Author: Charles Rosenberg

ISBN: 978-0615492391

Publisher: Sliding Hill Press


Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guest Attorney Charles Rosenberg, author of Death on a High Floor: A Legal Thriller.

Charles is a graduate of Harvard Law School and he practices in Los Angeles, as well as he teaches as an adjunct professor at Loyola School of Law. In addition, Charles has been the credited legal script consultant to the prime-time TV series LA Law, The Practice, and Boston Legal. He was also a full-time on-air legal analyst for E! Television coverage of the O.J. Simpson Trial, as well as its coverage of the Simpson civil trial. He has also authored Trial of O.J. Simpson: How to Watch the Trial and Understand What's Really Going On and a contributing author to Lawyers in Your Living Room! Law On Television.

Good day Charles and thanks for participating in our interview

Norm:

What do legal script consultants do and how influential are they when it comes to the script and its presentation on television?

Charles:

What legal script consultants do varies from legal show to legal show. It depends a lot on what the producers want. On some shows, the consultant just reads the script in (hopefully) an early draft and tries to correct legal language and, if possible, suggest fixes for concepts that may be legally off-base. The latter is a challenge because you have to find a proposed fix that won’t destroy the plot and fits in the same number of beats (spoken lines of similar length) without injecting too much complication.

I mentioned that it’s best to get an early draft because TV production, unlike movie production, moves like a freight train and if you get a script too late (or take too long to make your comments) they may already have started to shoot the scene that you wanted to have them fix.

Consultants have the most influence when they get to talk to the writers before they actually write the first draft of the script. Then, you can discuss a concept and, if it seems legally wrongheaded, ask the writer: “Well, what are you trying to accomplish dramatically?” Then you can try to suggest a fix that works dramatically, or might work even better than the original concept. When I managed in some cases to get involved at an early stage, and particularly working with writers who weren’t lawyers (or had law degrees but had never practiced law), I sometimes referred to my role as “helping writers mine reality for better drama.” If the script doesn’t shove reality under the rug, but instead makes the characters confront reality, it usually makes the drama better.

But to come back to your original question, sometimes the consultant is influential and sometimes the consultant has hardly any influence at all. It all depends on the show and the writers.

Norm:

What do you think makes a good legal thriller?

Charles:

Excellent – and difficult – question. I think a good legal thriller typically needs three things: (1) Like any good drama, it needs characters who are believable and some sort of conflict among those characters, (2) it needs a legal conflict that is believable but not so complex as to be beyond a layman’s easy understanding (Constitutional law issues, for example, usually won’t work) and (3) it needs a credible resolution of the conflict in a court-like setting.

In most legal thrillers, the reader is asked to identify with a protagonist who is a lawyer – defense lawyer, prosecutor, whatever. In a sense, for the fiction to work the reader has to believe that he or she is the lawyer. The late novelist John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, Notes on Craft for Young Writers, says the writer’s task is to create for the reader the “dream of fiction.” So I suppose that in some sense the writer of a legal fiction like Death on a High Floor has the task of creating a lawyer-protagonist the reader can dream of being.

In the case of a legal thriller, then, the protagonist must be enough of an “expert” to explain his or her professional craft to the reader without becoming a bore or a pedant. That may or may not be more difficult than writing a detective or a doctor or a pathologist or an old lady who solves mysteries from the rocking chair in her front parlor.

Norm:

What inspired you to write Death on a High Floor and how did you decide you were ready to write the book?

Charles:

I think it came from just years of reading legal TV scripts and thinking, “You know, I can do this, and it would be fun to do this,” while at the same time being one of the few people in L.A. who has never wanted to write a script. And perhaps that’s because even good scripts have to be interpreted by good directors, producers, actors and all the “below the line” professionals (those who do lighting, wardrobe, set design, etc. etc.). The writer of a novel, by contrast, works directly on the reader’s head without any interceding professionals. Perhaps you could say the reader and the writer dream together. None of which is to gainsay the important work of editors, proofreaders and book designers.

Norm:

What was your creative process like? What happened before sitting down to write the novel?

Charles:

I wish I could say there was a long creative process beforehand. There really wasn’t. I simply thought about the setting I wanted to use (a big law firm, a setting I know well) and what would kick off the novel (the murder of the not-well-liked managing partner, discovered early on by the man who would be the protagonist-defendant, Robert Tarza). I also figured out in advance who did it, but not exactly why. That was pretty much all I knew when I started writing. The killer’s exact motive didn’t come to me until later, after I’d written the first couple of chapters.

Norm:

Do you believe you have already found “your voice” with legal thrillers or is that something one is always searching for?

Charles:

I think I have likely found it for legal thrillers written in the first person, although I’m sure it can always be improved. But I’m now about 70% done with a more classic thriller, set in the White House. It isn’t a sequel to Death on a High Floor and isn’t a legal thriller. That new novel is written in the third person and is told from the point of view of multiple characters. So I’m still working out my voice in that very different style.

Norm:

Did you know the end of Death on a High Floor at the beginning?

Charles:

Well, I knew who killed the managing partner and that that person would be brought to justice. But I didn’t know how it would all end-end, so to speak – exactly how that would be revealed in the courtroom or elsewhere.

Norm:

What is the most favorite part of your book?

Charles:

In terms of scenes, I think there are two: the scene in the initial chapter where Detective Spritz interviews Robert Tarza in the firm’s 85th floor conference room, overlooking Los Angeles, and the scene in Chicago with the quirky ancient coin dealer, the peculiarly named Serappo Prodiglia. In terms of sections of the book, it would be the section with the courtroom action, in part because it’s narrated by the defendant himself. While that’s not unique, it’s at least unusual.

Norm:

Does your career as a lawyer ever conflict with your career as a writer? As a follow up, what's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?

Charles:

So far it hasn’t interfered. I’ve been able to balance the two without much difficulty. But then, these days I’m a partner in a small firm, so my time is pretty much my own as long as I get my clients’ needs met. Unlike in a large firm, I don’t have to be on committees or interview prospective new associates or train anybody, all of which takes up a lot of time.

The most difficult thing about being a writer is waiting to see what other people will think of the product. For example, I lived with a bit of trepidation that when other lawyers read Death on a High Floor, they would find technical fault with it – particularly in view of my fairly well-known role as a legal consultant to prime time TV legal dramas. I was pleased that they have (so far) liked it.

Norm:

How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

Charles:

Well, of course, Death on a High Floor is set in the environment in which I grew up professionally – large corporate law firms in Los Angeles. Plus part of my professional environment also consisted of reading hundreds of television scripts written by great TV writers like Steven Bochco, David Kelley, Jill Goldsmith and Marshall Goldberg. I did that for more than twenty-five years, starting when I was only about ten years out of law school. So good writers and producers have been as much a part of my professional family as good lawyers.

But there were other important environmental influences as well, mainly the family I grew up with and the woman I married.

The dedication to the book thanks my parents for teaching me to write. And I really meant that. I got good grades in grade school and high school on writing projects, but when I brought them home, my parents would read them (especially my Dad, but my Mom, too) and say: “Well, it’s good, but if you changed this or that it would be even better.” Of course, at the time it irritated the hell out of me, but it was enormously helpful in the long run.

The dedication is also to my wife, who is referred to as the uber editor. And she was. I would finish a chapter, re-work it, edit it, pronounce it done and show it to her. She’d say, “Well, it’s good, but it could use this or that.” I’d say, “Nope, it’s done.” And then a couple hours later, after thinking about it, I’d say, “Yeah, OK, you’re right,” and I’d do another draft or two. So I can attribute the best parts of Death on a High Floor to her editorial influence. If there are less good parts, it’s probably because I didn’t take her advice.

Norm:

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

Charles:

I learned that writing fiction is harder work that I thought it would be. I also learned how important a copy editor is. I had a great copy editor, and she improved the novel a lot. Of course, on some level, she was like my parents in that at times I found her suggestions and criticisms irritating. But she was almost always right.

Norm:

How did you go about creating the characters of Robert Tarza and Jenna James in your novel? Are they based on anyone you know?

Charles:

They are not based on anyone I know. On some level, Robert Tarza is a psychological projection of what I might have been like had I stayed in the same large law firm for my entire career. That’s why he calls himself a “lifer” in the first line of the novel. In my case, though, I left my first law firm after eleven years (six of them as a partner) and moved on to other things and other firms. Jenna is, I suppose, a rough composite of the dozens of young women lawyers I’ve known over the years (some of whom I’ve mentored), struggling to make it in large law firms – struggling to be recognized for their great talent and to have their ambitions taken as seriously as the ambitions of their male colleagues. BigLaw, as some call it, has been a difficult place for women lawyers, and it still is.

As for how I created those characters, I honestly don’t know. They just arrived, more-or-less unbidden, and flowed from my hands into the keyboard and onto the screen. I think of writing as very tactile experience. I don’t know if other writers do.

Norm:

In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?

Charles:

Obviously, you need to take some liberties. Reality, closely depicted, is kind of boring. In legal stories, for example, you take standard liberties by shortening the process and by skipping steps, particularly the tedious ones. That’s why, on TV shows, you never see lawyers doing legal research (well, on LA Law there was once such a scene but it was used as an excuse to give two associates the opportunity to make out in the library).

As a veteran of twenty-five years of discussing with writers of legal dramas how much liberty is too much liberty, I was acutely sensitive to that issue in writing Death on a High Floor. I ended up applying a standard that went something like this: If I were reading this myself, as just an ordinary reader who is also a lawyer, would the distortion make me groan? If it would, I should distort less or find some other solution.

That’s a very internalized standard, of course. So I guess in the end, I applied a standard that said: Things can be “true” without being 100% accurate. So if I think what I’m depicting is emotionally true, then I’m OK with it, even if it distorts the law.

In the end, I’m also a person who believes, unlike some, that audiences and readers are smart – that most can distinguish fact from fiction – and that you can therefore change things in a fictional work without losing a lot of sleep over it.

Norm:

What has been your overall experience as a published author?

Charles:

So far, so good. People, whether friends or strangers, have been kind and supportive.

Norm:

Where can our readers find out more about you and Death on a High Floor?

Charles:

There’s a bio and a description of the book on my WEBSITE. There’s also good material on the book’s page on AMAZON, where the book can be found in both paperback and Kindle form, as well as on the book’s FACEBOOK PAGE

Norm:

What is next for Charles Rosenberg and is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?

Charles:

I think next is to finish the thriller I’m working on, and then to write a sequel to Death on a High Floor. It’s probably going to involve many of the same characters, plus some new ones, and be set in a law school.

This has been a very interesting set of questions, so I don’t think I have anything to add except that I always look forward to hearing readers’ views. Sometimes I learn things about my own novel that I never really thought about while writing it.


Norm:

Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors

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