Taking on the law

Special to The Times

Ayelet WALDMAN is easily distracted.

She wrote her first mystery book in a law library when she was supposed to be working on an article for a legal journal about disparities in drug sentencing. Then Waldman decided to create a literary novel that would illustrate the way federal drug policy has warped the criminal justice system.

The resulting book is the just-published "Daughter's Keeper" (Sourcebooks), the story of how a distant mother struggles to deal with her pregnant daughter after she gets busted for taking part in a drug deal. Suffice it to say that the book probably has more breast-feeding scenes than the average legal thriller.

"I set out to write a searing indictment of the war on drugs and I ended up writing a novel about a mother," says Waldman, sitting in the living room of her rambling 1907 house, toys strewn across the wood floors.

Waldman, 38, writes what she knows: motherhood and the courtroom, Hancock Park and Berkeley. A former federal public defender in Los Angeles and the author of the Mommy-Track Mystery series, Waldman is also the mother of four children, ages 6 months to 8 years. In her spare time, she teaches a seminar on the legal and social implications of the war on drugs at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school. She also helps her husband with his writing projects (Mr. Waldman is Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay").

Becoming a novelist, Waldman says, started out as a way of putting off work while she was on leave from the public defender's office.

"I was so traumatized by the prospect of going back to a real job that I started to write," Waldman says. It took three books for me to call myself a writer." She still calls herself a lawyer on her tax returns.

Waldman was born in Israel. Her name is pronounced Eye-YELL-It and means "gazelle." She was raised in New Jersey and went to Harvard Law before taking a job at a corporate law firm to pay off her student loans.

In 1992, a friend set Waldman up on a blind date with a young novelist. Like any good lawyer, Waldman did her research first, reading Chabon's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," a coming-of-age story whose bisexual hero gave the author a devoted gay following.

"I said, 'Oh, great, another gay boyfriend,' " Waldman recalls. "When he showed up, I said, 'Thank you for the flowers, and are you gay?' "

Waldman must have been satisfied by the answer because three weeks later Chabon told her that she had proposed marriage to him in her sleep.

What did you say? she asked. I said yes, he replied.

A year later they were married.

"Even at my wedding," she recalls, "my friends were coming up and saying, 'Are you sure he's not gay? Have you read 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh?' "

The couple moved to Los Angeles, where Waldman joined the federal public defender's office, a job that involved mostly drug-related cases.

"I never had any innocent clients," she says. "All my clients were guilty, but the potential sentences were ludicrous."

Waldman was a zealous advocate for her clients, a red-headed, 5-foot-tall dynamo in a miniskirt knocking on the doors of crack houses to interview potential witnesses.

She survived her wanderings through South-Central Los Angeles, but the courtroom was another story. There was a client, she remembers, who was borderline mentally retarded and had been entrapped in a drug deal by a government informer whose resume included time in a Cuban prison and a diagnosis as psychotic. The informer turns up as a character in her new book.

The night before trial the prosecutor offered Waldman a plea bargain: eight years in prison instead of the 24 years if the client lost. "I really thought I was going to win," she says. "But I made him take this plea. He did what I told him to."

In court, Waldman started to cry and the defendant tried to comfort her. "It was just so hideously unjust," she says. "I thought, 'I just can't do this anymore, be part of this system sending people to jail.' I loved what I was doing, but the drug sentences were so insane it nearly killed me. I don't like to lose; I lost all the time. The prosecutors have all the power."

Turning to fiction

Waldman left her job in 1996, and when her husband was in Manhattan researching a novel she decided to work on a legal journal article in the New York University Law Library. Somehow, the article didn't seem to progress very fast.

"First I'd fall asleep," she says. "Then I'd look for something to read that had nothing to do with the law. Then I wondered how hard would it be to write a bad murder mystery?"

Waldman started a story about a lawyer named Juliet Applebaum, a public defender turned stay-at-home mother who gets her toddler into the hottest preschool in Hollywood, only to have the principal die in a suspicious car accident, which Mom then solves.

Fifty pages into the project Waldman showed it to her husband. Keep going, he said.

When Waldman finished "Nursery Crimes," Chabon sent it to his agent. Two weeks later, she had a three-book contract.

"That was the first piece of fiction I ever wrote," says Waldman says, "aside from my legal briefs."

Applebaum's bad luck (a murdered personal trainer, among others) has continued in "The Big Nap," "A Playdate With Death" and "Death Gets a Time-Out," the last of which came out in June and made the San Francisco Chronicle's bestseller list.

In 1997, the couple moved to the Elmwood section of Berkeley, a leafy neighborhood of redwoods and Craftsman cottages. Chabon writes in a small office under the trees in the backyard; Waldman works in a room on the first floor, legal books still piled on the shelves, a gold-painted plaster cast of her very pregnant torso hanging above her computer. Each morning they pack the kids off to school and walk to a cafe to write on their laptops, side by side for three hours.

"I can't believe we're not sick of each other yet," she says. "We burn through a different cafe every three months. Sooner or later, someone annoying starts showing up every day. Berkeley is the only place on Earth where I'm a political moderate."

Waldman's neighborhood is the setting for "Daughter's Keeper," the story of a cockeyed optimist named Olivia who gets mixed up in the high-stakes world of international drug dealing. Olivia drops out of college and backpacks through Mexico where she has a fling with a labor organizer named Jorge. One day, Jorge turns up on Olivia's Oakland doorstep.

He can't speak English, can't find work and drifts into a drug deal that soon ensnares Olivia, who finds herself facing a potentially longer sentence than either her boyfriend (who can win a reduction by implicating her) or the real mastermind, a sleazy Cuban (who turns out to be a government informant). Then Olivia discovers she's pregnant.

The heart of the book is really about Olivia's relationship with her mom, Elaine, an emotionally distant woman who barely got through her daughter's childhood and isn't exactly thrilled to learn that being a mother is a lifetime occupation.

"My relation with my mother is actually very good," Waldman says. "She's not at all like Elaine. She's warm and giving and emotionally available. The inspiration for Elaine was my nightmares, my fear that I could be this cold person so busy with her own life that I'll be a bad mother."

Waldman certainly is busy. She's working on another literary novel called "The Bloom Girls," based on her grandmother and her six sisters who lived in Montreal in the 1920s.

Then there's another Mommy-Track Mystery to write.

"Every vacation we have, Juliet takes her kids to the same place," Waldman says. "It's deductible. That's why I have to write murder mysteries forever."

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Book reading and signing

Who: Ayelet Waldman will read from "Daughter's Keeper"

When: Oct. 16, 7 p.m.

Where: Vroman's, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

Contact: (626) 449-5320

Also

When: Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Borders Books,

1415 3rd St. Promenade, Santa Monica.

Contact: (310) 393-9290

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