“This is what I have to do to balance the book while being a mom,” said McLean matter-of-factly when she found her daughter and called back. Her second novel, “Under Fire,” was released last week.
Wearing firefighter gear, novelist Margaret McLean sprayed water onto the fire raging from gasoline-filled balloons.
McLean felt the tension, even though the fire at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy was staged.
“I wanted to experience what it felt like to be a firefighter and not just sit at my computer and imagine it,” said McLean of Norwell, Mass., whose second novel, “Under Fire,” was released last week. “I went back to every contact I had to write this book.”
“Under Fire” is a legal thriller about a Senegalese immigrant charged with setting fire to her own store and shooting the Boston firefighter who tries to save her and her teenage son.
It’s authentic and compelling, a reflection of McLean’s skill as a writer and her 14 years as an assistant district attorney for Essex County in Massachusetts, where she prosecuted cases of arson, armed assault and other crimes.
In “Under Fire,” her heroine is a smart, athletic defense attorney who reluctantly takes on the case, overcoming her own prejudices to dedicate herself to justice for the accused. McLean takes the reader into the tense drama of the courtroom as police, fire investigators, gun experts, lawyers and others reveal their perception of the tragedy. She offers the reader insights into everyone’s point of view, an orientation she developed when she tried cases of crime.
“As a prosecutor, you need to understand the other side in order to figure out your own arguments,” she said. “You’re so trained to look at all sides of the story.”
In choosing her plot, McLean wanted to address prejudice against immigrants and unethical mortgage practices.
She started with these questions: Can a Muslim woman charged with killing a Boston firefighter in the line of duty get a fair trial? And what happens behind the scenes when power and money are at stake?
“I like to take current events that I’m concerned about and spin a story around them,” said McLean, who also is president of the New England chapter of Mystery Writers of America. “With legal thrillers, you can get into all sorts of controversial issues and bring out some very interesting characters.”
One of the most interesting characters is the defendant, Amina Diallo, whose back-story was inspired by a Senegalese immigrant from Quincy, Mass., who owns a hair-braiding business. Introduced to the woman by a friend, McLean spent many hours asking questions about her religion, culture and adjustment to American life.
“You have a feeling that Amina didn’t do it, and you root for her, but then you’re not so sure,” McLean said. “I want readers to put themselves in this woman’s shoes and think about how they would be as jurors.”
While on the phone with her interviewer, McLean asked to suspend the conversation; she needed to find her 14-year-old daughter, Sarah, who was not where McLean thought was the agreed-upon pick-up site at her high school.
“This is what I have to do to balance the book while being a mom,” said McLean matter-of-factly when she found her daughter and called back.
McLean, who is divorced and also has a son, 12, and another daughter, 10, seems to thrive on the juggling that would undo some people. During the five years she wrote “Under Fire,” she also taught business law at Boston College Law School, where she earned her degree in 1991 and continues to teach. She also revised her first novel from 2004, “Under Oath,” which will be re-released this year, and she worked with a co-writer and the Actors Studio in New York City to turn it into a play.
“I multi-task and always have my legal pad with me,” said McLean, who is excited that the play is almost ready for production. “You’d be surprised how much time there is waiting to pick up kids. When I’m not teaching, I start writing as soon as the kids are on the bus, and I sit at the computer until they come home. When I have too much time, I get less done.”
McLean wanted to be a writer since she was a child growing up in Rome, N.Y. At Boston College, she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in English and won the Scholar of the College Award for a novel based on the life of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Her advice to aspiring authors is to be part of a writers’ group that meets weekly.
“Every week, I had a self-imposed deadline,” said McLean, who was part of the Monday Murder Club in Pembroke, Mass. “I brought in a chapter, and I went to the group religiously until I finished the book.”
Recently, she celebrated the book’s release with 200 people at her home.
“Everybody was asking, ‘When is the book coming out?’ And finally I could say, ‘Here it is.’”
Reach Jody Feinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.