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NJSBA member turned celebrated novelist talks about her new career as a legal thriller writer

Even in the arduous years carving out a career as a young associate, Robyn Gigl always envisioned herself as a future author. It began with an unpolished manuscript scribbled on a yellow legal pad decades ago. Today, Gigl has a catalogue of three successful legal thriller novels featuring the intrepid protagonist Erin McCabe, a transgender defense lawyer. Gigl’s second novel, Survivor’s Guilt, recently earned a place on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time. A longtime member of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s LGBTQ Rights and Labor and Employment Law Sections, Gigl spoke recently about her blossoming career as a novelist and how her experiences as a transgender lawyer inspired her writing.

Describe your career arc before you became an author.
December will mark my 46th year as an attorney. Other than my initial year as a clerk, I have mostly practiced business, employment and commercial litigation with a fair amount of criminal defense work. In 1986 I joined the firm that became Stein McGuire Pantages & Gigl. There, I was one of the defense attorneys who was involved in United States v. Accetturo, the longest running federal criminal trial in New Jersey history. I represented one of 22 defendants who were reputed mob members. We started picking a jury in November of 1986 and the jury came back in August of 1988. All the defendants were found not guilty. In 2006, I became the managing partner of the firm. I was still in that role when three years later, I transitioned to live in accordance with my gender identity. That was certainly a unique experience while managing a 19-lawyer firm. I remained there until 2015, when I joined Gluck Walrath, which later merged with my current firm Dilworth Paxson.

How did you launch your career as an author? Did you always envision yourself becoming a novelist, or just fall into it?
It was something I always imagined myself doing. I started my first manuscript in 1979. It’s written on yellow legal pads and to this day I still haven’t finished it. A career as a young associate in a law firm and raising a family with three children got in the way. Fast forward to 2010 when I participated in NaNoWriMo, an annual competition where you try to write a novel in the month of November. My children all knew about this manuscript I worked on from time to time. My middle child, Colin – who is also a published author – came to me and said, “Hey, let’s do this competition together.” He successfully finished his book and I did not, but that experience brought back the itch to write again. I ultimately finished that manuscript and, while it never sold, it helped me get my agent. While my agent was shopping it around, I started a new manuscript and wrote about 100 pages that she was convinced would sell. That became the first book in the Erin McCabe series – By Way of Sorrow – which I finished in September 2018. We sold it to Kensington in December 2018 in what turned out to be a two-book deal. I told my agent “I only have one book,” and she said “Well, you’ll write a second one.” The second book became Survivor’s Guilt.

How have your experiences as a transgender woman and criminal defense attorney inspired your writings?
I followed the advice given to many first-time authors—write what you know. I am a transgender woman. At that point, I practiced law for 40 years. Obviously with writing legal thrillers, having that experience in the courtroom informed many of the scenes. The other thing that inspired me was To Kill a Mockingbird. I reread it while the first manuscript was being shopped and was struck by how much of that book is the trial of Tom Robinson, the Black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in the 1930s South. I kept thinking that I’d love to know what was going through Tom’s head, because he had to know he was doomed, yet the whole book is told from the point of view of Scout, a young girl. I thought it would be fascinating to get inside the head of someone facing insurmountable odds. In my books, the protagonist is Erin McCabe and her law partner Duane Swisher, but the main character in the criminal case in By Way of Sorrow is a 19-year-old Black transgender sex worker named Sharise Barnes. She’s accused of murdering the only son of one of the richest and most powerful politicians in New Jersey. Sharise was the character I conceived of as the Tom Robinson character. But I quickly realized I couldn’t write a book from the point of view of a Black transgender sex worker because I don’t have that lived experience. I could, however, do the book from the perspective of the attorney. And while Erin McCabe is not me, certainly I have enough experiences of my own to bring to that character to make her fully developed. I tend to shift points of view in my writing, so there was the opportunity for me to get into Sharise’s head. But in doing that, I wanted to make sure Sharise was authentic and real, so I used sensitivity readers who had similar lived experiences to ensure I got it right.

In October, Time magazine listed Survivor’s Guilt as one of its 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time. What was your reaction to the news and how did you first hear?
My reaction was total disbelief. Everyone assumes that Time reached out to me or my editor. It came out online on a Tuesday morning and I got an email from an author friend who congratulated me. I wrote back “What are you talking about?” and he sent me a link. To see my name with the authors listed there, with the likes of Sir Authur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Stephen King, and then Robyn Gigl? It was mind-boggling. I sent the list to my publisher and they didn’t even know, nor did my agent. It came as a total surprise. I don’t feel worthy, quite frankly, but it’s a tremendous honor and of course it’s validating for me. Anyone who writes a book wants to see it published and enjoyed by readers. I can’t express how meaningful it is to me personally. When I was growing up, there were no books I could read that featured transgender characters. The first book I ever read with a transgender character was The World According to Garp. There was just no representation. If there are transgender people out there who are looking for representation, I’m honored that my book is there. That said, I don’t necessarily write for an LGBTQ+ audience. I’m writing for anyone who likes the thriller genre. At the same time, I’m hoping to give them a window into what it’s like to be transgender, something many people don’t understand and hopefully, put a human face on it.

You have a forthcoming book coming out in June 2024. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
We’re still in the editing process on that one. Even before Survivor’s Guilt was published, the publisher was interested in continuing the series. So I signed another multi-book deal. It’s called Nothing But the Truth and it involves the murder of a newspaper reporter. The person charged is a New Jersey state trooper, who happens to be the first out and openly gay male state trooper. He’s battling the state police and he’s represented by Erin and Duane. It’s a novel that involves a full-blown trial from start to finish with a jury verdict. If people enjoy books with a lot of trial scenes, hopefully they’ll like this one.

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