as her mother would—she is so fiercely proud of her mother’s fortitude and personal integrity.
YZM: You’ve gone on record saying that Alex Cooper, your adult protagonist, is Jewish; how about Devlin, your new pre-teen sleuth?
LF: When I created Alex Cooper in 1996 (the first novel was Final Jeopardy), I gave her a background very much like my own. My mother’s family was Christian (her paternal side from Northern Ireland and her maternal side from Finland and Sweden), and my father’s family Jews who escaped Russia in the early 1900s. My father was the first of his siblings born in America. My mother converted to Judaism when she married my father. I grew up exposed to both religions, as my maternal grandparents lived in our home. But I was very much aware of my own identity as a Jew—and very proud of that. For Alex, I wanted to mirror many of my own experiences of the 1960s and 70s—being Jewish at an elite women’s college, and one of a handful of Jewish women (of women!) at a first-tier law school. In much the same way, I experienced similar pioneering work when I entered the criminal justice system—a very male-dominated world in those days. So far, I have not included Devlin’s religious background as an element of the stories in the new series. Her two best friends are Booker Dibble, an African-American guy whose mother was Dev’s roommate at college; and Katie Cion, who is Jewish and the daughter of a hedge fund guy (Katie has a big role in the second book in the series). I expect that we’ll learn more about Dev’s roots in episodes to come.
YZM: During your two decades in the DA’s office, you made some enormous changes in the way rape was perceived and prosecuted; what changes do you think still need to happen?
LF: As you know, I was given an enormous responsibility—to run the country’s pioneering Special Victims’ Unit—when I was only four years out of law school. That would never happen today, but again, it was due in large measure to the fact that there were just seven women on the staff of the DA’s Office at that time, and I had a bit of experience handling these sensitive cases in my “rookie” years. We were able to fight to change laws for victims of sex crimes and child abuse and domestic violence, which allowed many more women to enter the courtroom and triumph there. We need changes in states in which statutes of limitation are still an issue, and we need legislation all over this country to mandate testing of all rape examination kits—to eliminate the backlog and to keep it from ever growing again. We also need more effective ways of dealing with the issue of sexual assault on college campuses—because the Title IX procedures imposed during the last few years simply are not working. Beyond that, most laws are in place—but we need to do a much better job of educating the public about these issues, which often seem to be of epidemic proportions in America.
YZM: Into the Lion’s Den contains several references to Vassar, your alma mater. What was it like being a Jewish woman on campus during your student days?
LF: I loved my experience at Vassar, which was in its last years as a women’s college when I entered in 1965. I come from Mt. Vernon, NY, and went to an enormous public high school there, graduating with a very diverse class of 850 students. I chose Vassar because of the strength of its English literature department—I always wanted to write—and because of the beauty of its campus, too. But I was terrified when I embarked upon my freshman adventure, mostly because there was so little diversity of any kind. There were a good number of Jewish women in my class—though very few women of color—and I was terrifically insecure because it was still a time when a large percentage of the incoming students had gone to prep schools and boarding schools, and [there] were legacies of women who had attended for generations. The roommate assigned to me had never met a Jew until the day we were placed together. She remains my closest friend to this day, and she married a brilliant man—Jewish— too. I don’t ever remember experiencing any feeling of personal prejudice, but there was often a feeling of being “other,” which I had never experienced before college. I’m on the board of trustees now—with a grandson at the college—so I spend a lot of time there and am terrifically impressed with the diversity of the student body and faculty.
YZM: How do you see the Devlin Quick series developing?
LF: My dream is to write a dozen Devlin Quick novels (while still keeping up my Alex Cooper series – Deadfall coming this summer). The second entry for Dev is called Digging For Trouble, which begins on a dinosaur dig in Montana, but returns when Dev and Katie bring the dino fossils back to our beloved Museum of Natural History. I’m expecting to set the third novel on Martha’s Vineyard—where Booker and his family vacation—to explore some of the issues of race and gender that these kids will confront. The books are meant to be smart and to be fun, and that’s the spirit in which I hope to continue on with them.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the award-winning author of the seven novels and twenty-six books for children. She is also the editor of two essay collections and her short fiction, essays and articles have appeared in numerous national and literary magazines. Visit her atwww.yonazeldismcdonough.com or www.facebook.com/yzmcdonough.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.