A Conversation With Paul Levine

by Claire E. White

Award-winning author Paul Levine is one of the few attorneys to make the transition from successful lawyer to successful novelist. He left a lucrative and prestigious position at
Photo of Paul Levine
one of Philadelphia's top law firms to pursue his lifelong dream: writing novels. A graduate of Penn State University and the University of Miami Law School, he is a former partner in Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. He has tried cases in numerous state and federal courts and has handled appeals at the Supreme Court. He is the author of seven legal thrillers featuring Miami trial lawyer Jake Lassiter. He is the winner of the prestigious John D. MacDonald Award for fiction for this series. In its review of his latest Lassiter novel, Flesh and Bones, Booklist calls Lassiter "one of the most entertaining characters in contemporary crime fiction." Publishers Weekly describes Levine as "a wily and spirited practitioner of ripe plotting." Levine's first novel, To Speak For the Dead, was a national bestseller honored as one of the ten best mysteries of the year by the Los Angeles Times. An adaptation of the book appeared as an NBC World Premiere Movie in 1995. His earlier books also include Night Vision, False Dawn, Mortal Sin, Slashback, and Fool Me Twice. He has also written for ABC Television, Stephen J. Cannell Studios, and the CBS television program, "JAG."

This Fall, Levine has put Lassiter on a short hiatus to break new ground with an exciting new Supreme Court thriller entitled 9 Scorpions, which USA Today calls, "Highly readable and fun...[with] an irresistable momentum." 9 Scorpions is a tale of seduction and corruption behind the velvet drapes of the U.S. Supreme Court. The book's title is derived from Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous description of the justices as "nine scorpions in a bottle."

When he's not writing, you can usually find him spending time with his son, working out, swimming, playing tennis or catching the latest play or movie. Paul talked with us about his years as a journalist, his move from successful trial lawyer to popular novelist, his inspiration for 9 Scorpions, and shares words of advice for aspiring novelists.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

In high school, I enjoyed writing short stories. Science fiction, mysteries. I had a crush on a cheerleader and wrote a mini-book about my great love but was too shy to show it to her.

How did you begin your career as a journalist?

At Penn State, I majored in journalism. This was after a desultory freshman year foray in accounting. I could no more be an accountant than I could go 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. I was sports editor, then editor-in-chief of the student daily. My first full-time job was working as a general assignment reporter at The Miami Herald. I loved it. There I was, 21 years old, in a great news town undergoing a huge boom.

What did you like most about being a trial attorney? What kinds of cases did you handle?

Most readers assume I was a criminal lawyer, but I was
Cover of
Fool Me Twice by Paul Levine
a civil litigator, handling large, complicated and essentially boring lawsuits between huge corporations. It had its moments, though. Trying cases is like playing poker with ideas. Sometimes you call, sometimes you raise, and sometimes you bluff. I liked the mental gymnastics, the problem solving, the search for the truth. Unfortunately, the truth often becomes obscured. In Miami, each courtroom has a sign above the judge's bench: "We who labor here seek only the truth." My fictional lawyer Jake Lassiter reflects my thoughts when he says: "Sure, subject to the truth being ignored by lying witnesses, obfuscated by sleazy lawyers, excluded by inept judges, and overlooked by lazy jurors."

What prompted your move to being a novelist from being an attorney?

I was an unhappy camper, cynical about the justice system, feeling my work had little social utility. I wrote the first book, To Speak for the Dead, as therapy, creating a hard-boiled, equally cynical lawyer, Jake Lassiter: "They don't call us sharks for our ability to swim."

Do you ever miss being in the courtroom?

Yes, but now I go downtown to watch friends try cases and steal good lines from their closing arguments.

Will computers and technological advances revolutionize how law is practiced in the future?

We already have bail hearings done by television in Miami. I have long thought that motion calendars, ten or fifteen minute hearings, should be conducted by TV-phones so that the lawyers don't have to travel to the courthouse and wait around two hours for a short hearing. Technology makes everything more efficient and therefore cheaper to the consumer. Legal research is much faster thanks to computers. Without going to the law library, any decent law student can find and print out dozens of cases in minutes instead of hours. I use the same technology to do research on the computer for a variety of topics, legal and otherwise. When I needed to write a scene in a house of Japanese design for 9 Scorpions, I found what I wanted in less than ten minutes. It might have taken hours in a library.

Surveys often show that attorneys have some of the lowest job satisfaction ratings of any of the professions. Why do you think this is?

Attorneys like to whine. Additionally, there is something
"Trying cases is like playing poker with ideas. Sometimes you call, sometimes you raise, and sometimes you bluff."
dehumanizing about the practice of law in the 1990s. It can be a grind where the goal is to bill the most hours. The inefficiency of the system and the sense that justice is seldom served are also downers. In my Jake Lassiter books, Jake remarks that there's a sign above the judge's bench saying, "We who labor here seek only the truth." Maybe so, but Jake goes on to say, "There ought to be a footnote. Subject to the truth being misstated by sleazy lawyers, overlooked by incompetent judges, and ignored by lazy jurors."

Take us through a typical writing day for Paul Levine.

I treat it as a job. Start at 8 a.m., work till mid-afternoon, go to the gym or swim my laps, and come back and work some more after dinner. Of course, I use a computer. Compared to word processing software, anything else (typing, dictating, writing long hand) is like scratching in the mud with a stick.

You also write teleplays. Do you prefer writing novels or writing for television? Why?

Writing in a highly structured four-act format (the one-hour drama) is a great change of pace for me. The job takes two weeks instead of a full year. I'm dealing with someone else's characters but still get to put the words in their mouths and create the action. Right now, I'm working on an episode of JAG, the CBS military show. If all goes as planned, it will air November 24.

What do you believe is your greatest strength as a writer?

I love my characters. I spend a year with each group of them and I like to think I make them real. I put them in situations where I want to know how they'll do. How will the protagonist get out of that tree? I hope the reader has the same page-turning curiosity.

What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

Stick your ass in the chair. Write. Don't talk about writing. Do it.

The Lassiter series has received both critical and commercial success. Why do you think Jake Lassiter is so popular with readers?

Jake is not a great lawyer, but he's a good man. He's basically honest in a corrupt world. He yields to temptation: "I won't lie to a judge, bribe a copy, or sleep with a client's wife...unless I knew her first." He's real. He's not the brightest guy but he does his best. He is plagued with the notion that often the guilty go free.

I'd like to talk about your new book. 9 Scorpions is a real departure from your popular Jake Lassiter series. What was the inspiration for this story?

I became fascinated with the question: how could you fix a case at the U.S. Supreme Court? You can't bribe a justice. In 200 years, no one ever has. You can't even TALK to a justice. They live like monks in a monastery, isolated from the world. They're appointed for life, so they don't need to run for election or raise campaign funds.

Could a case in the Supreme Court really be fixed?

Of course, it could happen. The trick of the novelist is not
Cover of
 9 Scorpions by Paul Levine
to tell the truth but to tell a story that is credible, that could happen though maybe it never will. The weak links in the chain that ropes the Court off from society are the law clerks. An astonishing amount of the Court's power belongs to the clerks, young lawyers a year or so out of elite law schools. They are sorcerers' apprentices, advising the justices which cases to hear, then writing the first drafts of their opinions, carving their words into the mortar of our jurisprudence. This secret power of the law clerks is the key to 9 Scorpions. While the Justices may be isolated from the world, they are still human beings who are not immune to temptation. It's wholly credible that a newly appointed Justice with a troubled marriage might succumb to the charms (and persuasiveness) of his beautiful and brilliant young law clerk.

The story focuses on Lisa Fremont, the brilliant attorney who is blackmailed into using her position as a Supreme Court clerk to influence the outcome of a high-dollar case. What was the most difficult aspect of writing from the point of view of a woman?

It was a challenge. She's a teenage runaway who pulled herself up, and with the financial and emotional help of an older man, becomes a 27-year-old honors graduate from Stanford Law School. She's torn between her commitment to justice and her debt to the man who essentially rescued her. I thought of a woman I was once involved with, someone who was abused as a child and ran away. I thought of other female friends who became highly successful in the law. I combined personalities and used my instincts for the rest.

9 Scorpions has some pretty hot love scenes. As a writer, how do you approach writing those scenes? Is it difficult?

I believe in extensive research. Seriously, love scenes are very difficult, because virtually everything has already been written, and anything you try to do will sound stale and derivative. I try to write a scene that, if it is intended to seem passionate, it will arouse me, and if that doesn't work, it will arouse the President.

What experiences in your life have influenced you most as a writer?

In my professional life, my conflicted feelings about the legal system undoubtedly have influenced me. It's a love-hate relationship that comes through in the books. I recognize the difference between the pristine law and the tainted system that administers it. In my private life, I've loved and lost and loved again. My passions influence my writing.

How did you approach the research needed for the book?

I spent months interviewing former law clerks and
"My conflicted feelings about the legal system undoubtedly have influenced me. It's a love-hate relationship that comes through in the books...In my private life, I've loved and lost and loved again. My passions influence my writing."
lawyers who have practiced extensively before the Court. I read the memoirs of former Justices and watched oral arguments. Insiders gave me access to confidential memoranda and courthouse gossip. I pored through books in the magnificent law library of hand-carved wood and stately arches and even shot buckets on the Justices' basketball court one floor above the courtroom, truly the "highest court" in the land. I immersed myself in the elegant atmosphere, the giant bronze doors emblazoned with scenes of ancient Greece and Rome, the marble statutes of Lady Justice, Moses, and Confucius, the soaring spiral staircase, and the lofty words chiseled into the pediment: "Equal Justice Under Law."

Do you use the Internet for research?

Every day. The Net is incredible because of the speed. It's my library.

What do you like most about being a novelist?

The freedom to write what I want. I have written for TV and have worked for hire for feature film studios. Writing novels is different. The ideas are mine; the characters are mine; the plot, action, and dialogue is all mine. Whether the book succeeds or fails as a work of popular entertainment is all mine. (Whether it is a commercial success, of course, depends on others).

What is the most disturbing trend you see today in the publishing industry?

The crisis among independent booksellers is disturbing to every writer. So many indies have gone out of business that it's heartbreaking. Many are family-owned multi-generation businesses. It's a delicate issue. The large chains have brought new people into bookstores, and that's great. We need more readers, though sometimes I wonder if the new folks are reading books or just sipping cappuccino. The bookselling world is changing, and we don't yet know what it will look like in five years.

When you're not working, what are your favorite ways to relax?

I play tennis, swim, lift weights, go to movies and plays, and read other authors who can hold me spellbound and make me say: I wish I could do that!

What authors do you like to read?

My tastes run from John Updike to Raymond Chandler to John D. MacDonald. Way too many to pin me down.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced as a writer?

Challenges come in all sizes and shapes. The most daunting
Cover of
Flesh and Bones by Paul Levine
task is to start with a ream of blank paper, 500 pages, and fill each page in such a way that the reader wants to get to the end. I start with an idea that is a single sentence: "Can someone block out memory of a horrendous crime for 20 years and suddenly remember it?" (repressed memory syndrome, the basis for Flesh and Bones). Or, "How could you fix a case at the Supreme Court?" (the basis for 9 Scorpions). Just thinking about getting from that one sentence through 30 chapters, 100,000 words can make me break out in a cold sweat. It's also daunting to me to have given up a secure position as a partner in a national law firm to write full time. I have to treat this as a business, not a hobby. I have great fun and derive much satisfaction from the work...but it is still work.

What are you working on now?

I'm just finishing a novel about a disbarred lawyer turned Purple
bookie who must win a huge bet on the Super Bowl to save his life and win back his ex-wife. It's a caper that was fun to write. I hope it's also fun to read.

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