Somewhere between “Mission: Impossible” and the “Airplane!” movies, Peter Graves did “Call To Danger,” a made-for-TV movie where he used a 70’s version of a super-computer [Blinking lights! Reels of magnetic tape spinning furiously!] to find someone possessing a weird combination of skills that perfectly fit the bizarre plan Graves had concocted. In this episode, the details of which are still in my brain, crowding out useful and needed information, the three skills possessed by the unwitting and unwilling volunteer were bee-keeping, archery, and stunt-car driving.
So, that’s me. I am this weird combination of skills. I was born in Texas, the product of two musicians. I grew up in New Jersey, playing several instruments well and a few more badly. When it came time in college [Swarthmore] for me to figure out the next step, the dreaming part of my brain went, “THEATER!” Then the rational part replied, “Starvation.” Then the dreaming part went, “LITERATURE!” Then the rational part replied, “Five years of grad school. Then starvation.” Then the dreaming part mumbled, “Law school?” And the rational part replied, “Well, okay, since that’s what you want.”
So, off to the University of Chicago School of Law I went, lugging my instruments along. I did penance for this pragmatic move by becoming a public defender in NYC, which has introduced me to thousands of interesting people in trouble. Then came the mid-life crisis adventures. At 30, I resumed writing regularly. At 44, an impulse led me to audition for the Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.
Now, I’m a lawyer who writes books [mostly mysteries, but werewolves are happening!] and musicals. Nobody I’ve heard of does all three.
There have been many lawyers who have written mysteries. There have been a surprising number who have become songwriters (including Ralph Rainger, who was my grandmother’s first cousin once removed and won an Oscar for “Thanks for the Memories.”]
There have also been a couple of musical theater writers who have written mysteries. Hugh Wheeler, librettist for “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd,” among others, was a prolific, Edgar-winning mystery author. Stephen Sondheim co-wrote the screenplay for “The Last of Sheila,” a lovely, twisty movie in which all the clues you need will be shown to you in the first couple of scenes — and you still won’t figure it out!
But just try to get any one of these people to defend a felony charge.
I have found that each of these aspects of my life plays off against the others. Legal training has lent itself to the precision of my use of language; theater has added to my courtroom abilities; writing has let me see trial strategy as finding the flaws in competing narratives. Writing has provided a safety valve for the pressures of the day job; the people I’ve met and the forensic sciences I have learned in the day job have popped up in my mystery writing and even in one of my musicals.
I continue to defend people in NYC. It gives me a sense of purpose and is spiritually rewarding, plus I get to hang out with a great, like-minded group. And when I get tired of this world, I can invent another one and live there for a while.
Not a bad combination of weird lives, when you get right down to it.