When Linda Fairstein started her writing career, she was still head of the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, a position she held from 1976 to 2002. Despite the long hours, Fairstein wrote dutifully in the early mornings before work. “I didn’t have time for writer’s block,” she said. “It was a luxury.”
Fairstein has since written 23 novels and made a name for herself as a “champion teller of detective tales,” according to USA Today. Her novels draw heavily from her prolific career as a
prosecutor in New York City and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Her newest thriller “Blood Oath,” the 20th installment of her Alexandra Cooper series, hits bookstores March 26.
Fairstein, a Mount Vernon native, will return to Westchester Monday, March 25 for an author’s talk and book signing at Scarsdale Woman’s Club, 37 Drake Road. The program, sponsored by the Scarsdale Public Library, kicks off at 7:30 p.m. and will be followed by a reception.
“I’m happy to be back,” said Fairstein, 71. “It’s a real pleasure for me.”
Although best-selling author is Fairstein’s second act, it was always a passion, she said. She wrote avidly through college, but ultimately veered toward public service, motivated by the altruistic ideologies of her time, including President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech at his 1961 inauguration: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Fairstein graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1972 and immediately landed a job at the district attorney’s office. Two years later, the government issued a temporary grant creating the first sex crimes unit in the country at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In 1976, the unit became permanent and Fairstein was asked to shepherd it.
“It seemed very dark from the outside looking in, even to my family,” Fairstein said of her vocation. “But I just fell in love with the work. ... It allowed more women to enter into the courtroom and for the first time triumph in the criminal justice system.”
One of her greatest challenges, Fairstein noted, was putting her emotions aside daily. “I had no choice but to separate myself,” she said. “My job was to be a prosecutor.”
Nearly 20 years into her tenure at the district attorney’s office, she was asked to write a book about her unit’s pioneering efforts and the subsequent changes in sex crime prosecution. Such changes included eliminating the corroboration requirement, which required alleged assault survivors to provide evidence beyond his or her own word, and rape shield laws, which limited the kinds of information that could be brought into court during a cross examination.
Fairstein’s nonfiction work “Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape” (1995) was named a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” and sparked her return to writing.
In 1996, Fairstein introduced the world to Alexandra “Alex” Cooper, the protagonist of her best-selling detective series, which has now spanned more than two decades. Like Fairstein, Alex is a Manhattan assistant district attorney for the sex crimes unit. “Her passion for the work is really the primary trait [we share],” Fairstein said. Alex also dines at Fairstein’s favorite New York City locales, including Primola, Aretsky’s Patroon and Beach Cafe. “I thought it’d be nice to [honor] all the people who’ve fed me over the years,” Fairstein said. Several have become meeting places for Fairstein and her fans, who visit such food stops at Alex’s suggestion.
Still, the author stresses there are key character differences. While it’s been 23 years since her first book, Alex has only aged three. Alex has a trust fund; she’s a size 6/8. “That’s fiction,” Fairstein said.
In many ways, setting is as much a character in Fairstein’s books as her protagonist. She uses each novel to highlight a particular New York City landmark, this time the research institute Rockefeller University. The institute is centrally located on York Avenue and well known by passersby, but not many are invited inside.
Fairstein was granted a tour of the century-old building and discovered a compelling history and a network of underground tunnels.
“As soon as I saw the underground tunnels, I knew it would be good for a crime novel,” she said, adding, “I like to come away having learned something from a good read.”
Three books ago, Alex was kidnapped in “Devil’s Bridge.” Her love interest, Mike Chapman, narrates the majority of that novel until Alex’s rescue. She’s spent the last two books coping with PTSD, “which so many of her victims have experienced,” Fairstein said. “I wanted her to have that experience herself; I knew it would make her more compassionate.” Now, “she’s really back full force, on her feet again in the courtroom.”
In “Blood Oath,” Alex and her team are representing Lucy, a 24-year-old who comes forward 10 years after her assault when her alleged assailant is given a prominent position in politics. Fairstein was inspired by the #MeToo movement, but said the novel was written before the high profile confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh last year. The controversy made for a “fascinating parallel,” she said.
Fairstein also cited the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by attorney Anita Hill in 1991.
At the time, “I thought, ‘OK, we won’t go back from here,’” Fairstein said. “And we did go back.” Looking forward, she’s more hopeful about the country’s direction. That optimism is “very fulfilling,” she said, “especially when I started and so few women were able to speak out and feel they could get any kind of justice. Now, that has changed.”