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Interview: May 28, 2010

Robert Dugoni’s fourth novel, the legal thriller BODILY HARM, features recurring protagonist David Sloane as he takes on a toy manufacturer guilty of prioritizing profit over social responsibility. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Dugoni explains how the final draft of the novel differed from its initial inception and describes how a recent personal tragedy impacted his writing. He also gives insight into his creative process, shares tips for aspiring authors --- such as overcoming writer’s block and balancing one’s day job while simultaneously working on a book --- and briefly hints at Sloane’s next adventure, due out in 2011. BODILY HARM, your latest novel, features the return of David Sloane, a plaintiff’s litigator who is well known as “the lawyer who does not lose.” It is also arguably your most ambitious novel, one in which Sloane takes on the toy industry over a toy prototype that has a flaw that may well have caused the death of two young children. In addition to some suspenseful courtroom scenes and some extremely exciting, not to mention surprising, action vignettes, the reader also is provided with an inside look into the development of a toy and the constant, as well as cutthroat, tactics that toy manufacturers use to stay ahead of the pack. How did you become interested in the toy industry and its practices as a vehicle for a legal thriller?

Robert Dugoni: Actually, the idea didn’t start with the toy industry. It started with the car industry. You see, I’m one of 10 kids and, as one might imagine, I rarely received anything “new.” Most of what I had were hand-me-downs, and I was glad to have them. I never owned a stereo or a new TV, but man, I had a fun childhood. One day when I came home my father had purchased a “new” used car for me to drive to school. That the purchase was necessitated because my older sister’s Dodge Dart, the car I was to inherit, had caught on fire, didn’t matter. This would be my car, not a hand-me-down, and man was I excited to see this fire-engine red, 1974 Ford Pinto.

Now it wasn’t until a year or two later that the news began to surface about this “minor” problem with the Pinto. It seemed that, when rear-ended, the car’s gas tank could explode. And, as it turned out, memos surfaced that Ford apparently knew of this potential problem but had weighed the cost of a recall and repair versus the potential for injury --- very comforting to me. As this idea fermented, I stumbled across a story about magnets in toys becoming free and causing injury and death to children. There was something about the vulnerability of a child, so happy to have received that toy, not knowing that it was potentially dangerous, that struck a chord with me. And the more I researched, the more I learned that the toy industry, like any other industry in which billions of dollars are at stake, has its share of intrigue and mystery.

BRC: Defect notwithstanding, I loved the concept of the Metamorphis toy that was the focus of so much of what happens in BODILY HARM. It put me in the mind of a cross between an erector set and a Transformer toy. Toy design would seem to be outside of your bailiwick. Did you come up with the concept yourself, or are you aware of such a toy being on the drawing board?

RD: There is no such toy as Metamorphis as far as I know. I made it up completely from imagination and I have no knowledge it is on anyone’s drawing board. It’s a cool concept, but I don’t think the technology exists for it to work. What I needed was to invent a toy that would be expensive to mass produce so that I could work the angle of shipping the product to China to reduce the cost of manufacturing and raise the complex issues of regulation and deregulation, and the impact those policies have on not only American businesses, but consumers.

BRC: There is a stunning event that occurs in the first third of BODILY HARM. Had you planned this when you first conceived the David Sloane series and character, or was it an event that gradually evolved as you wrote it?

RD: I never want my novels to be boring. Things happen in our lives that give us a jolt, that surprise us, humble us, and sometimes scare us. We are faced with triumph and tragedy. I wanted the same for David Sloane. I knew I was going to do something to blow up his world, I just didn’t know what that might be.

BRC: This book has so many storylines and threads, and each is completely developed and wrapped up. Did you plot this meticulously in advance, or did the story unfold this way?

RD: I’m not great with outlines. I do try, but man, outlining is tough for me. I wish I were better at it, but my mind just doesn’t seem to work that way. It’s tough for me to know what a character will do on page 380 when I’m not in their head, don’t know their emotions at that moment. My first draft tends to be more my outline, the time when I experiment most with the plot and the characters. It’s the time when I let the characters help me to decide what is right and how best to tell the story. I focus on the theme, what primary goal I have given my character and what obstacles I will put in his path. Then I set to work. For instance, I had no idea that I would tell much of Charles Jenkins’s back story in this novel, but it fit. I had the chance to go to Langley and get a tour, and I began to realize that it was time for the reader to know more about this lead character and how he came to be who he is.

BRC: Given that the primary plot concerns toys and the toy industry, I have to ask: What was your favorite toy as a child, and why? What do you think of contemporary toys in general?

RD: Honestly, I don’t remember being much of a toy kid. I was a sports kid. I loved to play basketball and baseball and football with my brothers and friends, and I loved to collect baseball cards. So I can remember getting basketballs and baseball mitts and footballs. I’m not sure why my parents indulged us given that it usually meant we ruined my mother’s lawn and garden and the rugs in her living room when we were playing football inside (You had to play on your knees).

Sadly, I don’t think kids “play” anymore as much as they are entertained, their imaginations not stimulated by toys as much as video games filling in their imaginations.

BRC: BODILY HARM also makes mention of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an appearance of the Blessed Mother that is of great importance to Roman Catholics in North America. Have you visited the site of her appearance? What can you tell us about it? And how did you come to decide to include the shrine in the book?

RD: I have not been to the site, but I have been to Lourdes, France, where the Blessed Mother appeared to Saint Bernadette. My mother asked me to take my younger brother, Michael, who has Down’s Syndrome, and my oldest sister, Aileen, and I obliged her. It was one of the most memorable trips of my life, life-changing, something I will never forget. The incredible displays of faith, compassion and humility that you witness there are truly astounding. If nothing else, whether you believe or not, that alone is a tremendous experience.

Again, I had no idea that Our Lady of Guadalupe would be a part of BODILY HARM. But as I wrote the novel, and decided it appropriate that one of the families be Mexican, it began to develop on its own. The Mexican people have an incredible devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The percentage of people that have statues of her in their homes is higher than the percentage of Catholics in the country. As the story goes, the Blessed Mother appeared to a poor Indian man and instructed him to tell the Bishop to build a church on the site. Of course the Bishop did not believe the man and sought proof. When the Indian returned, he opened his cloak and dozens of roses fell at the Bishop’s feet --- though it was mid-winter. Imprinted on the Indian’s cloak was the Blessed Mother, in dyes that did not exist and could not have been done by the man. That cloak, more than 500 years old, remains on the wall of a church today and, I understand, has survived fire and bullets unscathed.

And of course, the story fit well with where Sloane was in his life, and his penchant for bringing Tina roses as a gift after every trial. Sloane is a man without a faith, never having parents to instill one in him --- what my mother called “the gift” of faith. Therefore he cannot lean on it during the moments of his life when there is no rational explanation for what is happening to him, or to those he loves. It helped to complete the isolation I tried to create for him in the novel, but to also provide the glimmer of hope I wanted for him at the end.

BRC: In your acknowledgements, you note that you experienced some deep personal losses of your own while you were writing BODILY HARM, which also concerns personal loss on a number of different levels. Do you think that it would have been a much different book if not for what you were experiencing during the time you were writing it? Was writing something that was difficult for you to do, or, like David Sloane, did work --- the act of writing --- help you to some degree to deal with what you were feeling in the face of tragedy?

RD: Absolutely. I can’t help but bring my own experiences and emotions into my novels. These characters come from within me and are a part of me. When I shut the door and go to work they are in the room with me, talking to me and sharing their lives with me, and I do the same. I know it sounds a bit odd, but they can, at times, be very real to me. So it is inevitable that they will experience what I experience and, I hope, the reader is richer for the honesty of the writing.

In this particular circumstance, it was very difficult for me to write about the loss of my father, to be in the house with him and to watch him die in front of my mother, a woman who had been with him for almost 60 years, since she was 16 years old. I look back now, at all the things I had to do at three in the morning while my mother cradled his head and wept, calls to all nine of my brothers and sisters, handling the paramedics and the police, getting them all to stand down, to understand that my father, terminally ill, wanted to die in his own bed, not in a hospital. I get teary eyed just thinking of it. But from somewhere, we gather the strength to do what we have to do. David Sloane had to gather similar strength.

BRC: You still practice law, albeit part-time. What advice would you share with our readers who are aspiring authors, but still are holding down full-time or part-time jobs?

RD: Don’t quit your day job!

Seriously, a lot of people think they can’t write a book and work so they quit to write the book. What that can do is create even more stress and anxiety because now the person can be dependent upon the book for his or her livelihood and even the livelihood of the family. Better if you can work out some kind of a deal. Cut back a day a week, or change the hours of your job to give you time to write. I once read that J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter on the train to work. I’ve heard other writers, such as John Grisham, share similar stories about writing their manuscripts while commuting. If you’re patient and stick to the adage that writing one good page a day will result in a book by the end of a year, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

BRC: Have you had any problems with writer’s block? If so, what techniques have you used to break through it? And what methods do you use to keep from repeating yourself, to keep generating fresh ideas?

RD: Writer’s block for me usually means I don’t have a clue what I’m writing about and need to do more research. I’m a visual person, and my books tend to be very visual. It’s tough for me to just make stuff up. I want to see the things for myself, go to the places, talk to the experts about how they do their jobs. Once I do that, the “writer’s block” tends to go away. But, if a writer sincerely believes that she just can’t get started, or has lost the story line, a couple techniques I use are: (1) Unplug the keyboard and use the mouse to scroll through what you’ve written and just read it. Get back into the flow and the characters’ emotions and thoughts; and (2) Exercise. It’s amazing how much better the mind works when the body is pumping blood and endorphins.

BRC: Are there any books that you have read in the past six months that you would like to recommend to our readers?

RD: If you are gun person, I, SNIPER by Steven Hunter. I reread PRESUMED INNOCENT and that is always a great read. I also just read LAW OF ATTRACTION by a new writer, Allison Leotta. It’s a debut novel out later in the month, and it had a lot of twists and turns. So too for a book called NEVER WAVE GOODBYE. At present I’m reading KILL SHOT by Elmore Leonard and THE FUGTIVE by Phil Margolin. You really can’t go wrong with either. On my shelf next is ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER. And I’m always reading THE GREEN MILE.

BRC: BODILY HARM finds David Sloane beset both professionally and personally. Do you have your future plans for Sloane mapped out? What can you share about what you are working on now?

RD: Always. Sloane will return in 2011 with his most emotionally and intellectually challenging case yet. He’s asked to defend a prominent Seattle lawyer, Barclay Reid --- from BODILY HARM --- who is accused of first-degree murder in the shooting of a Russian drug dealer for the overdose death of her daughter.

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