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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Marcia Clark was a rising legal star here in the Los Angeles District Attorney's office when she was assigned to the OJ Simpson trial back in 1994. Clark's every move was televised in that high-profile case. More than 15 years later, she's still hip-deep in crime, now as a mystery writer. Her first novel is being released this week.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the story of how Marcia Clark used her former life to shape the life of her fictional heroine.

KAREN GRISBY BATES: Marcia Clark's new book, "Guilt by Association," has a protagonist that sounds - well, that sounds a lot like Marcia Clark.

Ms. MARCIA CLARK (Former Prosecutor, Los Angeles County; Author, "Guilt by Association): (Reading) Being a prosecutor gave me an inside line on the danger in any area. But the truth was, I'd grown up with the knowledge that mortal peril lurked around ever corner. So although I didn't have a permit to carry, I never left either home or office without a gun. The lack of a permit occasionally worried me, but as my father used to say, I'd rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.

BATES: Those words come from Rachel Knight, Clark's fictional alter-ego. In fact, Rachel is Clark's middle name.

Clark became famous because of something infamous, the murder trial of former football star, sports commentator and B-movie actor OJ Simpson. As the lead prosecutor on the case, Clark felt the jury had made up its mind early on. When the trial began, charred remains from the 1992 riots following the first Rodney King trial still marred empty lots in South L.A.

Despite her pleas to the jury to not even the score by acquitting Simpson of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, Clark says she saw the writing on the wall. She said as much to her defense counterpart, Johnnie Cochran.

Ms. CLARK: I remember Johnnie coming up to me, before they announced the verdict, and looking really pale and sick and unhappy. And I said, Johnnie, what are you worried about? You won.

BATES: And, in fact, she was right.

Ms. DEIDRE ROBERTSON (Court Clerk): We, the jury, in the above entitled action find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder...

BATES: After the trial, Clark retreated to her home in suburban Los Angeles to recover, physically and mentally.

Ms. CLARK: By the end of that trial, I was really physically not well, and exhausted and just a mess. It took me awhile to get my strength back up.

BATES: Over the year that the Simpson drama played out, the public saw a frazzled, sometimes testy woman intent on convicting a man many saw as an amiable sports icon. What they didn't see was the reason Clark looked so gaunt. She was juggling her legal duties with the primary care of her two toddler sons.

Ms. CLARK: It was kind of this crazy, rubber-band feeling of running to work, and working as many hours as I possibly could. Then running home to take care of the kids with armloads of work with me, so I could work at home all night. So I felt like I was always running to or from something.

BATES: The biggest challenge in her professional life eventually caused the biggest challenge in her private one, and for a while Clark joined Simpson in the nightly entertainment news headlines.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Extra")

Unidentified Woman: Our exclusive top story: "Marcia Clark's Private Hell." The gripping audio tapes from inside her bitter custody hearing. Here's "Extra's" Dana Adams.

BATES: Clark eventually settled custody with her estranged second husband, they're now divorced, and moved her sons even deeper into the suburbs and began to construct a normal life. She drove the kids to school, hosted birthday parties and showed up at their sports events. In between, she lectured, wrote a TV drama for the Lifetime Channel, and has been a steady presence on television as a legal analyst.

She's speaking here with former CNN host Larry King.

Mr. LARRY KING (Host, "Larry King Live"): You think this is going to lead to some criminal prosecutions?

Ms. CLARK: It's looking that way so far. It's very clear when you see -especially recent footage of Michael Jackson - he was doing better than ever. It seems very, very unlikely that it was a normal or naturally caused death.

BATES: After Simpson, Clark swore she was done with the criminal courts, at least as a prosecutor. But she's returned several times in the past few years, as a writer.

Ms. CLARK: We're at Temple and Spring. Across the street is City Hall. It used to be that you'd walk down Temple and onto to Main to go to Parker Center, which is where the police station was. And that's where Robbery-Homicide was, which was who Rachel works with.

BATES: Like Clark, Rachel is a DA in the Special Trials Unit, which handles prominent, sensitive and controversial cases. Walking through downtown L.A., Clark describes her protagonist.

Ms. CLARK: Rachel is the person I wish I could be to the extent that she's good, and to the extent that she's bad - she is me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BATES: After Rachel's coworker Jake is found dead in an extremely compromising position, Rachel makes it her duty to discover what really happened to him. Working with Bailey Keller, a ballsy detective who reminds Rachel of her younger self, the two women anger everyone with their questions, from wealthy patricians to entrepreneurial gang-bangers.

Clark hastens to say Rachel has more latitude than most.

Ms. CLARK: Not every prosecutor works the way you see the way Rachel works in the book. Rachel is in Special Trials. That's a small unit that works the big cases and they work it from the ground up with the detectives, just about from the day after the body is found. So that's unusual. Most prosecutors get the case file on the way into the courtroom as they're picking a jury.

BATES: Clark says she paid special attention to getting the minutia of procedure right.

Ms. CLARK: If you're going to educate the public and tell them how things happen in the courtroom, then you really owe them the duty to do it right. Don't misinform.

BATES: She wants it right, even down to how it feels in the swank Biltmore Hotel's bar, where Rachel and Bailey often go for drinks.

Ms. CLARK: (Reading) I pulled the heavy, darkly tinted glass of the door and felt the familiar hush crated by thick carpets, soft lights, and rich upholstery. The door closed slowly behind us as we stepped into the cool, quiet darkness. Frank Sinatra sang "Witchcraft" over the muted tinkle of glasses, and I took in the scene as we moved toward the bar.

BATES: Walking toward the Biltmore, Clark concedes even true-to-life fiction needs a little dramatization.

Ms. CLARK: You amp things up and you speed things up. But technically you can still be legally correct. And this is the big beef I have with novels as well as television shows, is that it actually makes for a better show when you accommodate the truth.

BATES: Early reviews from critics and mystery writers alike say Clark knows what she's talking about. Kirkus gave her a starred review. For someone who'd been rejected by several publishers and fired by her first agent before landing a book deal, that's especially satisfying. Clark allows that her name might help her get published, but it can't carry her.

Ms. CLARK: If that were true, I would have gotten the other book picked up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLARK: Right? No, it wasn't enough. Does it help? I'm sure it helps. Sure, I really was a prosecutor. I would assume that should help.

BATES: Marcia Clark hopes it will help enough to turn her first Rachel Knight book into a series. She's finishing the second now, and is looking forward to reading some good fiction this summer - crime fiction, of course.

(Soundbite of music)

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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