With a background of more than 30 years as an attorney in the entertainment industry, Robert Rotstein has seen a thing or two… Now he’s taken some of that experience, blended in some fictional crime and Hollywood drama, and come up Parker Stern, a lawyer who has seen better days, and who seems to get drawn into cases that have more to them than meets the eye. We invited the California-based author to talk about his debut Parker Stern novel, Corrupt Practices, which comes out today.
Robert, will you tell us a bit about yourself? Have you always wanted to write a novel?
I grew up in Culver City, California, a city with a population of about 35,000. I’d like to say I’m a small town boy, except that Culver City is surrounded on all sides by the behemoth City of Los Angeles. When I was growing up, Culver City was the headquarters of the famed MGM Studios, so we natives like to say that we grew up in the real Hollywood. I have a day job, practicing entertainment and intellectual property law with a firm in LA. I’ve represented all the major studios, as well as many writers, directors, and musicians.
I’d always wanted to write in my younger days, but then career and responsibilities got in the way. The nature of my practice – copyright litigation – brought me in contact with many talented, creative writer clients but also many frustrated individuals who believed that they could write but couldn’t. As time went on, I began to wonder where I fit in that spectrum. And I decided that my experience had provided the grist for a novel – the law and the entertainment industry.
Your first novel, Corrupt Practices is out today. Tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to write it?
The novel features Parker Stern, an LA trial lawyer and once a rising star in the legal profession. Parker hasn’t entered a courtroom since his mentor Harmon Cherry committed suicide. The tragedy so traumatised Parker that he experiences severe stage fright every time he walks into a courtroom. But then a powerful church – a cult, really – charges one of Parker’s former law partners, Rich Baxter, with embezzlement. A terrified Baxter claims that their ex-boss Harmon Cherry didn’t really kill himself at all, but was murdered. So Parker takes on the case, and at great personal risk, uses the legal system to get to the truth about the death of his mentor. In the course of solving the mystery, Parker must face his fears and confront some long-buried demons in his past.
Is Parker Stern based on yourself, even a little bit?
We’re both litigators and we both practice some entertainment law, but any similarity ends there. I actually tried to make Parker different from me, because I think novice writers often misstep by writing characters too much like themselves – I know I did in my early attempts. Parker hasn’t entered a courtroom since his mentor committed suicide. The tragedy so traumatised him that he experiences severe stage fright every time he walks into a courtroom. Fortunately, I haven’t suffered from that affliction. And an important plot point in the novel is Parker’s horrific childhood – entirely fictional, fortunately.
What are some of your favorite writers or novels? Any big influences?
In my younger days, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason legal mystery series. I later discovered that my grandmother had these books called the Antique Little Leather Library, miniature books from the 1920s containing classic stories, and I read Edgar Allan Poe for the first time. And Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, which is at its core a legal thriller with mystery elements. Later, when I decided to give writing a try, Sue Grafton, Scott Turow, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, James M Cain, and Henning Mankell all influenced me.
What’s something that you like to see in a good book?
I like to be surprised. Surprise can come in many forms, though – an inventive plot twist, a unique character, even a magical sentence that uses the language in a unique way.
What do you enjoy most about writing crime fiction?
The legal system generally, and the criminal justice system specifically, provides ready-made elements just waiting for a writer to combine them into a story. Real-life prosecutions are already dramas. Because there are two sides, you automatically have conflict, essential for a good story. More than that, the justice system assumes that there’s a right side and a wrong side, raising questions of ethics and morality. And most cases are fraught with ambiguity. What really happened during that bar fight? Are those witnesses telling the truth? Are memories faulty? Why is that document missing from the file? Such ambiguity creates mystery. Finally, trials often involve the powerful against the dispossessed, and what better story than the underdog against the bully?
What’s next for you and Parker Stern?
I’m currently working on the next Parker Stern novel. A reclusive, iconoclastic video game developer known to the world only as ‘Poniard’ has released an online game that charges a Hollywood tycoon with the 1987 abduction and murder of an actress. Poniard hires Parker to defend him in the tycoon’s libel lawsuit. When Parker starts investigating the actress’s disappearance, he starts uncovering secrets that very dangerous people want to keep hidden.
Watch for our review of Corrupt Practices, coming soon.