There’s a moment in Marcia Clark’s new novel, Blood Defense, ripped right from the O.J. Simpson case. A murder suspect is told someone is dead and his response is not to ask what happened but rather, “Who killed her?”
“I can’t resist that,” says Clark, enjoying a Cobb salad at a restaurant in Calabasas, California. “It's kind of fun for me. It's what we call in writing an Easter egg. Some people will know and some won't.”
In 1998, the famous Simpson prosecutor co-authored a book about the Simpson case, Without a Doubt, with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Teresa Carpenter, but she made her debut as a mystery novelist just five years ago, with Guilt by Association, which inspired a series of four novels and two short stories. In Blood Defense, out May 1, Clark switches gears with a new central character, Samantha Brinkman, a hard-driving criminal defense attorney who lands a high-profile double-murder case.
In addition to writing, Clark is also doing court-appointed appellate defense work these days. She spoke to Vulture about her writing process, why she decided to try digital publishing for Blood Defense, and why she doesn't miss being in court anymore.
Why did you decide to leave Rachel Knight, the prosecutor protagonist of the Guilt by Association series, and start new with a defense attorney, especially with one that plays fast and loose?
I wanted to break out of the prosecutor mode and revisit the defense days that are always more wild and woolly and ethically challenged [Clark was a defense attorney for four years before she began doing prosecutorial work]. There are more interesting moral and ethical wrinkles to riding the defense side because a defense attorney's goal is solely to defend the client. The prosecutor has to make sure that it's a fair trial; the defense has no obligation.
I wanted a character who had that mission, and I also wanted to write a character who was a lot more twisted than Rachel Knight. Someone with a traumatized past and yet someone whose traumatized past isn't the whole answer for how she became who she was. She really doesn't believe that the law is anything but a suggestion, which she chooses to not follow most of the time. It's a really fun character to write because she is so far out there, but she's a great lawyer — she has the loyalties she has, she has the personal issues that she has.
Your voice was so present in it, not that she's exactly like you, but I did feel that there was a lot of you in her.
For sure. Someone once said, and I really wish I could remember who 'cause I think they're so right, that really you're in every character. When you're writing fiction, you're in every character cause you can't help it. She, in particular, has my voice, but I don't think you can avoid using parts of yourself for everyone.
You've written so many books in such a short period of time. But there was a long time in between the trial book and your novels. When did you decide to pursue your fiction?
The experience of watching Teresa Carpenter work was so thrilling. Good writing is an amazing thing. At the end of it, I said, "Let's go write crime fiction," because now I’m remembering I’ve always wanted to do this, and she goes, "No, you go write crime fiction. You can write." I promptly did not listen. I had no confidence. I actually have to make a living, Teresa. I wound up working on a show for Lifetime called For the People, which was based on the DA's office. But then the creator/showrunner of that show said, "You know what, you have a voice. I think you should write scripts." I resisted that at first. It was really scary. She sat me down, had me write scene by scene, and then I got hooked. I loved it. When that show went down, she and I wrote like four or five pilots together, sold a few of them. Then I got tired of the whole Hollywood beat. It's very hard to break in. It's very hard to get a series up and running, and I just thought I don't know if this could ever happen for me but I do know that I gotta write. This is the time if I’m ever going to realize the childhood dream. So I did. By no means did my first book sell. I took a few runs at it. You'll never see those early efforts 'cause they're burned, straight to the fireplace where they belong.
This was before you created Rachel Knight?
Yes. Rachel I came to one night lying on the couch thinking I wanted to revisit the days before Simpson, when it was just really being a prosecutor. I will write about the real life of a prosecutor with her buddies, and I wanted to show women supporting one another, because right then the Real Housewives was big and everything that featured women seemed to be really awful. Very demanding, backstab-y. I wanted to counter that. So I developed Rachel Knight and eventually came to write a manuscript that was sellable. Believe me, it didn't happen right away.
After four Rachel Knights I wanted to do something different. By then, my own reading habits had changed. I was more entranced with noir and a darker character. I wanted somebody who had some really bizarre depths.
Have you started to think about the second Samantha book?
I already finished number two. Amazon, they crack that whip! They are not playing around. Holy shit. They want two books a year. Which is a brilliant marketing choice. Two books a year is very fast; it's very tough. Especially because I [have] a caseload and do lots of other stuff. But they're wise. People are used to streaming and binge-watching. When they see an author they like, if there's only one book, even if they like the book, they're going to forget about you. The way to keep you in their mind and to get you to become a habit for these readers is you have to have a lot of product out there for them to read. They keep reading and coming back. A lot of readers of mystery thrillers in particular are fast readers. They shoot through that stuff quick.
When did you start working on the second one?
I started developing it in September, but when I say working on it, it's a total immersion thing. I didn't have time for anything else. I finished the outline in about two weeks. I do a chapter breakdown. I work it the same way you do scripts. I do a small outline that has a synopsis, and then I break it out. Writers call it beat sheet, where you have beat by beat by beat. Because one thing I really hate, and I call it lazy writing, is writers who just drop somebody from the sky in chapter 400. Boom. Here's your bad guy. You never met him before. That's cheap. It's not fair. And then I start to write. I would sit down at seven in the morning and just write till seven at night.
Did you do one in the same way or did you have more time for one?
One was not quite that intense. I had a little more time because I wasn’t under contract. Two was absolutely craziness.
Why did you decide to go with Amazon this time?
I wanted better marketing. I wanted a bigger footprint in the digital market, which is where these books really sell. It's not a coffee-table book, this is a book for you to have fun, sit on the beach and read and take you away, or read on the airplane. I'm just trying to entertain. But those books sell best on Kindle. And I saw my friends doing super well. By the time I published the fourth Rachel Knight, friends of mine at Amazon said, "You have got to come to Amazon." And these guys were doing really well. They're great writers who I think in traditional publishing hadn't gotten enough exposure. And they were so right. Amazon is phenomenally organized, it's a powerful machine, and they really know what they're doing.
With digital publishing, if it's a success, you stand to make more money as the writer.
Absolutely. The advances are smaller, but you want you earn your money this way, because people are really buying your book so you can see how you're doing. And if your book sells, it's really, really cool. So far, the book is number one and it's not even out yet.
What's the most challenging part of the novel-writing process for you?
The hardest part, really, is the juggling between the writing and my legal work. I have to carve out space. One of the things that's been so confounding is sometimes there's 5,000 pages of transcript that I have to cull and think about the issues. My life is a mosaic, and there's no room in between pieces at all.
When you do have a day where you read the 5,000-page transcript, I would imagine the last thing you want to do is stay in front of the computer and write a story.
When I read the transcript, I'm reading testimony and it is what it is. So I'm thinking with a different part of me, thinking about the legal issues and the rulings, and then thinking creatively in terms of how to write my argument in a persuasive way. It’s a different thing than trial work because you're looking for errors. It's as close as you can get to the pure practice of law, but it's no question it’s defense work and there is some creativity involved. These are court-appointed cases. They are not rich guys. I want to take care of the people who need help. You're entitled to have a lawyer appointed for you if you've been convicted of a felony and you can't afford to hire one. It's that same feeling of doing good for others that I got from prosecuting work. But writing a book is a completely different part of the brain. Sometimes it is hard. I make myself get up and walk around, look outside.
Hi! It's nice out there! There are definitely times where I'm like I really need to talk to a living person. Samantha's cool and my defendants are cool. But I can't see them. They're not real. The defendants are real, but I don't see them. We communicate by mail. It can get a little too intense at times and I'm hoping to be able to hold back a little on the casework. I need to breathe in between. I finished two but I have to pitch three, like now. It's very fast. There's something good about that, too. You never get too far out of your writing head. I think that's a good thing. I'm not sure. I'll get back to you on that. After I've done book four and my brain's fried.
Do you have a set number of Samantha books in your head?
I’m flexible. If I'm still intrigued by her and she's still fun and there's places to go with her, then I'll stay. You just have to see how far you can push it. And people have asked will I go back to Rachel Knight. I might. She might be an ongoing thing I come back to.
Which one do you miss more — being in court as a defense lawyer or a prosecutor?
I don't miss being in court.
Not anymore. I did for a while. It was really hard. When Entertainment Tonight first hired me to cover the Robert Blake case, and there I was sitting in the jury box with all the other reporters who covered Simpson, it was the weirdest, out-of-body feeling. I'm watching the prosecutors, who I knew, sitting at the counsel table and feeling so weird, like I should be down there. I shouldn't be here. It was terrible. Once I started writing scripts and then crime fiction, I was okay with that. I was really done and I looked back and thought, It’s okay that I'm done with that.