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Interview: March 27, 2009

March 27, 2009

In his latest novel, ILLEGAL, Paul Levine --- author of the bestselling Jake Lassiter and Solomon vs. Lord series --- introduces readers to a new protagonist: down-and-out lawyer Jimmy "Royal" Payne. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub and Nicole Bruce, Levine talks about what inspired him to create this character and explains the book's difference in tone compared to his lighter, more comedic works. He also reveals what prompted him to focus on the subject of illegal immigration, discusses how living in both Florida and California have shaped his attitudes toward this controversial topic, and shares details about the next installment in this new series. ILLEGAL introduces readers to J. Atticus Payne, or, as he is known to his acquaintances, Jimmy “Royal” Payne. Payne is a passionate advocate whose path to righteousness is derailed, at least initially, by some bad choices. In that respect he bears some resemblance to Steve Solomon and Jake Lassiter, two of your better known characters. He is a markedly different character in other ways. What factors led to your creation of Jimmy Payne?
Paul Levine: I practiced law for 17 years and was always rigidly appropriate. I was a partner in a multi-national law firm that was stuffier than your Aunt Hazel's closet. So, in fiction, I'm compelled to create lawyers NOTHING like me, but somewhat like each other. I want my characters to be a lot more interesting than me.  
Jake Lassiter was an ex-football player who sneaked into night law school and passed the bar in a computer glitch. Steve Solomon was the son of a disgraced judge; he graduated from Key Largo Law School and shared office space with a South Beach modeling agency. Jimmy (Royal) Payne was a fairly normal guy until a family tragedy unhinged him. Now, he has an anger management problem and he's obsessed with revenge, a bad trait for a law-abiding officer of the court. I am fascinated with how people respond to personal crises, and that probably led to the creation of Jimmy Payne.

BRC: How much of Paul Levine is in the character of Jimmy Payne? Is Payne the person you would be if you could somehow get away with it? Or is he a pastiche of characters you have encountered in your own practice of law on both sides of the bench?
PL: Payne is a damaged character. I'm 61, an age where everyone is damaged in one way or another. A bad marriage, a career setback, a dark spot that turns up on the x-ray. All life is about loss. Payne, in some ways, is a more real character than Jake Lassiter or Steve Solomon. I think he's my most complete, well-rounded protagonist. But I'm not sure I want to be him.    
BRC: ILLEGAL is much darker in tone than the Solomon vs. Lord novels. Can you share how it felt to switch from writing the more comedic Solomon vs. Lord books to ILLEGAL? Was it difficult to make the transition from writing about Steve and Victoria to writing about Jimmy and Sharon?
PL: Sly humor is my natural tone of voice, so Solomon vs. Lord was a hanging curve ball right right over the middle of the plate. Two people are attracted to each other but drive each other crazy...well, that's just plain fun to write and read. But it's different with Payne. Once you create a character who has suffered a life-altering tragedy, there's no room for pie-in-the-face yucks. That doesn't mean Payne is without humor. He's filled with anger, and his wit is biting. Payne uses zingers as a sword, not a shield. So, now not more difficult to write Payne, just more payne-ful.  Once I knew who he was, he flowed naturally onto the page.
BRC: ILLEGAL is concerned with illegal immigration. While it is sympathetic to illegal immigrants, it does present opposing viewpoints regarding the subject and the problems that people on both sides of the issue currently face. What would you do to resolve the problem, given the power and money to do so? Would you change the laws, grant an amnesty, secure the borders, or do something else?
PL: The book is clearly sympathetic to hard-working people who risk their lives to come here and are preyed upon by predators on both sides of the border. The cruelty inflicted on the immigrants --- particularly south of the border --- is really horrible. And you're right, I set up debates between the open borders advocates and those who would place machine gun turrets in El Paso. This sounds like a cop out, but I don't have the answers. Obviously, we can't deport millions of people. Security is being upgraded along the border, but there's a new problem. Mexican drug cartels are taking over human trafficking operations. More violence is sure to follow. This problem is going to explode soon, and I'm not sure we're ready for it.
BRC: Your dedication in ILLEGAL is as follows: “To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand, and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California. Godspeed.” This description seems to have provided the inspiration for Marisol and Tino, two of the primary characters in the book. Could you provide more of a description of what you witnessed? When you saw them, what went through your mind? Had you already begun to write ILLEGAL when you first saw them, or did the entire novel spring from your chance encounter with them?
PL: I wanted to write a book having something to do with the border. Several things influenced me. Residents of San Diego County and Imperial County are familiar with the yellow "Caution" signs with the man, woman, and child running across the road. It's a warning to be on the lookout for illegals who might dash in front of your car like a deer leaping from the woods. I saw one sign pockmarked by bullets. Well, that's a pretty good image to get the mind working. "Welcome to the U.S." About the same time was the news story about the undocumented aliens locked in the back of a metal refrigeration truck (with no refrigeration on). Several baked to death in a run across the desert. And then I had a chance encounter with a mother and son who had just gotten out of the toxic New River, a poisonous dump of a stream that flows north from Mexico. Well, that did it. They were Marisol and Tino Perez, but in my imagination, they become separated at the border. She goes missing, and Tino must get Jimmy Payne --- a guy who these days doesn't help anyone --- to help him.

BRC: Your descriptions of the paths that the illegal immigrants took not only into the United States but also their destinations --- the chicken ranch, for one --- had a definite real world feel to them. You also eschewed the easy, stock description of a border town when recounting Payne’s experiences in Mexicali, setting the action on the back streets where the buses and the tourists don’t go. Did you visit the places you describe in ILLEGAL? And if so, at any point did you reconsider the wisdom of doing so?
PL: My research combined on-site visits with satellite views with general reading and interviews of law enforcement. Catholic charities and other non-profits plus visiting some upstate farmers. I learned to pick peaches on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. I read extensively, both about what's going on today and the old braceros program in which employers here legally hired Mexicans and others on a seasonal basis. The big farming operations also fascinated me. No way they can get along with inexpensive, incredibly hard-working employees. In other words...foreigners.

BRC: At what point did you realize Jimmy Payne needed to have something in his past (his son) driving him, and how did you come to the conclusion of what would cause the bitterness to propel the story?
PL: I just knew I wanted to start the protagonist at a low place. Grief-stricken. Angry. Self-pitying. His life having no purpose. Thirsting for revenge. And remember, he's a lawyer. Justice does not countenance revenge. Payne has no interest in helping someone else. He doesn't realize that helping another person is the only way he can heal himself. His rehabilitation as a person is dependent on breaking outside the box that squeezes him from all sides. I thought all this was a powerful set-up for drama.
BRC: You currently live in California and also lived in Florida. Both states deal with huge immigration conflicts. How long has immigration been an important issue to you? Have you always planned to write about this topic, even before the horrible events that inspired ILLEGAL took place? Did your views on immigration shift when you moved out to the west coast?
PL: I lived in Miami for 30 years, so I was there during the Mariel boatlift, an almost surreal event. Overnight, violent crime went through the roof, political and cultural tides shifted, and Al Pacino chewed up every piece of scenery in Scarface. Most Floridians have long been aware of the inequities of the system in which Cubans are entitled to asylum if they reach shore, but Haitians are not. The whole immigration system has an ALICE IN WONDERLAND feel. I don't have the answers to these problems any more than I do the Mexican border dilemma. The drug wars with the kidnappings and the barbaric violence change the equation. Securing the border now might mean protecting Americans and aliens from maniacs with automatic weapons. 

BRC: Without giving away too much about the ending, did the published conclusion pan out the same as you initially thought it would for your characters? How did you come to the understanding that this was the ending that needed to be written?
PL: Who will live? And who will die? Will the good be rewarded? Will the evil be punished? We know the answers most of the time. Then we see Chinatown (my favorite movie), and the rug gets pulled out from under us. Not only is it an exquisite mystery, but the ending is a surprise punch in the gut, completely justified by all that went before. Robert Towne's message was that good intentions are often futile. The hero sometimes fails. Good is not always rewarded. And surely the evil escape punishment. So, without saying more, I think the ending of ILLEGAL is an honest conclusion to the story.

BRC: Jimmy Payne, as well as Jake Lassiter and Steve Solomon in their respective series, often have as much trouble with their clients as they do with the judicial system. Giving consideration to your own years in private practice, what do you believe to be the single biggest problem that attorneys encounter with their clients? And that clients encounter with their attorneys?
PL: It was John Mortimer's Rumpole who said, "I could win most of my cases, if it weren't for my clients." These lawyers have a certain healthy cynicism about the courts, the judges, the opposing lawyers...and their own clients. Lawyers frequently despise their clients or just don't trust them. We always hear about sleazy lawyers. There are plenty of clean lawyers with scumbag clients.
BRC: If you weren’t writing novels, or practicing law, in what profession do you believe you would be involved? Given your past involvement in sports, do you see yourself as a television commentator, or perhaps something else?

PL: I would like to be a senior executive at AIG. My son is a sports broadcaster in Miami. I'll leave the talking to him; I just type....
BRC: Will we be seeing more of Jimmy Payne? The conclusion of ILLEGAL leaves a number of Payne’s professional and personal issues unresolved. If ILLEGAL is the first of a series, who will be back and who will not? Do you have a specific number of novels planned for the series?
PL: Jimmy Payne will be back in about a year. Ex-wife Sharon, an LAPD detective, gets in a jam involving an ex-porn producer, who now is a reality TV bigwig.

BRC: You have created three extremely interesting protagonists: Jake Lassiter, Steve Solomon, and now Jimmy Payne. Do you have an inclination to link two of them, or perhaps all three of them, into a novel at some point? 
PL: I thought it might be interesting to have them all in one story pursuing the same woman....perhaps Tess Monaghan. Maybe you can get Laura Lippman's okay.

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