A novel career: bestselling author welcomed to Mount Holyoke

Legal scholar and New York Times bestselling novelist Alafair Burke spoke at Mount Holyoke College about how her liberal arts education led to a career as an author of 20 crime novels.

Alafair Burke has led a life of crime – mostly fictional, at least.

Burke, a native of Wichita, Kansas, is an Edgar Award nominee and a New York Times bestselling novelist of more than 20 crime novels. She is also a professor at Hofstra Law School, where she teaches criminal law and procedure, where her scholarship explores police and prosecutorial discretion.

Despite her literary success, her path to the pen wasn’t one she expected.

“I did not intend to be a writer,” said Burke. “I never studied writing but I was always a reader. My mom was a school librarian, and she would take me to the public library every Saturday for a stack of books. And my dad was a writer. I always saw him writing so it kind of seemed like a natural thing to do. But it's not something I was pursuing for myself.”

Her early love for Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie and eventually Sue Brown further blossomed into an “obsession” for crime that led her to a career in the justice system. Burke, who graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and Stanford Law School, clerked for a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and later served as deputy district attorney in Oregon, where she specialized in domestic violence offenses and served as a liaison to the police department. It was during her time in and around courthouses that she realized that there might be something missing within the world of crime fiction.

“It was the atmosphere of the courthouse — seeing the way people talk to each other and that the real stuff happens out in the hallway, it doesn't really happen in the courtroom. And I didn't see that world necessarily represented in crime fiction,” said Burke.

Three Mount Holyoke College students with Alafair Burke's book “Find Me”

Burke shared some insight into her career with President Danielle Holley to discuss how “My Liberal Arts Education Led to a Writing Career I Never Expected” at the Community Center Great Room on April 3. As part of the event, the first twenty-five students were given free copies of Burke’s 2022 novel “Find Me.” Earlier in the day, Burke visited Associate Professor of English Andrea Lawlor’s Building a Literary Community class and met with students, staff and faculty.

In advance of her conversation with President Holley, Burke spoke to Mount Holyoke College about determining what’s worth fighting for, finding time to write, the benefit of her liberal arts education and a little bit about her bestie, President Holley.

How has your liberal arts education benefited you?

A lot of people who are trial lawyers, they're great at court, they're on their feet all the time. They can talk to a jury just like they’re tying their shoes. They're very comfortable with it. You don't, as a county–level prosecutor or defense attorney, do a lot of written work. It's almost all film work and court work, and they needed somebody to write a very long, complicated legal document very quickly. And nobody knew how to do it. And they looked to me, a girl who went to Reed College and just got out of a federal clerkship. And they're like, ‘We know you know how to write’ and I'm like, ‘Yes, I write lengthy papers.’ They basically did that as a full-time job for the last seven years. So, I think I was a brand new attorney, and I've been there maybe two months, and I'm in there with the elected boss, two experienced career prosecutors, two lifelong detectives that are all just like, telling me all the facts and I'm just typing it and writing it and organizing it as quickly as I can while I'm also doing the legal research and doing the legal hocus pocus, that part of it. So, it took a bit, but while I was writing this document — this gets to the writing part — while I was writing this document, I was always a fan of mystery novels. And of course, the facts were already interesting enough, but in my little head, I was like, ‘Well, what is this? And what is that? What if they know each other?’ I kind of realized just from that exercise of taking something that was real, and then combining it with imagination, I kind of became one of those annoying lawyers that kept saying, ‘One of these days, I'm gonna write a book.’

Now I understand President Holley is one of your closest friends; how did you meet?

I met President Danielle Holley at Hofstra. We both started our teaching careers there. I was living near the law school at the time and she was living in Brooklyn, and she just started there and didn’t know anyone in the area. I invited her to go out for dinner after work and we immediately realized that we both subscribed to Entertainment Weekly, and we’re fascinated with the same kind of pop culture stuff. So, instead of talking about the law, we talked about movies and music.

Did you have a favorite binge-watching show you’d watch together?

Fairly early on, when I moved into the city from Long Island, she stayed with me and helped me paint my apartment. And we got snowed in and we binge-watched Veronica Mars. We're both big Veronica Mars fans.

As an accomplished person with a busy schedule, how do you maintain your friendships?

I am bad at many, many things, but I am a very good friend. It does take work. And so my book that comes out next January is about three friends. It's very much based upon the fact that serious female friendships are a lot of work — it does take a lot of work to sustain them. It can't be a one-way street. So, I check in on people — a lot of my friendships are long distance. My friendships mean a lot to me.

How do you find time to write?

So, I’m a full-time faculty member at Hofstra Law School, but I have a half-time teaching load.

I think for a long time, I would do the bulk of my writing in the summer when I wasn’t teaching. Now I have more months when I’m not teaching. I try not to write fiction while I’m teaching, but this semester, I had to, and it just requires a lot of discipline.

And, you just got to make it happen. It’s hard, especially now that people want to meet on Zoom. It may only be a half hour or an hour-long meeting, and you don’t have to leave the house, but it cuts your day up. I like to have hours and hours and hours to write. You have to protect that time. I try to stack up appointments all in one day so that I’ll have whole days that I can just write.

Whose books do you like to read?

I read a lot of crime fiction and I study a lot of the people that were my favorite writers before I started writing — many of whom are still my favorite writers who have since become my mentors. Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben have been my champions since the beginning. I love Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin … It’s nice that so many of the writers of the books I like are my friends as well.

When working with publishers and editors, how do you know when to or what to fight for?

It’s really hard to pick your battles because you do have to pick your battles. It helps that I've had the same editor for 20 years. So, the person who acquired my first book is still my editor. We kind of joke around that we share a brain — we kind of get each other, so that reduces the number of fights. However, I wanted to murder her essentially, because … I don't usually have to necessarily write a synopsis for the book because I was at the same publisher for such a long time, but she recently moved to a new publishing house and I'm with her. And so for purposes of moving me, they needed a synopsis and everybody loved it. My agent works out the details for me to go over there and then she goes, ‘Before you start writing, why don’t we talk through the book more?’ She was like, ‘Do they have to be recent friends? What if they've known each other already for 15 years?’ I'm like, ‘Well, that's a different book.’

Her first round of edits was pretty harsh, pushing me not really on plot but on characterization. She’d say, ‘I don't really think I know these women,’ to which I’d respond, ‘Well, I feel like I know them just fine!’ And I pouted for two days and told her I would call her when I stopped hating her. And then I asked my agent what he thought, and he’d say that this one part was ridiculous and suggested I push back, but felt the rest was pretty fair. And so it helps to have somebody else to bounce things off of, and then sometimes, you go with your gut. I think one of the things I pushed back on in my next book is one of the characters specifically is having a hard time coping with the world being normal after COVID. She feels fundamentally changed, and doesn't have the same energy levels and isn't as outgoing. She’s become more isolated and more introverted. I was told, ‘I'm just not buying the fact that someone's personality would have changed.’ I came back talking about how many documented cases there were in the world post-COVID and even sent her articles. I was not budging on that.

More recently, even though I was at a new place (with a new publisher), I didn’t want to be seen as a diva. The sales team was all excited about a book jacket that I just hated. Like, I had a visceral response to this book jacket. I hated it. I wanted to take it and throw it out the window. And I said how I didn’t like the book jacket. They asked if I could suggest something concrete. And you have to remember it’s a matter of being productive. This book jacket that I hate is somebody’s artwork. Some artist sat down and did that. So, I had to describe what I didn’t like about it. There was a woman in a swimming suit, drinking alone at night by a pool, and to me, she looked sad. My book is not sad. To be more productive, I actually went online and looked at stock photos, and just kind of pulled images that I felt it should feel more like. It should feel more like this. So, I came up with other suggestions and that got us to the right place.

Contact us

The Office of Marketing and Communications spreads the word about Mount Holyoke College’s distinctive strengths and newsworthy accomplishments.

  • Assistant Director, Public Affairs & Executive Communications