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Interview: July 26, 2002

July 26, 2002

D. W. Buffa, lawyer, teacher and author of THE LEGACY, has written three previous novels featuring defense attorney Joseph Antonelli: THE DEFENSE, THE PROSECUTION and THE JUDGMENT. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Buffa shares his view on the essence of justice and what he feels are the basis of his characters.

BRC: THE LEGACY is a bit different from your previous novels. While THE DEFENSE, THE PROSECUTION, and THE JUDGMENT were all set in Portland, THE LEGACY takes place in San Francisco. Were there any particular factors, besides your own residency in Northern California, that led you to relocate Joseph Antonelli to San Francisco?

DWB: I was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area and no matter where I lived I always wanted to get back. San Francisco exerts a strange attraction on people and I wanted to write about it. THE LEGACY is as much about The City as about anything else. One of the characters, Joseph Antonelli's grandfather, bears a certain resemblance to my own grandfather. During Prohibition he made a great deal of money in the liquor business; he lost most of it when he paid off the police to stay out of prison. Being an honorable man, he thought he should do this to protect the family name. Some of his grandchildren might have preferred that he had gone to prison and kept the money.

BRC: Another way in which THE LEGACY is a bit different from your previous work is that it is a bit more global. Events occurring in Washington, DC and Moscow have an effect, directly and indirectly, on what occurs in THE LEGACY. Were there any particular "real world" events which helped to shape your structure of THE LEGACY?

DWB: I suppose I have always had a great interest in politics. I studied political philosophy at the University of Chicago and for several years served as special assistant to the late United States Senator Philip A. Hart. It seemed to me that given the right level of ambition and the right opportunity, combined of course with a kind of ruthless disregard for other people, someone might decide to ignore all the conventional limits of law and morality to get what they wanted. Jeremy Fullerton, the U.S. Senator whose murder is at the heart of the story, is in a way a modern day Alcibiades, who, you will remember, changed sides more than once during the war between Athens and Sparta. It is also, of course, what Gatsby did, break the rules to win what he wanted more than anything.

BRC: Antonelli has never had trouble distinguishing the law from justice, and certainly the denouement of THE LEGACY does nothing to demonstrate any deviation from that personality trait. It ties in with one of the themes of your novels, that being that the law, itself, occasionally (and possibly frequently) obstructs justice; or, as a law professor once said, anyone who seeks to study justice should go to theology school. Were there any particular incidents which you experienced during the course of your practice which caused you to impute this world view to Antonelli?

DWB: The law professor who said that you should go to theology school if you seek to study justice is wrong on at least two levels. There is always a tension between the law and justice, in part because the law cannot take account of all the individual circumstances of a given situation. But it is only because we have some sense of what justice is that we can make that comparison in the first place. In my first novel, The Defense, there are two trials. In the first, Antonelli uses what the law allows to win an acquittal for someone he knows is guilty of an awful crime. In the second, Antonelli breaks the law to make sure of an acquittal for someone he knows, absolutely knows, to be innocent. That was the question, the uncomfortable question, I wanted to raise: Which is better? Which is worse? By the way, readers of The Defense may remember that the judge, Leopold Rifkin, was of the opinion that those who wanted to study justice should probably begin with Plato. Who am I to quarrel with that learned jurist?

BRC: One almost unobtrusive thread I've noticed that weaves it way through your books is what I call "The unknown pedestrian." In THE JUDGMENT, it was the shadowy figure that Antonelli almost hit as he was leaving the Oregon State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In THE LEGACY, it was the individual that the police almost struck by the Marcone Civic Center when they were responding to the gunshot that, as it turned out, resulted in the death of Senator Jeremy Fullerton. Is there a deeper, metaphorical significance to this minor character's momentary presence in these books, or are you just having a bit of fun?

DWB: This is a rather interesting question. These "unknown pedestrians" are there to put things in a larger perspective, to show that the story is taking place within a wider world in which people live presumably normal lives. The pedestrian almost struck by Antonelli reacts in a way that raises the question about the precise distinction between the rational response of a sane individual and insanity. The pedestrian who is almost hit by the police in THE LEGACY helps underscore how limited was the visibility the night of the murder, and how easily someone could be walking down the street unobserved by others.

BRC: Your novels, while having a contemporary setting, seem to be infused with a style that hearken to a more traditional style of writing. I'm particularly struck by the beauty of the language used in the conversations of your characters, which seems to owe more to classic authors such as Faulkner and Conrad than to contemporary noir detective and mystery writers. Every conversation in your book is important, and they all sound important as they're being read. Is this a style that you have struggled to achieve or are you following your inner voice?

DWB: You are very kind, and I would love to think that you were right. I would like every conversation to be important and to sound that way. Despite what some people seem to believe, there are people who talk seriously about serious things, and those are the sorts of things I want to write about. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I tend to read rather more traditional writers, including the two you mentioned, Conrad and Faulkner, and especially Conrad. There are not ninety better pages than Conrad's THE HEART OF DARKNESS.

BRC: Another impressive element of your work is your ability to infuse a believability into your characters, particularly your judges. I am absolutely sure that literally any trial attorney in the country could read, say, THE JUDGMENT, and, while reading about Judge Calvin Jeffries say, "He sounds like he is talking about Judge __________!" You, of course, were a practicing defense attorney for ten years in the Portland area. Are your characters --- judges,prosecutors, defendants --- drawn from that experience, in whole or in part?

DWB: This is actually a difficult question. While I doubt I could have written about the courtroom without having spent a number of years as a trial lawyer, none of the characters I have tried to draw have been based on anyone with whom I came in contact. That is not to say that I have not used a particular trait, or a particular look, or even a particular physical characteristic that I remembered from some judge or lawyer with whom I had some contact. Let me approach this from a slightly different angle. In one of the few things really worth reading on writing, Henry James talks about writing about what you know. The first impression, of course, at least when you think about it, is what else could you write about? But James takes the question in a much more interesting way. How extensive does that knowledge have to be? He gives as an example a woman who wrote a remarkable description of a French soldier. Everyone wanted to know how she had come to have such an unusual knowledge. The answer? She had once come down the steps of a small hotel in Paris and seen a French soldier lounging in the kitchen, talking to his girl friend, one of the maids. That was it, that single glimpse, and it told her in a way everything. So, you remember, a look, a word, a way of reacting, and you build an entire person from that one thing.

BRC: Another of the unique aspects of your literary style is that much of the action takes place "off the page," so to speak. THE LEGACY takes place over a year after the close of THE JUDGMENT; the intervening period was an important, and tragic, one for Antonelli, one that might easily have been grist for another novel. Yet, you were able to summarize it, quite nicely, in a few paragraphs, then return to the business of THE LEGACY. Similarly, most of the significant violent acts taking place in THE LEGACY are related to the reader, rather than witnessed. Is this style perhaps a residual effect of your life as an attorney, practicing in a forum --- i.e., the courtroom --- where incidents are described to the jury --- to wit, the audience --- rather than witnessed by them?

DWB: It is not unique at all. Read any one of Shakespeare's plays and see how much of the action takes place off stage. The Antonelli novels are all told by Antonelli. This limits the action to what Antonelli has seen himself or what others have described to him. He will learn of a crime, only after the crime has been committed. He never sees it himself. And, yes, you are right. A trial is really a story, or rather two stories, being told about things that have already happened, the story told by the prosecution and the story told by the defense. This, by the way, is dealt with directly during the trial of Jamaal Washington in THE LEGACY.

BRC: What are you working on now?

DWB: I have finished the next Antonelli novel, STAR WITNESS, in which a famous movie director is accused of the murder of his equally famous movie star wife. The defendant is a character called Stanley Roth who seems more interested in the next movie he is going to make, the one that wants to be as good or better than Citizen Kane, than in his own murder trial. It will be published next spring. I have just begun the next Antonelli novel after that, this one involving the vice-president of the United States. It is set in Washington and New York.

BRC: I've heard that you don't care for using word processors for writing, and prefer using a fountain pen and legal pad for writing. Some of our audience may be of an age where a fountain pen, regrettably, is an unknown quantity. How did you come, in this Age of Bic, to utilize this tool of another, better age?

DWB: It is true. I write with a fountain pen. However, I do use a word processor to type what I write in long hand. Fountain pens are not so old fashioned as you suggest. I find it more difficult to concentrate on what I see on a screen than what I do at the point of a pen. There are too many things on the screen. It is too easy to look at the things you have already written. Besides, it is better to do some things slow.

BRC: Could you tell us what your daily work schedule is like?

DWB: I write every day, first thing, whenever first thing is, for at least several hours. In long hand. With a fountain pen.

BRC: While doing research for this interview, I'll have to confess that I found very little biographical information about you. I know that you were a practicing defense attorney in Portland Oregon, and graduated from the University of Chicago School of Law, and now live in Northern California. What other biographical information would you care to share with us?

DWB: I was born and raised in California. I graduated from Michigan State, received both an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago where I studied political philosophy under Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey and international relations under Hans Morgenthau. My law degree is from Wayne State University. I spent three years as special assistant to United States Senator Philip A. Hart. I taught in several universities and practiced law for a number of years. I began writing long before I became a lawyer.

BRC: Are there any books you have read in the past six months --- no matter when published --- that you would care to recommend to our readers besides those that you contributed to the Author Summer Reading Lists for

DWB: Henry Adams, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS. I have read it before, but it is one of those rare books that once you have read it once you keep wanting to read it over and over again.