Reyna Marder Genten had nearly 20 years in the public defender’s office as an appellate attorney, before she decided to trade in her legal robes for a keyboard and launched herself into a second career as a writer of legal thrillers and women’s fiction.
Hi there. I’m your host, Jenny Wheeler. And today Reyna talks about her latest book, Both Are True. presenting the inside story of a woman at the height of her career as a family court judge, who’s faced with temptation when career and personal life collide.
Our free giveaway this week is from historical mystery author, Michelle Cox, a Cinderella story, and a 1920s Chicago take on Downton Abbey.
If you loved Downton Abbey and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, you’ll love Henrietta and Inspector Howard! Set in Chicago in the 1930’s, this fun romantic mystery series has won over 60 international awards!
And don’t forget, you can get exclusive bonus content, like hearing Reyna’s answers to the Getting To Know You Five Quick Fire questions by becoming a Binge Reading on Patreon supporter for the cost of less than a cup of coffee a month.
Links to information in this episode:
Joyce Carol Oates: We Were The Mulvaneys: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5204.We_Were_the_Mulvaneys
Patti Smith Memoir: Just Kids: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/341879.Just_Kids
Chuck Greaves, another lawyer turned author at: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/chuck-greaves-eco-thriller-la-law/
Where to Find Reyna Marder Gentin:
Introducing women’s fiction author Reyna Marder Gentin
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
But now, here’s Reyna.
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Reyna, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Reyna Marder Gentin: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Jenny Wheeler: You are a former criminal attorney with the Public Defender’s office who has turned into a crime writer. What made you decide to get into fiction, and how did it come about?
Reyna Marder Gentin: I always felt like there were stories lurking behind the cases I had. As an appellate attorney, you’re stuck with a closed record. I knew what had happened right before the crime and at the time of the crime and maybe a little bit afterwards, but I never got to see the backstory. I never really understood who these people were because I didn’t have a chance to meet with them.
We didn’t meet our clients. We would exchange letters, but very much pertaining to the case. Those questions you have that might explain why a person does what they do, what their family was like, what their education was like, what their love life was like, all of those things were off limits. When I did end up leaving the job – and I was there for almost 18 years – I felt like I had put in my dues, but I had had enough. I felt like I was hitting up against a wall on the storytelling. I couldn’t bring myself honestly anymore to try to tell the story of these people when I knew so little.
Understanding ‘the story behind the story’
That was the impetus when I left – trying to figure out what else could I do with my time that might be related but would allow me to explore things about the defendants, about the judges, about the prosecutors, about the defense attorneys, things I couldn’t do in real life, but I would be able to do in fiction.
That is the genesis of how it started to happen. The actual way it happened was that I quit my job. I had no idea what I was going to do next, and a friend told me she was taking a writing class and invited me to come along. I went with her, and it all sprang from there.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s interesting because I had not realized that distinction about appellate attorney because it works differently in New Zealand and probably in many other jurisdictions. I don’t think the Commonwealth countries like Britain and Australia have that system either, and a lot of our listeners come from there, so could you take it back a step and explain.
How can you defend someone when you never get a chance to talk to them? Here in New Zealand, we have Legal Aid. I thought your job would have been similar to Legal Aid here, but they certainly get to talk to their clients.
Reyna Marder Gentin: Of course. It is very similar to Legal Aid in that it is a state sponsored organization and the clients are indigent. They don’t pay for services. The difference I’m drawing is that a trial attorney, who’s going to take the defendant to trial, of course meets with the defendant.
The powers of an appellate judge
The defendant has to tell them what happened, has to develop defenses, has to explain who the witnesses are. Obviously they play a very key role in their own defense. A defendant, at least in this country and I’m sure there too, has a right to be at every stage of their trial, because they must help the attorney develop the case.
But once you hit the appellate stage, you’ve lost a trial. You are now incarcerated. You’ve lost. Now what you’re reviewing the case for are legal errors. They are errors having to do with whether the case was proven or whether something else went wrong at the trial level, and those errors have to be present in the record from the trial below. It’s not that our clients didn’t want to meet with us. The problem was that anything they told us we couldn’t use unless it was actually in the trial record below.
Jenny Wheeler: I see. Does that mean you also had the power to change the sentence if you found something was wrong?
Reyna Marder Gentin: We certainly have the power to argue that the sentence should be changed. It will be changed by the Judiciary.
Jenny Wheeler: That makes it a lot more clear. I saw on your website that you’ve got a range of work. You have done short stories. You’ve done young adult fiction as well. You’ve obviously experimented a little bit.
Both Are True is an emotional family story, not crime novel
Today we are talking about your adult fiction and in particular your latest novel, Both Are True, which is focused on a female judge who is doing the sort of job we’ve just described. She is tempted to subvert the course of justice, twist the rules a little bit, because she’s in love with this fellow. It’s an emotional romance rather than a crime novel, isn’t it?
Reyna Marder Gentin: It is. It’s not really a crime novel, and nor is it a legal thriller either. It’s more in the vein of women’s fiction. It’s more about the emotional journey the judge has taken. There is a lot of law in it because that’s what I know and what I find interesting to write about, but that is more of a backdrop than the subject of the book.
Jenny Wheeler: Jackie, the key character, has put all her strength and focus into her career. She’s made the bench as a young judge and she’s on probation for a year, so she’s very much aware that she has to impress her bosses. But also, she is nearly 40, she’s alone in the world, and she wonders if it’s all been worth it.
It might be a case of “be careful what you dream for in case it comes true”, because she’s not totally satisfied with her life, is she?
Reyna Marder Gentin: No. I think part of that is why the romance becomes compelling. She has fallen for this guy she believes can complement her in a way that she’s been unable to find herself. She’s ambitious, she’s smart, she’s political, she’s doing a lot, but she’s missing out on a lot of the smaller joys of life.
A judge discovers uncomfortable conflict of personal interest
She’s uptight, she’s very wound up, and she finds this guy who, at least on the surface, is more spontaneous, in a way he’s more loving, he’s a more real character then she’s been able to develop. When he leaves, and I’m not giving away too much because he leaves in the first chapter, she’s left in a quandary. What is it that I want? Was he the one for me, and if I think so, how do I get him back? That does color a lot of her decisions going forward.
Jenny Wheeler: You do very much clarify that conflict between her career and her emotional life, and I wondered if you were also raising the question of whether women can have it all. She has set up her life so that she’s willing to sacrifice one part of her life for her career. Maybe she’s made that decision, but that old hoary question of, can women have it all, what’s your view on that one?
Reyna Marder Gentin: I hope she grows over the novel and comes to some different understandings about what having it all means. At the end of the book, now I won’t give any more away, but she does speak to this question, and one of the things she says which to me is very true and is very much how I look at it, is that having it all doesn’t mean having it all exactly at the same time. You have a lifetime of experiences, hopefully, and you have different phases of your life.
The different meanings of the phrase ‘Having it All’
Perhaps there is one phase where having it all means that you want to have children and devote yourself to that. Maybe having it all later on means your children have grown and you can devote yourself to something else. They are all different parts and different times of your life. When you put it all together at the end of your life, you’ve had it all in some manner.
I don’t think anybody ever has it all, but you’ve had different parts that work together and, hopefully, have satisfied different needs at different points.
Jenny Wheeler: This seems to be a theme that’s fascinating to you because your first general adult novel, Unreasonable Doubts, covers rather similar territory. A woman is a public defender, her faith in the system has been chipped away by years of having only hardened criminals in front of her. Then she finds one case that reignites her passion for justice. Tell us about that book and how it fits in with what you did with the second one.
Reyna Marder Gentin: The first book I wrote very soon after I had quit my job, and people who know me personally can see that there were very striking similarities with the office that I worked in. A number of the characters are similar to people I knew or inspired by people I know or knew, and it was honestly a very cathartic experience writing the book. It allowed me to explore certain relationships and certain things that had happened to me over the course of my career in this office.
Reyna Marder Gentin’s first novel was closer to her own life
In Unreasonable Doubts, the main story of the character who might have been innocent was a case I had handled on appeal. Obviously I fictionalized it, and although there’s a romance surrounding it in the book, there was no romance in real life, but I used the legal error there as the foundation of the book. I think the legal error is interesting to people because it’s a sexual assault case. The whole question of the Me Too movement and what happens to the main character Liana, whether she herself is subjected to something in the book, became very timely in a way I couldn’t have predicted because I wrote it before the whole Me Too movement took off.
It was a lot of fun to write in some ways. There’s a character who is the mother in the book. My mother had passed away and a lot of her characteristics I drew from my mother but I was also able to change the ending, which was nice. In Unreasonable Doubts the mother gets a second shot at life and love after her husband dies and she moves into New York city and enjoys her latter years. My mother unfortunately didn’t have that.
There were aspects of it that were emotionally moving and draining to write. I guess one thing that has been interesting to see is that Both Are True is much more from my imagination. I worked in family courts so it has reality to it, but it’s not personal, and it’s been very different talking about that book with audiences and readers because it’s not me. It’s been kind of liberating to be able to speak about something and not have it be quite so emotionally draining.
Both Are Ture a more crafted and considered story
Jenny Wheeler: What was the difference writing the two books? Was that a different sort of experience?
Reyna Marder Gentin: It was very different. As I say, the first book was very much fueled by the emotions of having left the job and not knowing what I was going to be doing with myself. Some of the losses were very close at hand when I was writing the book. I wrote it in a little bit of a whoosh of creativity, but also I had to get this out of my system. It has to be out on the page and then once it’s there, I’ll be able to deal with whatever it represents.
Both Are True was different. It was a little more deliberate, it was maybe a little more crafted. I feel like my writing has gotten stronger between the two books, so yes, it was definitely a different experience.
Jenny Wheeler: Without giving anything away, the actual person who was being defended, the criminal in Unreasonable Doubts, in real life did your intervention make a difference to what happened to him?
Reyna Marder Gentin: It did. In real life he did win a new trial, unlike in the book which is a little different. He won a new trial, but he was in real life in fact guilty, and the evidence was pretty strong and he was found guilty again at the new trial, so in the end he didn’t actually benefit that much. He got a second shot but he ended up in the same place.
Finding a publisher for her passion project
Jenny Wheeler: It’s sad to say, but if he was guilty, you don’t have too much sympathy for that. Although I’ve got a friend who is very involved in looking at cold cases. There is quite a big movement with the cold case thing in law now, where people are now being found to have been historically wronged by the justice system.
Reyna Marder Gentin: Of course. I don’t know percentages, but certainly a lot of it has to do with DNA evidence. That, at least, you feel fairly confident about. If your DNA either says you are guilty or not guilty, you could feel good either way.
Jenny Wheeler You are a public defender. You’ve got a passion project with the first book. How did you find a publisher? Was that hard?
Reyna Marder Gentin: It was hard, mostly I would say because I didn’t understand the landscape at all, having never been involved in any of this. The thing people will tell you is you must get an agent. I don’t know how it works where you are, but here definitely the traditional way is to get an agent. That was definitely the conventional advice I was getting, but I was finding that very difficult. It’s hard to get an agent and it’s hard when you don’t have a history of publication, which of course, as your first book, you’re not going to have a history of publication. But that is what they are looking for.
Navigating the world of publishing as a new author
Additional to that now is the social media platform question. If you have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter or Instagram, that’s almost as good as a history of publication, but if you’re a 50-year-old mom who has been slaving away in a law office, you’re not going to have followers on Instagram.
So, I did find that difficult. I ended up going with what they call a hybrid publisher. They do all the things a publisher does – they vet the material and they distribute and they do the layout. They do everything, but you do make a financial contribution to it in return for much higher royalties, you do have to put some money in upfront. I did that with the first book, and I was very pleased with it. They did a beautiful job on the book, and they really did help me get it out there, and I was happy with that.
With the second, both the middle grade book I wrote and Both Are True, I ended up approaching small publishers. I didn’t really want to invest the money in it again, I was hoping somebody else would front that, and that worked out, so I’m with small publishers for both of those books. It is a different scene. They don’t do as much for you. You’re not paying for a service in any way. It’s just different. You’re more on your own, but it’s been good.
Jenny Wheeler: With the first book, maybe even more than Both Are True, did you have interest because of the Me Too element for it, because you’ve had lots of interviews on radio and podcasts for the books. You’ve been successful in getting publicity for yourself.
The choices women in law face – public or private?
Reyna Marder Gentin: I have. I did hire a publicist for both books, so they definitely helped with that. One of the issues in the first book, putting aside the Me Too, was how women are dealing with either public sector law or private law. Her boyfriend in the book is an associate at a corporate law firm and he’s leading a very different kind of lifestyle than she is. That is a pervasive question among women in the law here, whether you go into public interest or whether you are in a more private, commercial setting.
Because that was one of the questions, I got to do a lot of book groups and different kinds of presentations in law firms. That was interesting to the associates there – whether there is another side of how you could be practicing law and what that means and is it more fulfilling than corporate law? I got to have that angle, which definitely helped me get around a little bit.
Jenny Wheeler: Are women more inclined to go into the public defender area? Are they a little bit more idealistic about things?
Reyna Marder Gentin: Probably a little bit. Also, there are tremendous financial pressures, as you can imagine. It has been interesting to see, and I think it’s changed somewhat over the years, even changed over the years I was working there. My first job was working in Family Court for the Legal Aid Society. I was what they call a law guardian, so I was representing the children, and almost all the lawyers in my bureau were women. There were hardly any men.
Biggest challenge to establishing a second career in midlife
I think that was less about idealism and more that the men felt they couldn’t afford to be paid as poorly as we were being paid. Many of the women, both there and in the Public Defender’s office, follow one of two paths. Either they were married to somebody who was making significantly more money than they were, therefore allowing them to do that kind of work, or there were many people married within the community of the Public Defender’s office, Prosecutor’s office. They had decided, if we pull two lousy incomes, we’ll be together and we’ll be doing what we want. They were more of a like mindset, even if they were struggling financially. So, different calls people have to make.
Jenny Wheeler: What was the most challenging part of this whole process for you and even widening it out a bit from the writing process? It has been a big change of focus for you – a second career in midlife. What’s been the most challenging part for you?
Reyna Marder Gentin: I think one of the most challenging parts, at least for me, is trying to figure out how you measure success. How am I doing this? It’s a question I ask myself often. I feel proud of the books I’ve had published. I feel like they are quality, and I interact with readers who are moved by them, and that’s very meaningful to me.
How to measure “success” on of the issues Reyna faced
But I’m not hitting any bestsellers lists. I’m not out there doing very exciting book tours or whatever. It has not been a commercial success in any way. It’s hard to know what to do with that. Does that mean I should be doing something else? Does that mean I should go back to the law? What does that mean? I think it’s hard to gauge it.
Jenny Wheeler: For a woman who’s used to earning salary, we tend to gauge our validity. I can speak to that. I worked for years as a journalist and then I had my own business and I now write historical mysteries, and I very much identify with what you’re saying. I think it is a hugely common experience for many, many writers. Probably three-quarters of the writers who are published would be able to sympathize with what you’re saying.
Reyna Marder Gentin: Yes, I think so. The other part I struggle with is trying to keep in mind that whatever I’m doing, if I’m enjoying it and if it’s going relatively well, then that’s enough. But it’s hard not to compare yourself.
I agree with you, probably three-quarters of the people are in the same position, but then there are those people, and we all know them, who are doing tremendously well with their books. Having entered this community for the last seven or eight years, I know a lot of writers and a lot of them are doing tremendously well. I’m happy for them, but it’s hard sometimes. You can’t help but measure yourself and say what’s the difference between what they’re doing and what I’m doing.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. If you were tempted to do indie publishing you’d be earning more royalties, but the secret there is that you have to turn out a lot of books. If you’re not writing the sort of books that you can do three a year of them, it’s just as difficult, so there are a lot of things to be balanced when you’re making those sorts of decisions.
Reyna Marder Gentin as reader – her favorite books
One question I usually ask is what people consider “the secret of their success”, and even if they’re not on the bestseller list, even getting books published as you have, and developing an audience – that is an achievement. Many people want to write a book and never ever quite get to write one with “The End” on it, so you have achieved something you can be proud of.
Is there something you would look at and say, that’s what made me keep going to the point where I actually completed the manuscript and got it out there? What’s that little thing inside you that drives you?
Reyna Marder Gentin: I think it’s a certain sense of determination. I did not want to fail – not that not finishing is failing, but if you set a goal, you want to reach it. I think I have enough self-respect that I wanted to get it done.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to Reyna as reader, because we’re starting to come to the end of our time together. This is called The Joys of Binge Reading and we do focus on popular fiction that is easy for people to pick up at the end of a hard day and get some joy and enlightenment and hopefully enjoyment out of it. At that level, the sort of fiction you might read for your own relaxation – have you got any you would like to recommend to people who are listening?
Joyce Carol Oates and Patti Smith on Reyna’s reading list
Reyna Marder Gentin: To be honest, I read incredibly slowly, so I’m not really a good binge reader. I don’t binge on anything because by the time I finish something, it’s been an exercise for me.
Right now, I’m reading We Were The Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. It was very popular some years ago and I hadn’t gotten to it, so I’m reading that now. I recently finished a book called Just Kids which is a memoir by Patti Smith about New York city in the 1960s and 70s.
Jenny Wheeler: Is it Patti Smith the poet?
Reyna Marder Gentin: Yes. Poet/rock star. I read all sorts of things. I read whatever interests me at the moment. A lot of people have invited me into different book groups that they’re in, and I almost always say no, because I don’t like to follow somebody else’s suggestions about what I should read.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s great. Looking back down the tunnel of time, if you were doing this all over again, is there anything you would change? Would you give up law more quickly? Is there anything at all that you would change?
Reyna Marder Gentin: I don’t know what I would change. I might have considered a little more formal education as the writing went. I have taken a lot of workshops and a lot of classes, but I haven’t really taken craft classes. I’m not entirely sure that I know what I’m doing sometimes. I’m a little more winging it. In that vein, I might have done something different.
What would Reyna Marder Gentin change if she could?
Also, they teach you to read very critically in those classes, and I think that would have done me some good. But no, I don’t think I would have left the law any earlier. I feel like I was doing okay there for a good long time.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s good. What have you got next on your typewriter or your keyboard? What does your future for the next 12 months look like?
Reyna Marder Gentin: I started working on something about a year ago. It’s more of a mother daughter story. It doesn’t have any law in it so far. But it’s been hard. I found COVID very hard. I know there are a lot of writers who have not found it hard, that it has kind of played into the regular way they like to work. But for me, I have my husband working from home now, I’ve had the kids in and out from college, and I find the whole atmosphere of COVID so depressing that it’s been hard to focus in the way I’d like to. I’m hopeful that is going to be over soon.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you have a deadline for that?
Reyna Marder Gentin: No.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s good. You’ve got a chance to be able to experiment with that then. Do you enjoy interacting with your readers and how can they find you online?
Reyna Marder Gentin: I love interacting with readers. It’s probably the best part, I have to say. They can find me on my website, www.reynamardergentin.com . There is an email there that they can use. I’m also on Facebook, I’m on Instagram, I’m on Twitter, all under Reyna Marder Gentin, so not too hard to find.
Signing off – and where to find Reyna online
Jenny Wheeler: We will make sure we put all those links in the show notes for this episode, so that they’re there as green content for evermore.
Thanks so much, Reyna. I was going to say, when you mentioned COVID a few minutes ago and you earlier mentioned that you hadn’t done any book tours, that’s one very good reason why hardly any book tours are happening at the moment. It’s quite out of your hands.
Reyna Marder Gentin: That’s true.
Jenny Wheeler: Thanks for being with us today. It’s been fabulous.
Reyna Marder Gentin: Thanks for having me.
If you enjoyed Reyna Marder Gentin’s emotional women’s fiction you might also enjoy Chuck Greaves – another lawyer turned author... at https://thejoysofbingereading.com/chuck-greaves-eco-thriller-la-law/
Next Week on The Joys of Binge Reading
Next week on The Joys of Binge Reading we have Kate Quinn, international bestselling author of The Rose Code and The Alice Network. Her latest World War Two thriller, The Diamond Eye, is based on a true-life story of an unknown woman who changed history.
The New York Times bestselling author of The Rose Code returns with an unforgettable World War II tale of a quiet librarian who becomes history’s deadliest female sniper.
Based on a true story, The Diamond Eye is a haunting novel of heroism born of desperation, of a mother who became a soldier, of a woman who found her place in the world and changed the course of history forever.
The Joys of Binge Reading podcast is put together with wonderful technical help from Dan Cotton at DC Audio Services. Dan is an experienced sound and video engineer who’s ready and available to help you with your next project… Seek him out at email@example.com or Phone + 64 – 21979539. He’s fast, takes pride in getting it right, and lovely to work with.
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