As we sit in our hotel room in Key West, Florida, eyeing Hannah’s cell phone, awaiting a call from prosecutor-turned-bestselling-author Marcia Clark, our expectations for the voice about to come through the speakerphone are conflicting. Over the past two decades, the world has come to know Marcia in various forms: the tough lawyer running the courtroom during one of the most infamous trials in American history, the crime fiction writer who is as in touch with her characters as she was the details of her court cases, and since last year, in fictional and very human form through Sarah Paulson’s portrayal of her on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story—a performance for which Paulson received an Emmy.
From the moment we pick up the phone, Marcia is charismatic, personable, and energetic, laughs often, and puts us immediately at ease. When we mention that we are on the line from the Florida Keys and are getting ready to catch a flight home after vacation, Marcia asks about our trip and listens enthusiastically as we describe our boat trip to the Dry Tortugas.
“Oh, that sounds so good! Oh my God!” She laughs. She is calling from New York City, where she is promoting the release of her new novel, Snap Judgment, the third in her acclaimed Samantha Brinkman series. We speak with Marcia about her writing process, her relationship with her characters, how she feels her time in the public eye affects her reader’s experience with her novels, and what she would say to her twenty-year-old self. Listen in…
Hannah: I want to start off by telling you that the two of us have been so into true crime since we were little, like we were literally watching Dateline NBC and everything like that when we were seven years old.
Marcia Clark: You’re kidding me! [laughs]
H: No! Seriously! But it actually took reading Snap Judgment for us to get into crime fiction! Like no joke, you singlehandedly converted us to crime fiction. Thank you for that!
MC: [laughs] Yay!
H: While I was reading Snap Judgment, it was almost hard for me to imagine, and I know people do it all the time, but it’s hard for me to imagine how someone can write a book like this one as well as you do without your experience in the law. Like I feel like you would have to be familiar with what goes on behind the scenes of a murder investigation, in this case, to know what’s important to leave in and leave out for the casual reader. How do you stay level with your readers when you have so much experience?
MC: So the way I do it is just like I used to do in trial practice. I talk to the reader as I talk to a jury. Of course, not the same language, but I talk about things in a fairly, hopefully, accessible way. So I’m not talking a lot of the boring legalese. If I had to start explaining the legal issues and stuff like that…who wants to hear that? I try to keep it to stuff that’s fun! And most of the time, especially in criminal law, that’s not that hard to do because it’s all about the facts of the case, and the facts are always interesting. Like who did what and why, you know, that sort of thing. That’s what everybody cares about. That’s what I care about! Right? So the legal principles, unless they’re fun, unless they’re interesting, I leave ‘em out.
Cailin: I don’t think it ever really got technical, even when you were doing the details that you had to put in to understand what was going on, it did kind of feel like you were just listening in on a conversation. I thought it was good.
H: When we were talking about this we were like, “Oh my gosh! She wrote a book that James Patterson, a fellow attorney, and two journalism students like us can all totally get into!” I thought that was a skill in itself!
MC: [laughs] Yay! I’m so glad. It’s funny guys, ‘cause I got into true crime when I was a kid too. I started really young.
MC: Yep! You guys have an interesting future! [laughs]
C: I was wondering that, ‘cause I did read your memoir Without a Doubt, and you said you were into crime and read it, but did you write? I know you kind of thought that you’d like to write, but were you a kid who was writing all the time?
MC: Yeah, I liked to write even when I was a kid, I really did. I loved writing stories. Although, I didn’t really think about being a writer as a living until way later in my life, because it just didn’t seem like it was a way to make a living! [laughs] I wound up figuring out that maybe you could. It was kind of like a childhood dream to do that. It’s fun!
H: And what better person to write crime fiction than someone like you, with so much real-life experience!
MC: You know, it made it easier, I have to say. People do say, “Write what you know,” and I’m not sure if I agree with that—I think you have to write what you love. Still, if you happen to love what you know, how much easier is that, right?
H & C: Exactly.
MC: Yeah. I have to admit, it makes a difference. What I do is I show the investigation and what happens in a way that would really happen. This is how you would investigate a case, and this is how you would go about doing it. Now Samantha, being someone who doesn’t appreciate boundaries and laws, does it in a way that’s a little bit dicey, right? But in general, the things that I’m showing you, in terms of the steps of an investigation, are true. That’s how it works. I like to give the story as much authenticity as possible, because I think the reader can really feel it when you’re fudging, and making stuff up and going too far. You have to keep it grounded.
C: Something that I kept going back to as I was reading is that a lot of the time when we read books by even people that we consider to be our favorite novelists, people that we know all their work, we don’t know a thing about them personally, other than the fact that they are the ones who bring to life our favorite stories and favorite characters. You’re kind of different because they’ve seen you in the courtroom, I mean you were all over Court TV, and then Sarah Paulson played you on a TV show. So we kind of got to know about you as a person. Do you feel like it changes the way your readers experience your stories, because whether or not they’re right, they do feel like they know who you are as a person and what type of person you are?
MC: Oh, for sure. The reason I can say for sure is because people tell me this. So I know they aren’t lying! Yeah. They say that they actually picture me when they’re reading it. They picture me as Samantha, which is a little bit disconcerting, because having read Snap Judgment you know what Samantha does! [all laugh] Like okay, you guys, it’s fiction! I think people definitely picture the protagonist, and then they want to know which part of these stories is true, and did this really happen, and that sort of thing. That part, I think, would probably be true for any lawyer/writer. Definitely the way people picture me as the lead, that’s because I’ve been on TV so much.
H: Right. Now, tell me if I’m right, I think I remember you saying you were interested in acting when you were younger?
MC: I was!
H: I feel like writing a fictional story in the first person is a lot like acting in the sense that you have to be very in tune with the character that you’re bringing to life. I’m wondering by the end of Snap Judgment, which is the third book in the Samantha Brinkman series, do you feel like you know what Sam Brinkman would do or say in any given situation? Do you feel like you’re that in tune with who she is by now as a character?
MC: You know, I think I do, and then, as I’m writing the story, she winds up doing things I didn’t anticipate! [all laugh] That sounds so weird! But she’s such a law unto herself, and I get her into these situations, and then realize, Oh my god! She’s crazier than I thought! [all laugh] So most of the time I think I know and I’m right about what she’s gonna do, but there are definitely times when, yeah, she surprises me!
H: Do you ever find yourself watching other people and thinking, Oh! That’s something Sam would do! Or That’s something Alex would say!
MC: Yes. Or not! I think more often than not what I wind up thinking is, wow, Alex would just… blah blah blah. Hack into that computer, break into the house, you know what I mean? [all laugh]
C: It’s like they’re your friends and you know them well!
H: She knows them better than anyone.
MC: It sounds a little weird but, especially when I’m in the middle of writing a book, my fictional characters become more real to me than people. [all laugh] Too much time in front of the computer!
C: That kind of reminds me… the thing that got me really hooked on this book was the multiple subplots that you juggled so well at once. And like you were saying, you said that sometimes Sam would do things that surprised you even… I mean, there was a major plot twist at the end, I won’t give it away for people who haven’t read it yet…I feel like it would have been so complicated, probably not for you, because you’ve been doing it for awhile, but I feel like it would be complicated to make sure that everything ties together at the end, and make sure that you have all the steps leading up to that big plot twist. Did you just know the ending, or did you know how everything was going to lead up to the ending when you started writing at the beginning?
MC: You know what, I always outline. I know a lot of people don’t believe in that, but for me, I have to outline. I have to have a sense of where the story’s going so that I can build to it. So that I know where to put in clues. I don’t like the reader to come to the end of it and go, “Oh, no way that could have just popped out.” I want the reader to be able to look back and go, “Okay, I see where that came from.” So I always know how it’s going to end in a general sense, in other words, the ending. But how it gets there, and the twists and turns that it takes, I never know that. That really does happen as I’m sitting in front of the computer day after day, and I’m seeing, Okay, now this, now that, now this, now that. You know what I mean?
C: Right. That’s amazing because it’s like… I’d imagine you’d be entertaining yourself as you’re writing! [all laugh]
MC: Yeah! Absolutely true! Oh wow, that was fun! [all laugh]
H: I love that! Now, is your deal with your publisher still two books a year?
MC: No. It couldn’t because now I’m doing too many other things as well. Now I’m working on a scripted show for ABC…
H: I heard that! That’s so exciting! I’m so excited about this.
MC: Me too! I mean it’s really…I’m working with some of the best people in the business. Laurie Zaks from Mandeville, Liz Craft and Sarah Fain…They are just amazingly wonderful, amazing people, and I’m really, really lucky to be working with them. It’s just a joy. And it’s our second project together. I’m hoping you’re going to get to see it!
H: I hope so! I’m wondering, when you do have a time frame for writing, and a deadline, for I think almost every book you’ve written so far, do you ever struggle with writer’s block during the times when you know you have to write? Like are you ever sitting there like, I know I have to get this amount done tonight or I’m going to be behind!
MC: I don’t have time for writer’s block. I mean, I’d love to struggle with it, but I don’t have time! I mean really! That’s I think part of the reason I outline, too. I work hard to put together the steps, and then by the time I’m sitting down to actually write the book, I know where I’m going from day to day to day. I may have to sit and think about, you know, what happens next and am I really gonna do this versus that, and that sort of thing. But bottom line? No, honest to God, I’m not kidding when I say there’s no time for writer’s block. I just can’t afford it!
C: How much of your experience in the courtroom…I mean, you haven’t done trials for awhile…I’m wondering how much of your experience you still carry with you in your day-to-day life. Like, do you ever call your sons and say, “Where were you on the night of…?”
MC: [laughs] No, I know where they were!
C: Oh, you do! That’s how our mom is too.
MC: You know! Or I think I do. That’s even worse!
C: You have to be so tough to be a trial lawyer. Do you feel like you’re that tough of a person?
MC: Nooo. Oh my God. Yeah, no! That’s what the funny part is. I think with most jobs, people behave on the job the same way they do in life, and there’s not a particularly big gap between their persona at work and at home. But in trial work there has to be! There has to be. When you go into court you’re going into battle, right? So by definition, you’re not going to be, “Hello, hi!” You know? If you do it’s really weird!
H: Yeah, exactly. You’re on a mission!
MC: I think a lot of people don’t realize that. That you cannot be the same in the courtroom as you are when you go home. So I’m not a completely different person, I’m not schizophrenic, but I’m definitely different, and I would say a lot more relaxed. A lot more laid back, a lot softer. I mean, I go home at night and kiss my kids!
C: Right, right.
MC: I mean, they’re not living at home anymore, they’re 27 and 25, so it’d be weird if I was still going home and kissing my kids…
H: But you still know where they are though!
MC: But I know where they are! [laughs]
H: What would you say is the biggest difference between you in the mid-90s, when you were first in the public eye, and you now?
MC: [sighs] I think I’m a much… well, certainly I am much more relaxed. Being in the middle of that craziness, that trial, was a terrible nightmare. Really. So I can’t help but be a lot happier and more relaxed than I was then. For sure. I think I’m more self-aware. I think I’m more self-accepting. And as anybody does, hopefully I’ve grown, I’ve learned things…you know what I mean? Hopefully this is true, right?
C: Yeah! That would be true with anybody who’s had more life experiences.
MC: Hopefully isn’t that the case? If not, that’s kind of sad! [laughs]
H: [laughs] Yeah, exactly!
MC: Right? So yeah, I do think I’m certainly more relaxed than I was.
H: I mean, during the trial you had to be tough.
C: How can you be yourself when you’re all stressed out?
MC: Right, right, right. Exactly!
C: You know what I’m wondering, just when you mentioned the TV show…I think you said this was your second time working with a crew on a TV show…When you’re writing, especially since the last time you worked with the team that you’re working with, do you ever write your books and then in your mind imagine how it would play out on screen? Like do you try to write with it in mind how it could be adapted to the screen?
MC: I don’t. Here’s why: If I did that, it would be really limiting, because there’s only so much…you know. TV is a wonderful thing, but it’s a whole different way of storytelling. You’re storytelling in a very visual way, and hopefully with fewer words. But that means you’re also limited to what you can shoot.
H: Oh, I see that! That’s true.
MC: Right? But that’s the luxury, that’s what I love about getting to write books. I don’t have to worry about that. I can change scenes as many times as I want, I can put Sam any place I want, and there’s no limitation. No, “Can we afford to move the crew here now?” That sort of thing. I don’t have to worry about that. So it’s liberating in that sense to write books as opposed to writing scripts, where you do definitely have to think, How many days out is this? You know, how many night shoots you’re going to do. You don’t have to worry about that.
C: Alright, last one for you, Marcia. So right now we’re college students, and we’re constantly worrying about where we’re going to go in our lives, what do we need to be doing right now to get to where we’re going, and after all you’ve been through in your life, I feel like now you definitely have it all figured out. So I’m wondering, if you could go back in time…we’re going to be 21 in November, we’re 20…if you could go back in time and give advice to your 20 year old self, what would you say?
MC: Oh… many, many things—I don’t think we have time for this whole answer! But let me take a shot at it. Here’s what I would say. Don’t settle. Do not settle. Do not settle in terms of your personal life, or the people that are close to you. Do not put up with any bullshit. Make sure that the people around you love you, care for you, value you, and cherish you. And do not put up with anyone who is any less than that. In your personal life as well as your professional life. Don’t settle! And that means too, follow your dream. Whatever it is that you really, really want to do, make sure you find that you’re on a path to really, really do it. Don’t just take a job for the money because ultimately, there will never be enough money to make you happy. So, here’s the thing to remember in general, in life, whether it’s at work or at play or at home, make friends slowly, and carefully, and fire them quickly. Do you know what I mean? Because if you have doubts in your mind about whether somebody is good for you in any capacity, whether it’s at work or at home, then follow your gut. Listen to your gut. It’ll tell you the truth every time, if you just listen.
Buy Snap Judgment on Amazon here.