WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Alafair! It’s so wonderful having you speak with me. I’m a big admirer of your work here, including your individual work and collaborations. The Wife is my favorite yet. I’d like to start off by asking first how you came up with the concept and why you decided to connect it with your other novel The Ex?
Alafair Burke: It’s great to speak with you. The Wife is the story of Angela Powell, whose husband, a beloved public figure, faces two allegations of sexual misconduct. She grapples with an impossible choice, and is forced to take a second look at both the man she married and the women she refuses to believe. The concept is not really connected to The Ex, but Olivia Randall (from that novel) is exactly the kind of lawyer you’d call if someone you cared about needed a shark. Lo and behold, Jason Powell needed a shark, and there she was. This stuff just happens.
MT: I personally think this is your best book yet. Julianna Baggott, renowned author, poet, and so on once told me “Authors and artists are the only professions that get better with age.” Something along those lines. Do you think this is your best work so far? What has been your favorite to write, and which novel sticks with you the most?
AB: I always think my most recent book completed is the best, and the one I’m currently working on is the worst. That’s neurotic, I know, but it seems to work for me.
MT: Before I dig deep into questions about The Wife and writing, I do have to ask: What it’s like to write the marvelous Under Suspicion series with the equally talented Mary Higgins Clark? Do you two have a certain process in order to collaborate?
AB: We’ve had so much fun working together. If one pretty good storyteller like me sits down with a really, really good storyteller like her, it’s amazing how much we can get done in a day. We’ll write very little at first. Instead, we talk and talk and talk—about character, story, and setting, all the things that make a good book good. We get more done in one day than I get done by myself in a month. When you’re by yourself, when you hit a wall, you think, “I’ve got enough for today; I’ll think about this problem tomorrow.” But if you have someone else to work with, she can say: “Here’s how you can fix it,” and I can pick back the thread, and so on. You hear about the writing rooms for TV shows — we have our own writing room. I think we’ve both really enjoyed it.
MT: You put out books so frequently, and they all are of the highest quality. How you find time to write so much and so well? What is your writing routine and schedule like? Are there any things you avoid in order to be a better writer?
AB: My friends joke that if fifteen minutes go by without something fun happening, they find me pulling out my laptop. I just try to keep enough structure in my life so I don’t miss deadlines. As a lawyer, you learn to account for your time, so my idea of goofing off is going on Facebook to look at friends’ pictures for eighteen or twenty-four minutes since lawyers’ time is billed in six-minute increments. It helps that I have a schedule and am forced to be mindful of time. Sometimes, I just have to compel myself to write the next book. I might write five-hundred really bad words, but I still wrote the five-hundred words. There’s always revision.
MT: The Wife is a stunning achievement. My first immediate question about the book is whether or not you had the whole book mapped out before you even began. Did you know every twist and turn beforehand?
AB: I don’t outline at all. I just write until I’m done and then read, edit, and re-read until it seems right to me. Hand to God, I don’t rewrite with an idea toward pace or plotting. I focus entirely on character, and it always seems to work out.
MT: The Wife has a lot of really heavy and I do mean heavy statements that writers need to make, and other writers (especially male) need to read. What do you hope men, or anyone else, might or should take away from this? And, yes, I’m going there—what about President Trump? What do you think he could learn from The Wife? More importantly, which of your books do you think he’d benefit the most from?
AB: Oh wow, there’s a lot to unpack there. We’re in a time now, fortunately, when we realize that some offenses have gone un- and under-punished for too long. The language of “zero tolerance” emerged from the early stage of the movement, but I think we’re entering a new stage that is more nuanced. We’re recognizing that there’s a reason we distinguish between criminal and non-criminal conduct when it comes to imposing certain forms of punishment. But we’re also realizing that conduct can be non-criminal but still unlawful, as in the case of workplace harassment. Other conduct might be entirely lawful (both civilly and criminally) but still wrong as a matter of treating people equally and with dignity. As for the current President, my guess is that he would have rolled his eyes and zoned out after the first sentence of that response!
MT: The Wife is one of those books where, even if the beginning of the novel doesn’t necessarily, obviously and immediately revolve around a murder, it still ropes the reader in and refuses to let go. What are your tricks to doing this? Many authors have to begin with teaser deaths or murders to entice their audience, yet you’re able to captivate the audience with a little—well, actually, big—lie.
AB: The opening pages allow the reader to see Angela at a turning point in the story: A police detective is at her door, asking her where her husband was the night before. It’s a line in the sand. She has to decide how far she’ll go to protect Jason. The rest of the book is about how she got to that point, and the aftermath of the decision she makes at that moment.
MT: I would really appreciate it if you would explain to our readers what you feel The Wife is about, other than on a direct story level (without spoilers please!). I’ve read many reviewers say it’s the best book of the year not just for its plot, but for its thoughts and politics. What do you think about those comments?
Well, I’m blown away by the reader feedback right now. At the micro level, the book’s about one woman—one wife—who continues to love her husband and their life together even when she’s confronted with the fact that he’s done something bad. Readers may think they know the story already -- Like the Clash said, Should I stay or should I go? But not every woman’s pro-con list looks the same. Angela’s story is unique, because of course every woman’s life is unique.
At the macro level, the book explores ideas that have long fascinated me, and which are finally being discussed in the light of day by a mainstream audience. When does sex become criminal? How do we define consent? We are finally saying, “Believe the women,” but what exactly does that mean for the lives affected by accusations that play out on social media instead of a courtroom? Without knowing THE WIFE would be published in the middle of that discourse, I wound up having a lot to say about it.
MT: How was it writing a—forgive me for using this word—“non-woke” character like Angela Powell? Was it harmful or you to delve into her psyche—it seems like she’s the woman, in many ways, ever woman (and many men like me) fear being: often completely dedicated to her husband despite everything.
AB: I don’t find it harmful to delve into another’s psyche. I think the exercise of doing that has actually made me a more empathetic person outside my writing life, too. I consider myself lucky to come out on the other side of this book with a deepened understanding of Angela’s position, and the position of wives whose identities are formed around marriage. In general, I find I sympathize, even empathize, with so-called “unlikeable” characters, while I’m skeptical of traditional heroes. So I guess that means I’m having fun with characters whom I love and whom everyone else would avoid at a party. I’ve done enough interviews already to know that readers disagree about truly makes Angela tick. I think people are going to want to gossip about Angela with their friends behind her back!
MT: What do you think Angela learns by the end of the novel, if anything, without revealing any spoilers? What’s her takeaway, and this may seem redundant from previous questions, but what do you hope the audience takes away from this?
AB: I want readers to answer that question for themselves. I have my own answer, but to reveal it would give too much power to my own opinion about Angela.
MT: Who are the women crime writers you admire most today? Also, women writers of color, of different ethnicities and in different countries? Which writers have inspired you most in your writing? What books inspired The Wife, if any?
AB: Oh my, that is so hard to answer. As I know you’ve noticed, female crime writers are killing it these days (see what I did there?). Some of the usual names, deservedly, are Karin Slaughter, Lisa Unger, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Lyndsay Faye, Lori Roy, Allison Gaylin, Meg Gardiner, Kate White, and Queen Gillian of course! I’ll throw in some less familiar names, no less talented, but either newish to the scene or outside the US: Sara Blaedel’s Louise Rick series, Ivy Pochoda’s Wonder Valley, Caz Frear’s Sweet Little Lies, Kristen Lepionka’s The Last Place You Look, and Lauren Stahl’s The Devil Song.
MT: I mentioned in my review of your novel that it seems like you’ve reached a peak, even though I believe that a writer of your talent and abilities can go even higher. I’m sorry but The Wife is just that stunning. So, may I ask what you have planned next? Where do we go from here?
AB: Thank you. I’m working on the next Ellie Hatcher novel, which will take her back home to Wichita.
MT: Alafair, thank you so much for stopping by. We really do love your work, truly, and honestly believe The Wife could be the book of the year. You are such a talented writer and powerhouse—I’m honored to have gotten the chance to interview you. Do you have any closing remarks or thoughts?
AB: What else could I possibly add? Thanks so much for your enthusiasm about this book and the work you put into this interview. I appreciate it!