A Conversation with William Landay
Random House Readers Circle: What was the seed of this novel? What drove you to write it? When did you ﬁrst realize that this was the story you wanted to tell?
William Landay: There was no single “seed,” honestly. I have never been the visionary sort of writer who conceives an entire novel in a lightning ﬂash of inspiration. I am more of a plodder, an experimenter. I develop my ideas slowly, by trial and error, teasing them out in draft after draft. It is a slow, tentative process, and it is ﬁlled with worry because I am never quite sure what I’m after. That is how Defending Jacob was born.
To understand where the book came from, it helps to understand where I was at the time. I had written two novels that were tradi- tional crime stories in the sense that they were set in the street-corner world of cops and hoods. I had been an assistant DA for most of the 1990s, and crime fascinated me. I felt that, as a writer, I had found my subject. But by the time I began to imagine Defending Jacob, I was thinking of crime in a different way—and thinking of crime novels in a different way too. By then, I had left the DA’s ofﬁce to become a full-time writer, and I had started my own family. Crime had been an everyday reality when I was a courtroom prosecutor; now it was just a memory, an abstract idea, the stuff I made stories out of. As I thought about crime now, from the perspective of a writer and a young father, it seemed to me that the questions that haunt us as parents were not so different from the questions that animate criminal law: Why do people do what they do? How do we encourage good behavior and punish bad? How do we understand one another? How, for example, do we respond to the fact that good people do bad things, or that good people are victimized? Above all, what does crime tell us about ourselves? That last question, of course, is the reason crime has always fascinated storytellers and audiences: we read (and watch) crime stories not for what they tell us about criminals, but for what they tell us about ourselves. The criminal we read about is us—at least, he is a little, wicked part of us, all of us.
RHRC: How do you feel about the concept of the “murder gene”?
WL: I think it is fashionable now to use DNA as an explanation for all sorts of behaviors. Genomics is a new and fast-developing—and seductive—science, and we tend to think of it in an overly determinative way, as if it explains everything about us. But we humans are unfathomably complex. None of us is simply our DNA. So I think we have to be careful when we encounter a new idea and a new science like behavioral genetics. We have to be careful about terms like “murder gene” and “warrior gene,” lest we think of these things, inaccurately, as simple triggers. The truth is, we are still talking about a gene-environment interaction, still talking about nature versus nurture, as we always have. The difference is that now we have a window into the “nature” side of the equation.
In some ways, the effect of our physical construction—the chemicals and electrical impulses, the bones and meat we are made of—on our behavior and character is a revolutionary idea, a completely new way to think about ourselves. But in other ways, it is merely a very old idea that has simply been detailed a bit by science. We have always understood that we all have certain innate, “hardwired” tendencies and temperaments; now we understand the precise mecha- nisms of that physical hard wiring a little better. The interesting question for readers and novelists is what this new science means.
How should we think about ourselves in light of these new discoveries? What should society do with the knowledge that some of our neighbors bear genes predisposing them to violence or disease or a thousand other human traits? These are rich topics for novelists.
RHRC: Which character in Defending Jacob do you identify with most strongly? Who is your least favorite character?
WL: The truth is that all the main characters are fragments of myself. We are all many things in the course of our lives, and at various times I have been sullen and withdrawn like Jacob, warm and sensi- tive like Laurie, steely and loyal like Andy. When you write a novel, at least a novel as deeply felt as Defending Jacob was to me, you ﬁnd yourself excavating all these various aspects of your own personality. On the other hand, I do not believe the simplistic assumption that all characters in all novels are reﬂections of the novelist. I have created many characters that have felt external to me—real and credible characters, I hope, but not reﬂections of me at all, not family. The Barbers were the ﬁrst kind, the sort of characters that are slivers of me. So I ﬁnd it hard to see them with any objectivity or distance, let alone to choose a favorite. Maybe I will, in time.
With that said, I confess I have a soft spot for Andy, for his stead- fast devotion to his child even in the darkest times. Andy is not perfect, of course. But to me, even his ﬂaws do him credit. Who would not want a father so unshakable, who would stand by you, right or wrong, right to the end?
RHRC: Do you see any of yourself in Andy?
WL: A little bit, yes. I am stubborn and doggedly loyal, as Andy is. And my emotions can cloud my perceptions, though I think everyone is vulnerable to that.
But I can’t quite see myself in Andy because I see so many others in him too. When I was a young lawyer, there were several older, respected prosecutors like Andy Barber who were role models for the younger lawyers coming up. At least they ought to have been. Andy is an amalgam of those older lawyers whom I admired as a young man. He is the prosecutor I might have become if I’d stuck with it for an entire career. I like to think so, at least.
RHRC: What has been the most surprising aspect of the huge reader response to Defending Jacob?
WL: Well, to borrow your word, the sheer hugeness of it. I am still stunned. No writer would dare imagine that sort of commercial success. No sane writer, anyway. The odds are so long. So many things have to go right, including a good deal of luck. It is humbling.
I have also been amazed at the intensity of readers’ reactions. Even now, more than a year after the book was published, I get email every day from readers who tell me how deeply moved they were by Defending Jacob. Most write to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. A few write because they are outraged at Laurie’s or Andy’s behavior—which is to say, they are outraged at me for making them misbehave this way. But for good and bad, the emails keep pouring in, often beginning with “I have never written to an author before, but I just had to tell you . . .”
It has been a wonderful, bewildering experience to see my book hit a nerve that way. Writing is a lonely business. A writer’s days are ﬁlled with silence and solitude (if he’s doing it right). Inside that bubble, while writing, it is easy to believe that the book is a purely private experience, written only for the writer himself. It sounds silly, but you can forget that other people will actually read your story, let alone that they might be deeply touched by it. Books are essentially a private medium, for both the artist and audience— imagined by a writer in a lonely room, then reimagined by a reader in the quiet of her own thoughts. The public life of books—the brief moment when they show up in book reviews (for those lucky enough to be reviewed), bookstores (increasingly rare), or advertisements (rarer still)—has more to do with bookselling than reading. A book’s essential purpose is to be opened by a single reader and read in silence, to slip into her thoughts quietly. So it has been shocking— I don’t know what else to call it—to see my book become such a public hit. I am very, very grateful for it, for all the readers who have enjoyed the book and written to let me know. I would like to thank every last one of them, if I could.
RHRC: What are the one or two things readers have said to you about Defending Jacob that you treasure most?
WL: The other day, I heard from a woman whose teenage son was convicted of murder. The boy served eight and a half years in prison, then took his own life. This grieving mother wrote to tell me that Defending Jacob had actually helped her to process what she had been through, that the book captured her own feelings and experiences accurately (“spot-on” was the phrase she used), and that she wanted to thank me for writing it. As a parent, it is staggering to imagine that sort of pain. As a novelist, it is humbling even to imagine that your book might help someone that way.
Of course, that sort of dramatic email is rare. More often, I hear from readers with the ordinary, everyday worries of parents: children who communicate too little, stare into their smartphones too much, and wander into all sorts of trouble. Defending Jacob seems to speak to them too. Jacob Barber is not so different from a lot of teenagers, really. And Laurie and Andy’s worry about Jacob and even their fear of him are emotions every parent will recognize, if only in a small way.
RHRC: Both Andy and Laurie Barber are strong presences in this novel. What do you ﬁnd are the difﬁculties in tackling male and female characters? Is one more difﬁcult than the other?
WL: The expected answer, I suppose, is that male authors must ﬁnd women more difﬁcult to write, and female authors must struggle to create men. It is a logical assumption: the closer one’s own experience is to any subject, the less guesswork must be required. But I am not sure it actually works that way. Personally—and I don’t pretend to speak for other writers—I don’t ﬁnd my female characters any more mysterious or elusive than my male characters, at least not as a rule. There are difﬁcult people to create, certainly, but I don’t think the difﬁculty correlates to gender.
That must sound odd from a writer who has just written a novel in the voice of a man very like himself. And it is true that I have written more male characters than female. But that has mostly been a result of the topics I have chosen. I have written mostly about the worlds of cops and criminals, and these are dominated by men, still. But I would love to center a novel on a woman—a novel not just with a female protagonist, but actually told from a woman’s point of view, with her sensibility and her voice. Maybe that is foolish, maybe I will ﬁnd it more difﬁcult than I expected to write credibly from a woman’s perspective at novel length. But I think one of the worst bits of advice writers hear is “write what you know.” If writers did not feel free to break that rule and imagine worlds beyond their personal experience, we would not have so many of our favorite stories and characters, from Harry Potter to Humbert Humbert. Anyway, if I wanted to do things the easy way, I probably would not have become a writer in the ﬁrst place.
RHRC: One of the powerful emotional arcs in this book is the evolution of Laurie and Andy’s marriage/relationship. Was this very complicated and intense relationship difﬁcult to write?
WL: It was difﬁcult in the sense that it was painful to watch these characters suffer so. I like Andy and Laurie. They are my friends, or would be but for the fact they are ﬁctional. I like them as a couple too, how they complement each other, how they ﬁt together. And the fact that their lives—Andy’s work, the town they live in, the stage of life they are in—are so similar to mine made their descent especially uncomfortable to watch. This story hits literally close to home.
But the Barbers’ unraveling was not difﬁcult to create in the sense that it was complex or technically challenging. Writing is an em- pathic, instinctive thing, at least when you are in the heat of it, building your story sentence by sentence. You don’t stop to calculate which emotion logically ﬁts in a given situation; you just feel it, you react in real time, and you hope your instincts are right. (And if you get it wrong, the ﬁx is easy enough: throw it away and write it again. And again, and again.) So, was it hard to trace the emotional arc of Andy and Laurie’s relationship? Yes, but hard like heartbreak, not hard like math.
RHRC: How do you want your readers to feel about Laurie?
WL: I would never prescribe how readers ought to feel about any- thing. That’s their business. But I do think Laurie’s warmth, her emotional honesty, is something Andy treasures and sorely misses when the couple is forced apart by Jacob’s case. No doubt it was part of what attracted him to her in the ﬁrst place. Andy’s personality is built on a secret; Laurie seems to have none. At least, she seems to believe that keeping secrets like Andy’s is unhealthy. Whether Andy really had a choice about divulging his past, whether it is Andy’s secrecy that comes back to haunt the family, whether it would have made a difference if Laurie’s honesty had ruled the household— all that I leave to the reader.
RHRC: If you had investigated the case, would you have focused on Jacob, or would you have gone after Patz?
WL: I would certainly have looked into Patz. There is enough smoke there that any good investigator would have to check it out. One thing that Andy comments on, which was always my experience too, is that in the early stages of an investigation it is very hard to differentiate signal from noise—to tell which odd-seeming facts are signiﬁcant evidence and which are just odd, irrelevant distractions. Once the investigation ﬁxes on Jacob, it becomes very hard for the detectives to see Patz as anything but a distraction. But that has as much to do with their own perceptional bias, their “target focus,” as it has to do with the real weight of the evidence. When the bal- ance tips—when the weight of evidence truly points to Jacob, if it ever does—that is up to the reader.
RHRC: If you weren’t a writer, what profession would you choose? Would you practice law again?
WL: Oh, I could go on and on. There are so many things I would truly love to do. I doubt I would go back to practicing law. I am too conﬂictaverse and at this point I am too interested in creating things. I would love to do something in the visual arts, in design, photography, even ﬁlmmaking. One of the frustrations of novel-writing is that it is entirely a verbal medium. As grand and elastic a form as the novel is, it really offers nothing to the visual imagination, to the eye. And nothing tangible, as the advent of eBooks makes painfully clear. Yes, a printed book is a tangible object, but it is not entirely the author’s own. It is co-produced by the publisher. Only the words are mine. I love technology too; maybe I would throw myself into the Next Big Thing on the internet. I would love to start a business. Maybe get into the shoe business, which is what my family has done for several generations and which I always imagined I would go into when I was a kid.
Or teach. I have always wanted to teach English in a middle school somewhere, though I suspect I’d be a lousy teacher (too impatient). The truth is I would need several lifetimes to get through all the careers I dream about, but I will never try any of them because I al- ready have the one job that trumps them all: writer. What a remarkable, privileged thing to be. If I never dreamed of becoming a writer as a kid, it is only because it would have seemed so preposterous— like saying you were going to become an astronaut or a major-league ballplayer. There were no artists or writers in my world back then. Even now, I feel a little fraudulent using that word to describe myself; I think of myself as just a guy who has written a few books, not a writer. So I consider myself damn lucky to have this job, and I intend to keep it. It is only a handful of writers who get to earn their living
this way. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember that.
RHRC: Does plot come ﬁrst for you, or character?
WL: They come at the same time. I’m not sure I could even separate the two as neatly as the question implies. Plot is just character in action. Character, in the end, is what you actually do. In my books I design both plot and character to achieve whatever effect I’m after, to suit whatever subject I’m trying to discuss. One of the pitfalls of dividing our books into genre novels versus “literary” novels is that we have come to expect too little character out of the ﬁrst and too little plot out of the second, leaving both poorer. A good novel needs both, of course, and the two should be wrapped as tight as the strands in a rope.
RHRC: If you had to write Defending Jacob again, would you change any of the major plot points?
WL: I never, ever think that way. For me, when a book is done, it’s done, and I move on. I have heard stories about famous authors who would take their own published books down off the shelf and obsessively rewrite them over and over. I have never felt that urge. In my experience, as soon as I ﬁnish a manuscript, a happy amnesia settles over me. I can barely recall the details of the book, never mind feel tempted to rewrite it. The question of “wrong” creative choices, it seems to me, misperceives how stories are made. As a reader, the incidents in a book feel inevitable. There is a chain of events: A leads to B leads to C. The reader reacts to that chain in a binary way: either she approves or not. But to the writer, who faces a blank page (or computer screen) every day, every plot decision involves inﬁnite possibilities. A might lead to B, but it also might lead to a thousand other things. The writer chooses because he has to choose. The story must proceed. But he is never under the illusion that there is a correct or best choice. Every decision is contingent. Every choice involves compro- mises, tradeoffs, ﬂaws. So he makes his bargain and he moves on.
In the case of Defending Jacob, the ending has received a lot of attention, understandably. But the novel might have ended a differ- ent way—or ten different ways. In fact, the published novel does not end the way my original manuscript did. Is the ﬁnal version better, is it the “right” ending? There is no way to answer that question. My advice to writers: don’t look back. As Satchel Paige said, “Something may be gaining on you.”
RHRC: Which authors do you admire and why?
WL: This is a common question and one I hate because my reading is so random. I tend to read whatever catches my interest at the moment, from the current ﬁction lists or the classics. I have loved books by a crazily varied list of authors: Austen and Dickens, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Larry McMurtry and E. L. Doctorow (particularly Billy Bathgate), Bellow and Roth and Updike, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. On and on.
I do ﬁnd it difﬁcult to read when I’m writing, however. The part of a reader’s imagination that a good novel occupies is the very same space that a novelist uses to dream up his own original stories. So I often fall back on nonﬁction when I am writing, lest I start stealing from someone else or, worse, being led astray by my betters, writing their stories rather than my own.
RHRC: If you had to cite just one novel aspiring writers should read before starting to write their own work, what would it be?
WL: I think the answer would be different for everyone. The books that inspired me to write likely would not have the same effect on others. That is the nature of reading. Those magical, electric reading experiences—the unforgettable books that are seared into us and mark us for life—depend on so many things besides the book itself. It happens when the right reader opens the right book at just the right moment in her life. It is like dating. All of us who are devoted readers have had the experience of meeting the same book twice and feeling completely different about it. At eighteen, I hated Moby Dick; at thirty, I was blown away by it. So it goes.
I am also a very slow reader, so I haven’t racked up the mile-long reading lists that other writers have. Worse, I tend to reread my fa- vorites, especially as I get older. I ﬁnd I enjoy the company of old friends like The Great Gatsby more than the sexy new titles at the front of the bookstore. And of course I read with a professional’s eye now. I try to take apart every book to see how it works, how it was built, to see what I can take from it.
So I would not presume to tell any aspiring writer what she ought to read. Personally, I have loved Fitzgerald and Hemingway, those polestars of the tender and tough schools of romantic writing. Roth and Bellow too. I always have Ian McEwan nearby; when I am stuck in my own writing, I often read McEwan just to hear the sound of good English prose and get myself moving again. Works every time. I have enjoyed the richer sort of genre stuff like Scott Turow and John le Carré (especially A Perfect Spy), and I’ve enjoyed Stephen King and Elmore Leonard too. I have enjoyed a lot of “good bad books,” as George Orwell called them, pop novels like The Godfather. And I have made sure to work in a few classics, especially Dickens. I read screenplays, as well, to learn about dialogue and how to structure a plot. So that is my haphazard list. At least, it is the bits that come immediately to mind. The main thing for any aspiring author is: read. Just read. Read anything at all that excites you. Don’t worry about how sophisticated or impressive your list sounds. Don’t worry what people will think. If you like junk, read junk. Find a book that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, then pull that book apart scene by scene and ﬁgure out how the author did it. Then go do it your- self.