This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: During the past 10 years, St. Louis author and trial attorney Michael Kahn has written a novel under a pen name, worked at his practice and seen the last of his five children leave home. He’s also thought, from time to time, about the character that started his writing career, Rachel Gold.
“I guess over those 10 years, I would think about her at different points,” says Kahn, whose 8th book in the Rachel Gold series, “The Flinch Factor,” came out earlier this month.
Kahn didn’t set out to be a writer, but took a dare from his wife, which led to the first book, which led to the series.
It’s been 10 years since the last Rachel Gold book, but with this new book, Kahn and Gold are back again.
“I really missed her and I thought, OK, I’m sorry, I’ve been away from you for a long time,” he says.
Kahn, who will be at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, took time to speak with the Beacon about what’s changed for Rachel Gold, what’s changed for him, and what’s next for them both.
Editor's note: Because of illness, Kahn will not be at the Library on June 25 but is scheduled for 7 p.m. July 30.
Beacon: It’s been a decade since readers got to follow Rachel Gold along on her adventures with “Trophy Widow.” What can you tell us about what’s happened in her life that leads us up to your newest book?
Kahn: When readers last spent time with Rachel, she was engaged to be married to this tough guy, former prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer named Jonathan Wolf who had two daughters, both teenagers, and whose first wife had died of ovarian cancer a few years earlier. That was where things stood in “Trophy Widow.”
I went off and I did some other writing, including a novel under a pen name (Michael Baron) called “The Mourning Sexton.” I really missed Rachel and decided I wanted to come back and spend more time with her.
But now many years have passed and when the readers meet her at the beginning of this new novel, she’s in her late 30s. She is a widow. She has one son by Jonathan, who is 5 years old, and she is a step-mother of Jonathan’s two daughters. One of them is now in college and the other is in high school. She’s got a coach house in back, which she has renovated, and that’s where her mother lives. After Jonathan was killed in a plane crash, her mother moved in with Rachel to help her raise her son and two daughters.
How about with you? 10 years later, has the way that you work or write or your approach changed?
Kahn: That’s a good question. I’m not consciously aware of any changes, other than the fact that when I wrote the last Rachel Gold novel, some of my five children were still living at home, so I was writing much later at night than I do now.
It’s interesting, as you read your novels, you can see, just as in other writings, you can see subtle differences in how you handle scenes and how you write stuff. But on the other hand, I can remember after I got out of college, maybe 10 years later, finding some of my old term papers and being totally blown away about how much smarter I seemed in those papers than I did 10 years later. I’m still sort of amused, sometimes amazed; I’m just sometimes charmed by some of the stuff I had written earlier, and I think it’s because each scene that you write is in a particular moment in your life. Whether it’s a diary entry, an article for the newspaper, a short story or a novel, it kind of captures whoever you are at that moment...
Since both you and your character moved to St. Louis, the area has been a part of these novels. Coming from Chicago, how did you go about getting to know the city again?
Kahn: I was born and raised in St. Louis, graduated from University City High School and knew one thing when I graduated, which was, I was moving away and never coming back ...
The first novel I wrote, I was still living in Chicago and it was set in Chicago. Going away and then coming back is a great way to learn a lot more about your city. I grew up in University City, and I knew very little about the city. I went to baseball games and the zoo, but the city itself was this object that I didn’t really know much about.
When you go away and you come back and you realize how much there is that you don’t know about, it just kind of comes naturally. When I decided to start setting the novels in St. Louis, I started seeking out some unique element in the city and then trying to set an important scene in there.
So in the novel “Bearing Witness,” a crucial scene takes place inside the clock tower in Union Station, which I didn’t really know much about at all. I was lucky to get a tour and allowed to go up there and I thought, what a great place to set a scene ... In another novel there was a scene that takes place inside the underground portion of the River Des Peres as it goes through Forest Park. I happened to be doing research and came across an article by the late John McGuire of the Post-Dispatch on the River Des Peres. I remember calling John and John helped arrange for me to get a tour...
You come back to a city where you grew up and realize you don’t know much about the city. You grew up in the suburbs. So, it was kind of fun.
In addition to Rachel Gold, you have a number of memorable characters in your books. In your newest book, Rachel has to face a judge with quite a reputation. Since you started writing, how often do friends or colleagues come up and ask, “Was that me?” “Is that so and so?”
Kahn: Very often. In my second novel, which is called “Death Benefits,” I invented a character named Melvin Needlebaum who is this hyper-nerd, photographic memory, workaholic at at the big law firm where Rachel used to be ...
had friends and acquaintances from law school and elsewhere and big law firms all over America and I got so many e-mails telling me that they know who I had based Melvin Needlebaum on and that they would name the person at their law firm. And at the firm I had been at in Chicago, everyone was convinced it was based on this one guy, so it happens a lot.
I’m expecting with “The Flinch Factor,” there are going to be people coming up and telling me they know I based it on this judge or that judge. All I can say in my defense is that I didn’t. I probably met crazier judges when I was a young lawyer in Chicago than anywhere else, but I don’t think Judge Flinch is based on any of them.
Characters may start off as kind of a wisp of an idea that you may have gotten from someone, but by the time they get to be full-blown, they become their own person.
What’s next for you?
Kahn: I had so much fun with Rachel in “The Flinch Factor” that I am actually writing another Rachel Gold novel and I’m also working on another non-Rachel book. I’m not sure which I will finish first, but it was fun spending time with her again. I confess that I’ve been in love with Rachel for years, so I really can’t leave her alone.