Lauren Stahl and I weren’t even halfway through a cup of coffee when she started talking about Kate.
“People can’t believe she did that,” Lauren said. “I mean, a married man!”
I nodded, agreeing. It was shocking that Kate, so strong and driven in her professional life, would find herself vulnerable and embroiled in an extramarital affair. What wasn’t as shocking, at least to the two of us, is that Kate Magda is not a real person. She is the protagonist in Lauren’s newly-published crime novel, THE DEVIL’S SONG.
That’s what writers do: talk about their characters as if they’re really here, alive, sitting in front of us. To us, they are.
Lauren explained that she’s been writing for as long as she can remember. She said as a girl, she kept a journal under her bed, getting up sometimes in the middle of the night to jot down a thought in a notebook. And she loved to read. Mysteries were her favorite.
“I couldn’t get enough of them, ” she explained. “The joke is the way people binge on chocolate is the way I binge on mysteries.”
Years later, Lauren found herself living a life she loved. In 2009, she was a relative newlywed, to husband and fellow attorney Brian Stahl. She was an assistant district attorney in the Luzerne County District Attorney’s office with aspirations of being in the U.S. Attorney’s Office someday. In her words, she was happy to be a “lifer.”
“I loved, loved, loved that job. And when everything happened and it became clear to me that my life, career-wise, wasn’t going to pan out the way I imagined it, that was a hard hit for me,” she told me, looking down at her hands.
Everything happening refers to the scandal that would engulf her family and dominate local and national news headlines for years. Lauren’s father is former Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella, caught up in what was eventually dubbed the infamous “Kids for Cash” case. He is among several people who were convicted in 2011 of a long list of charges, in his case including racketeering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, and is currently serving a 28 year prison term.
Lauren suddenly found herself jobless and unable to find work in the legal field. But she never stopped writing, and in the midst of the scandal, decided to write seriously. She was accepted into Wilkes University’s Creative Writing M.A./M.F.A program, now called The Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University.
(This is where I will add that in the interest of full disclosure, I am currently a student in the program.)
Lauren said it was therapeutic to take those childhood journals and learn how to craft her thoughts into characters and plots. Soon, the idea for THE DEVIL’S SONG was born. She wrote the first draft of the book as part of the program, with the help of her teacher and mentor, Kaylie Jones.
“I met Lauren and didn’t know who she was,” Kaylie said. “And then she handed me a People Magazine with her Dad on the cover.”
In addition to being a founding faculty member of the creative writing program at Wilkes, Kaylie Jones is the author of seven books. She is also herself a publisher, having in the past few years launched Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint of Akashic Books in Brooklyn, New York. THE DEVIL’S SONG was published by Kaylie Jones Books.
THE DEVIL’S SONG follows the story of the young prosecutor Kate Magda, who suffered a traumatic event as a child, and now in adulthood has been assigned a case she believes puts her in danger. The more she digs, the more she’s convinced that a serial killer on the loose has a connection to what happened to her all those years ago.
The story has nothing to do with her family’s scandal. But Lauren pointed out, she thinks most writers take little bits of what they know and turn it into fiction.
“So when you’re reading the book and there’s a prosecutor who is a main character and her Dad happens to be President Judge of Mission County… Certainly I took what I knew about those two things. There’s no research involved when you go to work every day as an assistant DA and go home at the end of the day and your Dad is your Dad,” she explained.
Lauren would graduate from the program and go on to write three more drafts of THE DEVIL’S SONG before it was published, cutting it from its original 350 pages to its final 288 pages.
As she revised her book, she revised her life.
Lauren was eventually able to find work again in the legal profession. She and Brian had two daughters (Prim is now 2 1/2 and Phee, 9 months) and, she joked, a book baby.
“That’s what we call it my home! You have this book baby, and then the book baby goes off to college,” she laughed. “It’s completely out of your hands.”
Kaylie Jones knows that feeling all too well.
“We’re trying to put out really good books,” Kaylie said. “But we’re all completely stunned. We weren’t expecting this at all. (THE DEVIL’s SONG) has been staggeringly successful and everybody is thrilled.”
Lauren is now at work on her second novel, a sequel, a different experience now that she also has a full-time job and two young children. She has made peace with the fact that she may never completely shake the scandal that may have defined her at one point, but now only stands to influence her writing for the better.
“I can tell you that I will never write about what actually went on,” Lauren told me. “But I’m taking what I know and what has been perceived and I’m running with it.”
That’s great, but she’d better hurry. I think it’s time for our friend Kate to meet someone who’s a bit more available.