Though a lawyer by profession, Julie Compton is currently a stay-at-home mom in Longwood, Florida, where she lives with her husband Rick, two daughters and a myriad of pets. In addition to writing, she enjoys reading, running, music, and spending time at the beach. SHOTS arranged for UK lawyer and writer Martin Edwards to ask Julie about her debut novel, Tell No Lies.
ME: In the UK, there aren't many lawyers who write crime fiction, but in the US it seems there's a large number of attorneys who turn their hand to legal thrillers. Any idea why that might be?
JC: I think there are several reasons. I'm not familiar with the work environment for lawyers in UK law firms, but here in the US, it can be quite grueling. It's not unusual to work 12 to 14 hour days. We have a saying here – the law is a jealous mistress – and there's much truth in that, especially for younger lawyers who are still trying to prove themselves. It's extremely difficult to have a life outside of work. Those who do often find they get a reputation for not being "committed" enough to the practice. So, many lawyers dream of escaping the grind to pursue other interests.
The logical "other interest" is, for many lawyers, writing. After all, lawyers do a lot of writing on the job, and most write well. Many (like me) wrote creatively when they were younger and gave it up when the demands of law interfered. So it's not a stretch to attempt to make the first love a second career. (The ones who manage to do both, such as Scott Turow, get a gold star in my book).
ME: Tell No Lies is your first published novel. What other writing have you done previously?
JC: I know it's a cliché to say it, but I've been writing as long as I can remember, in one form or another. I still have notebooks I wrote in as a little girl, filled with stories about sassy heroines with unusual names like Summer and True. I gave up my creative writing once I entered law school; I just didn't have the energy after a long day of classes and studying cases. It wasn't until I became a stay-at-home mom after my second daughter was born that I finally began writing again. I wrote some short stories and poems, and started on the novel that eventually became Tell No Lies. I also did freelance work for a local paper – it helped me to feel legitimate as a writer. One of my short stories became a finalist in Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers contest, giving me a badly needed boost of confidence.
ME: You were born in St Louis - any other reasons why you chose that city as setting for the book?
JC: Well, I was not only born there – I was raised there and didn't leave until I was 32 years old. I started the novel shortly after we'd moved away, so I think the reason is twofold: one, it was the city I knew best, and two, I felt very nostalgic for it. To this day,St. Louis holds a very special place in my heart. (Here's where the phone rings and it's my mother-in-law asking: "Then why haven't you moved back?")
ME: The story is told from the point of view of a male character, the lawyer Jack Hilliard. What prompted you to write from a male viewpoint, and how difficult did you find it?
JC: Almost anything I've written of any length is written from a male point of view. I never really thought about my propensity to do this until people started pointing it out to me. I just find men so much more interesting to write about because they keep so much inside. For me, this makes it easier to create a complex character, because I've got his "interior" life, which comes out in narrative, and then I've got the side of him he shows the world, which comes out in dialogue. Whenever I start something with a female protagonist, I lose interest very quickly. I also grew up with five older brothers, so maybe that has something to do with it!
ME: Jack is a lawyer who has to become involved in politics when he runs for DA - it's very different from the British system. Do you think that mixing law and politics in this way is desirable?
JC: The process varies within the United States, too. Each state has its own system for selecting prosecutors – most states elect them, but there are a few in which they are appointed. At the federal (national) level, they are appointed.
I can see the advantages and disadvantages of both systems. When the head prosecutor is elected, often the voters focus too much on policy and less on qualifications and experience. The candidates know this, and it becomes a situation of telling the voters what they want to hear. And I certainly don't think it's a good thing to have the incumbent prosecutor worrying about the next election when he or she is trying to exercise prosecutorial discretion. They become more focused on conviction rates than on serving justice. On the other hand, there's something appealing about letting the populace have the final say, since the prosecutor is a public official and his decisions affect the whole community. And though appointing prosecutors may eliminate some of the concerns associated with electing them, this alternative method is not without its flaws. After all, some might argue appointments are often made to return political favors, and that raises a whole new set of issues.
ME: The murder which changes Jack's life isn't committed until more than half-way through the book, so the structure is relatively unusual. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
JC: Definitely not. I didn't even set out to write a legal thriller! When I sat down to begin the story, I had two characters in my head – Jack and Jenny. I knew they were friends and colleagues; I knew they were attracted to each other but weren't supposed to be; I knew they disagreed about the death penalty. But other than that, I had no idea what would happen to them, or why. It wasn't until some time later, after hearing a news story about a corrupt politician, that I began to develop their story. I wanted to explore how and why a basically good person ends up doing something so out of character. The murder grew from that exploration; I didn't plan its "location" in the novel; it just happened when it felt right. I wish I could say that I write my novels according to some outline planned in advance – even a rough one – but I'm simply unable to write this way. I usually have an idea in my head of what the novel will be about, but that idea generally involves the theme and the characters more than the plot. I struggle immensely with plot. I think John Lennon said "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Well, for me, plot is what happens when I'm busy writing about everything else.
ME: Claire, Jack's wife, sees her perfect world fall apart because of Jack's behaviour. How did you feel about her as a character?
JC: I admired Claire. She was the one character who didn't spout her convictions; she lived them, quietly and without fanfare. I wanted her to be grounded, and more emotionally mature than the other characters. But I also felt sorry for her. She mistakenly believed she had a kindred spirit in Jack. She didn't deserve what happened to her, and because of that, I wanted to make sure I let her grow stronger at the end.
ME: There's a significant plot twist at the end of the book. How important was that element of the story in planning the book?
JC: At the outset, it wasn't important at all, because I didn't know my plot. As the plot developed and grew, I began to think a lot about the ending, but I certainly didn't begin the novel knowing the end. As mentioned above, I simply don't plot my novels in advance. The plot sort of grows organically as I write. Once I had the first draft completed, however, the plot twist at the end played a large role in my editing. I tried to ensure that the ending was supported by everything that had come before. I also struggled over whether to make the ending more or less ambiguous. So as not to give anything away, I'll let readers decide which way the scale tipped.
ME: Which crime writers do you most admire?
JC: Unless you count the Nancy Drew mysteries, which I feasted on voraciously as a child, and legal thrillers written by Scott Turow and John Grisham, I'm not sure I've read enough of the genre to answer this question. I enjoy Dennis Lehane. I just finished Chelsea Cain's Heartsick, and I'm about to read my first Minette Walters novel. I tend to gravitate more toward what I call "relationship" books, like those written by authors such as Sue Miller, Jodi Picoult, Anne Tyler, Chris Bohjalian, Ian McKewan, Ann Patchett, Amy Bloom, to name just a few. A British friend recently turned me on to Douglas Kennedy, whose books seem to combine the two elements.
ME: What next for Julie Compton?
JC: I'm close to finishing my second novel for Macmillan. It's got another male protagonist, and though there's plenty of suspense (I hope!), he's not a lawyer and the novel is not a legal thriller. (Though I've learned it's best to let my publisher categorize what I write.) It's set primarily in Florida, although the main character spends some time in New England and Africa, too. I've also written about ten pages of my third novel, only because the idea came to me and I knew if I didn't write it down when it was fresh in my mind, I'd lose it. But the rest of it will have to wait until novel number two is done and on its way to my editor.
TELL NO LIES £6.99 pbk published by Pan Books Feb 1st 2008
Read Martin Edward’s review of TELL NO LIES