After hosting Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks earlier this year (recap of that event here), the Miller Branch of the Howard County Library system in Maryland hosted another crime fiction-related event last night. Alafair Burke on tour with her new psychological suspense stand-alone, The Better Sister.

Rohini Gupta, the Adult Curriculum Specialist and event organizer started the evening with some brief comments. Rohini really entertained the audience when she asked us all to be sure to fill out their latest survey, one designed to help them plan their events and library development over the next 15 years!!  (That got a good laugh from a crowd more than willing to wield the power granted to them.)

This was followed by a nice introduction of Alafair Burke, outlining her legal work, her writing career, and her family – father is James Lee Burke, of course, and her mother is a librarian (which received a great cheer.)

Before talking about The Better Sister, Alafair elaborated on some of the opening remarks, talking about how her father had sort of anointed her a writer from birth, a role she pushed back against until later in her life. Being a reader of crime fiction from early one (following a similar path to my own: Encyclopedia Brown to Mary Higgins Clark, with a few different stop-overs along the way), Alafair noticed that whenever prosecutors came into those plots the books often – but not always – became boring. Since she had been practicing law for a while at that point, she felt she could at least write those scenes better, or at least differently. Alafair wanted to show that a prosecutorial career was not a cookie cutter job and that much of what is done really can be interesting.  

Alafair also noticed that some of her favorite books had a distinct and vividly brought-to-life setting – Michael Connelly’s LA, the Florida Everglades of Carl Hiaason, and her own dad’s depiction of Louisiana. Because she knew and loved the Portland area, she wanted to spotlight that locale. During a summer break before starting her teaching career, Alafair Burke wrote her first book, which lead to a contract for a series (something she had not planned on, but was more than willing to agree to.)

This led into the portion of the evening devoted to The Better Sister. Alafair read the prologue of the book, which for those who have not read it, does an excellent job of setting up the complex relationships at the core of the novel. You can read my spoiler-free review of The Better Sister here.

Alafair talked about how it’s a novel about two wildly different sisters who must come together to save someone they both love. Tying back to her opening remarks, she explained that she wanted to explore the roles we are given by our families at a very young age and whether or not they are prognosticative or self-fulfilling prophecies. She also explained how The Ex, The Wife, and The Better Sister are a loosely connected “non-series” exploring how the role of three different women in different families becomes responsible for their purpose within the plot of each novel.

Alafair opened the floor for questions and of course, I raised my hand. Even though I had heard her talk about this before, I know the audience would enjoy hearing, so I asked Alafair to talk about how she determines if a book is a series novel or more of a stand-alones. Alafair gave an excellent, and lengthy answer that ultimately boiled down to character. She feels that when plot and character are perfectly matched the best books are born. She referred to Gone Girl and Presumed Innocent, two books in which a simple change in character would drastically change the plot’s trajectory. She ended this response by revealing that her next book will return to the Ellie Hatcher series.

One audience member asked about writing schedules and advice. Alafair stated that when in the midst of a book, she tries never to go more than one day without writing. This helps her stay connected to the story, even if only writing one paragraph during busy periods. Alafair also talked a little about writing with Mary Higgins Clark – what an honor that is and how they developed their method.

Another excellent audience question was whether Alafair had taken writing classes, to which Alafair said no, making sure to say that many people have had great luck with them. For her, because her career as a trial lawyer involved a fair amount of writing, it developed as an extension of that. She talked about how it’s no surprise that many lawyers and journalists go into writing, since much of their career is built about crafting the written word. And in both cases, the method of storytelling is unnatural – a trial or newspaper article has to be structured in a certain way to be effective and that hones the skills of plotting.

The evening wrapped up with an audience member asking about something that was discussed in the introduction. Alafair grew up in an area (Kansas) where there was an active serial killer and this meant that much of her formative life was surrounded with crime and criminal reporting. Talking about that case, the BTK Killer, with her father while growing up led to a life-long fascination with true crime.

A book signing followed. And yes, I picked up a hardcopy of The Better Sister to add to my Alafair Burke collection.  I hope that you all have enjoyed this recap and if Alafair comes to your town, do yourself a favor and attend her event, you won’t be sorry.