Books

'Writing Illness' Cured: Interview with Paul Levine

Christine Forte

Thriller author Paul Levine swapped his big-time legal career for the life of a full-time writer. His friends thought his foolish -- he says he had no other choice.

Paul Levine is one of the lucky ones. Fifteen years ago, Levine made a life decision to forfeit all financial and job security. Friends and co-workers thought him a fool. But Levine thought himself a victim of what he refers to as "writing illness" -- the only cure was to quit the big time to concentrate on his storytelling. His dream, essentially, was to write a novel and smoothly morph from top attorney to full-time writer. Levine's audacity paid off -- while juggling writing and legal work, Bantam Publishing, a division of Random House, bought his first novel, To Speak for the Dead (1990). Following that, he opted to go open his own practice, to keep the workload down and allow himself more time to write. He made use of that time, further impressed his publishers, quit the solo practice, and achieved his goal.

Referenced books:


The Deep Blue Alibi: A Solomon Vs. Lord Novel
by Paul Levine
Bantam
January 2006


Solomon Vs. Lord
by Paul Levine

Bantam
September 2005









"When you're a writer," Levine recently told PopMatters, "there is something that burns within you, that forces you to write. I left the high-pressure firm to work as a solo practitioner, and also try and write that first novel. It was a two-step process. That's how I wrote To Speak for the Dead. I was trying a case in a little courthouse in the Florida Keys when I got a call from my agent that Bantam bought the book and [a follow-up]. I was almost too excited to finish the case. My co-counsel, the great Florida trial lawyer, Stuart Grossman, made a big show of telling the judge about my book sale. Even the opposing lawyer congratulated me."

It was a life-affirming moment, one that suddenly makes real those "follow your dream" slogans we all want to believe in, but so rarely tackle head on. After publication of his second book, Levine quit his solo practice and started writing full-time. He notes that in terms of relinquishing the "security blanket of a firm partnership and the lifetime tenure it holds", he dared that without a book deal and is better for it.

Levine points out that, strange as it may seem, the transition from trial lawyer to novelist was surprisingly uncomplicated. "Trial lawyers are natural storytellers," he says. "There is an in-bred, natural aptitude." If any transitional element proved tough, however, it was letting go of a firm financial base. "[I went from] from a place of security into a life of no guarantees," he says. "It's not for the faint of heart."

Levine's tenth novel, The Deep Blue Alibi (out this month), is the second in the Solomon Vs. Lord series. (The author is under contract with Bantam to write at least two more to round out the collection.) The Solomon books center on Steve Solomon, a graduate of Key West School of Law, and Victoria Lord, the brash newcomer assisting her local DA. They're a partnership of the Mulder-and-Scully variety, oil and water friends with opposing legal views and contradicting job techniques -- he makes his own rules; she follows the law to the letter. Their underlying respect for each other, however, sees them battling crooks and winning cases with equal amounts of energy and shrewdness. The Deep Blue Alibi finds the winsome duo struggling with their own motivations and judgments as Lord fights to clear the name of an ex-partner suspected of slaughtering an EPA official, and Solomon must dig deeper than he knows he should to discover the impetus for his father's suspension from the Florida judicial bench. Despite its serious tone, the book is laced with humor -- the constant banter between the main characters is crisp and entertaining -- and Levine does his utmost to create authentic situations in which to let his characters stew.

Levine, too, succeeds in bolstering his genre-stories by throwing in some curveballs. Solomon vs. Lord, for instance, opens with Steve and Victoria tossed in jail for contempt. The two demonstrate their differences immediately, but, like any wayward partnership, they eventually put aside their difference to defend a glamorous widow in a high-profile murder case.

Clearly, Levine's legal role has influenced his storytelling. But, which authors does he most admire -- surely a telling side effect of writing illness is a compulsion to read? "My influences change over time because my tastes change," he says. "John D. MacDonald has had a strong influence on me. I now really admire writers who are really different from me. I read their work and I think, 'Wow, how do they do that?' If you go back far enough, the writers I read as a teenager, such as Steinbeck, had a strong influence on me as well."

Levine quotes MacDonald when referring to various responses he's received from readers about the Solomon/Lord relationship. "[MacDonald said] 'writing is like dropping a feather down a well -- any echo is appreciated'. I'm getting a lot of echoes about the relationship between Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord because it really reflects a lot of what's going on in the workplace. People become [romantically] involved with their co-workers and then they have to figure out how to keep it professional during the day. It's that oil and water relationship."

The Solomon/Lord partnership may soon be made flesh if Levine's TV pitch to CBS for a series based on the books is green lit. Levine is no stranger to television writing having penned 60 episodes of CBS's JAG. While his JAG experience took him on some strange rides -- like placing him behind the wheel of a sub for a particularly fun episode of the show -- television work, he says, is incomparable to novel writing. "Working for TV is very different from writing a novel. If you write a book, it's just you. But if you're writing for TV, there's so many people involved, producers, directors, people who work for the network, sometimes even actors if they have enough clout, so about 200 sometimes. You have to continue rewriting based on what all of these other people want." Levine's book, 9 Scorpions served as the inspiration for a First Monday, short-lived CBS series in 2002, and his To Speak of the Dead became a miniseries for NBC in 1996 called Jake Lassiter: Justice on the Bayou. Levine will know after Christmas if Solomon Vs. Lord will take him back to TV writing.

Until then, Levine is enjoying the novelist-life. He remains prolific -- Kill All the Lawyers, the third Solomon/Lord book, hits shelves in August. His efficiency, he says, has much to do with making his own hours and writing when the fever hits without worrying about other job obligations. "I love being able to go to work without getting dressed or shaving. I can go to work in my underwear." Still, he says, the work is hard, but satisfying. Levine's LA lifestyle is a happy one. He enjoys traveling up and down the California coast with his wife, frequenting Farmer's Markets and visiting LA's old theatres.

The traveler in him, seeking and discovering wherever he goes, is as much a part of his social life as his professional one. With a boisterous laugh, Levine quotes screenwriter William Goldman: "Goldman had it right when he said about Hollywood, 'Nobody knows anything.' He meant studio executives and producers. But it applies to writers, too. We have no idea where our careers are going."

So far, though, so good. Levine is far from regretting his decision to quit law, but the oft-unstructured writer's life occasionally gives him pause. "There are still times when I wake up in the morning or before I go to sleep at night when I wonder if I've made a mistake," he says, noting that he has kept in very close touch with his former co-workers at his old firm, Morgan, Lewis and Bockius. "They have a pretty good life," he says, a little bit wistfully, as he relates tales of expensive business lunches at clubs with waiters in white gloves and stone crabs "when they're in season". "But, it's also a very shallow life for someone who has the writing illness -- I'm happy."

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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