Q&A with Jeanne Winer
What inspired you to write Her Kind of Case?
I was a criminal defense attorney for thirty-five years and wanted to describe what it feels like to take a high profile murder case where the evidence, at least initially, seems insurmountable and then persevere until you get the best result possible. How much work is involved, how much strategic thinking. Most books about lawyers don’t describe the emotional toll it takes to defend someone whose life is in your hands. And the books aren’t funny, even though criminal defense attorneys have an extremely well-developed, black sense of humor; without it, they’d burn out in three or four years. When I was much younger than Lee, I represented a teenage boy accused of helping a group of skinheads kick a man to death. I didn’t end up trying the case like Lee, but I did my best for him and kept him out of adult prison, which was a great result. I think I saved his life.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters?
Of course, but I have more friends than Lee.
Can you discuss how your experience as a criminal defense lawyer influenced the novel?
Because I know what it takes to successfully defend someone, I gave Lee many of the same skills that I had. I wanted the book to be realistic and borrowed heavily from my own experiences. For instance, the scene in which Lee accidentally spills water all over her colleague’s legal research during a critical motions hearing actually happened to me. After a thousand or so of these mortifying incidents, a criminal defense lawyer grows a thick skin and becomes adept at dealing with all the surprises that inevitably occur during a trial. Lee is a veteran trial lawyer; she’s paid her dues; she is very quick on her feet.
Can you discuss your writing process for Her Kind of Case?
Well, so far, my process for plotting a novel involves long tedious walks on the mesa outside Taos, New Mexico, where I tell myself a story every day and think it’s the one I want to write. But when I wake up the next morning, I realize it’s not, and then I go walking again and tell myself another story or a variation of another story, and this time I’m sure I have it. But when I wake up the following morning, I realize, yet again, I don’t. So I go back to walking. Every day, for a couple of weeks, until one morning I wake up and think Yes! That’s the story! Once I start writing, of course, the story changes, but I have to think I have the whole story before I start because otherwise I’m too scared. When the writing gods are looking favorably upon me, I write five days a week for about five or six hours, editing constantly instead of just writing a first draft. It’s a long tedious process, but I’m unwilling to consider a different way.
Tae Kwon Do is a large part of Lee’s life and powerful personality. What inspired you to have your main character be so active in this form of martial arts?
Tae Kwon Do was the great love of my life and I wanted to write about it. I practiced almost every day except when I was injured, which happened regularly because I loved to spar and didn’t care if my opponents were ten inches taller and outweighed me by sixty pounds. After forty years, my body asked me to please switch over to something gentler. So these days, I’m studying Tai Chi. But when I was lawyering and practicing karate, they felt so complementary, each one teaching me how to be better at the other. The qualities that make Lee a great martial artist—her speed, skill, experience, courage, and creativity—are, in my opinion, the same qualities that make her an outstanding attorney.
The novel features many wonderfully developed relationships between its characters. Were you inspired by your own friendships and relationships when writing about these characters?
When I was a public defender, I had a number of wonderful colleagues that kept me going: mentors who taught me, lawyers who inspired me, coworkers and investigators who helped me cope with an active caseload of 100+ felonies. For the last twenty years of private practice, I had a fabulous law partner, Curtis Ramsay, who shared my worldview and had a great dark sense of humor, which made practicing law less lonely. I also had, at different times, two longtime investigators, Eli Klein and Patti Mazal, who worked with me on my most serious cases. Like Carla, they were smart, funny, reliable, and generous. No good criminal defense attorney can do it by herself. As far as Mark and Bobby, I completely made them up, but their loyalty, kindness, and empathy are the kinds of qualities that I value in my friends.
Did you ever consider a different ending for Her Kind of Case?
For my first novel, yes, but not for this one. I always knew how it would end.
Would you consider writing a similar novel from the point of view of the prosecution?
Not in a million years, although I think I was pretty fair in my portrayal of the prosecutor in Her Kind of Case. Like Lee, I admired his skill and was very fond of him.
The novel focuses on LGBTQ+ themes. What made you decide to have the novel center around this hate crime? How has your work as a political activist influenced these themes in the novel?
When I was sixteen, I attended a ban the bomb rally in downtown Boston. After that, I was active in the anti-war movement, Students for a Democratic Society, women’s liberation, and in the LGBTQ movement. I came out as a lesbian in my early twenties. It was my political activism that led me to become a criminal defense attorney. I loved defending people, saving them in any way I could. It just felt right. In the early nineties, I was honored to be one of the two lead trial attorneys in Romer v. Evans, a landmark civil rights case that successfully challenged a voter-approved amendment to the Colorado Constitution that would have struck down state and local laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The case ended up in the United States Supreme Court and helped pave the way for the Obergefell decision in 2015, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. When I started work on Her Kind of Case, I knew that my heroine would be a strong feminist. I also wanted to tackle the twin issues of homophobia and religious intolerance.
Various passages are difficult to read due to the gruesome nature of the hate crime. As a former defense attorney, were you able to become familiarized with moments like these?
Unfortunately yes. During the thirty-five years that I practiced, I represented a woman accused of stabbing her father to death with a pair of scissors, a teenager accused of helping a group of skinheads kick a man to death, a number of creepy serial rapists, a burglar accused of stabbing an older woman to death in her bed, a janitor accused of raping an elderly woman in a nursing home, a man accused of drugging and beating a two-year old to death, a woman accused of doing nothing to stop her husband from torturing their infant, and so on and so forth.
Lee believes in her client’s innocence, but that is not always the case for a defense attorney. Can you discuss what it is like to defend a client you know is guilty?
There’s no real difference between defending someone I think is innocent and someone I know is guilty. But most lawyers, including me, would say that it’s harder to defend an innocent person if only because it has to turn out right. When I knew my clients were guilty, I did everything humanly possible to get them acquitted or to work out the most favorable plea bargain possible. That was my job. A criminal defense attorney takes an oath to zealously represent her client. If you can’t do that, don’t be a criminal defense attorney. All people in the United States accused of a crime are presumed to be innocent. In a criminal trial, it’s up to the prosecutor to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; if the prosecutor can’t, the defendant must be found not guilty.
Throughout Her Kind of Case, Lee Isaacs is pretty concerned about turning 60. What made you decide to focus on an older protagonist?
There are plenty of books about younger lawyers, but not that many about older ones. Toward the end of my career, I often felt like Lee. I had a lot of pride in my work and couldn’t stand the idea of not being as good as I was at my peak. Of course, as the years went by, my skill set changed and my experience made up for many of the things I was losing, such as my speed, energy, and stamina. Still, like Lee, I wondered about the optimal time to quit. Nobody wants to be the excellent trial attorney who stays too long and makes a bad mistake, which ruins her reputation. Luckily, as soon as I noticed that the party was winding down, I didn’t linger; I grabbed my coat, thanked my hosts, and left.
Can you discuss Lee’s relationship with Paul? Was it important to you that Lee would be able to relate to Jeremy’s grief?
I wanted Lee to be a strong, self-reliant woman whose husband had died. When I thought about who she was, it made sense that she would have married someone just as strong and independent as she was. As I walked on the mesa, I also decided he would be bi-sexual and that his two best friends—now Lee’s—would be gay. When I thought about how I could get Lee and Jeremy to connect, I figured that if Lee could open up about her husband’s accident and how she felt about it, Jeremy (despite his grief and self-absorption) might be able to relate. In the first couple of drafts, however, Lee was quite resistant; she didn’t want to make herself that vulnerable. Ultimately, Jeremy had to insist. In every criminal case I took, I always tried to find something about my client that I could relate to, something we might have in common. The goal was always to get my client to trust me enough to take my advice, even if it meant agreeing to go to prison for a very long time.
Can you discuss what it is like to be a female in the profession of a criminal defense attorney? Did your experience influence your characterization of Lee?
Women are especially well suited to being criminal defense attorneys. We are just as savvy as men when it comes to lawyering, but we might have a leg up when it comes to connecting with our clients and getting them to not only trust us, but to understand exactly what they have to do in order to comply with all of the rules and demands that will inevitably—unless they are completely acquitted—be imposed on them. As a female criminal defense attorney, whenever I was faced with sexism, I either willfully ignored it or tried to somehow use it to my advantage. Lee handles it the same way.
Are there any authors that inspire you as a writer? Any novels? Did these have influence in the way you chose to write Her Kind of Case?
As a writer, I am in awe of Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Michael Ondaatje, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and (although I hate to admit it because he was such a schmuck) Ernest Hemingway. I loved all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and all of Jane Austen’s. I especially loved The Blind Assassin, The Hours, Anil’s Ghost, and The Sun Also Rises. None of these novels influenced the way I wrote Her Kind of Case, except that I wish I were—and keep trying to be—a better writer.
Will Jeremy and Lee keep in touch after the trial?
Definitely. I actually wrote an epilogue that makes that clear, but agreed with my publisher to cut it from the final version. It’s a better book without it.
Would you ever be willing to spar against Lee?
When I was still practicing regularly, I would have loved to, but she would have almost certainly dominated the fight. Not only is she a fifth-degree black belt with formidable skills, she’s also eight inches taller.
Could you see yourself writing a sequel for Her Kind of Case?
Possibly yes, especially if the reviewer for Publishers Weekly dies in the meantime.
It’s a Saturday night. Would you rather be at the bar with Carla or enjoying a glass of wine with Mark and Bobby?
What do you think?