In addition to creating FBI forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick, Robin is also the author of the award-winning Kate Gillespie series. Kate is a homicide investigator for the San Francisco Police Department.
I knew from perusing her website earlier, that Robin had rather extensive experiences herself in law enforcement, so of course, my interest was peaked and I had to see if I could find out more. Robin was so nice to tolerate my nosiness and answer my questions - in the midst of her book tour even. So, folks, here she is, my final interview of 2008 and the author of Face of a Killer, Robin Burcell!
Q: I'm in awe of these different roles you've held as a member of the law enforcement community. And you were the first female officer for your department - much like Kate is the first female homicide detective in San Francisco. What prompted you to enter law enforcement?
Robin: A friend who thought it would be a good job kept telling me to apply. I really only applied to keep her from asking me if I had applied yet. Truth is, I'd thought about it when I was younger, but never thought it would be something I could do - until I got the job.
Q: Were there any barriers in your department as the first female officer that made you consider giving it up?
Robin: You mean besides the guys who didn't want me to work there, who told me to my face that they weren't ready for women on patrol, who liked to "up" the tension with suspects to see how I'd handle myself in a fight, or all the things that made me go home and cry at night? No, no barriers whatsoever.
Q: Like Sydney, you're trained as a forensic artist. What led to that element of your career?
Robin: I was an artist first (runs in the family). I thought it would be a great idea for our department to utilize my talents, but couldn't really convince anyone in the department how valuable this could be. Finally I drew a portrait of a lieutenant's grandson and brought it in. The rest was history.
Q: Can you share an especially rewarding or memorable experience from your work as a forensic artist?
Robin: There have been many, but one in particular stands out. A young girl was kidnapped, and I was called in to do several drawings from witnesses, working straight through the night. We took the one I thought was the best, made fliers to post in all the store windows, and had the suspect identified before we even found them the next day. (We arrested him and the young girl was found relatively unharmed.)
Q: You've also worked as a hostage negotiator. Wow! When did you have time to work with all the training you must have been undergoing for these positions?
Robin: The training happened over the course of years. The way it works is they pull you from the street, send you to a school for a few weeks, then bring you back.
Robin: Not a bad idea. I'll have to consider that one!
Q: Robin, you've been in law enforcement for awhile now, filling a plethora of different roles. What prompted you to want to write? Did you always have aspirations of writing crime fiction?
Robin: Like the artistic side of me, writing also runs through my veins. My grandfather was a sports editor for a major newspaper, and he was a very poetic writer as well. And my love of reading certainly didn't hurt! For as long as I remember, I wanted to write; I think because I was always so disappointed when a good book would end, I wanted to continue the stories on and on. I eventually took to writing when I'd bought out every book in a store by my favorite authors and couldn't find any more of what I wanted to read.
Q: Who, if anyone, would you say has influenced your style of writing?
Robin: Good question. Early on, Michael Connelly's The Poet was one of the first books that made me want to write a police procedural. I thought he had a very authentic voice. And I really liked the early Patricia Cornwell Scarpetta books.
Q: I'm stealing this question - I'm admitting it up front. I heard it asked of an author in another interview and I loved it, so I'm going to ask you: If you could go out on a date with ANY fictional character (from a book), who would you choose?
Robin: Jack Reacher
Q: So, you're still a criminal investigator AND you're a novelist. Do you have any time for hobbies or outside interests? How do you fill those extra few minutes you have when you aren't eating or sleeping?
Robin: Extra few minutes? Somehow I lost those between the science projects and homework that is always discovered at 9:30 the night before the kids recall it is due.
Q: Obviously Sydney and Kate have some similarities to you. How much wold you say they are like you and how do they differ from you? Do you ride motorcycles?
Robin: They both have the same moral values that I have. The things that are important to them are important to me: family, truth, justice, that sort of thing. But unlike me, they have no kids and usually have a hard time with a steady relationship. I've been married to the same guy for over twenty years. They have a hard time getting past 6 months with a guy. I think because they are overly dedicated to their jobs, which makes for more exciting fiction when you have to chasing after crooks on very cool motorcycles, or jetting off to foreign countries. I haven't been on a motorcycle since I was a kid, so that part is my fictional alter-ego. In other words, Kate and Sydney get to say all the cool things that I'd like to say, investigate the ultra-cool, ultra-dangerous cases, experience the thrill of the chase and not have to worry about the kids at home, or getting in trouble at work because you do the exact opposite of what your boss tells you, all to solve a case.
Q: Would you say that ideas for the plot drive your writing or do the characters take control when you sit down to create?
Robin: I usually start off with the plot, but the characters end up taking it over. Always a lot of fun to see where we end up!
Q: One of the things that struck me in Face of a Killer was the scene at he beginning of the novel where Sydney is working with the rape victim to create the drawing of the attacker. It comes across as very realistic,very authentic. Do you ever run into problems trying to keep the realism present and still maintain enough "action" to keep readers turning the pages?
Robin: I do use a lot of my real cases to bring that authenticity to my novels. I've done forensic drawings in hospital rooms, at police departments, even in the morgue. It's important to me that a reader picks up one of my books and knows that he is going to get a taste of what it's really like to be a cop. The caveat is that there is no novel or TV show or movie that can be totally realistic without boring the reader/viewer. Altering realism has to be done. In the opening scene, we don't get to experience the hours it actually takes to complete a drawing. I offer the highlights, the important questions, how the drawing actually would take shape, what it's like to work with a victim, then move on to the story, all in a matter of a few pages, not a few hours. The same holds true for all the time we cops spend writing reports. I might say "spent the next few hours writing reports, then left for the evening," just before I move on to what is important in the story, what we're really reading it for. After all, you can't ignore the realities of police life. You can, however, gloss over the boring stuff and get to the action.
Q: Now Sydney works for the FBI. And you thank a couple of special agents in your acknowledgements section, but what kind of research did you have to do to find the necessary details for that element of Sydney's character? Was it just a lot of question and answer, did you spend time with the agents? And FBI agents really punch a time card? I don't know what that stood out so much to me - I guess because "little things amuse me!"
Robin: Some of the research was done "on the job," since I've worked with FBI agents on a variety of cases, and have been friends with a few over the years. But working with one is not the same as being one, and there is no doubt that they do things differently than us local cops, so that part definitely had to be researched. And like you, I was surprised by the time card! But I took a tour of the San Francisco field office, and sure enough, there it was on the wall. I had to ask if they really used it, and was assured that they did!
Q: Dave Dixon absolutely cracks me up. He has his calendar to retirement, but he's still several YEARS from retirement. You don't need to name any names, but was there an inspiration for him?
Robin: Yes. I think he's a culmination of several supervisors that I've had over the years - as well as supervisors I wish I'd had. I really ended up liking his character in the end. As for that calendar, I know several cops who have kept one. Nowadays, they actually make little electronic clocks, and you can punch in the day, and it works backwards, citing the time to the second. A coworker had one in her office, years before she was due to retire.
Q: I'm also a fan of Kathy Reichs' books. And I watch the television show Bones. There is a forensic artist on the TV show (Angela). And in a presentation I heard from Kathy, she joked about how her role in the television show was to keep the writers true to forensic science. Then she did a comparison of what her office looked like compared to Tempe's on the show. Quite different. What she did point out was that all the technology on the show is available, but mostly no one has the money for it. All that leads me to the question for YOU! ;) Sydney mentions how forensic artists usually aren't skilled enough to pull off sculptures, do you think the computerized 3-D recreations used in the Bones television show are a realistic expectation for the near future or is it merely science fiction?
Robin: There's this saying: if you can imagine it, it can be done. I have to think that way back when, the first science fiction book that talked of flying to the moon was probably considered pure fantasy. And look where we are today. And spaceships with talking computers? Yeah, right. So, sure, why not holographic models of forensic drawings. But reality is that the money has to come first, so until then, the best drawings will be the old fashioned way, with pencil and paper. And 3-D images don't translate well to newspapers.
But it's funny about Kathy mentioning what her office really looks like. (Like you, I'm also a big fan of hers.) I was on a tour of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., in October, and I joked with a couple of the guys about where their glass-enclosed offices and cubicles, cool instant DNA evidence access, private jets and holographic imaging equipment were all located. They laughed and mentioned something about a budget crunch. Reality is that it's a typical government building, with normal offices for the supervisors, and the agents sit in cubicles like you'd see in the Dilbert comic strip. Oh, and the private jet? They're still waiting on that.
Q: On the HarperCollins website you mention that you're working on the next boo in Sydney's series. It sounds absolutely amazing! Sydney's headed to Rome. Is there a tentative time that this book will be available for us? It doesn't sound like it's a plot that will allow Sydney and Kate to hook up, though. Any plans for them to be together in a novel down the road?
Robin: The Bone Chamber is the title of the next Sydney book, and I believe it is due to be released November 2009. The story starts of with her flying to Quantico in order to do a forensic sketch/ID from a skull. You're right, however, in that when she heads off to Rome, there is little chance that she and Kate will be working the case together. Perhaps in the future. One of the reasons I decide to move to the FBI for my new series was that Sydney, being an agent, could move around the country on cases (or out of the country, even). It was a new freedom that allowed me bigger options when it came to plots!
Q: O.k., last question, I promise! I always like to end with my memoir question. There is a famous book out called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. What would be YOUR six-word memoir?
Robin: Read THE FACE OF A KILLER!
So there you have a glimpse into the law enforcement world. You can learn more about Robin, Sydney and Kate on Robin's website. In addition, Robin had a guest post recently over at Off the Page. She talks a little more in depth about balancing the realism with fiction.