Monday, December 29, 2008

Rick Acker Comes to Visit

I'm excited to welcome a new writing friend, Rick Acker, for an interview. He's an attorney in California who manages to find time to write. Here's more from Rick.

Your two latest books are legal thrillers with a technological twist. How did you find the germ of an idea that got you going?

Dead Man’s Rule literally began with a “germ of an idea.” I’d been following news stories about the old Soviet bioweapons program and the carelessness with which it was shut down. Germ warfare factories were simply abandoned when funding ran out, scientists with only one marketable skill suddenly found themselves without jobs or pensions, and so on. So I started talking to people I knew in the intelligence and bioweapons defense fields to explore story ideas. At first, I asked questions like “How hard would it be to breed weapons-grade smallpox in a high school lab?” By the time I finished, my main question was “Why are any of us still alive?” Scary stuff.

I slept much better while writing my second techno-legal thriller, Blood Brothers. This one was inspired in part by the “berserkers” mentioned in ancient Norse sagas. They were wild warriors with incredible strength and speed who were virtually unstoppable in battle. Most historians think they were real, but the secret to their remarkable skills has been lost. The most common theory is that they took a drug made from some unknown plant, so I started wondering what might happen if that plant were rediscovered and a pharmaceutical company began to make drugs out of it. There would be some impressive benefits, of course, but there might also be a few unforeseen side effects . . .

By day you're a deputy attorney general in California. Did that make writing legal thrillers easier or more challenging? Why?

Both easier and more challenging, actually. Easier because I get to work on fascinating investigations and lawsuits that generate at least one book idea per week. Harder because most of the cases are sealed and I can’t actually use any of those ideas until the seal is lifted (if it ever is).

What made you decide it was time to write a novel? And how did you get the ideas for your initial young adult mysteries?

Back in the days before minivans came with DVD players and iPod jacks, I was the designated entertainment on all our long family drives. I can’t sing and my joke repertoire is limited, so that left storytelling. The most popular stories were mysteries and adventures about kids a few years older than mine, so I told a lot of those.

Most of my stories were forgotten five minutes after we got out of the van, but every now and then my wife would say, “You have to write that one down.” So I’d write it down, send it off to publishers, and wait for the rejection letters. Until one day a publisher decided not to reject one of my books after all.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with all things legal? And what keeps you writing them?

It goes back to the first rule all fiction writers learn: Every good story needs a good conflict. In our society, we tend to resolve most major conflicts (and plenty of minor ones) through lawsuits, which makes them natural springboards for all sorts of stories. If a young man retaliates against a bully and kills him, there will probably be a murder or manslaughter trial. If a widow’s evil in-laws try to cheat her out of her inheritance, a suit in probate court will often follow. If a romance collapses on the eve of the couple’s wedding, they may well sue each other—over ownership of the house they had bought together, for example. Pretty much any good story is a good lawsuit waiting to happen, and vice versa.

Note to nonlawyers: We’re exaggerating a little here about how interesting law really is. Anyone who is really “fascinated with all things legal” has never spent a Friday night researching local court rules to figure out whether footnotes in a brief are supposed to be in 12-point or 13-point font.*

*Correct answer in California federal courts: 13-point. And yes, there are judges who really care about this.

Um, the judges aren't quite that picky here in Indiana. If you could write any book you wanted and know it would land on the bestsellers list, what would you write?

Good question. I’d love to write a novel that captures the essence of the law and tells a compelling story of personal courage--like To Kill a Mockingbird or A Man for All Seasons. Except with a romance and a few explosions thrown in to spice things up.

Love the explosions and romance is always nice. As an attorney, I know I sometimes find myself analyzing legal thrillers for accuracy. What's your pet peeve legal mistake in novels?

Overwrought courtroom scenes. I hate those. Writers know that trials are supposed to be dramatic, but they don’t always know how to create drama without breaking fundamental legal rules. So they insert fiery exchanges between lawyers and judges, surprise witnesses, and heartfelt speeches to juries in the middle of trial. That stuff virtually never happens in real courtrooms, and when it does it usually ends with a mistrial and the dramatic lawyer in jail for contempt of court.

Tell us more about Blood Brothers. What surprised you most as you wrote this book? And what did you learn from your characters?

I was surprised by how much my characters wanted to talk. I had conceived of Blood Brothers as a fast-paced thriller with lots of twists and turns, some hard-hitting courtroom scenes, and a final surprise on the last page. The published book has all those elements, but it also has more character-driven scenes than I anticipated. I’m glad it turned out that way; the story wound up having more depth and resonance than I had expected.

As I got to know the characters better over the course of the book, I realized that most of them were facing the same questions: What do you want more than anything else? What are you willing to do—and sacrifice—to get it? Jesus’ answer to the first question was simple: To love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. His answer to the second was even simpler: Everything. As I pondered how my characters would answer those same questions, I became uncomfortably aware of just how often my own answers differ from Christ’s.

Thanks so much for joining us, Rick! Here's more about Rick:

Rick Acker writes his novels while commuting to and from his "real job" as a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice. His most recent novel, Blood Brothers, is an intense sequel to the legal thriller Dead Man's Rule. Christy award-winning author Randy Ingermanson calls Blood Brothers "an excellent legal suspense novel, with a strong biotech backdrop. It reminded me of Michael Crichton's latest novel, Next, except that Blood Brothers is better." Rick is also the author of the well reviewed Davis Detective Mysteries, a series of adventure/mystery novels for "tweens."

Rick is a transplanted Chicagoan who spent thirty-five years in the Midwest before finally trading the certainty of winter and mosquitoes for the risk of earthquakes. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Anette, their four children, and two cats.


bigguysmama said...

Hi Cara. Really enjoyed this interview. You guys are right that us nonlawyers have an idea of what it is to be one. After Rick's comment about footnotes in 13 point, I'm glad that I'm not one. :)

Mimi B

Janna said...

I loved this book! It was SOOO close to making my Top 8 list this year!


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