Please welcome Michele Martinez, author of the new legal thriller series featuring Prosecutor Melanie Vargas, with her second new title, The Finishing School!
NYC Prosecutor Melanie Vargas returns in the second outing of this exciting and invigorating new series from Martinez, this one featuring the intrepid and fearless lawyer battling drug dealers, the wealthy and powerful and, of course, her own personal struggles with being a single mom, having a boss from hell, and falling in love.
It all begins when two wealthy teenage girls are found dead by what looks like an apparent overdose, with a third girl missing and presumed to be the one responsible for the deaths. But the further Melanie, along with her love/hate interest FBI agent Dan O'Reilly, look into the case, the more complicated it becomes, with a plethora of suspects who have more than just drug dealing on their minds. Their search will take them to an elite private school where both students and faculty have much to hide and plenty of secrets that just might kill. And so as the two battle their feelings for each other, along with some very devious criminals, it will take all they have to uncover the truth that so many are trying to hide.
The strength of this story lies in Melanie herself, independent and so completely human, that rooting for her success in conquering love and crime comes easy. Add to that some breathless suspense, a story with plenty of twists and turns, and you have one hell of a fine read to keep you going through a cold winter's night.
Q. What made you decide to start writing your first book, Most Wanted?
A. Honestly, it was more like the book decided to write itself. At a time in my life when I was totally confused about whether to continue being a prosecutor, which I loved, or stay home with my kids, who obviously needed me, I literally had a dream that contained the opening scene of Most Wanted. That dream answered a question I'd been asking myself for years: how could I put the vast storehouse of insider knowledge about violent crime, narcotics and law enforcement that was kicking around inside my head to decent use if I left my job? Once I had the first scene, the rest of the book just flowed -- although with many drafts, rewrites, and revisions.
Q. You were a lawyer for your entire career. What made you think you could write fiction?
A. Being a prosecutor is different from being any other type of lawyer. A lot of what I did on the job was investigate crimes side by side with the police, before any arrests were even made. When I appeared in court, I had to stand up in front of a jury and explain complicated, scary events in a way people could understand and relate to. I learned to think on my feet, to speak clearly and to tell a good story -- all skills I use every day in my writing. Also, like many writers, I simply love to read. And I learn a huge amount from reading other writers. While writing Most Wanted, I embarked on a major thriller-reading campaign that helped me figure out some important issues of pacing and plotting. Besides, I had so many great stories and characters in my head -- they were just itching to jump onto the page!
Q. How did you go about the process of starting to write a novel from scratch when you'd never done it before?
A. Nothing magical. I sat down at my computer and started to write the story that was in my head. I worked on it a lot -- hours and hours every day. About halfway through the first draft, I read a bunch of thrillers and decided mine was too slow and, well, too lawyer-like, so I threw the whole thing away and started over again. Practice makes perfect, right? The next draft I really liked, but I knew it still needed work, so I decided to start showing it to people. I also took a writing workshop through New York University and got some great feedback there. Eventually, the book was polished enough to get me my fabulous agent, Meg Ruley, who gave me still more feedback. You get the picture: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Work, work, work. Eventually, we sent it out into the world, and my wonderful editor, Carolyn Marino, loved it, and gave me even more great feedback. The bottom line is, it took lots of hard work, determination, and faith that it would all come together in the end -- not to mention endless pots of coffee strong enough to peel paint!
Q. How are you like or different from your main character, Melanie Vargas?
A. We share many characteristics. Melanie, like me, is half-Puerto Rican, comes from modest roots but has an Ivy League education, loves being a prosecutor but experiences great stress juggling her demanding job with being a mommy. But Melanie is also NOT me. She has her own separate life -- a different office, boss, husband, baby, parents, sibling, apartment, etc., etc., than I have. She also faces much more extreme circumstances that I do. I've gone up against dangerous criminals in the courtroom, but never -- thank God! -- in a burned-out basement with a nine millimeter in my hand. I'm happily married, whereas Melanie's marriage is in deep trouble and may not last, meaning she'll face all the challenges of being a divorced mom. Despite the differences, I still like to think that if I were placed in Melanie's difficult (although stylish) shoes, I'd kick butt the way she does.
Q. Are any of the other characters in your books based on real people?
A. The short answer is no. The longer answer is more
complicated than that.
Q. What does the New York City setting mean to your books?
A. New York gives my writing its guts. There's a lot of crime here, and there are also a lot of dedicated, honorable, hard-working people in law enforcement whose job it is to stamp it out. That battle between these real-life forces of good and evil, played out against the always fascinating and vibrant landscape of this city, with all its unforgettable settings and characters, will never loosen its grip on my imagination.
Q. What does your Puerto Rican background mean to your books?
A. Like most people who had one or more parents who were first generation immigrants to the mainland United States, and like anyone who came from modest roots economically, I have a great appreciation for the opportunities that this country can offer. My books will always reflect that at some level. (Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens, but surely the experience of coming to New York and learning English as a child was the same for my father as for any immigrant.) Melanie came up from humble beginnings, but she never forgets where she's from. Like me, she has both a great love for hard work and a tremendous sympathy for the underdog. As for throwing in some Spanish words, or writing about flan or arroz con pollo (yum!), hey, that's plain FUN.
Q. Where do you get your plot ideas?
A. My first book, Most Wanted, was unusual in that I literally dreamt its opening chapter. But there is no shortage of fascinating characters and crime stories in the waking world. During my years as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office, I had contact with hundreds, even thousands, of cases, each one different. Every day that I open the newspaper or turn on the TV, there are still more. Even a small element of a crime can be worked over in my head to generate an entire imagined plot, complete with characters, scenes, dialogue. And that's just the crime stuff! Beyond my experience as a prosecutor, I've been fortunate to lead a pretty interesting and varied life. I grew up in modest circumstances, went to Harvard, worked in a fancy law firm, met lots of fascinating and influential people. I've lived in tons of different places, including for many years now on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where I get to observe all sorts of noteworthy (and sometimes bizarre) behavior up close and personal. It's endlessly engrossing and a blast to write about.
Q. How much research do you do?
A. Probably less than a lot of writers who write crime, because I have so much first-hand experience. If a book begins with a particular crime, I already know how the police and prosecutors would go about investigating it, without having to look anything up. But having said that, many details still require research and leg-work to get them right. For example, locations. I often set scenes in places I have been, yet still find that I need to visit the place again and take notes to get it perfect. Or sometimes, I want to write something that experience has not prepared me for. Like when Melanie faces down the bad guy (I won't say which one, so I won't spoil the surprise) at the end of Most Wanted, and her gun runs out of bullets. I personally did not know what that would feel like (other than "Oh s##t!!") So I called a friend of mine in law enforcement who told me how it feels to pull a trigger when the chamber's empty. For my next book, The Finishing School, which involves murder, drug dealing and intrigue set in a tony New York City girls' school, I had to research things like the pampered lives of NYC's doggies (manicures, pedicures, Chanel outfits!). But the broad strokes of criminal investigation . . . those I know by heart.
Q. What is your writing schedule like?
A. I could pretend to be one of those writers who gets up at four in the morning and produces 20 pages before the sun comes up. But that would be a lie. The fact is, I hate mornings. I live in New York, and this is a late-night town, not a "rise and shine" one. The best I can do is keep to something resembling a New York lawyer's schedule, which means I get to my "office" around nine -- if I'm lucky. Okay, sometimes it's later. And if my kids need me, I take a break. But when I'm really in the middle of a novel, I write eight or ten hours a day, so I'm often working late into the night. And I often work weekends -- in fact, I'm writing these words at 11:40 on a Saturday night. Luckily my supportive husband is very willing to pitch in and watch the boys (for example, he took them all day today so I could work!).
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am hard at work on the third book in the Melanie Vargas series, called Cover-Up, in which Melanie investigates the serial murders of the patients of a prominent Park Avenue plastic surgeon. It’s due out in January 2007. I’ve also recently written a couple of really fun “standalone” short stories that will be appearing in collections of short stories by crime and suspense writers next year. Stay tuned for more details.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are trying to get published?
A. The best advice I can give is, treat your writing like a job rather than a hobby. Show up to work on your project every day, with whatever free time you have. Seek out advice and criticism from people whose judgment you trust -- not your mom who's just going to look at it and say "Oh, honey, this is wonderful!" but rather objective people, ideally with some actual experience in writing or publishing. Take their comments seriously. Constantly reevaluate and revise your project until it's the best it can possibly be. Then revise it some more. Getting published is like a marathon. Work your butt off and eventually you're bound to get somewhere!
Q. What are your most and least favorite things about being a writer?
A. I have tons of favorite things about being a writer! First of all, I get to live a double life -- who wouldn't love that? As I write I get to ride along on all Melanie's adventures, whether she’s facing down a vicious killer, flirting with Dan O'Reilly or just changing Maya's diapers. I also love how creative writing is. I not only love reading, but I love music, movies and television. I can let my favorite books, movies and songs influence me, and creep into my work in subtle ways that pay homage to them.
On the down side, being a writer is very solitary. I'm an outgoing person, and logging all those hours alone at a desk makes me a little crazy sometimes. I do find myself walking down the street talking to myself, reciting dialogue out loud. But then I'll have a great day choreographing a gunfight (or a sex scene!), and I'm hooked all over again.
Q. Do you ever miss being a prosecutor?
Q. Can you talk a bit about Melanie's personal style versus her sister Linda's?
A. Melanie dresses in a way that's sophisticated and professional, but not fancy. Her closet is full of attractive but serious suits for work, and nice jeans and sweaters for the weekends. She tends to shop at places like Banana Republic, J.Crew or Ann Taylor. A splurge for her is buying a new suit for an important jury trial -- after all, she's a mother with a young child to support, and she doesn't feel justified in spending excessive amounts of money on herself. But she likes to feel pretty and feminine, and no matter what, she always wears perfume, lipstick and tacones (high heels). Linda, on the other hand, is a fashionista of Sex and the City proportions, a self-described "label whore" who wouldn't dream of letting non-designer duds touch her body. She switches handbags as often as the rest of us change socks -- more, even! And those handbags had better be Louis Vuitton, Fendi or Gucci -- or fuggedaboudit!
Anybody who's been a prosecutor or a cop in a big city for any period of time has unbelievable war stories. Stuff the average person doesn't know, would never see, and might not even believe if they heard about it. Some of it sickening, some of it totally hilarious, but all falling into the category of "you can't make this stuff up."
Like Melanie Vargas, the main character in her novels, Michele Martinez had the privilege of serving as a federal prosecutor in New York City. For eight years she was an Assistant United States Attorney in the Eastern District of New York, which covers some of the most drug- and gang-infested areas of Brooklyn and Queens. She specialized in narcotics, and we're not talking about busting high school kids selling pot, either. The Eastern District includes the airports and the ports serving New York City, so Michele had jurisdiction over the biggest narcotics organizations in the world. We're talking Mexican cocaine cartels loading forty or fifty million dollars of cash at a time into tractor trailers to send back across the border. Burmese warlords controlling hundreds of kilos of heroin secreted in seemingly innocent shipments of goods from Southeast Asia. And local kingpins operating massive crack and heroin supermarkets 24/7 on the streets of our cities, pitching drugs to young children as they walked to school. Michele prosecuted all these cases, and more, many of them involving serious violence, weapons charges, even murder. Doing the cases in New York, where everything seems to move faster and happen bigger, she got a whole lifetime's experience of serious crime in eight years.
It wasn't easy for Michele to get there, nor was it at all a sure bet. Like Melanie, Michele came from very modest roots. Her father was born in Puerto Rico during the Depression, the son of a cigar roller on a tobacco plantation and a teenaged mother. His father died in an accident when he was about six years old, and his mother, who couldn't afford to support him, gave him to an aunt who brought him to New York City. He grew up with relatives in the Washington Heights neighborhood, dropped out of high school, joined the military where he got his G.E.D., and eventually, after Michele was born, went to college on the G.I. Bill. Michele's mother was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in Connecticut, lived modestly and worked hard all her life, and never had the opportunity to go to college. While Michele was growing up, her father worked in the Connecticut prison system running inmate education programs, and her mother was a secretary. Her family didn't have much money. They lived in a small apartment in a tough section of New Haven, and Michele went to inner-city public schools during the height of urban racial tensions and rioting in the late 60s and 70s.
But her parents were great believers in the American Dream, and they taught Michele that she could achieve anything if she worked and studied hard. Michele feels like living proof of that. She made it to Harvard University and to Stanford Law School, clerked for a federal judge, and landed a position at a fancy, high-paying Manhattan law firm. But she'd been raised to believe that there was more to life than being a hired gun in disputes between big corporations. All along, she had her sights set on being a prosecutor, which she felt was the best way to use her skills to make a difference. In 1993, Michele became an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and the next eight years were some of the most thrilling and challenging of Michele's life.
But during that time, some other thrilling "little challenges" arrived. Michele and her husband had two little boys, and for five years Michele juggled her very intense job with being a mommy to two major whirlwinds. Any working parent knows that's a tough situation. When you're trying to give a hundred percent to your children and a hundred percent to your job, the math doesn't quite work out. Michele felt a lot of guilt in both directions, and began to wonder if she should stop working. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to give it up. Being a prosecutor felt too important to her. She needed to find a meaningful alternative that would allow her more flexibility.
Then one night she had a dream -- literally. About a fire in a townhouse that killed a handsome silver-haired lawyer who may have been leading a double life. The next morning, she woke up and wrote it down. That dream became the opening scene in her debut thriller Most Wanted, and pointed the way for Michele to share her insider's knowledge of the real world of crime and law enforcement with her readers.
Now Michele writes every day in a little office next to her kitchen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Even though she still works really hard, her husband and kids are thrilled that she's around more, and totally excited about her new career. She brings to life the same types of vivid characters and intense situations she lived through as a prosecutor. And she pours her other life experiences into her writing as well. The Melanie Vargas thrillers reflect Michele's unique background -- from humble beginnings to the halls of the Ivy League, from the mean streets of Brooklyn to the glamorous environs of Manhattan's wealthiest neighborhoods, from working late to changing diapers. With plenty of sex and violence thrown in for good measure. She hopes you'll have a blast reading them.
Interview and bio re-printed courtesy of Michele Martinez