In Alafair Burke’s thriller The Ex (out Jan. 26), criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall gets a request from a teenage girl she never saw coming. The girl is the daughter of Olivia’s ex-fiancé from 20 years ago, writer Jack Harris. Jack’s been arrested for a mass shooting, but he’s the nicest guy Olivia’s ever known, so she’s positive he couldn’t have done it. But as the case gets stranger and new evidence springs up, Olivia’s firm convictions are tested.
Karin Slaughter and Burke, both best-selling authors, sat down to discuss The Ex, unlikeable characters, and writing about events that can hit uncomfortably close to home (like mass shootings). And after the Q&A, check out an exclusive excerpt from The Ex.
KARIN SLAUGHTER: A more typical revenge fantasy is a woman framing her ex. You’ve turned that trope on its head in The Ex. Why in the world would a woman agree to help an ex after breaking up with him 20 years ago? Shouldn’t she just frame him for murder or anonymously FB his girlfriends that he has herpes? (Ha, they might make us leave out that last part…)
ALAFAIR BURKE: I think EW readers can handle a herpes joke. We always assume that people feel burned by their exes, but not every ex can be the bad half of the relationship. That’s like saying everyone’s above average. If someone got burned, that makes the other person the burner. And Olivia truly believes that in her relationship with Jack, he was the good one, and she was the bad one. She screwed him over big time, and helping him now seems like a way to make amends, and maybe save herself in the process.
You are happily married to a charming and handsome man. Is there an ex you based this story on, and how does your husband feel about that?
The character of Jack Harris isn’t based on a specific person, but the dynamic between him and Olivia is based on the idea that we all have someone we weren’t entirely nice to. I spent most of my twenties with someone who was a good, decent person, but his goodness wasn’t enough for me in the end. I not only bailed, but did so in a pretty childish way. Does that make me a bad person? For a while, I thought it did, and I had a couple of years where I beat myself up with crummy decisions. If I hadn’t forgiven myself and moved on, I could imagine guilt becoming the reason to sabotage my own happiness. Anyway, enough of the therapy session. That idea grew into the character of Olivia Randall.
As for how my husband feels, I don’t know. Let me ask him. How do you feel about me talking about an ex right now? Does that bug you? [Husband shakes head and says no like he doesn’t understand the question.] See: further proof he’s the one for me.
How different do you think this story would be if the gender roles were reversed? Would some of the suspense be taken out because we’d just assume that that Jack would swoop in and save Olivia?
That’s a great thought experiment. I think you’re right: It would be so easy for readers to assume that a male attorney would jump at the chance to help a female ex. He gets to be hero. She has to need him. But then wouldn’t a different cliche kick in? I think trained readers would immediately assume that the sweet, innocent, scorned female ex was a crazy, murderous wench who was guilty as hell. My hope is that the basic structure of The Ex — a highly skilled but personally flawed female attorney is given a chance to help the nice guy she burned twenty years ago — is fresh enough that readers honestly don’t have pre-set ideas about where the story might go.
You’re absolutely right, and that was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. One of the many reasons I love your books is that you’re always changing things up—though there is the constant that you write evocatively from the point of view of lawyers. You’re a law professor. You were a prosecutor. Are you writing what you know or what you want other people to know about the law?
Oh, that’s a good question. I’m sure part of the reason lawyers find their way into my books is that they’re in my comfort zone. I’ve also written about a couple of writers and more than a few characters who eat and drink a little too much. But once I’m in the comfort zone, I do hope that what I write gets people to think about the strengths and shortcomings of our criminal justice system.
A lot of people hate lawyers. Is it hard making them heroes, or do you just assume the haters are wrong? Even though they are mostly right?
Hey now, it’s easy to hate lawyers until you need one. Did you watch Making a Murderer?
You know I watched it!
Of course you did. Well, you can’t watch that show without seeing the importance of lawyers to any kind of fairness in the criminal justice system. Not just questions of their competence and skill, but their ethics. There’s a reason women are crushing on Steve Avery’s lawyers, even those who suspect (as I do) that Avery is guilty.
But I think you can turn that around and ask about Dassey’s lawyers, or Kratz, the prosecutor (which, why isn’t that guy in prison for abusing power and harassing all those women?) or the judge, and say that the reason people see Strang and Buting as heroes is because they behave heroically in contrast to the rest of the people we see within the Manitowoc criminal justice system.
I mean, look at Ethan Couch. The fact that people feel like the rich can buy a good verdict while the rest of us are screwed makes a lot of people feel that lawyers are only as good as the money you can pay them. You are a law professor. How do you deal with that?
In a very mature way: By yelling at the television. As for the main character in The Ex, part of the reason Olivia agrees to represent Jack is that she knows a good lawyer can make all the difference. She’s a crappy person, but she happens to be an extremely skilled lawyer. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether her ethics are in the right place when it comes to representing Jack.
A previous, fictionalized mass shooting is a central part of The Ex. You wrote a very moving piece shortly after the Oregon mass shooting, which happened after the Charleston Shooting but before the Planned Parenthood and San Bernardino shootings. There’s no way to get around it: We are at a point in our lives where mass shootings are woven into the fabric of our society. What would you say to people who believe it’s too controversial a topic to write about?
The Ex takes place three years after Jack’s wife was killed in a fictional mass shooting in Penn Station. The shooting is in the past, and doesn’t unfold on the page, but I still understand the concern that the idea is too scary to write about. Like I’m tempting fate. Crime fiction is fiction, but it shouldn’t be cartoonish. What’s irresponsible, in my view, is using the concept of violence as pure entertainment, detached from the real human consequences of crime. But how can you write eleven crime novels and never once tackle the things that scare us most — child abuse, sexual assault, mass gun violence? I chose a mass shooting because I wanted Jack to have suffered something that may have fundamentally changed his outlook on life, something that might have motivated him to seek revenge, a reason to think he might be guilty of the crimes he’s charged with now. But I also chose a mass shooting because they’re undeniably part of our current reality.
I wrote the CNN piece because Olivia Randall just happened to grow up in Roseburg, Oregon, the location of the Umpqua Community College shooting. The book hadn’t gone to the printer yet, so I could have moved her backstory to another small town. But what would have been the point? What town could I have chosen with confidence that the next shooting wouldn’t be there?
All we can do as writers is make the decisions we think are responsible. If you’re worried too much about offending people, the work won’t be your best. Do you disagree? After all, you’ve taken some flack over the years for being a little too “real” in your depiction of violence against women.
I think the flack comes because I am a woman writing about violence against women. When men do it, there’s not the same question I get during most interviews, which is: Why would you write about this? You know that I agree with you that we should not shy away from talking about difficult things.
The fact is that women not talking about violence against women is what the perpetrators of these attacks depend on. Homicide is one of the leading causes of death for women aged 18-44. Come on! We need to talk about this stuff. On that subject, do you think that fiction — particularly crime fiction — can bring some insight into the social cauldron from which mass shooters boil over?
I think that’s hubris if we convince ourselves we’re changing the world. When fiction is too overtly cause-motivated, readers who disagree will just chuck the book and curse the writer for being too preachy.
Well, don’t sell yourself short. It’s certainly not our job to be didactic (or preachy), but we honor the early roots of crime fiction when we talk about social ills. I don’t think we can single-handedly change the world, but we can help start a conversation, or add to what is being said, and the cumulative effect can bring about change. Books can and do help influence how people think, or give them deeper meaning and insight into a specific cause. In Cold Blood humanized some pretty terrible people. The Innocent Man exposed corruptions within the criminal justice system that a vast number of Wonderbread Americans had never thought possible. Upton Sinclair and Jacob Riss were key components in the muckraking movement. Serial without a doubt helped Adnan Syed get a new hearing. Kathleen Zellner probably would not have taken up Steve Avery’s cause without Making a Murderer. While I agree that art should entertain, in some cases, it’s good to also provoke action. Though Robert Durst might not agree.
Absolutely. In my case, my primary purpose is to entertain, but I definitely find ways to explore issues of our times in my work. Readers who want to see those layers will find them.
I think you add an important voice to the conversation because you have a very unique perspective. This is why I love your essays as much as your books. Your CNN opinion piece advocates for some type of gun control to limit the damage done by mass shooters. Were you afraid that your social media outlets would be bombarded by people who disagree with you?
I actually did not advocate any form of gun control. I just don’t think we should keep shrugging our shoulders and pretending this is normal. We should treat mass shootings as we would any other public health crisis and at least study the causes. Gaps in mental health coverage? Education? Parenting? Video games? The way guns are bought, sold, and stored? In my view, it should all be on the table, at least as a matter of study. But opponents of gun control are so afraid of the results that they’ve blocked the government from even studying the problem. If people want to bombard me for saying that’s stupid, so be it. And I say this as someone who has lived around guns in one way or another most of my life.
But you have to know that putting those things on the table is actually considered advocating gun control. We both grew up with guns. I own guns. I know lots of people who own lots of guns. The majority of us know there is a middle ground on this issue — and we want that middle ground to be reached — but the people who can do something about it are terrified to have the conversation.
Isn’t that the truth about so many policy issues today? To the point that even fiction writers find themselves pausing to consider whether we’re going to end up on someone’s hit list by ticking off the wrong faction?
It’s true. Every issue has two sides, and within those respective sides are roughly ten percent who are just nuts and won’t listen to reason. Writing is a great way to exorcise our demons and figure out things that are bothering us. What did you learn from writing The Ex?
I knew going into The Ex that I wanted to explore the ways we take long relationships and simplify them over time: I was the bad guy. But what really surprised me once I was finished was how much the book is an exploration of infidelity — why people cheat, the way it’s justified, the unanticipated consequences. I think I accidentally wrote a treatise on monogamy!
I read a great line from a woman author whose name escapes me, but she said that when women create “unlikeable” characters, people assume it’s not on purpose. I think it’s safe to say that Olivia Randall is deliberately not as “likable” as your previous protagonists. Do characters have to be likable?
The same way we can’t all be above average, not everyone is likable. I happen to enjoy writing and reading books about likable people. They’re easy to cheer for. It’s much more of a challenge to get readers to care about a person who’s seriously flawed. It also allows more potential for the character’s personal journey. Although now I’m intrigued by the idea about a woman who starts out eminently likable and becomes increasingly bitter. Hopefully that won’t be my memoir.
Alafair Burke is the New York Times bestselling author of ten previous novels, including the stand-alone thrillers Long Gone and If You Were Here, and the Ellie Hatcher series: All Day and a Night, Never Tell, 212, Angel’s Tip, and Dead Connection. She is also the coauthor of the New York Times bestselling Under Suspicion series with Mary Higgins Clark. A former prosecutor, she is now a professor of criminal law and lives in Manhattan.
Karin Slaughter is the #1 internationally bestselling author of more than a dozen novels, including the Will Trent and Grant County series and the instant New York Times bestselling standalones, Cop Town and Pretty Girls. There are more than 35 million copies of her books in print around the world.
EXCERPT from THE EX
Every generation of Americans had at least one day where they all could remember where they were when they heard the news. Pearl Harbor. The Kennedy assassination. Nine-Eleven.
And then there were some dates that left the same kind of mark, but in a smaller and more regional way. Columbine in Colorado. The federal building in Oklahoma. The marathon in Boston. A bell tower in Texas. Riots in Los Angeles. A club fire in Rhode Island.
For New York City, the most recent of those searing, scarring events was the Penn Station massacre. Until that morning three years ago, we moved like cattle through the turnstiles and corridors of our crowded public transportation systems, complaining about delayed trains, bumped briefcases, or a fellow passenger in dire need of a shower. But then a mass shooting broke out in the heart of the city during peak commuting hours. What seemed unimaginable suddenly felt inevitable.
Thirteen people dead, not to mention the wounded, or the shooter who fired a final bullet into his own jaw at the first sight of police coming his way, which was less than two minutes after the first sound of gunfire. Roughly one shot every 2 seconds for 108 seconds was the gruesome estimate later bandied about by the media.
These weren’t the only shocking details to come out in the aftermath. The killer wasn’t a foreign jihadist, as most of us assumed when we first heard about an attack in Penn Station. He was a local. And he wasn’t even a man yet. Just a boy, fifteen years old, all of five feet seven and 127 pounds. His name was Todd. Todd didn’t need physical size to inflict that kind of damage, not when he was armed with a Bushmaster rifle and two .40-caliber pistols, all three weapons semiautomatic.
In the same way I had not been able to stop myself from watching the constant replays of planes heading toward the Twin Towers, I had been glued to my television for consecutive days afterward, afraid to leave my apartment in the midst of warnings about feared copycat attacks.
How did a fifteen-year-old boy have access to those kinds of weapons? outraged and bewildered New Yorkers wanted to know.
After another twenty-four-hour news cycle, we began to have an answer to that question. Todd’s mother, still clinically depressed despite three hospitalizations, killed herself when he was just eight years old. Todd’s older brother was nearly out of college at the time. Todd’s father, determined that his younger son be treated “normally”—despite
Multiple assessments from teachers and counselors that he was anything but—resisted mental health treatment or anything that would label his son as “sick” like his mother (his word, not the doctors’).
He moved his son from school to school, in search of a place that was willing to ignore Todd’s behavioral and psychological problems. At the time of the shooting, Todd was enrolled at the Stinson Academy, apparently a last stop for rich screwups in the world of elite private schools. Instead of seeking help for his increasingly alienated and angry son, the father used his considerable wealth to encourage activities that father and son might enjoy together, at least in the few minutes a week the father could spare for his son: Yankees games, an occasional round of golf, and guns. Lots of weapons. Lots of ammunition. Lots of hours at the shooting range near their country home in Connecticut.
Todd did not leave a note, a diary of his plans, or a video-recorded manifesto like so many other mass shooters, but police did find drawings: baby dolls hanging from nooses, rabbits angrily mounting each other, men in capes being eaten by dragons. But no explanation was really needed. Mental illness, social isolation, guns: all the ingredients in a familiar and deadly recipe.
And then in the next news cycle, the photographs of the victims started to emerge. Thirteen lives lost, their faces and short bios filling half a page of the New York Times. A forty-six-year-old cancer researcher. A twenty-one-year-old Korean exchange student. A sixty-six-year-old Vietnam vet who’d survived Agent Orange. A forty-year-old teacher. A ten-year-old Alabama boy visiting New York City for the first time.
Todd had chosen them indiscriminately—white, brown, and black; male and female; young and old; rich and poor. A small but representative New York City melting pot, their fates bound together only by the misfortune of being within a bullet’s reach from Todd that horrible morning.
My gaze had circled back to the photograph of the teacher. I froze at the immediate recognition but checked the name anyway. “Molly Harris, 40, New York City, substitute teacher,” the text beneath the photograph read. I had seen her face on Melissa’s refrigerator for more than a decade’s worth of Decembers: Jack; Molly; their daughter, Buckley, moving from baby to toddler to girl to tween.
I scoured the Internet, rereading the media coverage with a new focus. According to multiple survivors, a middle-aged woman in a blue dress was seen speaking to Todd right before she became the first of his victims. Todd froze as the woman fell to the ground. Some witnesses his hand. And then the pause was over, and he began shooting.
A Daily News article identified the woman in the blue dress as a mother and teacher. “Those who knew the woman have suggested that, in light of her training in how to respond to school violence, she may have tried to talk him out of his deadly intentions.” I reexamined the New York Times tribute. Molly had been the only teacher. Instead of running or ducking, Jack’s wife had died trying to save complete strangers.
Within weeks, it wasn’t just the faces of the slain on news pages and television stations. Family members came forward to speak of their loved ones. From a shared and unwanted bully pulpit, they called for reforms like increased security on mass transit, better mental health services, and increased regulation of firearms. And some were even willing to say aloud what many people had been wondering from the beginning: what the hell was that father thinking?
And then a year ago, after train ridership had returned to pre-shooting levels and victims’ names had faded from public consciousness, those survivors—led by “the husband of the heroic teacher”—went further and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the shooter’s father, just before the statute of limitations was set to run out. Last month, newspapers barely noticed when a New York County trial court dismissed the families’ lawsuit for failure to state a claim of action.
And now this morning, the city had suffered another report of shots fired, followed by terrified New Yorkers fleeing for safety. And, once again, this time, not everyone had made it out alive. Only three dead, according to Detective Boyle, not thirteen. But for immediate purposes, what mattered most was the identity of one of the three: Malcolm Neeley.
I didn’t need to do any research to know that Malcolm Neeley had been a multimillionaire, an investment banker to some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. He was the kind of rich that made celebrities look poor. Yet few people knew his name—until his fifteen-year-old son, Todd, opened fire in Penn Station, killing thirteen people and wounding eight others.
He’d made it through the wrongful death lawsuit only to be killed this morning. And now the hero-teacher’s husband was in custody, and the closest thing he had to an alibi was a woman he didn’t even know.