CHM: Robert, my goodness, you’ve done it again with Between Black and White. Great story, great characters, authentic sense of place, edge-of-the-chair pacing and a completely surprising ending. So I have to ask to start by asking—the old writers’ adage of “write what you know” is no doubt in play here with the Deep South setting and in the legal proceedings. But what about the story? Did some real life event inspire this story?
RB: Not exactly. During a difficult day of revisions with The Professor, the idea for Between Black and White just popped into my head: five year old boy witnesses his father murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and vows to bring the killers to justice. I spent some early years of childhood in Fayetteville, Tennessee, which is just twenty minutes from Pulaski, so I was familiar with Pulaski and its history and it seemed like a natural and explosive setting for this story.
CHM: You have such strong and engaging characters. Tom McMurtrie, the steady, older law professor turned litigator, and his young, volatile partner, Rick Drake, dominate The Professor and both come back strong in Between Black and White. But this second book is really Bocephus Haynes’s story. Your readers were introduced to him in The Professor but we really get to know him in Between Black and White. Bocephus jumps off the pages, so big and so real. Where did Bocephus come from? Sheer imagination? Some news story you read? Someone you knew in law school? A composite of all the above. Or what?
RB: Of all my characters, Bocephus Haynes is the most fictional. He is a product of sheer imagination. In some ways, this has made Bo the most fun character to explore, because I am literally making things up as I go with him.
CHM: In my opinion, one of the hardest things about writing a legal mystery or thriller is keeping the legal proceedings authentic, yet interesting and not bogged down in the endless tedium and details that actually go into legal work. You do quite well in that regard. How did you manage to strike that delicate balance?
RB: My first drafts are typically too long and contain too much legal jargon. One of the major things I do during revisions is trim or cut entirely the parts of the narrative that I deem “boring.” My wife, Dixie, is normally my first reader and I will rely on her to tell me where in the manuscript she is getting bogged down, and nine out of ten times, I will end up trimming or cutting that part.
In The Professor, this led to cutting out a lot of the legalese dealing with trucking regulations and jury selection. With Between Black and White, I ended up streamlining some of the criminal process, i.e. preliminary hearing to grand jury to indictment to arraignment to trial, so that we could get to trial quicker.
CHM: Another difficult task—again in my opinion—about writing a legal drama is to keep up the suspense. To paraphrase editor Heather Whitaker, the ending must be both a surprise and yet, conversely, seem inevitable—which is hard to pull off. Readers of legal thrillers (and Perry Mason fans) have come to expect the criminal defendant will usually get off (To Kill a Mockingbird being one famous exception). So the suspense has to come from not “does he get off?” but “how does he get off?” The real villain has to be in play all along, yet his or her role as the ultimate criminal must still be a surprise.
Given that, it’s hard to keep the readers guessing as to the ending. Yet you do this exceptionally well by throwing a humdinger of a twist at the end. Without giving us any hints as to that ending, can you share how you structured the story to arrive at that conclusion?
RB: I started this story with a clear beginning and a pretty good idea of how I wanted the book to end. I wanted the ending to be a surprise, so I purposely planted some red herrings along the way. I did not outline during the first draft. However, before starting the second draft, I did use outlining to narrow the focus and get rid of storylines and passages that I didn’t need.
CHM: To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, no doubt, and Atticus Finch inspired many youngsters to want to become a lawyer. Yet it rarely seems labeled as a legal thriller. For example, Goodreads’ Listopia compilation of the “Best Legal Thrillers” does not list it, while it lists The Professor, your debut novel, as 5th on the list of the best. The classic elements of a legal thriller are there, though, in Mockingbird—the wrongfully prosecuted defendants, heavy odds stacked against the defendant, the noble lawyer, the clash of justice and injustice, and the threat of danger. Do you consider To Kill a Mockingbird a legal thriller? And did it inspire you either to go to law school or write legal thrillers?
RB: Yes and yes. I consider To Kill a Mockingbird to be a legal thriller, though it does almost seem demeaning to try to pigeonhole such a classic slice of Americana into a genre. However, as you suggest, all of the elements of a legal thriller are present, and you have one of the great protagonists in American literature, Atticus Finch, as your lead lawyer. Harper Lee’s gem inspired me and countless others to go to law school. In fact, I think every aspiring lawyer secretly wants to be Atticus Finch.
CHM: You are a practicing attorney in Huntsville, Alabama, and a partner in the firm of Lanier Ford. Having been a lawyer myself, I know how all consuming the practice of law is—especially trial work. How ever do you find the time to write, practice law, and be a family man too?
RB: I do most of my writing in the early morning hours while the kids are still asleep and before my work day as a lawyer begins. This has become a habit for me no different from brushing teeth, which has taken a lot of the stress out of it. I write in the mornings, and then I go about the rest of my day. However, during trial and preparation for trial, I set aside the writing completely and focus only on the trial.
CHM: How have your partners and other attorneys in Huntsville reacted to your success with The Professor?
RB: Everyone has been universally supportive and happy for me. I am blessed to be part of a law firm with a familial atmosphere where everyone gets along well and pulls for each other. The legal community of Huntsville has also been very supportive, helping me to promote my book.
CHM: Renowned Alabama football Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant” appears as a person in The Professor and as a legend and motivating force in Between Black and White. Bocephus and Tom both played football for The Bear, and both recall The Bear’s words in times of stress, and draw strength from his memory. I gather then you’re a huge fan of The Bear. How has he influenced you? And why do you think he remains such an iconic figure?
RB: Growing up in Alabama as a child in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I saw Coach Bryant almost as a religious figure. I was inundated with stories of “the Bear” and his teams. I joke at book clubs that my Batman and Superman growing up were Joe Namath and Lee Roy Jordan. There is also the impact he had on his players. One of the most gratifying parts of this journey for me was meeting and speaking with Lee Roy Jordan, the great middle linebacker on Coach Bryant’s 1961 National Championship team, who makes a cameo in The Professor. Lee Roy told me that there wasn’t a day that goes by that he didn’t think about Coach Bryant. Not a single day. So, when writing the characters of Tom and Bo, I wanted to show the impact Coach Bryant had on their lives too.
As for his continuing relevance and stature, it is a testament to “the Man,” as Tom and Bo refer to him, that his shadow still looms so large. When you think “legend” in college football, it is hard not to visualize Coach Bryant, wearing his trademark houndstooth hat and leaning against the goal post, watching his team warm up.
CHM: You write like a professional who has been at the craft for a long time. Yet Between Black and White is only your second novel. The Professor, your debut, has been well reviewed and was equally well written. Have you ever taken creative writing courses? If yes, would you mind sharing where you studied creative writing?
RB: I took a creative writing class at Davidson College during my senior year. We wrote four short stories, and the critiques I received were mostly positive. It was definitely a confidence builder and a whole lot of fun. Though that is the only official instruction I have ever received on creative writing, I did read Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, just before I began the first draft of The Professor. There is a lot of great advice in King’s book, which has a section devoted to the craft. King’s simple commandment to “Read a lot, write a lot,” is the single best advice I have ever received as a writer.
CHM: In both The Professor and Between Black and White, one of the dominant lawyers is Tom McMurtrie, Bocephus’s former professor at the University of Alabama Law School, and the first lawyer Bocephus thinks of when he is arrested for murder. Yet, in contrast to many legal thrillers, Tom is not a young man. I couldn’t really think of another legal thriller where the lead trial attorney is pushing 70. So your books are unique in that way. That leads me to ask what your thought processes were in choosing Tom? And if you had any resistance to this choice from your publisher?
RB: I have been fortunate to have no resistance from my publisher regarding Tom’s age. I can’t say I thought much about his age when writing the story. I wanted to tell a story about a legendary law professor who comes back to the courtroom after years in the classroom, and his age seemed to fit with that theme.
CHM: Is there a third manuscript in the works? And Will Bocephus, Tom and Rick Drake reappear?
RB: Yes. I am about forty pages into my third book in the McMurtrie & Drake series. The working title is “The District Attorney,” and the story will pit Tom and Rick against their old friend, Powell Conrad, the newly elected district attorney of Tuscaloosa County, in a murder case with ties all the way to the Governor’s mansion. This story will bring back Wilma Newton, the trucker’s widow from The Professor, and Bocephus Haynes will also play a role.
CHM: Excellent, I look forward to it. And thank you, Robert, for your time and answers.