By Pamela Burke
We all know the Marcia Clark of the O. J. “Trial of the Century” media extravaganza. Because of her role in that high-profile case, The New Yorker called her “The Most Famous Prosecutor in American History.” She won 19 out of 20 murder trials, just not “that” one.
“I went into court every day trying to win it. It didn’t happen. The fact that I survived it shows me what you can live through.”
But did you know that because of her love for reading mysteries since age nine, she decided to become a crime novelist? Her first who-done-it, “Guilt by Association,” is out, and has been called “a triumphant fiction debut,” and a “corker” of a novel.
We wanted to know what had become of Marcia since the trial and her many appearances as a commentator on television. Recently we got the chance to hear her speak at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Ca.
It was a sold-out crowd, and her message was fascinating, fun, and one of reinvention. She shared her story recently on our Women’s Eye Radio Show in a conversation with Stacey Gualandi. Here is some of what she had to say…
EYE: So nice to talk to “that Marcia Clark.” I think it’s so funny that that’s your actual twitter ID.
MARCIA: I didn’t think of it. I tried to use my actual name, but somebody was already using it. So the publicist at Little, Brown said use “thatmarciaclark,” and it made me laugh so hard that I said that’s worth it.
EYE: Yes, you are the one and only. What is an attorney like you doing writing mystery novels? Is this been something brewing in you for years?
MARCIA: Yes, I loved murder mysteries since I was a little kid. I was a big Nancy Drew fan. Those books were wonderful. They were the coolest thing ever. I chewed through them like they were tic tacs. I loved them always.
I’m addicted to mysteries. I love James Ellroy and watching “Law and Order.” Even as a prosecutor, and I say this embarrassingly, I never stopped reading mystery thrillers. You’d think I’d get enough of that at work.
I always wanted to write, but I never really had the confidence to try. After I finished writing the book about the trial, I said I love this so much that I really want to write fiction. It still took me a long time to do it.
It was one of those weird quirks of fate that got me going. I wound up as a legal consultant on a drama for LIFETIME. That started me writing scripts. Two years later I decided it was time to do what I really wanted to do, but there was a huge fear factor.
EYE: You were writing from something you know. You have so many cases to pull from for a character like Rachel Knight, the star of your book. But to do this you have to use your imagination and facts. Does this show that we can reinvent ourselves and follow our passions?
MARCIA: I think so. It’s been my theory for a long time now that we live so long now that the idea that we can stick with one career our whole life is not realistic. What we’re interested in and fascinated by in our twenties is bound to change, maybe not for some, but for most of us.
We do go through these stages in our lives where by our forties and fifties we have different interests. We say to ourselves that there are other things we’d really like to do.
“I left reluctantly for so many reasons, but it was time to move on…”
EYE: You survived the “Trial of the Century.” Was it possible that you were exhausted by that profession after that trial?
MARCIA: I wasn’t though. The funny thing was that I loved prosecuting. I left very reluctantly for so many reasons, but it was time to move on and do something different. And I wasn’t even sure what it was.
I just knew it was time to go. But it wasn’t like I can’t wait to run out, I’m tired of this. I ran out of all of my overtime and vacation time which had been considerable. They called me from the office and said what are you going to do? I said that I didn’t know. They said, “Are you kidding me?” because by then I was doing the lecture circuit. “Why would you come back?” was their comment. I said I’m not that happy to leave, but it really was time to go.
EYE: The “Trial of the Century” opened the doors in so many ways. You became a commentator, did many television shows and consulted on television movies. Did you think you could ever put the O. J. saga behind you?
MARCIA: I think I was hopeful. But I haven’t in the real sense of the word. It comes up wherever I go. I think it always will.
It was such a big event that I was a part of it that would be unrealistic to think it ever would go away.
EYE: What feelings have stayed with you from that experience? What did you learn about yourself?
MARCIA: What a good question. I think I did learn that I am pretty tenacious. That case was a toughie right from beginning which I didn’t initially expect it would be. Pretty quickly we realized that it was a case that might be unwinnable.
In fact there was a big meeting long before we picked the jury in which the district attorney told the families that the chances of our winning the case were virtually nil and that if we were very lucky we might get to hang it. That’s a tough thing to start out with. I felt I wanted to prove them wrong.
I went into court every day trying to win it. It didn’t happen. The fact that I survived it shows me what you can live through.
“I set out to create someone cooler, smarter, and younger than me.”
EYE: Are you like the character of Rachel Knight? And is there a bit of Marcia Clark in this book?
MARCIA: It was not intentionally. She is a toughie. But they say you always end up writing about yourself whether it’s intentional or not. Armistead Maupin, who wrote “Tales of the City,” said that all these characters are me.
I think he’s right about that. There’s a piece of every author in every character. There’s no such thing as being able to write a character where there’s no point of convergence.
I set out to create someone better than me. It’s boring to be me. But like Rachel, I never can resist a crime scene. However, I set out to create someone cooler, smarter, and younger than me. She has a way more exciting life. She never does dishes. She lives in a great hotel which I did on purpose because isn’t it more fun?
“It was an incredible amount of work. The first three efforts went into the fireplace.”
EYE: The book is out there now. But the process of putting it together was not easy. It went through several incarnations, didn’t it?
MARCIA: When I first sat down to write a book, it was 2006. Then I thought that I’m just going to sit down and write a book. It’s fun to look back at the stupid things we say and think and do. I have so many of them.
It was an incredible amount of work. The first three efforts went into the fireplace. I said, “That’s trash! Start again!” In the book just before the one you see, I had an agent whose assistant worked with me to edit it, and through that process I learned what I was doing wrong.
That last one though was the biggest epiphany because while they were giving me notes, I began to see that I actually knew how to fix it. That’s when I acquired an opinion of my own. I threw that book away and started all over again, and that next book was “Guilt by Association.”
EYE: Tell us what this book is about and what perhaps you’re pulling from your own personal life?
MARCIA: The stories are completely figments of my imagination and not from real cases, but ideas for characters kind of did. The story begins with Rachel Knight who is a special trials prosecutor. I will explain.
I spent the last ten years in the Special Trials unit. When I first began, that unit had five people in it. It was all the old war horses and me. We handled all the high-profile cases regardless of where the crime occurred. Because they were complicated cases, we would start working with the detectives from literally the day they found the body.
It was as much investigation as trial work, interviewing witnesses, going to crime scenes, looking for evidence, working with lab, the kind of thing most prosecutors never get to do because they get their file on the way to the court room.
“Detectives are some of the funniest people I’ve ever met. If you don’t have a sense of humor, you’d probably go crazy.”
EYE: You were getting the case from the ground running. It would make a great TV show!
MARCIA: That’s the difference between Special Trials and regular cases. You see Rachel out in the field with her best friend, Detective Bailey Keller, who is in the robbery homicide division. They end up working with special prosecutors a lot.
The book opens with Rachel walking back to the Biltmore Hotel where she’s staying. They hear sirens and a lot of hoopla for the downtown area where the crime doesn’t usually merit that kind of response. There are helicopters, ambulances, and firetrucks. She goes up to investigate but winds up seeing one of her dear friends dead in a hotel room, his body next to a 15-year-old male prostitute.
So the book involves murder, child prostitution, a lot of street crime and a lot of fun. The one thing that I think people don’t know is that it’s a heavy job and a hard job, but there’s a lot of camaraderie.
EYE: Do you have a true sense of justice just like your hero?
MARCIA: Yes, I think that I do, and I’ve worked on both sides. I think it gives me a balanced view of things. Having worked in the field for so long, it’s a more dispassionate view. I’m less likely to be swayed by a popularity contest in the courtroom but much more on the facts and the evidence.
It does give me a different perspective on things. It helped me with my second book, “Guilt by Degrees,” which is the continuation of Rachel Knight character which I hope will be a long series. It will be out roughly in April of next year.
“I wanted to be a defense attorney from the time I started law school.”
EYE: What happened when you worked for the defense? I don’t think a lot of people know that you started out as a defense attorney before going over to the other side.
MARCIA: I never thought I’d be a prosecutor. I was a rebel without a clue. I was never going to work for “the man.” I wanted to be a defense attorney from the time I started law school.
I actually started working as one. It got to a point where I was defending drug cases, and I could wrap myself in the fourth amendment, but then we hit the violent crime.
When I started working on cases with defendants who committed murder and attempted murder, I felt very differently about defending. My feeling was that I wanted to take care of the victims. When I realized that I was not going to be as effective as I could be as a defense attorney, I said, ” I gotta go.”
EYE: When you talk about the defense, I think of “The Dream Team.” You mentioned at Book Passage that you still feel a little guilty about the verdict on the O. J. trial? Do you still feel that?
MARCIA: I felt badly about it. I’m not sure what the right word is. It’s not guilty. Guilty would imply that I didn’t work as hard as I could have. That wouldn’t be true. I really feel that I gave it my all to that case.
I don’t feel guilty. I certainly feel horrible about the way it turned out. That will never change.
EYE: Did you learn any lessons?
MARCIA: I learned that prosecutors are not omnipotent. There is such a thing as forces that will overcome your greatest efforts no matter how hard you try and no matter how much evidence you put out there.
At the end of the day, a case can be ruined by forces beyond your control. Certainly there were many of them in that case. Then I look at some of the people who were criticizing the Casey Anthony prosecutors.
EYE: I watched a lot of your reporting on that case and wanted to ask whether justice was really served.
MARCIA: The Casey Anthony case involved far fewer of those huge obstacles that you saw in the Simpson case of race and celebrity. However, it had enough to make a jury take what was very obvious evidence of guilt, at least of aggravated child abuse, maybe not homicide.
I wouldn’t have faulted them had they come back with a degree lesser than homicide but to throw it all out was to me evidence of the fact that there are emotional issues that come into play that can really make a jury go sideways on you.
“Most of the juries get it right, not always for the right reason, but generally they do.”
EYE: So what should we do about the jury system? Should we just get rid of it?
MARCIA: No, we can’t get rid of it. Currently I’m doing court-appointed appellate work of cases across the state of California, so I get a real breadth of experience because of all the different kinds of cases that come in.
That makes the Casey Anthony verdict even more difficult to understand having handled cases myself where there was so much less evidence, cases where there was no body found yet the jury had no problem with a conviction. That tells you how strange the Casey Anthony verdict was.
Most of the juries get it right, not always for the right reason, but generally speaking they do. Sequestering juries is a big mistake. I don’t think it ever works. It’s cruel and unusual punishment. I wrote a piece about it for the Daily Beast. Jurors lose their balance when they are holed up in a hotel. They become resentful.
“I would be a different person today if not for that experience.”
EYE: Was it better to have prosecuted O. J. Simpson or not to have prosecuted him at all?
MARCIA: Do you mean do I wish I had called in sick that day? I don’t know how to answer that.
I suppose in this life we have to be grateful for all experiences that teach us something, teach us about ourselves, others, about the world. To have had the ability to learn it in the front row even as painful and horrible as it was, I guess it’s part of living. I would be a different person today if not for that experience.
EYE: Is that your legacy?
MARCIA: In part. For all of us who were involved in the trial, it will always be our legacy. There will never be a way of separating ourselves from the trial because it was such a big event.
Hopefully added to that legacy will be novelist, the Rachel Knight series, “Guilt by Association” and the fun that people get from reading a book where you love the characters and have a great time.
EYE: Thanks so much Marcia, and good luck on Book 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Top Photo Credit: Claudia Kunin