Barbara Levenson, Author of Fatal February
Interviewed by Marta Stephens
It's a pleasure to welcome Barbara Levenson to Murder By 4 again! Levenson is a cum laude graduate of the University of Miami Law School, and has resided in Miami, Florida, for the past 35 years. Barbara has served as a prosecutor, and run her own law practice where she focused on criminal defense and civil rights litigation. Barbara was elected to a judgeship in the circuit court of Miami-Dade County where she still serves as senior judge. Barbara is the author of the Mary Magruder Katz mystery series, which includes Fatal February and Justice in June, both of which are published by Oceanview Publishing.
I have had many careers. As a young mother, I was the first woman to run for the Columbus, Ohio Board of Education and the first woman to serve as its president. As a result of my work on the board, I was the first woman to receive the Ohio Newspaper “Man of the Year” award.
When my husband’s job took us to Miami, Florida, I fulfilled a dream and attended law school at the University of Miami School of Law. My friends said “Law school is hard and you have two children. How will you manage?” I managed to graduate cum laude, and went on to work as a prosecutor during the time that Janet Reno was the Dade County State Attorney. A few years later I opened my own law office and in 1992, I was elected as a judge in the circuit court. When I retired from the bench, I finally had time to pursue my other dream, to write fiction. I started by writing short stories and taking classes in the Miami Literary Arts Center. I was accepted in the Kenyon College summer writing program in Ohio. Then I really began to write in earnest, spending four days a week doing nothing but writing and soon I had my first mystery novel ready to shop. I was very fortunate to sell that novel and the second in the series to Oceanview Publishing after meeting them at Sleuthfest.
2. Describe the greatest difficulty you have faced in your writing career, why it was difficult and how you resolved it.
My greatest difficulty is in balancing the time necessary to publicize my books and still have time to write. I had no idea that once I was published, my life would be consumed with book signings, answering e-mails, traveling to speaking dates, etc. In short, doing everything but writing. I still haven’t found a practical way to balance these demands. In fact, they seem to be growing. Other authors have counseled me to save time, no matter what, to keep writing. I hope that as I become more experienced and better known that I will achieve this balance.
3. What prompted you to write Fatal February and what do you hope your readers will get from it?
I have always loved mysteries, so I wanted to write what I love to read. Second, I have lived in Miami for 35 years and love this city, so I wanted readers to come to know the real Miami, not the South Beach tourist scene; the real place where we go to work, raise kids, have family problems, and new romances. February is the loveliest month here with sparkling sun, cool nights, everything in bloom, outdoor art shows and concerts. I hoped that readers in cold climates would feel that they had taken a little tropical vacation and would feel that they had actually visited this locale. I also wanted to highlight the problems of a young professional woman, striving for a successful career and hoping for that special someone to come into her life. Having spent a lot of my life in criminal court, I wanted readers to experience the feel of the court system without lapsing into “legalese”. Justice In June does even more to make readers understand the working of the courts. My second novel takes place in June to show readers the worst month in Miami with steamy rain every day, and a build- up of humidity that makes every day a bad hair day.
I was a criminal defense attorney myself with my own small law office, so I know the joy of helping clients and the angst of the reality that you can’t win every case. As a judge, I mentored young women attorneys and heard their problems. Both of these things made it easy to fashion a believable protagonist
5. Please share with our readers a little about the plot and the characters of this novel.
The plot concerns Mary’s client, Lillian Yarmouth who is accused of stabbing her husband to death with an antique silver letter opener. Lillian is a society matron, a wealthy, part of “old Miami”. Her husband was a philanderer. He came to Miami to play football. He was poor but handsome. She was rich. Miami has had many society high profile murders. The secondary plot involves Mary and her new hot Latin lover, Carlos Martin. Mary is half Jewish and half Southern Baptist. Carlos is half Cuban and half Argentine. They are typical of the melting pot that is Miami. Along the way we meet each of their parents, Mary’s new paralegal, a cast of courthouse characters and cousins of Carlos. Mary also has a German Shepherd who gets into a lot of doggy troubles.
6. Please give us some insights into your writing process.
I think about the plot and characters a lot before I write. I usually have the basics of the story in my head. I don’t outline before beginning, but during the writing, I sometimes outline the next few chapters. No particular steps. I just sit down at the computer and pound away.
I always write on a computer and I have a writing room in the house in Miami and in our summer house in Vermont. I’d like to say that no one bothers me in my writing room, but it wouldn’t be true. Whoever is in the house manages to come in and tell me something. I don’t answer phone calls when I am writing. I always have one of my German Shepherds in the room with me, usually napping or occasionally throwing a ball in my lap.
7. How much and/or what kind of research do you do prior to writing?
Much of what I write in this mystery series is in my head. I do put away newspaper articles that I think will be useful in future books. Occasionally I look back at notes I have kept from a variety of cases.
8. What do you find is the most difficult part of writing in general and what do you do to overcome it?
Remembering the names of all the characters, so I keep running lists. I’m not kidding! I never have what people call writer’s block. That’s probably because I like to talk. My friends and spouse say I’m never at a loss for words.
9. Who has been the greatest influence on you, encouraging you to write and be published?
My husband. He has encouraged me to try all of my varied careers. His absolute faith in my ability to do whatever I undertake has given me confidence and allowed me to indulge my dreams.
10. What are you working on now?
I just finished my third novel, Outrageous October, and am starting my fourth, Neurotic November. I also have notes for a more serious, literary novel that I hope to begin shortly.
11. Any words of wisdom and advice for aspiring writers?
The number one bit of advice I received from a writing teacher was this: "If you want to write, put your behind in the chair and write.” The more you write, the better you get at it. I like to read what I write out loud every couple of days. If it doesn’t sound right, then it probably isn’t.
When you are ready to shop your book, go to as many seminars, conferences and meetings as you can afford. The more you make connections and network, the better your chances of finding the right agent or publisher.
Thank you for inviting me to be interviewed.