Author and lawyer Jay Brandon writes mysteries, but don’t call him a mystery writer. There’s more to his books than that. His latest work, Executive Privilege, is a divorce-law novel that turns the White House into a broken home. Read on to learn more about Jay Brandon and his legal thrillers.
texasmonthly.com: Do you consider yourself first and foremost an author, or a lawyer?
Jay Brandon: Being a writer and a lawyer are similar in that both shape your thinking. Writers constantly observe, make connections and wonder, “What would happen if…,” even when not writing. Likewise, lawyers continue to analyze situations and look for details outside the courtroom. Lately I spend more time practicing law than writing, but I always have a book in progress, and, in a way, I’m always doing both.
texasmonthly.com: When did you begin writing?
JB: I began writing in elementary school, when I was about ten. My first stories featured my friends and me traveling to other planets, going to haunted houses and having adventures. It was the most fun I had, so I kept at it.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of law do you practice?
JB: I practice family law, which includes divorce, adoption, and child custody issues. It’s the most emotional type of law, much more so than criminal law. It’s more dangerous too. When you hear about a lawyer getting shot in this country, it’s usually in a family-law case.
texasmonthly.com: How much of your own law practice shows up in your novels? Are your stories and characters inspired by real people and situations?
JB: Sometimes being in the courthouse gives me an idea for a detail, or for a way a hearing might go in one of my fictional courtrooms. But I never base a novel on a specific real-life case or person. It’s more fun to invent them.
texasmonthly.com: In your books, do you try to convey your thoughts about the justice system?
JB: Sure, I can’t help slipping a little philosophy into my novels, even if it’s only in the way the characters approach a case. When I first started writing legal fiction, I was more overt. I remember a lot of response to a paragraph in my first legal thriller, Fade the Heat. The paragraph, said by a veteran trial lawyer, began, “I hate juries.”
texasmonthly.com: Your new book, Executive Privilege, is being featured at the Texas Book Festival. What can readers expect from this one?
JB: I think Executive Privilege is a departure for me and for the whole legal-thriller field. Legal thrillers are nearly always about crimes. But as I said above, after practicing family law for a while, I realized those are the really emotional cases. So I decided to write what I believe is the first divorce-law thriller. And just to raise the stakes as much as possible, I made the person wanting a divorce the First Lady of the United States. She has an eight-year-old son, and both of them know things the President doesn’t want to become general knowledge. This one was really fun to write.
texasmonthly.com: Are all of your books set in Texas?
JB: The first suspense novel I wrote (Tripwire, 1987) took place in Baltimore, where I lived while I was in graduate school, and in a small town in Ohio (a state in which I’ve never been). My latest has scenes in Washington, Virginia, Maryland, and on the road through America, but also a lot in San Antonio. All the novels in between have been set entirely in Texas, sometimes in San Antonio, sometimes in fictional towns. I use real settings a lot, but I make them my own. For example, I wrote a scene that took place in the private-party room of a popular restaurant in San Antonio. In reality, the restaurant does not have a private-party room.
texasmonthly.com: You write mystery novels. Have you ever considered exploring a new genre?
JB: The reality of publishing is that once a writer has achieved some success in a particular genre, publishers want only that genre from that writer. I used to feel trapped in the mystery field, and particularly in the legal-thriller sub-genre. Then a few years ago, I realized I can write about anything that interests me, within this context. And I have: sex, death, love, race, family. The only thing that bothers me now is being categorized as a mystery writer by some readers, booksellers, and reviewers. One writer I know complains about being considered a mystery writer, calling mysteries, “the trailer park of fiction.” Another mystery-writer friend of mine answers, “Yes, but I’ve just gotten to the point where I can afford a nice double-wide.”
texasmonthly.com: What kind of books do you read for fun?
JB: “Read for fun.” What a bizarre concept. Probably the saddest thing about becoming a writer is that it, partially at least, destroys the pleasure of reading. And reading is what drew us all into writing in the first place. I’ve become so critical as a reader that I can hardly read in my own field at all. What I most enjoy is discovering writers I never read or didn’t appreciate in my years of school. For example, I had to read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome in high school and, of course, hated it. But in recent years I’ve discovered her society novels and loved them. I had the same experience in rereading Great Expectations. I have to add that for pure reading pleasure, I don’t think I’ve found anything better than the novels of Donald Westlake.
texasmonthly.com: What projects are you currently working on? Any thoughts of turning one of your thrillers into a movie?
JB: My next novel, Sliver Moon, is finished and ready to be published next spring. Isn’t that a great atmospheric title? Unfortunately, people seeing it on the page read it as Silver Moon, and it looks like a romance novel. But that may not be a bad thing. It involves my continuing characters, Chris Sinclair and Anne Greenwald, in a murder trial that casts them in unusual roles and includes Texas politics. Great villain, too.
I have no interest in turning one of my novels into a screenplay. Been there. However, I did recently write an original screenplay for which I have high hopes. Completely unlike my novels, this is a teenage-girls-slumber-party-action-adventure-with-humor movie. Not a slasher flick, I hasten to add. Something for everybody.