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.

"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."


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