An Interview with Mike Avery
Author of THE COOPERATING WITNESS
Literary Wanderlust Press
by Andrea Caswell
In Mike Avery’s debut novel, an ambitious law student is determined to find the truth to save an innocent man accused of murder. But the truth is never black-and-white, and the secrets she discovers hit close to home. The Cooperating Witness is a compelling legal thriller in which the moral ambiguities of justice are on trial. Mike Avery mines his fifty-year career as an attorney and law professor to craft a suspenseful story of murder, the mob, and a young woman’s determined idealism. In the following interview, conducted via phone and email, the author discusses his novel, the freedom of writing fiction, and the complex intersection of our legal system and morality.
Andrea Caswell: You have extensive experience in the legal profession. What insights did this give you in writing The Cooperating Witness?
Mike Avery: My legal background was very helpful. I’ve known a lot of people like my characters: burned-out lawyers like Bobby Coughlin and idealistic students like Susan Sorella. I felt I knew how they might think, and how they’d react to situations that presented themselves in scenes. I’m also very familiar with FBI frame-ups, having litigated a well-known case over a period of several years. My goal was to create a story that was true to life, in the sense that it could actually happen in a courtroom, but was also dramatic.
AC: Susan struggles with feeling alienated in the male-dominated world of criminal law, and sexism adds to her challenges. She needs a strong mentor, but finds that mentors are “still few and far between for a young woman interested in criminal defense.” Why do you think that is, and are there solutions on the horizon?
MA: The opportunities for women as criminal trial lawyers have been gradually improving. During most of the time I was active in court, there were very few successful women criminal attorneys on the defense side. There were more women prosecutors, because Government agencies were required to have equal employment opportunities. Women are saddled with the macho notion that the public has, the stereotype that a criminal defense lawyer has to be aggressive and combative. No doubt that influences the choices that clients make when it comes time to retain a lawyer. There is, however, more than one way to be effective in the courtroom.
AC: Your novel explores the complex relationship between the law and justice. Susan discovers that the law isn’t always about right and wrong, and many of us might be surprised by that fact. Is that an inherent contradiction in our justice system?
MA: I think Susan discovers, particularly in terms of the relationships she and her father have with mob boss Frank Romano, that right and wrong as defined by the law do not always take into account moral imperatives. Or to put it another way, as she tries to seek justice, she finds she is confronted by conflicting obligations. In TV shows and police procedural novels, it is a cliché that private detectives or the police have to cut corners to nail the bad guy. I think that concept is overused and probably encourages police lawlessness. In this book we see what happens to the FBI agents who believe that the end justifies the means.
AC: The novel is set in Boston, from its gritty wharves to the elegant Parker House Hotel. One scene takes place in the Rosebud Diner, which was a local dive when I was in college and is still there today. What makes Boston the perfect setting for your novel?
MA: I lived in Boston for almost forty years and practiced criminal law there for nearly thirty of them. I know the culture. There is a rich diversity of characters in the community to draw upon when writing fiction.
AC: We experience the action from multiple characters’ perspectives, including Susan’s boss Bobby, FBI agents, prosecutors, the accused, and even the charismatic mob boss Frank Romano. How did you decide to inhabit those different minds, and what were some of the challenges these POVs presented?
MA: When I started writing fiction, I knew nothing, niente as my murder victim Tony Francini would say, about writing from a given character’s point of view. My first drafts were all over the place as I flitted from one character’s perspective to another in the same scene. So, point of view became an object of study for me, with the assistance of my teacher Stuart Nadler from the Bennington Writing Seminars. One of the things I read, and I’m sorry I can’t recall who wrote this, was that you can’t answer the question, “What does a barn look like?” You can only imagine what the barn looks like to a specific person. In each chapter I tried to imagine what the action looked and felt like to the character whose point of view I was using, and then to describe it in the language that he or she would use.
AC: How difficult was it to write a female protagonist, to give voice to her inner thoughts and feelings?
MA: That was very difficult. Whether I did a good job or not is something readers will decide. I got a lot of help from strong women in my life, including Jill, the woman I live with. In particular I have to thank my daughters Katie and Samantha, who are young, very independent, smart, and feminists. From time to time I’d ask them to read a section of the book to tell me whether I was off-base. To the extent I got things right, I have to give them credit. But to the extent that I made mistakes, I’m afraid I have to take the blame.
AC: The novelist Susan Scarf Merrell has said that “responding to art with art is what artists do.” You reference other art forms, such as Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the movie Casablanca, and a painting by the German expressionist Max Pechstein. How did those works find their way into your novel?
MA: What characters respond to, whether in literature or film or the visual arts, can deepen a reader’s understanding of them. When Susan first goes to the co-defendant’s lawyer’s office, she notices a painting on the wall, a Pechstein that I was fortunate to see at the Brücke Museum in Berlin. As Susan reflects on the exploitation of one of Pechstein’s models, it mirrors her own feeling of being sexualized as a woman in a professional role. The painting captured that sense of vulnerability very well.
AC: Food figures prominently in the book. Susan works at her family’s restaurant in the North End, where we enjoy strolls past Italian grocery stores and cafés. Characters dine on traditional antipasto platters, and homemade pasta with puttanesca sauce. Is it fair to say you’re a foodie?
MA: I love to cook and love Italian food, so I spiced up the story with it. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Bobby Coughlin is attempting to get himself together to try the murder case and prepares chicken marsala as a metaphor for what he has to do to get ready to walk into the courtroom.
AC: The late film scholar Robert Warshow posits in his classic essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (1948), that gangsters are portrayed as mythological figures who we know we should condemn, yet we can’t help but admire them too. Susan experiences this conflict with Frank Romano, the local mob boss. He’s charismatic, “an elegant criminal,” but ultimately his success will be his downfall; he’s recognizable as a tragic or anti-hero. How did you conceive of Frank Romano?
MA: Romano is a man whose life took an irrevocable turn early. Maybe he could have been someone else, or done something else, but he is a mob boss. At the same time, he is generous, intelligent, highly literate, and capable of tender feelings. No person is all good or bad and Romano shows us that.
AC: You’ve published legal treatises, and more general nonfiction books about law and politics. How different was the experience of writing fiction?
MA: Writing fiction is very different. I love that I can just make things up. When writing about law I have to footnote everything. In law one has to attempt to be logical and have everything make sense. When there are contradictions, one has to explain or resolve them. Usually one is attempting to be persuasive, or to craft an argument. In fiction, things can happen, as they do in life, that are unpredictable and make no sense. One of the things I have to work on as a fiction writer is to let that happen and ignore my legal personality that wants to put everything in order.
AC: Have you started your next project?
MA: I’m writing the sequel now. Susan is practicing law and working with a strong female mentor to defend a new client charged with murder.
AC: You’ve devoted much of your career to civil rights law and social justice reform. Which organizations do you see doing great work in these areas right now, and how best can we support them?
MA: There are many organizations doing excellent work at the moment. I work with the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP), a project of the National Lawyers Guild. We assist lawyers who bring lawsuits against officers and police departments for misconduct by the police. We are expanding our work to assist community organizers who are struggling to hold the police accountable for civil rights violations and to bring about needed changes in how police departments operate. NPAP can be found at https://www.nlg-npap.org/.
To learn more about the author or The Cooperating Witness, visit his website.
Starting as an ACLU staff lawyer during the Black Panther murder trial in New Haven in 1970, Mike Avery enjoyed an exciting career as a civil rights lawyer. He represented victims of police abuse and racial and sexual discrimination and defended people charged with everything from peaceful protesting to murder. In 2007 he obtained the largest judgment ever awarded against the FBI, $101.7 million, for the wrongful conviction of four innocent men for murder. The crime was actually committed by an FBI informant. He has served as the President of the National Lawyers Guild and was one of the founders of the National Police Accountability Project. Avery spent 16 years as a law professor at Suffolk Law School in Boston. He has published several non-fiction books, is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, and spent a year as an exchange student in the former Soviet Union at the University of Moscow. After retiring as a professor of law, he obtained a Master of Fine Arts from Bennington College.
Andrea Caswell holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is a fiction editor at Cleaver Magazine. Her work has been published by River Teeth, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday, Columbia Journal, and others. In 2019 she was selected as a fiction participant for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A native of Los Angeles, Andrea now teaches writing in Newburyport, Massachusetts.