Skip to main content

Interview: June 10, 2011

Robert Dugoni is a writer turned lawyer turned writer, whose series featuring attorney David Sloane has earned him awards and critical praise.'s Joe Hartlaub spoke with Dugoni about his much-loved protagonist, who returns in the just-released fourth installment, MURDER ONE, and how he has been guiding his story and development through many plot twists. Dugoni also discusses how his experience in the courtroom serves as a basis for his legal thrillers, why his hometown of Seattle works best as the setting, and how he began the series that would result in so many accolades. Your new novel, MURDER ONE, is a nominal sequel to BODILY HARM, in the sense that the events in the new book are, to some extent, influenced --- though not controlled --- by the old. David Sloane, known for his unparalleled winning streak as a civil litigator, becomes personally and professionally involved with Barclay Reid, his professional adversary in BODILY HARM. He becomes personally involved when the two start dating after seeing each other at a charity function; his professional involvement occurs when she is charged with murder and Sloane is retained to defend her. Did you write BODILY HARM with the knowledge, or at least the idea, that Reid would return to Sloane's world at some point? Or did you realize, after finishing BODILY HARM, that she was too good a character to limit to one novel?

Robert Dugoni: Yes and no. How's that for a lawyer's answer?

When I wrote BODILY HARM, I made some very tough choices and decisions that I knew would have a huge impact on future David Sloane books and that these decisions were irreversible. I labored for a long time whether to do or not to do some of the things, but in the end I decided that I never want readers to think they can predict what will happen in any of my novels. Judging from the emails, no one saw it coming in BODILY HARM and I'm hopeful people will think they figured out MURDER ONE, but really won't have the final answer until the last five pages of the book, which was my goal. So I knew that the decisions I made in BODILY HARM would have to be dealt with in MURDER ONE and every subsequent David Sloane novel that I write.

BRC: Was there any event or idea in particular that inspired you to have Sloane try his hand at the criminal defense practice?

RD: My readers, my editor and my agent love to see and read David Sloane in the courtroom. I kept getting fan mail saying, "more courtroom drama" or "more courtroom scenes." Having been a civil litigator I know that most civil trials aren't that interesting. I'm sure I could come up with a clever plot, but nothing as dramatic as defending a person accused of murder. Also, as I stated above, I never want people to predict what is coming next. So now I can take Sloane in any number of directions.

BRC: You spent several months observing a capital murder trial as part of your research for the writing of MURDER ONE. Do you have any desire to jump the fence, if you will, and begin representing criminal defendants? Why or why not? And what about David Sloane? Will he give up civil litigation for the potential fame and fortune of representing high-profile defendants in criminal trials?

RD: The experience watching a criminal trial had the opposite effect on me personally. Everyone should have the experience of watching such a trial. It is one thing to read about a person taking another person's life. It is another thing to be within feet of such a person, to watch them enter and leave the courtroom. "He seems so normal," a woman sitting next to me said one day and I had to agree. The defendant looked like the guy next door and he had brutally murdered two women and two children for no apparent reason but sport. It was chilling. He showed no remorse. At his death sentence he talked about how the sentence wasn't "justice," it was "vengeance." It seemed as if it never dawned on him that he had passed a death sentence on four completely innocent people. I don't ever want to try a criminal case, but I was glad for the experience.

Sloane, on the other hand, is much braver than I. Sloane seeks the drama, and bad people and events seem to have a way of finding him. He won't take a criminal case for the fortune or the fame since he has plenty already. Sloane will take another criminal case because Justice demands it be done, and I have a really great idea floating around that I'm mentally plotting, and keeping notes.

BRC: MURDER ONE is set almost exclusively in your home territory of Seattle, Washington. What is it about Seattle that you find attractive as a place to live? Or as a place to set your novels? What would be your second choice for either, or both?

RD: I like to write about the places I live. I want to see and feel the setting as I am writing the novel. I'll even set the novel in the actual months I'm writing so I can experience the cold, the wet, the snow. I want to make it as real as possible. I get a lot of emails from readers who think my plots are based on true stories and that's a great feeling. I'll also get emails from readers who have either been to the locations in my novels or who are going on vacation and want to know if the location is a real place. 95% of the time it is.

Seattle is one of those places where you have to take the good with the bad. I tell people that, in the summer, God vacations in Seattle. The beauty is astounding. There is no reason to go anywhere else. You have mountains, rivers, huge lakes. You can hunt, fish, hike, boat, beach. It's like living in a resort. But come October, the gray sets in and the days become short and dark. Now I know why animals hibernate. For a thriller it can make for great settings because you can have many "dark and stormy nights" and people can't complain that it's a coincidence. We only get about 55 days of sunshine a year!

Second choice would be anywhere I always wanted to visit. The problem is I'd have to stay there a while to get a real feel for the location and the people, or have somebody really wired into that area who knows the intimate details help me out. I've spent a lot of time in the South recently, South Carolina in particular, and it is so rich with history and the geography is incredible with the rivers and the ocean and the heat and humidity. It could be a lot of fun to send Sloane there on an adventure. For the next novel, however, I chose the Gold Country in California.

BRC: I have been particularly impressed by how you have developed David Sloane as a character over the course of your novels. You certainly have not been afraid to bring tragedy and failure into his personal life, as a counterbalance, one might say, to the success he has had in his professional one. Did you see Sloane as an ongoing character when you first created him? If so, did you plot out what would be happening to him over the course of several novels, or have you been letting his life take its own course as you have been writing?

RD: One of the nicest compliments I've received came from a reviewer in Chicago who wrote that "David Sloane is the most well-developed character since Rusty Sabich in PRESUMED INNOCENT."

Anyone who has read THE JURY MASTER knows I never saw Sloane as a recurring character. I put that guy through the wringer in that novel. In fact, I probably overdid it because I didn't see him coming back. It wasn't that I didn't think he was a great character, it was just that I had written other novels and I didn't anticipate how many people would become invested in him. When the book hit the NY Times Bestseller List, my agent suggested Sloane as a series. Then the publisher made it official.

THE JURY MASTER was a tough act to follow, but WRONGFUL DEATHreally turned out to be a great plot that started from just a simple idea from my wife. It required a lot of research, and I enjoyed fleshing out the details and developing the characters. Sloane really came alive in that book. After that, I read an article in the paper about how "a toy can be dangerous in a child's hand." That just blew me away and spawned the idea for BODILY HARM.MURDER ONE I've always felt to be a cross between PRESUMED INNOCENT, a brilliant book, and Basic Instinct, a really scary movie.

Now I look for ideas for the next Sloane novel.

As far as Sloane's life, I try to make the situations realistic. In MURDER ONE, it is realistic that Sloane will have to get back into the game even after tragedy. Those of us who have lost someone close realize that time is cruel; it does not stop long to allow us to grieve. The world marches forward, and we must march with it or be left behind. Sloane had to move forward.

BRC: Let's talk a bit about your writing process. Do you have several different ideas for novels going at once? Or do you conceive, begin and end writing one book at a time?

RD: Ordinarily I write one at a time. Recently I wrote two books at a time, but one is not a thriller. Presently I'm writing one for June 2012, but I have another great idea from a friend, and so I'm starting to mentally plot it out and keeping notes as I go. Sometimes it's hard to do both because you get excited about a plot idea, but you're on deadline and really need to be writing that book under contract that your editor is expecting.

BRC: What sort of writing schedule do you adhere to these days? Have things changed from when you first started writing novels?

RD: When I first started, I was writing Monday-Saturday. I had a three-year window of opportunity to write my novels after I left the law. I needed to make a living and get published so I didn't have time to fool around. I had an 8' x 8' office with no windows and went there like a regular job –-- early in the morning until early evening. I just worked at learning the craft, crafting the first novel, then ending it, and sending it out to try to get an agent while working on the next novel, and so on and so on. I didn't make my three-year deadline, so I had to take a job working part time as a lawyer. This limited my writing time to three to four days a week. Even now I continue to practice law because I like the people I work with. They're a fun group, intelligent, and the work is mentally stimulating. So I have the best of all worlds, though it is incredibly hectic when you add in teaching, coaching baseball and basketball, helping with the homework and trying to have some time with my very understanding wife.

BRC: What or who influenced your career path with respect to civil litigation? And to writing?

RD: My mother has always been the strongest influence on my writing career. I'm one of 10 kids, and she did not have time to entertain us. If we couldn't find something to do with each other, she didn't have much sympathy for us. If we ever said "I'm bored," she handed us a book. She was an English major and always a voracious reader.

By the time seventh grade came around, I was reading, or had read, many of the classics: THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, THE GREAT GATSBY, OF MICE AND MEN, LORD OF THE FLIES. Then I started to get into literary writers like John Irving and Pat Conroy. I remember reading THE STAND by Stephen King and being blown away at its scope. I knew I wanted to write. I majored in journalism and creative writing at Stanford and worked for newspapers. My brothers and sisters were all heading off to medical school, and I was witnessing vicariously that grind as well as the inhumanity of their residencies. I spent a semester in college clerking for a law firm and met the litigator Jim Brosnahan and watched him in a trial. It seemed to have all the things I enjoyed: the theater, the acting, oratory skills, the written word. I decided to give law school a chance thinking that I could write my novels on the side, like Scott Turow was doing. Boy was I wrong. The law is indeed a jealous mistress. I had little time for much else.

BRC: If you could do anything but practice law, or write, what do you think you would be doing for a living?

RD: I doubt I could do it for a living, but I love acting. The theater is a magical place, and I was incredibly happy when on stage. It's a tough life for a family, however, and I'm not sure how it would have translated to being a husband and a father. I teach a lot now and find that also to be incredibly rewarding. It is personally very satisfying.

BRC: What have you read in the past year that you would like to recommend to our readers?

RD: SOUTH OF BROAD by Pat Conroy and THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell.

BRC: Could you tell us for which attorney in the public eye you feel the most admiration?

RD: Barack Obama. Is that a copout? Man, he has a tough job, but I think he proved to a lot of people when he gave the order to take out Bin Laden that he was capable of making very difficult decisions. I think he is an incredibly bright man, contemplative, and I hope he has the opportunity to succeed or fail on his own terms.

The other attorney I've enjoyed reading about is Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who takes on hate groups in civil actions, bankrupting them. Those articles gave me part of the idea for the plot in MURDER ONE.

Locally, here in Seattle I have a lot of admiration for Jeff Tilden. He was voted Washington's attorney of the year and he's just one of those guys who can tell a really good story. He's incredibly successful, but remains down to earth. A genuinely nice man.

BRC: What are you working on now? Do you have plans to return to any of your other characters in future works? For example, do you contemplate a sequel of any sort to DAMAGE CONTROL?

RD: I'm currently working on the Sloane novel for June 2012. Jake plays a prominent part in that novel and, again, Sloane is faced with a real life situation so many parents of teens face. I also bring back detective Tom Molia from THE JURY MASTER. The plot was inspired by true life events and is sort of a cross between Holes and The Shawshank Redemption.

Beyond that, I'm contemplating a police series that would bring back Detective Kinsington Rowe, "Sparrow" from MURDER ONE.

• Click here now to buy this book from Amazon.