An Interview with Pamela Wechsler, Author of Mission Hill

MissionHillPamela Wechsler’s first novel, Mission Hill, the first in a series of three legal thrillers featuring homicide prosecutor and Boston Brahmin Abby Endicott, comes out on May 3rd.

Publishers Weekly writes about Mission Hill, “Though the swiftly moving plot offers plenty of surprises, it’s the realism with which the author, a seasoned Boston criminal prosecutor who’s now a legal consultant for TV shows, depicts varied worlds from Brahmin glitzy to Roxbury gritty that will make readers eager for Abby’s next adventure.” Boston Magazine calls it “…a Boston crime series to join the pantheon of Spenser and Patrick Kenzie.”

Pamela Wechsler grew up in the Boston area and spent seventeen years as a prosecutor at the local, state and federal levels. Over the course of her career, she investigated and prosecuted hundreds of cases, ranging from first-degree murder and sexual assault, to elections fraud and stock market manipulation. Pam was living in Washington DC, working as a trial attorney for the US Department of Justice, when she decided to take a break from criminal prosecution. She moved to Los Angeles, where she spent seven years as a writer and legal consultant for network television shows, including: Law & Order; Law & Order: Criminal Intent; Law & Order: Trial by Jury; Conviction; and Canterbury’s Law. She returned to Boston and rejoined a District Attorney’s Office for a couple of years, until she was contacted by producers for The Judge, a movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. Pam became the film’s on-set legal advisor, and it was there that Academy Award winning writer Billy Bob Thornton suggested that she write the novel that became Mission Hill. Pam is a graduate of Tufts University and Boston University School of Law.

Pamela will be reading from Mission Hill at Harvard Book Store on Thursday, May 12 at 7:00 pm. She will also be featured with Louise Miller and Jennifer S. Brown at the next Craft on Draft event, titled A Hard Day’s Work: The Working Lives of Characters at Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston on October 4th. For more events and information, visit Pamela’s author website at pamelawechsler.com

DeadDarlings: Can you talk a little about your career arc? How did you go from lawyer to TV writer?

Pamela Wechsler: When I was working as a homicide prosecutor in Boston, I was contacted by a television writer who was looking for story ideas. I talked to him about some of my cases, and in the process, I learned a lot about scriptwriting. Cut to…a couple of years later, when I decided that it was time for a change. I didn’t want to practice law any more. I pulled out some of the scripts that I had helped with. I read books about the craft. I familiarized myself with the business. And I watched a lot of TV. Then, I wrote my own spec script and got a television agent. I stayed out in Hollywood for seven years, working as a writer and legal consultant for a variety of network dramas, including the Law and Order franchise.

In retrospect, it was a natural progression. Homicide prosecutors are storytellers. They take the facts of a case and turn them into a well-choreographed piece of theatre for the jury. The biggest difference is prosecutors can’t make stuff up.

Were there any cases you tried where you said to yourself, I have to write about this.” If so, why?

I wish! If I had thought about it that way, I’d have taken notes and I’d have a lot more material to mine. Prosecuting homicide cases, however, was such a sobering and impactful experience that, at the time, writing about it was the furthest thing from my mind.

How did writing for Law & Order inform your novel writing?

As the legal consultant for the shows, I read a lot of scripts and helped break lot of stories. This gave me a feel for the rhythm of a complete story—where the plot needs to twist, where the drama needs to be amped up, or where the characters need a new source of conflict.

Ten years later, finding that rhythm has become almost instinctual. When I think about my novels, I look at each chapter as though it were a single act of a television episode. I search for some small cliffhanger to put at the end of the chapter, something that will bring people back after the commercial break.

What made you choose to tell the story in first person? Did you consider using third or did it always make sense to use Abby’s POV?

 I never considered writing it in the third person. Telling a story in the first person, and in the present tense, gives it a sense of urgency—and that’s such an important part of the tone of Mission Hill. Also, Abby has a strong voice and I wanted her to talk directly to the readers.

You have a very large cast of characters in Mission Hill – DAs, Assistant DAs, police investigators, FBI agent, detectives, prosecutors, victims, witnesses, perpetrators — how did you decide on what kinds of characters to include? Are these all types of people you’ve worked with?

 Every prosecutor works with a variety of detectives, victims, witnesses, etc, so these characters are a requisite part of any police procedural or legal thriller. The challenge is creating characters with unique personalities, so they’re not all interchangeable. I drew from people that I worked with, and imagined them in the situations that I created.

Abby Endicott is a certain type – Boston Brahmin, into fashion and designer clothes–how is she like and not like you?

The idea behind Mission Hill was to write about a woman who is living in two very different worlds. I knew that Abby was going to be a homicide prosecutor, so I wanted her personal life to be the polar opposite. That’s why she’s a Brahmin, living in a Back Bay penthouse with her musician boyfriend. Abby and I do not come from the same background, and we are not the same person, although I have to confess that I do love fashion.

You have a lot of great Boston landmarks in the book, including the fictitious Gardner Club, based on the many clubs around Back Bay, where Abby’s brother gets married. Have you spent time in any of these clubs?

 I didn’t grow up on Beacon Hill and my family is definitely not Brahmin, but I have friends who belong to places like the Gardner Club. I’ve been to a lot of great parties and weddings in some of these places and I thought it would be fun to write about.

In the opening pages, Abby recounts all the perpetrators she’s put away. Is this something you’ve done?

 The list is how Abby copes with the stress of her job. Every night before she goes to sleep she recites the names of all the people she’s prosecuted for murder. The reason being: they remember her, so she has to remember them. It’s something that I did when I was a homicide prosecutor, although my list also included the names of the victims.

I love how Abby’s dad tries to steer her away from her job and get her to work in a safe law firm. Did something like that ever happen to you?

 My parents expected that I would go into some type of public service and they weren’t surprised when I chose to work in the DA’s Office. They followed my cases in the news, and sometimes they came to court to watch my trials. They respected my choice, but worried about my safety—as did I. They were relieved when I left the DA’s Office and took a job prosecuting white collar crimes at the Justice Department.

Abby has a nice friendship with a Boston police investigator, Kevin Farnsworth – was that based on any friendships you had with police during your work as a prosecutor?

Homicide prosecutors work closely with homicide detectives. They spend a lot of time together, under very stressful circumstances, and friendships naturally develop. Kevin was inspired by a few detectives that I worked with.

Abby leaks information to a news reporter when it serves her case and he gets the exclusive – were you ever aware of anything like that happening?

No, but I imagine that it happens. It’s something that I made up to serve the characters and the plot.

Do you usually work from an outline? How do you plan out the mystery? 

When I worked in television, I wrote lengthy, detailed outlines for each episode. Each outline went through an approval process, starting with the showrunner, then the studio, and finally the network. There were lots of notes and adjustments along the way.

I do the exact opposite with my novels. I don’t really write an outline. I know generally where I want to go and how I’m going to get there. I think about the type of murder, the identity of the killer, the victim, and the motive. I plan out a couple of big plot twists. And I think about how Abby’s personal life will be impacted by what’s going on at work. Before I start writing, I usually spend at least a month thinking about the first chapter—how I’m going to introduce both Abby’s job and her personality to the reader. The rest of the story develops as I’m writing.

Was there any research involved or did you already have enough knowledge from your experience as a prosecutor?

I don’t have to do extensive research about police procedure or trial strategies, but I still do research. For example, right now I’m writing about a character who is a professional athlete—I’ve been learning as much as I can about baseball. I’ve read about the rules of the game, players salaries, etc. I’ve also been researching things like the use of steroids, and the symptoms of repetitive head trauma. And I’ve taken a few trips to Kenmore Square, the Fens, and Fenway Park.

I’m constantly looking for new ideas and inspiration. I troll the internet, looking for interesting crimes. Sometimes, I walk over to the courthouse, sit in the back of the room, and watch the people and the proceedings. Also, Boston is an important part of the books, so sometimes I walk around the city, scouting out interesting locations.

Were you inspired by any mystery novels in particular? Any writers of the genre that you admire?

When I wrote Mission Hill, I was influenced by a mix of authors. I was inspired by Jane Austen’s strong, upper-crust, female protagonists and I hope that Mission Hill readers will find a hint of Elizabeth Bennett’s spirit in Abby Endicott. Also, I’m a longtime fan of Robert Parker’s Spenser series. I’m particularly drawn to the sharp dialogue and use of Boston as a character—both are important ingredients in Mission Hill. And growing up, my mother wrote book reviews and personal essays for our local newspaper. Reading these pieces, I learned how to draw from my own life as part of the creative process.

Do you have ideas percolating for something new when you’re done with the Abby Endicott series? Anything you fantasize about working on?

Mission Hill is the first in a series of three books about Abby Endicott. Recently, I finished a draft of the second book, and now I’m working on the third book. I’m also consulting on a couple of television pilots, and thinking about writing for television again. That’s about as far into the future as I can see. I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, and hoping that I’ll be able to keep doing it.

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