As I promised yesterday, I'm talking with debut novelist Pamela Wechsler today. Pam is a former criminal prosecutor who has worked in both Boston and Washington D.C. When she took a break from the real courtroom, she started working on fictional courtrooms--Hollywood-style courtrooms. She's been a legal consultant and writer for shows such as the Law & Order franchise, Canterbury's Law and Conviction. Next week launches her debut novel, Mission Hill, about a Boston ADA named Abby Endicott. I'll have my review of this exciting new legal thriller later this week, but today's let's chat with the author herself. Please help me welcome Pamela Wechsler.
Q. What inspired you to pursue a legal career?
PW: Even though I went to law school, I never really planned to practice law. In college, I majored in political science because I knew that I wanted to serve my community in some capacity. After graduation, I taught in the public schools and worked for a neighborhood development agency. A few years later, I decided to go to back to school and I thought that law school would open up the most options. During my third year of law school, I visited a friend who worked in the district attorney’s office and I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do.
Q. You spent a lot of time in the legal profession, what sparked your interest in fiction writing--both for the screen and now in books?
PW: When I was working as a homicide prosecutor in Boston, I was contacted by a friend of a friend, who was writing for a television show about a homicide prosecutor. I ended up helping him with some of his scripts, and in the process, I learned a lot about television writing. A few years later, when I was working for the Justice Department in DC, I decided that it was time for a change. So, I studied the craft of television writing, wrote my own spec script, and got an agent. I worked in Hollywood for seven years, consulting and writing for a variety of legal dramas, including the Law and Order franchise. Circumstances brought me back to Boston, and I rejoined a district attorney’s office. A couple of years in, I got a call from producers from The Judge, a movie that was filming in the area. They hired me to be their legal consultant. One day, I was on the set, when the actor who played the role of the prosecutor, Billy Bob Thornton, suggested that I write a novel. So, I signed up for workshops at Grub Street, studied the craft, and wrote the novel that became MISSION HILL.
Q. What do you miss the most about your job as a prosecutor?
Prosecutors are constantly interacting with other people: detectives, victims, witnesses, defense attorneys, judges, and juries. Writing a novel is a solitary pursuit. I can spend the entire workday alone in my apartment without talking to anyone. That was a big adjustment.
Q. Your bio indicates you're consulting for TV now, are you still doing any writing or are you writing strictly for the novels at this point?
PW: I still consult for television shows, but only as a legal advisor. Right now, I’m working on the second Abby Endicott novel.
Q. How do the two writing formats compare?
PW: They’re very different. Scriptwriting has rules about things like format and length, novels do not. Scripts are much leaner; a one hour drama is about 60 pages long, MISSION HILL is about 300 pages. Also, scripts are mostly dialogue, with little room for description.
Q. When you started writing Mission Hill, what was the biggest frustration for you transitioning to novel writing? And what was most exciting or rewarding about this format?
PW: I wouldn’t call it a frustration, but I did have to learn the craft. I signed up for workshops, and did a lot of research about writing fiction. What I like most about writing novels, as opposed to scripts, is that I can get inside my protagonist’s head and describe her private thoughts. The only way to do that in a television script is through voiceover.
Q. I once read that the CSI franchise was making trial work more challenging because juries had unrealistic expectations for forensic evidence. Does something like that influence the way you write? And how do you balance realism with the demand for thrilling, dramatic suspense, especially in television?
PW: Like real detectives, TV detectives used to solve cases with shoe leather. They were out on the street, chasing down witnesses and following leads. That still holds true, but they also rely on science and technology. One of the reasons the CSI shows work so well is that they combine all the elements of modern police work.
Q. Is there a big pet peeve you've experienced in other books/TV/movies that you would never put into your writing, even for the sake of the suspense?
PW: I hope that authenticity is one of the things that draw people to MISSION HILL. I try to keep it as realist as possible. Still, I recognize that books and television shows are entertainment, not documentaries, and a certain amount of dramatic license is allowed— as long as the story is plausible.
Q. Abby Endicott is your new protagonist. She's a prosecutor in Boston, as you once were. How much of Abby's character comes from your own personality, experiences, etc., and how much of Abby is purely from your imagination?
PW: Abby and I are not one and the same in terms of personality or character. But many of the plot lines are drawn from my own life experiences, both in and out of the courtroom.
Q. So your personal experiences in law have been the basis your story ideas; do you harvest them from other sources as well?
PW: I do both. I was a prosecutor for seventeen years, which gives me a deep well to draw from. I am also constantly trolling the news for story ideas, and when I have time, I walk over to the courthouse to see what’s going on.
Q. You were recently a technical advisor on a TV movie called Doubt that deals with a defense attorney, but your writing has focused on the prosecutorial side of the courtroom. Any desire to write about the defense side?
PW: Sure, I’d love to write a series about a defense attorney.
Q. Abby's boyfriend is a jazz musician. Is this your preferred genre of music? Do you listen to it while you write?
PW: I like a variety of music genres, including jazz. I don’t listen to music when I write, unless I’m in a coffee shop.
I made Abby’s boyfriend a jazz musician because I wanted his career and personality to be very different from hers. They are both successful, but she is hard-charging and adrenalin-addicted, he is levelheaded and cool.
Q. What would you say Abby's theme song would be?
PW: Dirty Water by the Standells.
Q. A few years back I did a blog feature series based on the book Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure. I asked authors what their six-word memoir would be, so I'll end with that question for you.
PW: Does this thing come with directions?
Many thanks to Pam for taking time to chat with me today and share a little insight into her road to publishing and her debut novel, Mission Hill. Pam is on Facebook and Twitter; you can also learn more about her and Mission Hill at her website. Mission Hill is available Tuesday (May 3rd) and if you'd like to take it for a test run first, Criminal Element has an excerpt posted.
Happy reading, friends!