Questions and answers used from interviews about me and about my novel Choices
The original title (or working title) of CHOICES was Defending Jesus. Although Defending Jesus is a very provocative book title, it was changed to CHOICES which really better reflects the theme of the novel.
Who is Mr Onager?
For my fourteenth birthday present, my parents gave me a 3 foot high stuffed gray and white donkey. As real live donkeys are often stubborn, this stuffed version was in a firmly seated position reflecting his own style of stubbornness (and maybe mine too at fourteen). My father opined (as a joke) that my new stuffed pet should be named Mr. Jackass whereupon my mother indicated absolutely not. My opinion wasn’t needed even though I sided with my father. My learned father offered a new name - Mr. Onager. One of the definitions of the word onager is a wild ass. So, my new stuffed friend became Mr. Onager - the name still means the same thing, but was far less distasteful to my mother. I loved this little stuffed animal and as I grew older, I went on to college and when I came back home a year later, I was surprised not to see Mr. Onager. When I asked my dad, where is he? My father told me that our collie dog had decided to play with Mr. Onager and left stuffing all over the house. Mr. Onager was properly buried and today, Mr. Onager lives on with my business.
What is your full name?
My full name is Mabel Alice Smith. I prefer to write under the name M. A. Smith and I go by “Alice”.
Alice, what inspired you to pen your debut book, Choices, a novel that seems to explore the decisions we make – and sometimes regret?
One nugget of the idea for the story came from a conversation with my husband about the movie version of "Chicago" which revolved around a particular scene between Richard Gere and John C. Reilly in which Gere's character, Billy Flynn, talks about if Jesus had $5,000 at the time of his trial and Flynn as his lawyer, things might have turned out differently. Flynn, of course, was a celebrity lawyer before there was a term for it. Another layer to the initial story was the difficult financial times we were all living in during 2008 to 2012 and how that was forcing people to take stock of where they were in their lives. I'd read a lot of individual stories of folks who had used their difficulties as an opportunity to seek new directions for themselves and they appeared to be happier with their choice.
What’s your book about?
It is about a high-powered, wealthy Los Angeles attorney who survives a very bad accident. However, he has some permanent damage to a leg and has suffered severe damage to his legal reputation because there are unproven allegations of alcohol impairment. A year later, he finds himself back at work, but his partners want him out, which isn't going to be easy and it may prove dangerous for him. His prestigious clients are gone and he is relegated by his partners to representing a multitude of innocuous pro bono cases. He’s alone, having been divorced for nearly 20 years from the love of his life. Ultimately, he takes on a seemingly simple case of a homeless man who rampages through a bank. His new client quickly became a media sensation, but the case isn't anywhere near as simple as it seems. Defending his client forces the attorney to use his skill -- not the media -- to keep his client out of jail. The case also strips away any delusions he has built up about his life and why he can't let go of the woman he divorced.
To share your story, you reveal bits of information and events out of chronological order. How does this device serve in the telling of your tale?
I wanted to use flashbacks at strategic points in the novel to give the novel a really interesting way of filling in the central character's back story. The way I did events out of order are not commonly used in fiction writing, however, I believe it works quite well with the pacing of this story.
What challenges did you have to overcome the writing of your book?
I needed to make sure that I was always telling the story from Ethan's perspective. It is his journey, not mine. Keeping the issues and other characters revolving around Ethan realistic and complex and not a thin portrayal was always a challenge. I wanted the reader to go with Ethan on his journey, not stand on the outside, looking in. I have always liked the old proverb "never criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins." Everyone has a story and choices in their lives and experiences that drive their decisions.
Were there any real-life events or people that motivated some portions of your writing?
Sure. One real-life event had to do with banks actively pulling lines of credit from small businesses around 2010 through 2012. In January, 2012, Bank of America was the subject of a lengthy Los Angeles Times article doing just that. Some of the characters are composites of people I have known or worked with in the past, so I wouldn't say that any one real-life person motivated my writing of Choices.
Your story revolves around Ethan Bernstein, a complex character who finds himself struggling to recover after a near death car accident. What issues are the one-time successful lawyer confronting?
Ethan Bernstein had spent a great deal of his adult life building his profession and the wealth and power associated with it. But in a very short space of time, all that he had built has been severely diminished. How does he cope with it? How would any of us cope with hitting rock bottom? In Ethan's story, he believes that all he has to do to regain his place at the top of the heap is have one last great case. He's in denial that the loss of being a legal star may be permanent. In a classic corporate sense, Ethan is burned out on his job, but he can't let go of it either. It's too much of a part of how he sees his own self-worth. He is struggling with his personal life as well. His first and only wife has her own life and career and he wants to fit in with her life, but he can't. He is at that moment in his life where all the past decisions or choices, if you will, can no longer be justified or ignored. Our experiences are what shape our lives and the decisions we make along the way. Ethan is no different.
And as he looks to redeem a career built on illegal and unethical maneuverings, he is tasked with defending a homeless man in a criminal case pro bono. Why is this case so important to him?
Ethan's client, Jim Nazareth, is important to him in the beginning only because Ethan sees the case as a vehicle to boost him back to the top of the field. He wouldn't have had any interest in the case had there not been a big media presence involved. For Ethan, taking the case simply isn't about sticking up for the "little guy." All that slowly starts to change as Ethan begins to focus more on his client than himself.
The case involves an alleged assault that happened as a man, James Nazareth, protested the way a bank was treating people who were down on their luck during the height of the recession. Is there a message about greed and responsibility?
In the context of just that scene in the novel, not really. The underlying reason for Nazareth's action was the distress over a friend's plight and the resulting anger and frustration that overflowed after the insensitivity of a bank officer towards a potential customer. His emotional state was what many people would understand however, Nazareth took more of an "in your face" approach most people are unlikely to take. I don't think there are a lot of people these days that would characterize the big banks as being customer oriented or a friend, regardless of their slick marketing. Very simply, they are global corporations whose first allegiance is to return profit to their shareholders. I'm not sure we should even characterize them as banks.
As the story unfolds, we learn more of how Ethan’s family life fell apart as a result of his work. Why does it seem to be a constant occurrence that people who make money or are successful end up sacrificing their personal lives?
It is true that we certainly seem to hear a lot of stories like that, but I don't believe that everyone who becomes successful and/or wealthy torpedoes their personal life. I’ve known successful folks who are very grounded, so to speak, in their lives. Maybe the reasons why some end up sacrificing their personal lives has to do with why they chased the success and money in the first place. In Choices, Ethan Bernstein's hunt for success as a lawyer really had a lot to do with his dysfunctional parents and his underlying need for an "atta boy" from them that he was never going to get.
You say that Ethan is a “celebrity lawyer who believed his own bullshit.” Don’t most people lie to themselves about who they really are?
I don't think it's so much that people lie to themselves about who they really are as it is that they lie to themselves to varying degrees about why they make a life changing choice such as their job and why they stay with the choice perhaps longer than they should. I'm sure we could have an interesting discussion on this topic alone.
Ethan believes helping Nazareth is a second chance to get his life right. Do many of us get second chances to reverse the trajectory of their lives?
I believe that there are forks in life's road that come along to cause a second thought or two about whether a change of course can or should happen. We either ignore the road signs or we pause, really examine the issue and change direction. If you want to call that a second chance, then it doesn't have to be a roman candle going off in your head or a really life threatening situation to change life's path. Second chances can be subtle. It can be that recurring nudge you've ignored telling you it's time to let go of a friendship with someone who's no longer really your friend.
You grew up in Southern California and your story takes place in Los Angeles. Is life there very different from the rest of the country?
I grew up in a small town with a private college about 60 miles east of Los Angeles That was in the late 1950s into the 1960s. I never saw downtown L. A. until I was in college. Southern California during that time was very different than it is today. It had way less in population, housing was cheap and the freeways weren't what they are now. I've lived in Massachusetts and Florida for short times in the early '70s, but returned to Northern California in about 1975 where home was until about a year ago. My husband and I went to Los Angeles frequently for live theater and I still have high school friends who live in Southern California. I appreciate L. A. for its vibrancy and its celebrity, so that's why I chose it as the setting for my novel.
What can we learn from Ethan’s life to help us examine how we live our own lives?
Ethan's life is a reminder that the best things in life really are free. A little over two years ago, two very dear friends of ours passed away within six months of each other. Both died of two different types of cancer and they weren't anywhere near being "old men". I could say that both were larger than life - one of them was the epitome of the best of being a Texan. I miss his great stories and his sly sense of humor every day. The other had a great passion for restoring Chevy Chevelles, was one of the groomsmen in our wedding and an old college friend of my husband. Just like the rest of us, neither man was a saint – each had sometimes struggled with their choices. Neither man was wealthy. Through the final months, each one, in their grace and wisdom as they faced cancer head on, showed us what was really important in life and what is not. Ethan learned that life can turn on a dime and it doesn't matter what your station in life is. How you react to adversity is as important as how you react to the good times.
Your book makes some commentary about what happens to us after we die. Is true justice ever reached, even in death?
That's an interesting question, too. It wasn't my intention in writing Choices to address that particular theme. While doing some research for the novel, I was interested in the concept that there are some spiritual beliefs in the notion that for a Christian, it may be hard to make it through to the Promised Land in only one life, that one cannot overcome all one's sins and must return again until those sins are cleared to be able to move completely out of the secular world.
Another aspect to your story touches upon flashbacks to Ethan’s childhood and how he was raised as a replacement child. They started over with Ethan, but they put too much pressure on him, didn’t they?
I wouldn't say that Ethan's parents started over with him per se. He may have been a replacement child, as you say, but their first child was still very much alive for them. Pressure wasn't the issue here, it was ugly abuse welded by the very people who were supposed to nurture and protect him.
Does Ethan’s upbringing show that some choices in life are made for us, not by us?
Yes, certainly it does. When we're young we don't have control over most aspects of our lives, but that should change when we start making our own way in life. Unfortunately, without any self-awareness, Ethan carried others lousy choices well into his adult life. He may have had moments of vague understanding of the motivations he had had, but he ignored them and went on down his path.
Choices makes many statements about the law profession. Are most lawyers corrupt, by the nature of their position, or can some lawyers be honest?
I really don't think that law school teaches law students to be corrupt. That's an acquired art form for some and certainly not exclusive to being a lawyer. Corruption can occur in many professions and government. In prior jobs, I have worked with many lawyers and most were good examples of what a lawyer should be, but some were just adversarial for the sake of their own belief in the idea that lawyers are the top of the food chain and everyone else just isn't as smart. That didn't make them corrupt by the nature of their work, just ego driven. On the other hand, a great deal of members of Congress and past and current Presidents have been lawyers. On second thought, let's just not go there.
It also makes conclusions about the legal system that are unflattering. How can we change our system so that cases are won fairly and on the merits – and not dictated by money and political power?
That's a larger question which is beyond my skill level to answer. Although the novel may make some unflattering conclusions about the legal system, it's purpose wasn't to be a call for change. However, it could also be said that the public perception about the legal system is quite tainted considering past cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial, President Clinton's impeachment, Casey Anthony or George Zimmerman to name a few.
Do we need a new definition of success, other than “an accumulation of wealth by any means necessary”?
Haven't most human beings, since the beginning of time, defined success by the accumulation of wealth? In the ancient world, the guy with the most amount of cattle or sheep or goats and bags of gold and gems was successful. Maybe the type of wealth has changed over the millennia, but the idea that wealth equates to success and power hasn't changed. Maybe what we need is to change our own individual definition of what success is or isn't.
When it comes to lawyers, why do so many people dislike them except for when they need one? And why do so many who practice law find it unfulfilling?
I'm not even sure we like them even when we need one. We don't like bankers so much any more either, but we still need them, don't we? Seriously, though, maybe many people dislike lawyers because of either their own experience with one or horror stories they hear from others or maybe it's a downside to the seemingly suit happy society we live in. Such things can build preconceived opinions about a profession. Why do those who practice law find it unfulfilling? I don't know. All the lawyers I knew stayed in the profession. Maybe the question should be why don't they do something to improve their public image and stop going into public office?