Alafair Burke, FIND ME

Alafair Burke, FIND ME

Zibby is joined by Alafair Burke, New York Times bestselling author of 14 crime novels, including her most recent book, Find Me. The two talk about which real true-crime facts inspired elements of this story, why Alafair’s father’s suggestions that she become a writer like him led her to pursue a career as a prosecutor instead, and how collaborating on six books with the late author Mary Higgins Clark prompted her to shift from being a pantser to a plotter. Alafair also shares how female friendship factors into this novel as well as her next standalone project.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alafair. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest, Find Me.

Alafair Burke: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Could you please tell listeners what your novel is about?

Alafair: The main character of Find Me, it’s really two women. One goes missing, Hope Miller. Moves out to East Hampton. Leaves this small town in New Jersey where she’s lived for fifteen years. She decides she wants to go someplace, have a little more anonymity, a little more independence. She moves out to East Hampton and within a few weeks, vanishes. Her best friend, Lindsay Kelly, is determined to find her. Find Me is literally a search for Hope in the present. One of the many interesting things about Hope is, part of the reason why she wanted to leave this small town where everybody knew her for the last fifteen years is, she suddenly appeared there after a major car accident and was found at the side of the road presumed dead. She survived her injuries. When she came to at the hospital, she didn’t know who she was, why she was there, where she was from. She had no ID and no cash. It turned out the car that she wrecked was a stolen car. That’s really all she knew about herself. When she disappears, the search for her is a little complicated by the fact that she doesn’t really have a past. It’s not just a search for her in the present, but also turns into a search for her true identity.

Zibby: What you just said, the search for Hope in the present, is that a double entendre?

Alafair: She had to pick a name for herself. This little town that kind of takes her in is called Hopewell. She’s like, well, I guess I’ll just call myself Hope. People had been calling her Jane Doe. Some people started calling her Hope. The name stuck. It is sort of a search for hope, maybe.

Zibby: Interesting time to write a book like this. I found it interesting in the book, actually, when you were talking about her assuming an alias and everything, that only — maybe this isn’t even true, but it was in the book as fact, so I’ll assume it’s fact. There were only three recorded cases of somebody who didn’t know their identity trying to file and basically assume a new name legally. I’m not saying that very well. There was a baby who was left on the stoop and this fictious Hope who —

Alafair: — And a homeless person. I don’t know that three is the right number. In the book, there’s only three in New Jersey. It is true that it’s incredibly difficult to establish a new identity. You and I can go change our names. That’s fine. Then there’ll be almost like a chain of custody. You’ll know that the person who changed her name to X used to be Y. To just create a new identity when you’re not able to say who you used to be is close to impossible. The reason for it is, if you think about it, there’s very few people who would have a need for that. It would be a person who showed up either too young or nonverbal or with amnesia to be able to say who they were. Then the potential for fraud is limitless. Because of that, there’s really no institutional incentive to set up a way to create a new identity from scratch. What I found more interesting is — for people who don’t know my work, I used to be a prosecutor. I’m a law professor. I would’ve just thought given what I know — there’s a missing persons database. There’s also a database of people who are found dead and who are unidentified. That’s a separate information pool. There’s not even a way to put yourself into a database if you are alive but unidentified. They said that New Jersey had actually started a database for that, but there was hardly anybody in it, including her.

Zibby: Did you ever see the movie Overboard in the eighties with Goldie Hawn?

Alafair: Yeah, I loved that movie.

Zibby: She bumps her head, doesn’t know who she is. It would be like if she just went roaming in and trying to establish a new name for herself.

Alafair: to get a social security number. It sounds kind of tropey. It does kind of sound like either a whacky comedy or this big soap opera or anything. I think the reason why amnesia works in the book as a plot device, it’s because it’s in the past. She went through this fifteen years ago. The moment of trying to frenetically search for, “Who is this woman? Does anyone recognize this face?” at some point when that didn’t work, it makes sense to me that you might just have to focus on the present. Many of us do that figuratively. Whatever garbage we have in the past, whatever baggage we have in the past, at some point, we decide enough is enough. I’m going to stop wringing my hands about that, shut the door on it, and put one foot in front of the other until you have a new life again. She’s had to do that, literally and involuntarily. That door was kind of shut for her, and has decided to go on her way and makes her way just fine with the help of this town where she doesn’t need to have a driver’s license because everybody understands why she doesn’t have one. She has a job under the table. She has this nice family that lets her live in the garage apartment. She’s just made this life work. She was either a late teenager or early twenties, a very young woman, when this started. Now she thinks that she’s in her mid-thirties and has still been living her life in limbo. This was supposed to be a fresh start, but it may not have gone as planned.

Zibby: There’s also the question, did she really have amnesia? Did she make up her own identity? We don’t know. We only know it mostly from Lindsay’s point of view, her friend. There’s always that big question mark. Are the journals really what she wrote? Did she make it all up? Once you start reading your book, you never know. What do we believe? What is true? What is not? It adds to the mystique.

Alafair: I’m glad that you mentioned that the reader gets to know Hope primarily through Lindsay’s eyes, but Lindsay has her own point of view too. Their friendship was forged in this very unusual way where Lindsay is actually the one who found Hope thrown from the overturned SUV that turned out to be stolen. She’s also around the same age. She had just graduated from college. She’s driving home. She finds this overturned car and literally saves this young woman’s life. If you think about that that happens to you when you’re twenty-two years old, that immediately gives her this purpose. When Hope wakes up at the hospital and doesn’t know who she is, Lindsay decides to become her person and doesn’t leave her. The two of them have this really entangled relationship where they’re arguably even kind of codependent on each other. It shouldn’t be surprising to the reader that Lindsay knows at some cellular level that Hope would not lie to her and that Hope would never just ghost her or start over again without her. The reader comes to learn, and it’s not a spoiler, that other people who know these two are kind of like, maybe Hope was over it. Maybe Hope was feeling a little too smothered by this. Maybe she’s playing the long game. Maybe there were doubts there all along. Hopefully, it’s a good, twisty, little mystery.

Zibby: Yes, particularly Lindsay’s boyfriend who’s kind of like, okay, great, now Lindsay’s gone. Can we please move things along here? Enough with that. I think he was a little disappointed that she’s driving back and forth to the Hamptons from New Jersey just for the afternoon.

Alafair: I’ve had a lot of female readers tell me that even though their friendships don’t involve amnesia and overturned SUVs and stolen cars and missing people — I think that a lot of women will recognize their female friendships in this book and the way that maybe the people outside of those friendships, including people like boyfriends and husbands, are sort of like, what is it? Why is she allowed to talk to you like that and I’m not? Why would you drive across the country for her and not me? Almost like this jealousy or seeing it as somehow threatening to their relationship. When Lindsay’s willing to drop everything for Hope, you can tell her boyfriend — there’s a little bit of pushback there.

Zibby: I like, also, how you have, Lindsay’s dad is the head of police in her town and knows everything. Here she is, the lawyer. Then she gets to check in with him on all of the stuff. What database did you use? What did this even mean? Give me the lay of the land. Here he comes in as this total expert. She’s this hustling, little lawyer trying to figure everything out and use everything she knows to the dismay of the other police force in the town of East Hampton.

Alafair: I like to play with point of view. When she goes to East Hampton looking for her friend and meets a, let’s just say, skeptical police officer, when he starts hearing about amnesia, he’s rolling his eyes going, no. It’s interesting to look at Lindsay through his eyes. He’s immediately like, lawyer, got to be a lawyer. Lindsay’s really smart. At some point, she says, there’s formal law, and then there’s the way stuff actually works. She knows how to try a case. If there’s motions that need to be filed, she can write them. When there’s no case file and there’s nobody being prosecuted and she’s just trying to get the police to do something, she realizes she really doesn’t have the power to do that formally. She’s clever enough that she figures it out.

Zibby: I love that you have this set at a home that was being prepped for an open house in the Hamptons. I have probably been to like eight thousand open houses in the Hamptons. That was my favorite thing to do with my kids, too, on the weekends. I’m like, who wants to go to an open house? It’s so bad. There is nothing I enjoy more. I love it, your book and — I don’t know if you know of Open House by Katie Sise, which was an Amazon best-seller which was set in an open house.

Alafair: No. I’ll look at it.

Zibby: It also kind of reminded me of Rumaan Alam’s, like in the Airbnb. There’s this whole thing.

Alafair: I’m very fascinated by real estate. All of my real estate , I have all these set-up Zillow searches in places I don’t even live. I just want to look at the houses.

Zibby: Seriously. I’m getting Key Biscayne listings. I’m like, why? I think one day, I was like, maybe we should move to Florida.

Alafair: Mine is Siesta Key. I keep looking at listings in Siesta Key.

Zibby: So funny, oh, my gosh. I’ve probably looked at more houses online than — I don’t even know. It’s ridiculous.

Alafair: It is very funny. Again, not a spoiler, the prologue is set where Hope finds a job out in East Hampton with this kind of sketchy realtor working under the table helping him set up open houses. She refers to this house as not being a really great house. It just has a really good lot. Somebody would probably buy it for two million dollars and tear it down. By the time the book came out, it’s like, oh, it would be more like three and a half.

Zibby: Honestly, I read that and I was like, there is no way you could get a six-bedroom south of the highway in Sagaponack for that amount of money.

Alafair: No, I know.

Zibby: I’m thinking to myself, it must be a tear-down. Then it comes out. You’re like, well, it does need a lot of work. I’m like, but two acres? I don’t know. I think it would go for more.

Alafair: By the time the book came out, it was like, this is probably closer to four. That’s sick money that you can’t start putting. If people not from New York read these books, it will not sound credible to them at all that somebody would spend four million dollars for a house to tear it down, even though people do that.

Zibby: I understand. I thought it was really funny, though. You’ve written so many books. You’ve become such a success. You’re master of the genre. How do you approach each book at this point and your whole career of writing? Once you become a certain echelon of, this can be your job full time, you can do it, even though you’re a law professor as well, how do you approach it? Basically, how do you structure your writing life as a career and all of that?

Alafair: It makes it sound really simple, but in theory, you write a little bit every day, and you have a book in a year. I, particularly the last couple years, haven’t been as great about it. There are too many days where I’m like, I’m just going to sit and look at this TV all day. Then you got to make up for it later. In general, I still try to, a little bit at a time. Over time, I’ve become a little more of a plotter, as they say, instead of a pantser. I think things out a little more thoroughly before I start writing than I used to. I think part of that, Zibby, is when I coauthored six novels with Mary Higgins Clark before she passed away. We both were pantsers. We were both like, oh, I have an idea. I think I’ve got these good characters. I’ll just start writing. If it needs a lot of rewriting, so be it. We can’t do that with two of us. Two people can’t just make stuff up by the seat of their pants and both be working on it at the same time or we’d wind up with two completely different books. She decided that person did it, and I decided the butler did it. It’s not going to work.

We really had to sit down and think through all the characters, what defined them, what their motivations are. What are their secrets? What are the tensions? What are the desires? Then how does that spiral out of control? What situation pushes those pressure points to the point that it can’t withstand the pressure anymore? Then what happens to whom? How is it going to unfold? If you talk through all of that stuff before you start writing, it’s amazing how much more sane the writing process is. I’m a little more structured now in terms of knowing the big, big beats and the character arcs and what everybody’s kind of searching for before I start writing. At that point, you just pluck off little pieces of it. I’m going to try to get these two scenes done today. Two weeks from now, I want to hit this point, and work it backwards. It doesn’t make it sound very sexy.

Zibby: No, that’s all right. Are you a “post-it all over the wall” person? Is it all on a Google Doc? What’s your process?

Alafair: I was a corkboard and index card person. I’m not in my office right now, but in my office, I have a very, very, very large whiteboard. That is kind of my bible. Before I travel, I will take pictures of my whiteboard and use it to, eyes on the describing this one little thing right now, but by the end of the week, try to get to this point. Keep things moving. I think that moving to that structure of having goal points and knowing, I want to get to there by forty thousand words or something like that, I think that my books have become shorter and also quicker. There’s not a lot of stuff there that doesn’t need to be there. I think they’re quick reads. I love my early books too, but my early books, I was kind of like, I don’t really need to know what I’m going to write two days from now because right now, I’m just going to write the hell out of this. Lots of neat details and things like that, but I don’t know if the story moved quite as fast.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. Tell me about how you became a writer and a lawyer and when these two paths intersected in your life and maybe the influence of your dad, who is also a crime writer, on your career trajectory and all of that.

Alafair: I’ve kind of got the opposite story of — there are a lot of people out there who are like, oh, I would’ve loved to have been a writer or an artist, but my parents told me to be a lawyer or a doctor. My dad told me to be a writer, so I became a lawyer. My father’s a writer. My father is James Lee Burke. As a little kid, my mom was a librarian. She would take me to the library every weekend to get a new stack of books. I realize now, she was just trying to get me out of the house so that my dad could write. I was the youngest kid in the family. I loved to read. I see that typewriter back there. I would see my dad writing books on his manual Royal typewriter. I would go in and write little stories. He was like, “You’re going to be a writer. You’re going to be a writer.” Everybody rebels against their parents even if they’re telling you something great. Maybe if they had told me, go party and do drugs, I would’ve been like, no. Don’t do it. Do the opposite. I was like, “No, I don’t want to be a writer. It’s not practical.” I always did share a fascination with crime. I was always fascinated by crime.

I think part of that is — I don’t know if you know this. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas. There was a serial killer active when I was a kid when we first moved there. I’m like, oh, so you moved me to a place that, one, doesn’t have an ocean, and two, has a serial killer? Thanks, Mom and Dad. This is a great place. I think where a lot of parents would’ve protected their kids from that news and turned it off when the gory stories came on, my parents had no problem with me knowing all the details. My father and I would sit around — I must have been in junior high. We would talk about who we thought he probably was. We thought he was a student at Wichita State because a letter was found there. I was always really interested in crime. When I went to law school, I actually went for one purpose, but I loved criminal law. I loved my criminal procedure cases. I wound up being a prosecutor. I started out as a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon. I’d go to Powell’s bookstore, which you might know, and just load up on paperbacks of mysteries. That was my nighttime reading and weekend reading. Before too long, I became yet another lawyer with an idea for a book. I thought, someday, I’ll write it. When I moved to New York and started teaching as a law professor, I had a little more time. I’m like, I’m going to write that book.

I thought it would be one book. I’d have it on my shelves with all my nonfiction books and say, Professor Burke wrote a book one time. When my agent sold it, he called me. He’s like, “The good news is, lots of people are interested.” He goes, “But a lot of people want to know if it’s a series.” I was like, “Do they want it to be a series?” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” This is back when everybody wanted a series. “Yeah, they’re assuming it’s a series.” I’m like, “Then, yes. Yes, it’s a series. I can totally do this again.” I’m like, oh, my god, what have I done? I was an untenured law professor. I had to go tell my dean. I was like, “So I wrote this book. Now I’m going to promise to write another book, but I can still do everything. I can still be a scholar.” He was like, “That’s awesome. Everybody wants to write a book.” He was very supportive. I was like, oh, thank god. I’m still at that law school. I’m still a law professor. My first novel came out since 2003. When you were saying, you’re a known author and you clearly have a career as a writer, I was like, do I? I don’t know at what point it starts to feel real. It still feels like two books at a time for me. At this point, I guess I’m an actual established writer, I suppose, even though it really does sound odd to hear myself described that way.

Zibby: That’s the great thing about interviewing authors all the time. Nobody has any —

Alafair: — Does anybody feel like that? I don’t think so.

Zibby: Maybe Nicholas Sparks.

Alafair: John Grisham is probably pretty convinced that he’s a successful writer. Everyone else I know is still kind of like, how long is this going to last?

Zibby: Self-doubt, anxiety, all of that, it’s like the work jacket. The paleontologist puts on the special outfit. I feel like that’s the jacket that authors .

Alafair: Yeah, and I don’t worry about us because, to me, that seems normal. I worry about the debut authors who are like, I got it made. I’m like, oh, wait.

Zibby: There’s always a new hurdle.

Alafair: There’s always a new challenge.

Zibby: Before I was even remotely in this industry and just a recreational reader and lover of books, I was like, the be all, end all is to just have a book come out. That’s it. That’s the goal, full stop. Then it’s like, well, but I want it in the bookstore. Well, I don’t just want it in the bookstore. I want it over here in the bookstore. I don’t just want it out. I want it to do well. Then I want there to be another book. The goalposts are always moving.

Alafair: I know. It can be very unhealthy. I saw — I wish I could credit it to the right person. Some nice person in writer Twitter the other day said something like, just remember what someone else’s book is doing has nothing to do with what your book is doing. Your writing career is your own. It is successful no matter what other people are doing. Just remember what your original dream was. I found that a nice, little reminder.

Zibby: There was that anthology about — not anthology. It was kind of an anthology for Dorothea Benton Clark that a bunch of women authors had. I can’t remember what it was called, something about that. There was one funny scene, I think, by — now I’m forgetting all the details. Anyway, it’s about two authors meeting in heaven. They were like, but I still never got that number-one New York Times best-seller. It’s like, I know, can you believe it? I was number three. I just never got there. I’m like, is that even a thing? Are people worried about that?

Alafair: It’s definitely a thing. It is definitely a thing.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I was like, I can’t even. I can’t even believe. It’s just so funny. I guess you just never know. What books are coming next? Are you done with your next book? You must be already.

Alafair: I am about done with it, which is why I was reminding myself, too many days sitting on that couch. I am writing a sequel to Where Are the Children? which is something that Mary Higgins Clark and I had talked about before she passed away. That book, it’s such an iconic book for a reason. If you go back — I hope people will. I think they’re reissuing it. There’s a reissue right about to come out. If you reread that book, Mary’s mysteries became known as a Mary Higgins Clark mystery, but without looking really back to the origin of it, which is Where Are the Children? — that book has children in peril. It has a potentially unreliable narrator. It has a gaslighting husband. It has some hints of dark things. The danger to children is the worst kind. It’s a really eerie, dark book, danger close to home. All the DNA is there for modern psychological suspense. There’s no Gone Girl without Where Are the Children? To be able to write a book that — it’s the basically the children in that book. Where are they now? is the setup for the book. To be able to revisit all of those themes that Mary — she was a trailblazer in that area. To be able to write a book that’s kind of an homage to all of that is pretty special. I’m excited about it.

Zibby: That is exciting.

Alafair: That’ll be out in about a year. Then I’m working on my next standalone as well, which is a book about, friends go on a trip, and things go wrong. I’ll say that.

Zibby: In your daily life, it must be a miracle when anything actually goes according to plan, when an open house is just an open house and nothing goes wrong. There always the potential, the what-ifs and all of that.

Alafair: My friends — what were we doing? Oh, the idea for my new book was when my friends and I were on vacation. Something happened. They saw me in la-la land. My friends all know, Alafair’s working now. You and I can continue to have our charcuterie, but she’s doing something over there. The wheels are turning. On the car ride home, they were like, “What were you doing there?” I’m typing notes into my phone. I was like, “What if instead of doing what we just did, this had happened instead?” They’re like, “You just did that to our vacation? That’s what just happened?” I was like, “Sorry.” They’re like, “It’s a really good idea, though.”

Zibby: Where are your best girlfriends from? What point of life? How did you meet them?

Alafair: One of my best friends is the dean of Howard Law School. She and I were colleagues at Hofstra when she first started her teaching career. Then she lateralled over to the University of South Carolina. On one of her trips to visit her, I met one of the other professors down there. We take an annual girlfriend trip, the three of us.

Zibby: That’s nice. I usually take an annual girls’ trip with six girlfriends from college, but we haven’t done it in so long. They’re actually all coming for dinner tonight from various places. At least we have that.

Alafair: Oh, how fun.

Zibby: I know. I’m excited.

Alafair: That’s so funny. The three of us are getting together in DC this weekend. I’m leaving on Friday. Nice reunions with the girls. Have fun.

Zibby: Pandemic has not been good for making time for friends.

Alafair: Yes, in person.

Zibby: In person, yes.

Alafair: My long-distance friends, it actually made room in our schedules. We would never just hop on a — we didn’t even know what Zoom was. We wouldn’t hop on the phone and talk for two hours. We were having weekly Zoom gatherings and pulling other people in. Did you see the — there was a New York Times article about, “When does the group chat end?” or something. Everybody was getting through the pandemic with constant group chats or text threads or Zoom parties. People are starting to drop out. I’m like, no, I don’t want to drop out. These people are important to me.

Zibby: It’s true. We just had a Zoom two weeks ago or something. Maybe they’ll just gradually sputter. When you’re not hanging with friends or working, what do you like to do, especially in the Hamptons? Do you have any go-to spots that you love?

Alafair: We go to a lot of restaurants. They’re kind of the typical places you would go. Increasingly, we wind up at Rowdy Hall a lot, . We like the bar at The Palm. Weekends in the summer, we hide. We call it hiding at home. We get a lot of house parties. We host a lot of house parties, hang out at the beach, go to sunset. Then in terms of my personal hobbies, I actually golf, which people find very surprising. I like to golf. I like to exercise. I don’t look like I like to exercise, but I do. I love to cook, so those two balance each other out. I cook a lot. I’m looking forward to cooking this weekend. Boring. I’m kind of a boring person.

Zibby: Not boring. I sort of like golf. I can do it. I’m really good at drives. Then I lose interest. I’m like, how far can I hit it?

Alafair: That’s hard.

Zibby: That’s my favorite. I like that.

Alafair: I thought, at first, you were going to say you were good at driving the golf cart.

Zibby: I’m probably better at driving the golf ball than the golf cart.

Alafair: You’re good off a tee. It’s the second shot that’s the hard one. It’s awful when you do the beautiful drive, and then it’s like, oh.

Zibby: Then I get in my head too much. I’m like, oh, no, I missed this one. Now I missed this next one. Now I can’t get my score back. It’s too high. Then I stop counting.

Alafair: It’s frustrating. It’s a very frustrating game.

Zibby: I don’t have the mental toughness for golf. I think it’s the problem. This was so nice to get to know you. Congratulations on Find Me.

Alafair: Hope to see you in person sometime.

Zibby: You too. Yes, that would be fun.

Alafair: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care.

Alafair: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye, Alafair.

Alafair Burke, FIND ME

FIND ME by Alafair Burke

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