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Interview: May 9, 2003

May 9, 2003

In this special interview with's Suspense/Thriller team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub, and Wiley Saichek), D. W. Buffa discusses his latest Joseph Antonelli novel STAR WITNESS, Hollywood, the role that secondary characters play in his fiction and what readers can expect in future books.

BRC: One of the most noteworthy elements of STAR WITNESS is its timelessness. Although the story takes place in the Hollywood of "right now," the story could have easily have been set in the 1950s. I have the feeling that someone reading it 30 years from now will find it to be contemporary as well. Did you deliberately attempt to eliminate contemporary references and focus on those elements of Hollywood, and the film industry that have never changed, and probably never will?

D. W. Buffa: There is a certain timelessness about movies. At the beginning of chapter five of STAR WITNESS a former silent screen star dies in a fire, perhaps started by his own cigarette, while he watches one of his own movies made at least twenty years before. A photograph captures a moment; but a motion picture captures everything anyone does on screen and keeps it there, ready to be watched, forever. It seemed to me that all of the rapid changes, all the differences of taste, all the changing faces of celebrity, were just the surface of things, and that underneath it was a hunger for immortality. It is the ephemeral nature of celebrity, the fear that you only have a brief moment to become someone no one will forget, that is the reason for the kind of melancholy that you can almost feel in the air. So, yes, I tried to write something that would capture the essence of it, something that, like the movies, would also last.

BRC: One unifying element of your novels is your ability to weave philosophical discourses into the pattern of your storyline. G. K. Chesterton did this, to a lesser extent, in his Father Brown mysteries, but you go several steps further. Given the relative abbreviation of modern attention spans, this is a bit of a risk, yet the occasionally lengthy discourses ultimately propel, rather than stall, your narratives. One of your best examples of this is your presentation of a lecture by Professor Paul Erlich in STAR WITNESS, which ultimately serves as a subtle linchpin for the entire novel. Erlich is too good, too real, to have arisen solely out of the imagination. Is there a real-world model for Erlich?

D. W. Buffa: It is precisely the abbreviation of modern attention spans that makes it a risk worth running. And it may not be that much of a risk. There is an audience for something that takes more than a few seconds time, something that shows you things that perhaps you did not know. But I think you have to do it in a way that connects everything to the action of the story. Paul Erlich isn't there because I wanted to let the world see what someone who teaches European intellectual history might say; he's there because he was the first husband of Mary Margaret Flanders and may be able to shed some light on what she was like. That is the action, what keeps the story moving forward. He could have been an actor who never quite made it, a set designer, someone who worked in the industry; instead, he's someone who can put film and literature in a certain perspective, and, because of what he is, add a certain dimension to the kind of person Mary Margaret Flanders must have been.

BRC: Your novels are filled with references to classical works from Plato and Aristotle, to name just a few. Have these "classics" always been a part of your life? On a related note, what philosopher has most influenced your writing?

D. W. Buffa: The truth of it is they are part of everyone's life, whether you have read them or not. They form the basis of the way at least the western world thinks. I think Paul Erlich, the professor in STAR WITNESS, suggested as much. I studied political philosophy in graduate school at the University of Chicago and have never quite stopped. I suppose I have never had quite the good fortune as that character of Jorge Borges' invention who remarked: "I have frequently begun the study of metaphysics but have always been interrupted by happiness." The philosopher who has most influenced my writing? On page 70 of STAR WITNESS Paul Erlich tells his class: "For at least the first third of the twentieth century, anyone who wanted to think seriously, anyone who wanted to write something other people would take seriously, read Nietzsche." I have always been at least a hundred years behind my time.

BRC: Dwelling on Hollywood for a moment for our next question, do you like movies? Actually I feel like we should call them films, as I think that Stanley Roth made films, not movies. Have you spent any time with people "in the business?" Do you have any desire to do any screenwriting of your own or another's material?

D. W. Buffa: Stanley Roth, the defendant in STAR WITNESS, makes movies; but he wants also to make a great film. He has made movies of great commercial success, yet he dreams of crafting a movie better than "Citizen Kane." I like movies, but I agree with Stanley Roth: most of them are no good. The best movie about the law is an Italian move called "Open Doors." It is set in Sicily in the 1930s. It is one of the most remarkable films I have ever seen. I do not know anyone in the movie business, but a friend of mine was raised in it. His father was one of the partners in MCA, the company that Lew Wasserman headed for many years. I would not mind writing a screenplay, but only if it was something of my own.

BRC: Since you introduced Joseph Antonelli in THE DEFENSE, you've been slowly moving him down the Pacific Coast. THE DEFENSE, THE PROSECUTION, and the THE JUDGMENT took place in the area around Portland, Oregon, THE LEGACY centered around San Francisco, and STAR WITNESS takes place in Hollywood. Has this evolution been intentional or do you find that Antonelli's wanderlust is taking on a force of its own?

D. W. Buffa: It is intentional. The first three novels were set in Portland because I was a criminal defense attorney in Oregon. But I had always wanted to write a novel about San Francisco, and in THE LEGACY I tried to make the city, where, as Robert Louis Stevenson, once put it, all the adventurers in the world were blown by the winds of heaven, the central character. Everything had to be shaped by, conditioned by, the city. After I did that, I decided to write about the most powerful force in contemporary life, the movies, and the way it shapes the way we look at almost everything. That meant of course that STAR WITNESS had to be set in Los Angeles, which really is not a place at all, but rather a state of mind.

BRC: And continuing this line of questioning, where does Antonelli head next?

D. W. Buffa: The next novel takes him to New York and Washington and will be a story I hope readers will regard as both a legal and a political thriller. Antonelli's law school roommate, Thomas Browning, has become the vice-president of the United States. But there are people who will do anything to keep Browning from becoming president. Then someone is indicted for the death of the girl he loved, a death that had been ruled an accident when it happened, many years ago at a Plaza Hotel Christmas party, when all three of them, Browning, Antonelli and the young woman, were students at the Harvard Law School.

By the way, I should probably say something about how Antonelli got his name. In "The Godfather," the original name of the Corleone family is Andolini. I wanted to write about a Sicilian who was smart, shrewd, cunning, serious and reflective, an Italian-American who is not a crook and does not have a vocabulary restricted to four letter words.

BRC: Marissa Kane, who you introduced in THE LEGACY, is an interesting, enigmatic, romantic foil for Antonelli. Do you plan on revealing more about Marissa Kane in future novels? Or will she go the unfortunate way of Antonelli's other love interests?

D. W. Buffa: Fidelity does seem to be a bit of a problem for Antonelli, doesn't it? All I can tell you about Marissa Kane is that….Well, I better not say even that. Though he does not seem to quite trust her, he certainly has an interest in Julie Evans in STAR WITNESS. Antonelli has never married, and I don't know that he ever will. There is a kind of moody discontent about him that I like and that I want to keep. He is someone who is always searching for something, something elusive, that he cannot even quite define.

BRC: Your novels are populated with well-developed secondary characters. How much of your time is spent creating these secondary characters, as opposed to the time it takes to plot and continually develop Joseph Antonelli? Which of your secondary characters is your personal favorite, and why?

D. W. Buffa: A novel should create a world and like the world in which we live, it should include the people around us, many of whom we don't know at all. The clerk in STAR WITNESS, for example, has no interest at all in the trial, no interest in any of the celebrities involved in it. She has her own life. She is paid by the hour to do a certain job and she is not about to work a minute longer or do one extra thing without making everyone's life miserable because of it. These so-called minor characters help everything come alive. Early in the book, Antonelli holds a press conference outside the gates of the movie studio. At the back of the crowd, a gardener watches for a few minutes, resting on his rake, and then goes back to work. Though she has a much larger part than that, my favorite secondary character in STAR WITNESS is Julie Evans. I wanted her to be ambitious, calculating, even scheming, but always having to weigh what these things might get her with what they might cost. I was a little in love with her myself. The last time I was in Los Angeles I tried to find her number in the telephone book. Apparently she isn't listed anymore.

BRC: I enjoyed Horace Woolner from THE DEFENSE and THE PROSECUTION. Is there every a chance you will write a book solely from his point of view?

D. W. Buffa: I thought about Horace Woolner when I started writing the book set in New York. That is where he and his wife go at the end of THE PROSECUTION. I'm tempted to bring him back. I'm not sure I could write a book solely from his point of view, however. THE PROSECUTION was a book about lying, but it was more a book about race. For some reason, no one seemed to notice, even though almost at the beginning Horace Woolner talked about Othello.

BRC: Your first published novel, THE DEFENSE, is unique because it takes place over the course of several years, instead of a short time span like many thrillers do --- particularly the first of a series. Why did you decide to use this technique? Has it ever caused a problem when creating a timeline for the subsequent books?

D. W. Buffa: I used the technique because I wanted to write about what happens to someone who does not receive justice in an American courtroom. In THE DEFENSE, Antonelli defends someone he knows is guilty of a horrible crime against a young girl. Antonelli is a defense lawyer; this is what he does. He wins the case and goes on to the next case, and the one after that. But the girl does not have another case to go on to. All she knows is that she did not get justice in an American court of law. What is she going to think as she grows up and what is she going to do? Time has to pass, not just so that she is old enough to do something, but so that we can see the changes that take place in people's lives and whether they become different than they were. The time span in THE DEFENSE is ten years. In the novel I'm writing now, the time between the death and the trial is over thirty-five years. Antonelli was falling in love with a girl he knew the summer he spent in New York between his second and third year in law school. Now, years later, she is married to someone else and he had not seen her since. The question of memory, what we remember, how we think about things that happened in the past, the way they affect our lives now --- these are not things that can be dealt with in a book that deals only with the immediate here and now.

BRC: In recent years several suspense/thriller writers have written novels that were completely different from their suspense works (i.e., John Grisham's A PAINTED HOUSE, James Patterson's SUZANNE'S DIARY FOR NICHOLAS, and David Baldacci's WISH YOU WELL). Do you have any writing styles or genres that you would like to experiment with? Why or why not?

D. W. Buffa: I have a novel called THE MIDNIGHT SUN. It has nothing to do with crime in the conventional sense. It begins: "It was only when he decided to take his own life that Wilfred Malone realized that he could not remember being born. He could not remember anything about the beginning, the moment he came into being, the moment he came blinking into the world, held upside down by his ankles and slapped crying into life, the only life he would ever live, the life that, finally, he wanted to end."