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Kevin Flynn: From the courtroom to the page

Sarah and Brook speak with former Department of Justice prosecutor Kevin Flynn about moving from a legal career to writing mystery fiction and non-fiction.


Relentless Pursuit (2007) Kevin Flynn

Rock Creek (2024) Kevin Flynn

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi, Brook.
BrookHi, Sarah. Today we’re going to have our first interview of Season 7.
SarahI’m very excited.
BrookI am too. Let me introduce our special guest.
BrookBorn in Washington, DC, Kevin Flynn grew up in the suburb of Annandale, Virginia, but spent part of every weekend in the city, as his grandparents lived in DC’s Southeast Quadrant. Kevin graduated from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Virginia School of Law, then worked for five years in private practice. Later, as a DC prosecutor, Kevin tried almost 30 murder cases, investigated hundreds more, and was instrumental in dismantling criminal street gangs.
BrookHis work brought him into daily contact with the best and worst aspects of human nature and those experiences have provided him with the sensibility and perspective that is infused in his fiction and nonfiction writing. Kevin lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Patrice, also a career attorney for the US Department of Justice. Their children, Connor and Megan, continue the family’s legacy of public service in New York City. We’re really looking forward to speaking with someone who’s actually worked on criminal cases and now writes fictional ones. So, welcome to Clued in Mystery, Kevin.
Kevin FlynnWell thank you very much that I’m really thrilled to be here and to be able to talk about the subject with you all. It’s close to my heart as I as I know it’s close to yours.
SarahWonderful. So, Kevin what challenges do lawyers face when transitioning from the courtroom to writing about fictional cases?
Kevin FlynnMy situation is a little bit unusual in the sense that I did it while I was actually still prosecuting. I wrote a book in 2007 called Relentless Pursuit and it was about a murder case that I had had tried and how my family and the victim’s family intertwined. And the spine of the book was that that the investigation and the trial of the case. After that book came out in 2007, I went on a sabbatical a family sabbatical and I had some time on my hands. It was basically. I would take care I would do all the stuff that my wife would do when she was part time with the kids in the morning and the kids in the afternoon. And she went full time so we switch roles and in the in the in the middle of the day I had a yawning gap. And so I wasn’t working and so I started writing. And I had time to to sit down and and and write fiction. And then it took me about a year to write the manuscript for the book that’s that has come out this past week, called Rock Creek, which is a work of fiction set in DC in the 1950s.
Kevin FlynnThe first draft wasn’t ready to pass muster. My agent wasn’t able to put it out just yet and I understand why now when I look back at it. So the years to come in the years to come I proceeded to do multiple edits on it at the same time I was working as a violent crime prosecutor. I had gone back to my job and was working a full time job still sort of while my wife and I were sort of raising our kids through adolescence and off to college and all that and I only left the Department of Justice last last year in anticipation of this book coming out. So my situation was ah a little bit different just in terms of the the time devotion and the practical logistical aspect of it. In terms of just the artistic challenge I guess I would say that um it’s we we as lawyers as prosecutors work in a very linear way. And and we’re we’re sort of like we’re forward looking. We’re given a case and we’re we’re moving forward with it and when you’re writing fiction you’re creating your own world. The world of being a prosecutor is very much fact-based. It’s its it’s reality based in in its grittiest form. And you you deal with the facts that are given you when you’re writing fiction you’re creating ah a whole different world and you’re creating. You’re creating your own characters. You’re creating your own place. You’re creating your own narrative and your own structure and the structure isn’t provided to you by real life so that is both. It’s both a challenge but it’s extraordinarily liberating too as as as ah, as a writer.
BrookYeah, definitely. I love the way that you described balancing your family life with your work life and your and your career because I think that that’s just kind of a universal thing for a lot of authors. We imagine that you get to do it full time, and just devote yourself to to your craft. But most of us are juggling many different things and it sounds like that was your your experience as well.
Kevin FlynnIt was. And I have to say I was very committed, when I when I wrote Rock Creek, and I was developing the characters, not to have the characters at all based on people who are close to me. So, in other words the protagonist whose name is Shane Kinnick, he’s a homicide detective and and he’s based on and inspired by various detectives and prosecutors that I have known over the years in terms of just how he goes about his job. But he I didn’t want him to have a wife. He has a he’s somewhat bereft on his on a domestic front. I didn’t want there to be any intrusion of my personal life and didn’t want my wife to see herself “Oh my god I’m I’m a character in your book”. I have I had a wonderful relationship with my father. Shane Kinnick has a very strained relationship with his father I have a wonderful relationship with my son.
Kevin FlynnNone of those relationships entered into this. And so on the family side of things, that was a great counterbalance and with my work and also with with with my writing um. From the the point of view of my job being able to still work at that at that job full time and have that amplified my editing, which I was in the process of doing after I returned to to DoJ, that’s that was extraordinarily beneficial. Um I’ve often I’ve said and I’ll say it this this is the running theme throughout any any anytime that I talk about about writing and about particularly about Rock Creek is that I I would not be a good fiction writer at all if it weren’t for having been a prosecutor and and a trial lawyer. Everything about my approach to creating characters to setting place to setting narrative to to to you know, even that the the minutia of writing is is. Is inspired by and and to some extent formed by my having to sit down and strategize for trial, work with people, develop storylines, and then see those processes through to completion trial lawyering is is storytelling it pure and simple. And and I would not be able to tell stories if I had not had to tell them in in court of course within a authentic and and and true and and and real life scenario.
BrookOh, that’s fascinating. I love that ah that you said that you know it is storytelling. We imagine what it’s like to be an author or to write a book was there anything that surprised you about the process of of writing fiction?
Kevin FlynnIt is really, really, really hard. My first book, um I tried the case in 1994, I started writing in 1995 I finished that draft in 1997, but I had some family illness that intervened. My mother got got very sick fortunately recovered. But um so that book started going out in 1997, and it it didn’t get finally published until 2007. So I was familiar when I sat down to write Rock Creek, I was familiar with the the process of the editing, the revising, the the putting it back out to multiple different publishers et cetera. But um I I didn’t really I didn’t realize how much fiction is different than the nonfiction until I actually I sat down through the editing process. I thought my first draft was great. And then it didn’t meet with quite the same reception from my agent or from actually people who are even close to me who who read it. And just certain technical parts of the process I had to master over the course of of the edit. Just ah, give you a ah brief example. And it’s just going to be It’s sort of like a technical inter intermixture between trial lawyering and and writing. I know I knew when I was in court and I had a witness on the stand that I always wanted to end their testimony, if it was a witness for me, particularly an important witness, I wanted to end their testimony on a high note. I wanted the last question answer to be something that was impactful. But and that’s of course called direct examination. But you don’t start a direct examination with a killer question right out of the box. You’re introducing the the jury or the judge to the witness. So there are introductory questions and there is a certain sense of setting the background and setting all that up. And I realized only very late in the in the editing process how much that had hampered me. It had helped me, and I had hampered me out as a writer I could end chapters very compellingly. But my instinct just in my head was always to start the next chapter with background information or with exposition or with description.
Kevin FlynnSomebody once described reading one of my early drafts as “every time I read a chapter, I like it and then I have to start all over again”. Instead of immediately cutting to something that is going to be compelling to make make the reader go through and go on. So, it took me ah a long time. There was a lot of stuff from my my trial lawyering experience that I could apply to fiction. Certain things I had to break myself of the habit of as I was as I was constructing chapters. And going through the actual writing process. And that was something that just had to work its way through. I love a quote that I I read relatively recently, but it resonated with me that “good writing is in the writing and great writing and is in the revising” and so it’s so that’s ah that that was a real part of the process.
SarahSo you mentioned how um your approach to writing was inspired by your experience as a prosecutor and and your character in Rock Creek was informed by people that you’ve worked with in the past. Did a real-life case inspire the rest of the story?
Kevin FlynnIt it did um, very much so. The origin of Rock Creek is is found in basically a 15-minute discussion that I had with a friend, actually the agent for my first book Relentless Pursuit. I was in the middle of my or just were actually starting out my sabbatical ,and he said “well, what’s your next book going to be about?” and then inside my head I thought to myself “Well I just finished this one. Why why do you want make me go through the process again?” But he said “have you worked on any high profile cases that might be the subject for the second nonfiction book?” And I said “Yeah, I’ve worked on the Chandra Levy case.” And I don’t know if you all are familiar with that. It’s the case that is about a Washington intern who had been found dead in Rock Creek Park. First she went missing, a year later she was found dead. And while she was missing but presumed having been the victim of foul play. It came out that she had been in an affair with a California Congressman working in Congress in DC. He became a suspect that became a national story. Ah he was later exonerated, appropriately. I had worked on that that case, but as I said to my agent and friend, I I can’t do anything with that I can’t I can’t because first it was still in the investigation stage which meant that everything I had done on it was confidential. And second, I had gotten to know her parents well and I didn’t want to do anything that would seem to be exploitative of them and of of that matter. And so we came up with the idea of fictionalizing the case and setting it back 50 years so Rock Creek begins literally 50 years um to the day from the day that that Chandra’s body was found. So she was she was found in late May of 2002.
KevinThe story begins in late May of 1952. And because of the fact that it was only the inspiration for the book, but the book was not based on it, I wanted to come up with a backstory for the victim that did not in any way parallel the real-life story of Chandra Levy. That was ah that was a great challenge and and it was it was coming up with the story of someone the victim and in in in Rock Creek is very resilient. She is a survivor of horrible experiences. She manages to find her way to Washington, DC and she is very ambitious and she is looking. She’s forward looking and she ends up being the victim of of horrible crime and so that was my inspiration. It was the inspiration was was the Levy case but I want to make very clear that it’s not that Rock Creek is not based on it. I don’t want anybody to be under any misconceptions that I have used facts gleaned from that case to to um, ah to to to sort of mirror what is in my is in my fiction.
BrookWell, Kevin, law is a very complex and um, specialized topic. So how do you write about cases and the legal system in ways that can be accessible to all readers?
Kevin FlynnIt’s um, and again, I just might my familiar refrain that that’s the point of being a mantra is is um is just is being a trial lawyer as opposed to say, a transactional lawyer or trust and estates lawyer or having engaged in any of the other specialties. Because trial lawyering means that from the time you first set foot in the courtroom, you essentially have to take even the most complicated cases and and make them comprehensible to the everyday average average juror.
Kevin FlynnThe the least successful trial lawyers that I have have seen over the years were the ones who couldn’t break things down for the average person who is sitting in the courtroom having to absorb facts about a case that by definition they know nothing about. Because if they know anything about it, they’re not going to be able to sit on the jury.
Kevin FlynnSo that’s where storytelling comes in, and that’s where being able to to break big things down into smaller pieces. I think on the other end of the spectrum, some of the the prosecutors that I’ve seen and the trial lawyer that I’ve seen that that were the least successful were the lawyers that talked down to to juries, who condescended to juries. Who made it seem as if they were insulting jurys’ intelligence a jury’s intelligence. So, I knew when I started to sit down and write about legal matters whether in Relentless Pursuit in nonfiction or in Rock Creek which is about a murder case I already had a sense for how to break a story down in a way that um, the average reader wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by it. Rock Creek has several different subplots and there are different stories that are that are interwoven. And one of the challenges that I had, particularly in editing, was making sure that these these stories they overlapped they intertwined but they did not interfere interfere with each other.
SarahSo Kevin can you tell us a little bit about when crafting a historical fiction narrative how you balance factual accuracy with creative storytelling?
Kevin FlynnUm, that’s ah, that’s a great question. I started with the research I and and then had and then moved forward. So, once I decided that I was going to take the. Ah, take a story that was inspired by the leavey case and set it back in the 1952 um, in DC. I had 2 things going for me one was I grew up and you know in in the Washington, DC area and I was in DC every weekend of my life. and so I was born in ‘57 started being aware of being in and out of Washington, DC when I was probably about 5 or 6 and then all the way through my life. Not only have been in and out of the city on a personal basis constantly but also obviously having worked professionally in DC working street crime I know I know the city very well. I also knew something about the city in 1952 because coincidentally um, my parents met in DC in June of 1952. And I I hope no so psychoanalyst thinks that there are connotations there I assure you that I did not consciously set out to write a book about the month in which my parents met. But it turned out that that was the case. There’s something that actually occurred to me I was that as I was in the planning process. So, I knew from their stories and their pictures something about what the city was like then. But I still sat down to do a lot of research. And when I first sat down, and this was in 2007 I’ve envisioned myself as being as going from library to library and having to look through microfiche, and was was really amazed and and heartened to find out how much how much is available online. Even in 2007 all of the historical Washington Posts were available online going back into the 1890s. And so I literally was able as I was following through the narrative to know day by day what was going on in the city at the time. I could put my hands on source original source material that showed what fashions what men’s fashions, what women’s fashions were like, what kind of cars were being driven and all the rest of that. And so I was very committed to just the the historical fictional side being as accurate as possible and I really think that given everything that’s available to a writer if you’re writing historical fiction, it’s almost sinful to get something wrong. You you can I mean Harry Truman was president in June of 1952. It wasn’t Dwight Eisenhower. He was elected in November of ‘52 was sworn in in 1953.
Kevin FlynnIf you have Eisenhower in office in a Washington, DC story in June of 1952 somebody who reads historical fiction is going to shut down because they’re going to say the work didn’t go in Tru and wasn’t president at the same time, you’re not writing nonfiction. You’re not writing history, so you are creating fictional characters and setting them into the time period of June of 1952. So, for example, Shane Kinnick’s father is a very influential Congressman um, and his name is Raymond Kinnick. He, as I said, has a strained relationship with with Shane. He’s very influential. He’s very powerful. He didn’t exist in 1952. He is trying to push through a civil rights bill in 1952. In fact, there was not a major piece of civil rights legislation that was passed in Congress until more like the mid 50s; 1957 in fact. But once I decided to start putting fictional characters into my um into my historical construct, by definition you’re interfering a little bit with history. But you do it in such you have to do it in such a way that’s that’s still authentic. Is it outside the realm of possibility that a congressman ah would have seen civil rights as being an issue that he wanted to get out in front of and thought he had the power to do so? Yes, that’s within the realm of possibility. Um the character who the victim has has an affair with in Rock Creek is a congressman and very consciously modeled on a JFK-type figure.
Kevin FlynnAnd again, I had a certain amount of of ah of an advantage here because my mother had worked on Capitol Hill. And she had worked at one point for a Texas congressman who worked on the same corridor as JFK was as a young Congressman so I kind of knew something about the milieu. He this the character in Rock Creek is a JFK-like character and but and his but and his career is sort of following on a parallel path as JFK’s in real life did. A different fate meets my character. You have to create fiction within a historical structure. And in doing so you you know that your fictional characters are influencing events back sixty-seventy years now. And then you start all over again. So the next time I I write, it if I’m I’m looking to take this into it the next into a sequel, and the next. But when I sit down five years later, I have these characters. They’re starting all over again and you’re putting it in a 1957 historical context. But you’re still creating fiction. You have within that structure. But the structure itself has to be authentic.
BrookYeah that’s great. What role can legal thrillers or dramas play in sparking conversations about current social and legal issues?
Kevin FlynnI think it it can play a ah significant role. And I’ve looked particularly to historical historical fiction, in in ah in a sense that it can introduce readers within in the in the mystery and the thriller genre, it can introduce readers to the fact that as the saying goes history is a distant mirror. Um, there are resonances in Rock Creek to social issues that that we’re we’re going through to this day. When I sat down in 2007, and started writing and it was it was finally ready to be released to to yeah editors and publishers and all the rest of that in the in the late in in about 2015 or so. During that time and through the editing process, I realized that ideas that I had come up with that would be resonant in 1952 remained resonant in 2013, 15, 2022, now. There is there a major subtheme in Rock Creek is is race. And one of the things which which made Rock Creek Park which is where as I said the real life victim was found a compelling place for me to write about was that in 1952 Rock Creek Park, which is a a park that is basically in the middle of Washington. It’s a beautiful park. It divides it divides the city into into two halves more or less. But it back then divided the black part of town from the white part of town and so crimes that were committed in the quote unquote white part of town were taken more seriously than crimes that were committed in the black part of town and it was such a ah ah ah, a barrier, a geographical barrier in terms of race, that blacks who strayed from the black part of town which is west of Rock Creek Park to the white part of town were ticketed, even if all they were doing was walking down a street. There is a character in the book who ends up being charged with the murder of the victim in the case. His arrest sparks protests and the protest center around police misconduct in the in the in the course of the investigation of the the murder, which which leads to his apprehension and his arrest. And those protests, which actually didn’t happen in 1952 could they have yes but they didn’t but in my kind of my nonfiction in my fictional construct they did and those mirrored in you know in in significant ways things that happened in, particularly in 2020. and still can still continue to happen social unrest having to do with with with race and issues having to do with with police police corruption. So just from a from the point of view of a historical piece that is a murder mystery, there is there is that way that that legal.
Kevin FlynnThis legal thriller at least Rock Creek can can can create dialogue about present day issues. I think even um I think any any piece of fiction whether it’s historical or not um in whatever genre. But particularly since you asked about about murder mystery um, it can can illuminate current issues. I think that the extent to which characters are created in a fictional work that embody real life characters who are going through real life issues. Um, those real life issues. We all of us as we go about our day-to-day lives all of us are affected by conditions outside of ourselves. And I think that the fiction that does not leap off the page to me is the type of fiction where the characters could be any place anytime and could have any any kind of background or no kind of background, and they just move about in in their own world in a very sort of isolated, gumshoe goes about trying to find um you know the missing husband who is believed to have absconded with family funds and gone off on an affair with his secretary. But with no other context, you don’t know who where these people came from. You don’t know where they’re going and you have none of the sort of the the context that would make the story more interesting.
Kevin FlynnAnd so a murder mystery or any kind of mystery just like any kind of fiction I think is is most resonant when it when it is in a place and surrounded by conditions, which affect the characters and also the characters can affect. And so if you write like that, then you are writing by definition of way that a reader will learn from in terms of the conditions that he or she is going is going through. He or she is experiencing or he or she is is aware of both politically, socially, globally whatever.
SarahSo, Kevin it has been such a treat to speak to you today. Where can our listeners find you?
Kevin FlynnUm, my author’s website is that kevinflynnauthor.com. Rock Creek is available now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and on other retail sites. And I can also be reached by by way of email. Ah, through the contact portal on my kevinflynnauthor.com website. And I’m always happy to respond to readers’ inquiries and I I really relish the exchange with people who wish to talk about the creative process, how Rock Creek came to be and how they as as writers might go through the sometimes torturous but the ultimately rewarding process that I have.
BrookThank you so much Kevin. And thank you listeners for joining us today on Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.