There is something distinctly slick and brand-like about the Sasha McCandless novels - for a start, all titles start with the letter ‘I’. Irreparable Harm, Inadvertent Disclosure and now Irretrievably Broken. The titles themselves make a considerable impact: they instantly appeal to the fans of the legal thriller genre, who will recognise the jargon, and grab the attention of the casual browser, who might be intrigued by the similar sounding headings. The ‘brand’ feel, of course, goes way beyond the titles: Irretrievably Broken is only Melissa F Miller’s third novel, but it already feels part of a firmly established series, and one that is destined to gain a bigger and bigger readership with every volume.
Readers new to the Sasha McCandless series would probably benefit from reading the previous two instalments in order, as they set a lot of the scene and introduce recurring characters; however, this is not strictly necessary - Miller expertly feeds enough background information throughout the story, so that all readers can follow the main plot, but without giving her existing readers the impression that content is being unnecessarily repeated. It’s a very tricky balance to achieve, and even very well-known writers often get it wrong; take the example of Jean M Auel - the author of the Earth’s Children series. Her last novel - The Land of Painted Caves - was plagued by continuous, mind numbing repetition of character traits and events that, by the seventh book in the series, most readers would have been be very familiar with. In this respect, Auel could certainly learn a things or two from Melissa Miller.
The ingredients of the ’Sasha novels’ have, by book 3, become essential staples that, I am sure, all her loyal readers have come to expect: a tight plot combining action and legal exposition; snappy but still realistic dialogue, and brilliantly flawed characters. This is the time for us readers to look at Sasha through a lens in order to really understand her relationship with Connelly and with her own family, her dedication to her work, her severe caffeine habit. As a result, Sasha as a heroine is not infallible - a trait that makes a fictional character instantly sympathetic.
Flawed characters demand a carefully balanced flawed world, and as we know,a lawyer’s life is not always hunky-dory; if Irreparable Harm set the scene and Inadvertent Disclosure expanded it, we could say that Irretrievably Broken signals a time for break-ups; not only by its reference to matrimonial law, but also by introducing a rift between Sasha and Connelly - which prevents the characters’ dynamics from becoming stale. Even Sasha’s invincibility is questioned, as she struggles to find her way in the unfamiliar territory of criminal law. Without giving away any spoilers, by the end of the book, her own infallibility as a lawyer will be seriously tested.
After having consumed my third ‘legal’ fix in the space of a year, I am once again left craving for more. I envy future readers of the series, because they will be able to binge read, while I have to wait patiently until the next instalment is published. Thankfully, Miller is a very prolific writer, and is already at work to keep us topped up with more coffee-fuelled Sasha goodness; until then, I might have to follow a friend’s example and just read the first three again, and hope that the megadose will tie me over until number four.
Read on for a Q&A with the author!
Q - When did you decide that you were going to become a writer?
A: I suppose I always wanted to be a writer. Growing up, I wrote tons and participated in creative writing workshops and the like. I even have a concentration in creative writing from my undergraduate English literature program. But, I never considered being a writer to be a particularly practical pursuit. Not until I was flying cross-country to take some witness depositions in July of 2009 and I read The Lincoln Lawyer on my outbound flight. Michael Connelly so accurately captured some of the realities of criminal law (as I understand them from friends who practice in that area) and did so in the service of a really gripping story, that I closed the book thinking, I’d like to do that! And, so I returned to writing.
Q - They say write about what you know; well you clearly have a background in law. Having worked in a big law firm once, I think you got the details totally nailed. The gruelling long hours, the boredom of meetings - everything that Sasha describes…was that your experience of corporate law?
A: First off, thanks for that. I’m glad to hear it resonates with your experience. In many ways, that has also been my experience of practicing corporate law. It’s a strange environment in that the work is sophisticated, the stakes are high, the stress is higher still, and usually no expense is spared. From the outside, I think that tends to lend it an appearance of, not glamour exactly, but importance or excitement. The reality, as you mentioned, is somewhat less exotic. The hours are long, the workload is heavy, and the work itself can become monotonous, especially for junior lawyers. That’s the experience I wanted Sasha to bring to like, at least in the first book.
Q - I’ve been meaning to ask you this since book 1: Prescott & Talbott actually remind me of the fictional firm of the TV Show The Guardian, which was also set in Pittsburgh. Have you ever watched the show
A: I know of the show, because it was not only set in Pittsburgh, it was at least partially filmed in Pittsburgh. I did watch an episode or two when it aired; however, it was on in the early 2000s, when I was a junior lawyer at a large law firm and, truthfully, I barely had time to brush my teeth, let alone commit to watching a television series! That said, I’m now intrigued enough by the parallels you see that I’d like to get it on DVD and watch it.
Q - This might sound like a silly question but…is it a coincidence that all three novels so far start with the letter ‘I’?
A: Yes and no. “Irreparable Harm” seemed to me to be the perfect title for the story---both for the legal principle and the idea that other events in the book would or could have consequences that were irreversible. And similarly, “Irretrievably Broken,” as you noted in your review, works on those same two levels. So, when I was sketching out the series, I decided that the book that fell in the middle should start with an “I,” as well. And because the subtext was that Sasha was slowly beginning to reveal herself to Leo, “Inadvertent Disclosure” worked out, too. So, now, of course, I’m committed to “I” titles---at least until I run out of legal doctrines! The title of my work in progress is Indispensable Party.
Q - Now …Krav Maga. That is certainly an interesting skill to have. Tell us the truth: do you practice it? And what made you decide to give Sasha the nearest thing to a human superpower?
A: I wish I did practice it, but, I’m afraid I don’t. I wanted to make Sasha a physically small person, because I think it’s really interesting how diminutive women are often underestimated. Some of the most formidable women I know are tiny, and, as it happens, several of them are attorneys. But, as the star of a thriller series, Sasha needs to be capable of defending herself in a believable way. I have a good friend, who is not an attorney, but who is a small woman who practices Krav Maga. She carries herself with a lot of authority and has a great deal of confidence about her ability to protect herself. That’s what I wanted for Sasha.
Q - Do you still practice law? How do you reconcile your new writing career with a job and a family? Do you suffer from writer’s guilt?
A: I do. Although, I didn’t start writing seriously until my husband and I had left our jobs at international law firms in Washington, D.C. to start our own two-person law firm in a small town in South Central Pennsylvania. Running our own firm has added some administrative responsibilities to my plate, but it also gives me much more flexibility than I used to have. Oh, I have writer’s guilt, mom guilt, lawyer guilt---no matter what I’m focused on, I am convinced I should be doing something else! But, the writing, as an act, is important to me, so I make the time for it. I do try to limit how much it infringes on time with my family by doing a lot of my writing after the rest of the family is asleep for the night and before they wake in the morning. Luckily (or perhaps not), my caffeine habit is about as bad as Sasha’s, so sleep is an easy area to skimp on! I’m also truly fortunate that my husband is wildly supportive of my writing. He’s been known to disappear with our three small kids for the better part of a day if I am under a deadline.
Q - Where do you get inspiration for Sasha’s cases?
A: Honestly, everywhere. Some of the legal doctrines I’ve had experience with in my own work and some (like “irretrievably broken”) I remember from law school. As I read legal journals or cases for my legal practice, there’s a part of my brain that’s filing away interesting facts or issues for my fiction. I’m careful to ensure that the facts of Sasha’s cases don’t mirror my own to avoid any confidentiality issues. And then I put whatever twists on the issues or the facts make the cases work for my plot.
Q - What would you say to a new writer struggling to combine their love of the written word with a job and a family?
A: Writing advice is dangerous because it can take on the ring of a prescription, but it all sort of boils down to this: You just have to get the words on paper. Each writer has to decide if the way that fits into his or her life is as 500 words written every morning while sitting in the carpool line, a dedicated block of writing time at the same time each day, or the occasional binge-writing weekend while the laundry piles up, the lawn goes unmown, and the kids eat pizza. However you can squeeze in the time, do it. And if that stops working for you, try something else. Once you’ve truly committed to a writing project, you’d be amazed as the time you manage to find.
Q - One last question: how long until the next novel?
A: Sure, save the hardest question for last! Well, because I’m still a practicing attorney, I build a lot of extra time into the schedule, just in case a client matter comes up. So far, the only time I haven’t needed that cushion was with “Irretrievably Broken”. I am definitely going to need it this time, because I have a case going to trial next month. I have been too busy on the lawyering front to make much progress on the book. With all those caveats out of the way, I’ll say the plan is for Indispensable Party to be available for the holidays.
Paola, thanks so much for the interview. It’s been a lot of fun!
You are very welcome, thank you for taking the time to talk to me! I am so looking forward to Indispensable Party!