Today we're talking with Barbara Levenson, author of Fatal February
FQ: What made you decide to be a fiction writer?
This was all part of my multi-career life, or ‘what I will be when I grow up.’ Besides serving as a judge, I have been a homemaker, school board member, prosecutor and, defense attorney. I always wanted to write, but other careers got in the way. When I took senior status, I was finally able to have the time to devote to the writing I hoped one day to do. Of course, giving opening and closing arguments in a trial is really story-telling ‘fodder’ to an audience. If you can hold the attention of a jury, that’s a sign that you can involve readers in works of fiction.
FQ: Do you have any tips on how an author can receive help from police officers, forensic specialists, etc.?
Recently, I wrote a guest blog for writers outlining a variety of steps to assist authors who are not part of the justice system. Basically, my advice is to pick a trial in your local courthouse and sit through it from beginning to end. Witness testimony will include experts in many fields. Follow up by contacting them with your questions. Second, find an interesting attorney and ask to shadow them for a few days. Most attorneys will be flattered, especially if you promise to name them in your novel. Police departments are willing to allow citizens to ride on a shift with a patrol officer. All of these “live” research areas are much more fun than sitting in front of a computer reading Wikipedia.
FQ: You write about the Women’s Annex in a very detailed way – is this a real location?
Yes, it is the jail for women awaiting court proceedings and for women sentenced to less than one year. It sits in a high crime area. The personnel at the annex do a very good job of working with the women housed there. Women charged criminally have different problems than male inmates. Many women have been abused by, and involved in crimes by their boyfriends. Many have had little access to education or developing job skills, so counseling is important. I helped start a program for job training at the annex during the time when funds for “people programs” was not a dirty word in state legislatures.
FQ: You have worked in civil rights and criminal defense. Do you personally believe there are a lot of not guilty people currently behind bars?
I don’t know if there are “a lot,” but there are certainly some. Many wrongful convictions stem from mistaken eye-witness testimony. I had a personal experience of being held up at gun point. I told the officers who took the report that I couldn’t begin to make an identification. In the two or three minute encounter, I concentrated on the gun and getting away. It’s terribly difficult to pick someone from a photo lineup. That is the method used 99% of the time. Sometimes poorly trained police make suggestions to the victim, or say that the person is definitely in this array, so the victim feels obligated to pick someone. When the perpetrator runs from the scene, an innocent person in the area who might resemble the perpetrator may be arrested. It is still hard for white people to differentiate between blacks with similar builds. The same is true for blacks trying to identify white people with the same color hair. Hopefully, we will see less of this in the next generation of students who go to school with multi-ethnic populations.
FQ: The newspapers and the media are the true judges and juries lately, as we all see when we turn on TV. Do you have a great deal of trouble with this in Miami?
This is a national problem, because we are all exposed to the same national cable programming along with internet sites. The most recent case in point was the Casey Anthony case. I appeared on one of the programs as a guest commentator and kept my remarks low-key in an attempt to explain a judge’s thought process in granting or denying motions. This was not what the anchor wanted. At the end of the trial, the defense attorneys admonished the reality programs for their outrageous behavior, but as long as the public keeps the ratings high, TV will continue to hype such cases. The responsible cure is to sequester jurors, so they can do their work unimpeded by the part of the media that is not about reporting.
FQ: I love Sam in the book. Can you give readers a little bit of background on your breeding and care of German Shepherds?
My husband and I bred and showed German Shepherds for twenty years. We had thirteen litters and finished eleven champions in the show ring. I have always had a dog from the time I was three years old. Sam’s antics come straight from my own dog experiences. German Shepherds, in particular, are smart and make great companions. We found that the older dogs taught the younger dogs house training and social skills. The brood “b***h” is kept separate from the other dogs in the house. She remains in the whelping room with the pups until they are about three weeks old. When they are allowed in the yard for the first time, she walks them around the perimeter of the fence showing them all the special places. It is so interesting to watch the care and training of the litter and makes our job easier. We retired from active breeding and showing a few years ago and, in the last two years our last male champion died and we lost our last female of our own breeding. We still have one male shepherd who we rescued from a shelter. He is a joy, smart and loving. Hopefully, we will find a female to add to our family.
FQ: Miami in this book is one of the real stars. Can you tell readers a little about the culture and locations? Such as the world of Coconut Grove, the art shows, and the mix of Anglo/Hispanic culture?
Miami is meant to be a main character. I set out to show readers the real Miami, not the South Beach touristy club scene. Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, and Pinecrest are all real suburbs in South Dade County. This is not the area that most tourists visit which is a shame because it is a beautiful area with lush blossoming trees and shrubs. I wanted readers to know that Miamians do everything people in Cleveland or Des Moines do. We go to work, raise our kids, buy groceries - we just do it in great weather.
February is the most beautiful month, with temperatures in the seventies and sixties. Outdoor art shows take place almost every weekend, and farmers markets are every weekend too. Fresh strawberries, corn, and tomatoes are grown in far south Dade County and come fresh to markets at this time of year. In contrast, Justice In June, the second book in the series, takes place in the rainiest month of the year and rain plays a constant role in the book. As the protagonist, Mary tells us, it’s great for your skin and crap for your hair! The culture of Miami is such a mixture that everyone is a minority.
Twenty-seven or more languages are original languages of students in the public schools. Life is never boring. Each culture has added to the mosaic. Mary Magruder Katz is typical of the melting pot that begins in the wedding chapel. She is the daughter of a Jewish father and Southern Baptist mother. Our differences make us appreciate additions to our rich patchwork quilt that is Miami.
FQ: You mention “Moe and Curly”- people who sit in courtrooms all day as if it were their career. Is that true? Have you come across a Moe or Curly while on the bench?
It’s absolutely true. There are retired people who love to wander the courthouse. They will sit through mundane trials and watch new young prosecutors and public defenders trying their wings as litigators and watch their progress. We even had a bag lady who we believe lived in the courthouse. When I was a defense attorney, she watched all of my closing arguments and gave me her “critique.” Once she was arrested for loitering. She came to court with an army of defense attorneys who weren’t about to let her be convicted!
FQ: Is there another Mary Katz Mystery in the works?
Yes, the third book, Outrageous October takes Mary to a mysterious Vermont village after a breakup (temporary) with Carlos, her “hottie” Latin boyfriend. Northern New England is a character in the book as Mary discovers there is murder in the air whereever she goes. The fourth book, Notorious November brings Mary back to Miami to new cases and more great romance.