Every mystery and suspense writer dreams of creating characters so compelling they form the backbone of a series of stories their fans devour as soon as they are released. Paul Levine is just such an author, the man behind the fantastic – and bestselling – Jake Lassiter legal thriller series. With the newest Lassiter book, Bum Deal, hitting bookstores today, Levine was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to share some insights into the publishing industry, the fine art of crafting award winning mysteries and the joy and pain of bringing an iconic series to a close.
Open Mic: First, let’s talk about the new book, Bum Deal. Your longtime protagonist, Jake Lassiter, is battling a very new kind of foe, CTE. You have a personal connection to this terrible disease, correct?
Levine: I’m saddened by the CTE medical crisis on many different levels, and one is personal. I had a very dear friend named Don Russo who played football at the University of Miami. He was a small, fast wide receiver who often ran pass patterns across the middle. That’s where you get walloped by linebackers who, even in those days, weighed 225 or 230. He was only 175 pounds, so he got his bell rung all the time. After he was cut by a couple NFL teams, he went to law school and became an outstanding trial lawyer in Miami. He still loved sports so much that he played rugby for 20 years at a very high level. Basically, he was playing football without a helmet for a couple decades. Then in his 60’s he developed symptoms of both ALS and CTE and died. So yes, on both a personal basis and a social/cultural basis, I worry about this disease. I worry about the players. I worry about the sport. I worry about kids in high school playing football. That’s why I gave the disease to my long-running character Jake Lassiter, who had been a second-string Miami Dolphins linebacker, went to night law school and became a street lawyer. I’ll add that Don loved the books and always claimed Lassiter was based on him. I never denied it. Both are “brew and burger guys in a paté and Chardonnay world.”
Open Mic: CTE is a plot point in the series, correct?
Levine: Yes. In his playing career, Lassiter was the guy who made the first hit on nearly every kickoff and punt return, what they call the suicide squads, and for good reason. He suffered a series of concussions. In one game against the Jets, he made a helmet-to-helmet tackle on a kickoff that caused a fumble. Somehow, he came up with the ball, but got turned around and ran to the wrong end zone where he was tackled for a safety. The Dolphins lost by a point and the Miami Herald called him “Wrong-Way Lassiter” from there on out. Now, some judges call him that, too. Anyway, that gave Lassiter another concussion and the books another character point. So all this ties together.
Open Mic: Does this mean you may be faced with having to kill off your main character?
Levine: I’m going to let the readers find that out. “Bum Deal” is the last book of the series. That doesn’t mean it’s certain that he dies. At the same time, we know that CTE is always fatal…unless they come up with a cure. I have Lassiter undergoing experimental treatments that are being used in real life. But it would be wrong for me to have Lassiter’s lady friend – Dr. Melissa Gold, a neuropathologist – suddenly fix him when, in reality, there is no cure. That would ring false and be unsatisfying dramatically.
Open Mic: Several years ago the great Walter Mosley appeared to kill off his iconic EZ Rawlins character. He said at the time he wasn’t sure he had any more to write about him. Do you ever feel like that with the ongoing characters you have created?
Levine: It might happen. On occasion I’ll write a line of dialogue that I think is a really good line, and then I go ‘Wait, did I already write that in ‘Mortal Sin’ or ‘Flesh & Bones?’” Erle Stanley Gardner did that unintentionally with the Perry Mason books, which he dictated to a secretary. He would be dictating away a mile a minute, and she would say “You know, we did that three books ago.” So yes, you can get burned out with characters and take them about as far as they are able to go. We sometimes say the characters guide us. There may be a point where the character says to you, “Been there, done that,” or “Been there, said that.” The trick is to recognize that point before the reader does!
Open Mic: Miami, Key West and other locales around Florida are as much characters in your books as are your protagonists. Ditto for writers like Carl Hiassen and Elmore Leonard, whom you are often compared to. What makes Florida such a great setting for crime mysteries and thrillers?
Levine: Well, we all know how weird Florida can be. Hiaasen said, “It’s as if you tilted the continent to the southeast and all the cracked marbles rolled to Florida.” Crime fiction in Florida is like the state itself – dripping with humidity and alligators. Between Russian gangsters and Colombian gangs, rapacious developers, and the losers who come to Florida with scams and pyramid schemes and heists, there is so much violence and wackiness. There is definitely something about this dangling peninsula that attracts weirdness.
Open Mic: For you, what makes a truly great mystery novel?
Levine: It all starts with character. You mentioned Hiaasen and Leonard, who each have created unforgettable characters. Hiaasen etches characters who are very close to being over the top in terms of weirdness, but he knows just where to stop. And Leonard had such a great ear for dialogue, from lower-class thugs and wannabes to con men and hopeless dreamers. So it starts with character. There’s also the great John D. McDonald and his knight in rusty armor, Travis McGee. We know McGee is going to get in a jam and he’s going to put himself at risk for somebody he barely knows. And we love this guy. Something else I like in a mystery novel. Surprise me with twists, but play fair with me. You’ve got to give me clues. You can’t drop a character into the story on page 294 and say, “Oh, he did it.”
Open Mic: Did you develop the Jake Lassiter character and then start thinking about what kind of story you would tell with this guy? Or did you think of a basic scenario and then build that character?
Levine: It was the late 1980’s, and I was practicing law, unhappily, in Miami. I was a partner in an international law firm of about a thousand lawyers. I was bored by my work, and I hated the fact it had no social utility. One day, the senior partners gave me a promotion, saying, “Paul, we’re putting you in charge of all the asbestos cases from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River.” This was defending the asbestos industry, which was not what I pictured for myself when I was protesting the Vietnam War. It just didn’t compute for me. I didn’t quit right away, but on a windsurfing vacation to Maui, I started scribbling on a legal pad. I created this character who came into my head who wouldn’t have taken that assignment. He would have said, “You can take your asbestos cases and shove them where the sun don’t shine.” But if I quit, what would I do? What else do I know? Well, I know a little bit about football. I certainly know Miami and the law, so I soon stopped lawyering and kept scribbling. Two years later, in 1990, “To Speak for the Dead” was published. It was a pretty big success at the time, and I’m happy to say it’s still in print.
Open Mic: You’ve been very successful, but like all writers you’ve had your share of rejection. How do you handle that part of the business?
Levine: In any creative field, you better be able to handle rejection. I also worked in television, where rejection is the norm. If you create a show, one day it will be cancelled. I’ve pitched many pilots over the years and only had a couple made. One movie-of-the-week saw the light of a day and one CBS television series that lasted only one season. I always tried to treat rejection as fuel to get back in the game and continue working until something hits paydirt.
Open Mic: I think every writer dreams of having their book optioned for TV or a movie. You’ve worked extensively in Hollywood – what should a writer who gets that opportunity know going into the process?
Levine: I wrote about 20 scripts for JAG, the military lawyer show, which taught me a lot about sharpening my dialogue and writing tighter. That was a full time job. Selling a project to Hollywood is more of a dream, as you suggest. You can have your books optioned a dozen times but no show ever gets made. As for writing on spec, Elmore Leonard had the greatest one-liner: “Writing a script and sending it to Hollywood is like drawing a picture of a car and sending it to Detroit.” Now, that will take the wind out of your sails!
Open Mic: Voice is one the issues new writers struggle with the most. How did you find your voice as a novelist, and how has it evolved over the course of your career?
Levine: That’s a really good question that I don’t fully know how to answer. I tend to write very close to the way I speak in terms of my protagonist’s voice. Lassiter’s voice is Levine’s voice. But I have a series, “Solomon vs. Lord,” with a female co-protagonist who’s a patrician Ivy Leaguer, so obviously Victoria doesn’t speak the way I do. Somehow, I can get into Victoria’s head almost as easily as I do with Jake Lassiter. I don’t know why, but I can. Her language feels very natural to me. If I were writing a period piece set in the time of King George V, and all my characters were in the king’s court, I would probably struggle a little more.
Open Mic: A great opening line is worth its weight in gold. How much time do you spend crafting the perfect opening sentence?
Levine: It’s really important, particularly now with so many book sales on Amazon. When a reader downloads a free sample on Amazon, you’ve got just a few pages to make the sale. That alone has changed the way a lot of people write. No more big wind up before the pitch – start with a pitch. The first line of “Bum Luck” was chosen as one of the best openers of last year: “Thirty seconds after the jury announced its verdict, I decided to kill my client.” Hopefully, you’re thinking, Why does Lassiter want to kill his own client? What was the verdict? What was the case? I was pretty happy with that. If I don’t have people reading the second sentence after that opener, I’m just going to quit now and go back to practicing law.
Open Mic: What is the biggest flaw you see in the writing of new or aspiring authors?
Levine: One thing that comes to mind is not plotting tightly enough, and that generally comes from insufficient planning or outlining. Outlines will tell you if you’ve sailed off in the wrong direction. And if you’re going to go off on a subplot, it’s always better if you can tie it to a main plot. Don’t give me extraneous characters. I don’t need to know excessive amounts about a person’s backstory if he or she is a minor character.
Open Mic: I had an agent tell me once that if a mystery doesn’t have a dead body in the first five pages, she stops reading. Her point is that readers of a particular genre really do need to see something they’re used to seeing or they won’t keep reading. Would you agree with that?
Levine: I don’t like hard and fast rules, but as a general matter, yes. In crime fiction there has to be something like a body on the floor very early. But there are equivalents to that. You could do a scene where a man is following a women down the street. She hears his footsteps and starts to look over her shoulder. She sees this guy double-timing it to catch up to her. She doesn’t know who he is, so she’s scared out of her wits. She’s able to duck into a doorway just as a car comes and hits the guy, and she gets away. Now I’m intrigued to know who’s following her and why. Is he a rapist, or is there something else going on here? Is she a target of organized crime? But we’re really saying the same thing. The body on the floor is really just a metaphor for getting us into the story.
Open Mic: Where do you see the industry going in the next 10 years?
Levine: I don’t know if younger people are going to read books, particularly fiction. Even though they are reading on their I-phones and on their I-pads, they’re also playing electronic games, which are growing at an exponential rate. Then you have 300 channels on television, and Amazon and Netflix and movies on demand. Will people keep reading books? Will they be reading general fiction, literary fiction, or crime fiction? My generation will be, but my generation is between Medicare and the mortuary. After us, who knows?
Open Mic: What is your preferred writing atmosphere: Silence? Music? A cramped office or your study at home?
Levine: I can’t work in a coffee shop the way some people do. I have my study with my computer and the old saying, “Put your ass in the chair.” Which means I try not to get up and walk over to the television to see what’s on CNN right now because it will just make me mad. Don’t go to the refrigerator. Leave the newspaper alone. I put my ass in my chair and start with a blank page and start pounding the keyboard. Fill some pages and treat it like a job.
Open Mic: Do you write every day? Do you have a set word or page count?
Levine: When I’m doing a book, I work seven days a week, though maybe just half a day on Saturdays and Sundays. I don’t have a page count but I know if I’ve done six or seven pages, it’s been a good day.
Open Mic: I like to close with a hypothetical question. Let’s say I had the power to arrange a meal and conversation between you and any one of the following three people: Ted Hendricks, Clarence Darrow or Katherine Hepburn. Who would you choose and why?
Levine: What a knowledgeable question and an eclectic group! For your readers who aren’t football fans, Hendricks was a great University of Miami linebacker who played 15 years in the pros. He once blocked an incredible seven field goal attempts and punts in a season and is in the NFL Hall of Fame. We’re Facebook friends, but we’ve never met, so sure, it would be fun to eat some barbecue and talk about the Penn State win over Miami in 1967, a game I attended where he was clearly the best player on the field. As for Katherine Hepburn, her movie with Spencer Tracy, “Adam’s Rib,” helped inspire my squabbling lawyers series, “Solomon vs. Lord,” but I could simply read her autobiography. Now, Clarence Darrow, wow. I’d invite Lassiter, who was once accused of bribing a juror…as was Darrow! Both were found not guilty, but only Darrow delivered his own closing argument, one that had the jurors in tears. His summations, often without notes, were like poetry. A fascinating character with many wonderful qualities. Without charging a fee, he represented people whose causes he believed in. And yes, like Lassiter, he cut some corners that got him in trouble. So forced to choose, I’d go with Darrow, a couple huge steaks, a bottle of bourbon, and who knows, maybe I’d come away with some new courtroom shenanigans.