Profile by Jessica Prois (MSJ09)
Most authors merely aspire to breathe life into their stories. But Pamela Samuels Young literally turned her fiction into reality. An L.A.-based attorney for Toyota, married to a plumber, Samuels Young wrote the main characters of her first novel—a female lawyer wed to an electrician—before she ever met her husband.
“I tease him and tell him I wrote him into my life,” says Samuels Young, a former journalist turned full-time attorney at Toyota and best-selling author of legal thrillers. But it’s not just the relationships in her novels that reflect her own story. Her books are personal on a deeper level: As an African-American legal fiction fan who was bothered—even frustrated—that she didn’t see women or minorities as high-profile attorneys in her favorite reads, she resolved to do something about it. Samuels Young, who is based in Los Angeles, has published four books in four years, and has appeared on Essence magazine’s best sellers list.
Originally from Compton, Calif., Samuels Young’s literary ambition reaches past the characters; she also crafts her stories with an informative backbone, she says. Her third book, Murder on the Down Low, weaves in a cautionary tale regarding AIDS, as she learned that the disease is the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 25 to 34. “The story doesn’t end up being preachy,” she emphasizes. “But it’s a message that’s there: Women need to take responsibility for their bodies.”
Her coworker and friend Ellen Farrell, also an attorney for Toyota, calls the author Superwoman. “I’m surprised her books have not caught the attention of a major publisher,” Farrell says. “It’s just a matter of time before we lose her.” Samuels Young dedicated Buying Time to Farrell, who read all three drafts of the book. An avid mystery fan, Farrell says she knows goodwriting. “Pam’s characters are much more like real people than other books, even by very well-known authors.”
The characters in her books are inspired by both people she knows and through research, Samuels Young says. She recounts a party where she met a viatical broker—someone who makes money selling terminally ill patients’ life insurance policies—and used that as the basis for Buying Time. “Running across people who tell me something interesting that would make a great story is exactly like getting a tip and running back to the newsroom,” she says.
She feels she owes much of her success to the five years she spent as a television news writer at WXYZ-TV in Detroit and KCBS-TV in LA. Samuels Young says her ability to drop the reader into the story comes from the speed and compelling manner required to tell the news. Although she cites Maya Angelou as one of her favorite writers, she says she had to find her own snappier voice. “I did struggle trying to be a poetic, literary writer, and it wasn’t a talent I had,” she says. “I spent years taking a wire story or reporter notes and boiling it down into 30 seconds to grab the viewer.”
Poetic or not, Samuels Young has an engaging writing style, her coworker says. “I think a lot of lawyers like to think we write well. And we may in the legal context,” Farrell says. “But translating that into an enjoyable fiction read is very, very difficult. Of those who have tried to do it, I don’t know of any who have done it as well as Pam has.”
Not only has Samuels Young balanced her writing career with full-time work as a lawyer, but she has also received numerous accolades, including the 2010 fiction award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She has also been invited to attend more than 100 book clubs and other speaking engagements.
However, success did not always come easily. Samuels Young’s first literary attempt took three years; she felt so proud that she made copies at Kinko’s to give to family and friends. But people avoided giving her feedback, and now she realizes why. “I still have the manuscript, and I’m so embarrassed I was handing this out,” she says. “I knew nothing about story structure.”
So she took a writing course at UCLA, where the instructor advised her to outline a novel similar to her own. After visualizing the nuances in the structure of John Grisham’s The Firm, she says it became “crystal clear” that she needed to change her approach to storyline. She took another year to finish her first published novel, Every Reasonable Doubt, and felt confident this time around. “People didn’t run from me; people told me they couldn’t put it down; people asked if friends could read it,” she laughs. “It taught me a valuable lesson: If you write a book people like, they’re going to tell you.”
Today, Samuel Young is the author of six legal thrillers: Anybody's Daughter (2013). Attorney-Client Privilege (2012), Buying Time (2009), Murder on the Down Low (2008), In Firm Pursuit (2007), and Every Reasonable Doubt (2006). Her first non-fiction book, “Kinky Coily: A Resource Guide for Going Natural,” was published in March 2013.