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Interview: March 9, 2012

William Landay’s new novel, DEFENDING JACOB, tells the story of a well-respected district attorney who finds out that his 14-year-old son is charged with the murder of another student. In this interview, conducted by’s Joe Hartlaub, Landay talks about his inspiration for his latest thriller. He also reflects on his writing career thus far, shares some of his favorite books and authors, and gives a glimpse into what he’s working on now. DEFENDING JACOB could easily be subtitled “Every Parent’s Nightmare.” Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney, and his wife Laurie live in an upscale suburban Boston neighborhood. Their lives are turned upside down when Jacob, their 14-year-old son, is accused of murdering a classmate of his. Their reactions to the investigation, trial and aftermath are quite different. What inspired your latest novel?  

William Landay: The precise origins of any story are always a little murky, I think. But in retrospect I see that DEFENDING JACOB weaves together two strands of my life. First, I was an assistant DA for most of the 1990s, and my two earlier books reflect that. They are set in the sort of world crime novels tend to inhabit, a world filled with crime and criminals. By the time I began DEFENDING JACOB, though, I had become a full-time writer and a father. I have two little boys now, ages 8 and 10. So my days have been filled with soccer games and parent-teacher meetings, not criminal trials. So DEFENDING JACOB began as a way to combine these two strands: my life as a prosecutor and my life as a father in the suburbs.

I meant to do the same for readers, too: to bring the world of crime stories into the ordinary places where readers live and the ordinary families they are part of. It has always struck me as odd that we non-criminals are so fascinated by crime stories, as clearly we are, given the number of crime novels, TV shows and movies we consume. These stories clearly resonate with us, they seem to tell us something about ourselves. But we prefer to keep our distance from them. We like the illusion that crime takes place “out there” somewhere --- anywhere other than where we actually live. But of course we all harbor a little criminality. We all have this capacity somewhere inside us, if only in tiny doses.

BRC: This is one of those books that defies easy categorizing. It contains elements of a murder mystery, a police procedural and a courtroom thriller, yet also contains elements of the quiet, basic conflict of suburban life that infused the work of John Cheever. It accordingly transcends genres instead of fitting neatly into one or another. Still, it is a book that seamlessly combines a number of classic elements to create something new. Where did you begin when you started writing the book? Did you visualize the trial first, or the investigation, or, perhaps, did you start with the Barber family, individually or collectively? 

WL: It started as a very different sort of story involving a different sort of family. But it did not come together until I moved the story to the suburbs and gave it to the Barber family. From there it all came together naturally, organically, as I was writing it. I never set out to “transcend genres.” It just seemed natural to shift from the usual meat and potatoes of thrillers --- the murder, the investigation, the trial --- to the Barbers’ home life, because of course the ordeal that the Barber family endures does not end when the police quit for the day or when the trial recesses. They have to carry the weight of this ordeal 24 hours a day, at home, at the supermarket. It is a side of these stories we rarely see: what is it actually like to be plunged into the position of defendant in a criminal trial? What is it like to be accused?

BRC: On a related note, DEFENDING JACOB and THE STRANGLER both deal with familial loyalty in quite different ways. In DEFENDING JACOB, a central issue is how far will, and should, a parent go to protect a child who may be guilty of a serious crime. It is interesting to watch Jacob’s parents as they are confronted with evidence that their son is not at all the person they thought he was. How did these characters develop over the course of your writing? Did you initially visualize them as having these opposing viewpoints? And are they modeled after any parents you know?

WL: First, they are not modeled after any actual couples that I know. I try never to model my characters on real people. I find it is very inhibiting when I write. I hate to think I am going to embarrass or offend anyone, and I don’t want to have to pull my punches. I need to feel free to make my characters do bad things, if necessary. That said, all my characters obviously are filtered through my imagination, so inevitably my own experiences shape them, including, to some extent, people I have known. Much of that happens unconsciously, but occasionally I will drop in a little detail borrowed from someone I know.

The characters developed naturally. I gave them very different personalities, and their responses to the situation followed from that. My books tend to focus on families, usually families put to the test somehow. So, as with real families, you have a mix of personalities.

BRC: The book’s trial passages are particularly interesting. What do you regard as the greatest strength of the criminal justice system in the United States? And what do you think is its most significant weakness? 

WL: That is a very broad question. Let me answer it this way, because I think it is the way Andy Barber would answer it. The criminal justice system is staffed by human beings, most of them well-intentioned and often very talented, but human beings nonetheless and therefore prone to error. Because of human error --- errors in perception, in misremembering events, and especially in making identifications --- mistakes are made. Innocent people are convicted. In fact, I suspect the error rate is higher than we like to think about, though I have no way of proving such a thing. In the end, there is no foolproof scientific way to determine guilt or innocence. As Andy Barber puts it in the novel, “A jury verdict is just a guess.” For anyone who finds himself in the defendant’s chair in a courtroom, that is a chilling thought.

BRC: One of the novel’s central themes concerns the general field of behavioral genetics and the specific question as to whether or not a propensity for violence can have a genetic basis. What do you think? Is violence caused by nature or nurture (or lack thereof)? Or neither? Or both?

WL: Always both. And nurture is the more important factor by far, even in the presence of one of these genetic mutations linked to violence. It’s important to keep this idea in perspective, though. The novel talks about a murder gene, but we should remember that a genetic predisposition is just that --- a predisposition. Our DNA is not our fate, predisposition is not predestiny. Human behavior is much more complex than that --- no single genetic trigger could ever account for what we do.

That said, genomics is advancing very quickly. We’ve only scratched the surface of what this new science can do, what it may reveal about us. And behavioral genetics is part of that new wave of research. Until now, in these nature-nurture discussions we’ve always held a thumb on the scale for nurture. But that may have been because we never had the scientific tools to study our own nature, the physiological factors that influence our behavior. That is changing, and changing fast.

BRC: You are a lawyer and have been an assistant district attorney. Are any of the characters here composites of --- or based on --- folks you know?

WL: No. I actually worked in the office that is portrayed in the book, the Middlesex County D.A.’s office near Boston. I would never base a character on a real person there, both for their benefit (I wouldn’t want to offend any of my old colleagues and friends) and for mine (I wouldn’t want to feel inhibited in writing about my characters). The place, however, is described accurately --- the courthouse, the office, and so forth.

BRC: Several years have passed since the publication of THE STRANGLER, your second novel, and DEFENDING JACOB. What have you been doing in the interim?

WL: Writing! I know it doesn’t seem it because I have produced relatively little. But the delay has mostly been due to projects that were never brought to completion after a lot of time was invested. Obviously that is a mistake I hope not to repeat. Still, I doubt I will ever be one of those book-a-year machines. I’d like to maintain a steady book-every-two-years pace though. That should be manageable, even for a snail like me.

BRC: How do you go about the business of writing? Do you have a particular schedule to which you adhere? If so, then how, if at all, has your routine changed since you wrote MISSION FLATS, your first novel, and DEFENDING JACOB? And what “tricks” do you use to keep to a schedule when the world gets in the way? 

WL: I try to maintain regular work habits. Lately my work schedule has been blown to smithereens by the success of DEFENDING JACOB, which has required a lot of time for publicity --- a good problem to have, obviously. But when I’m writing well, I try to stay at my desk all day. Usually I can only actually write for three or four hours of that day, but I never know where that window will be --- whether it will hours 1 through 4 or hours 5 through 8. So I stay at my desk working as hard as I can to get it going. That routine hasn’t changed much since MISSION FLATS. Writing remains hard for me, as it was then. I try to craft my books carefully. I try to put everything I have into every book --- to swing for the fences every time.

As for little tricks to keep the world from interfering with my schedule, that is a hard one. I have two little kids, so my family life does play havoc with the work schedule sometimes. There is no trick to minimizing that. Well, there’s this: be very nice to your spouse so she’ll cover for you while you sneak off to write.

BRC: At this particular point in your writing career, what do you consider to be the smartest thing you’ve done? And is there any one thing you’ve done that you wish you hadn’t? 

WL: Smartest thing: write only for yourself. Don’t write what you think the market wants; they don’t know what they want till you show it to them. Don’t compromise your standards. Write a book that is the absolute best you can, that makes you proud, that stretches your talent to the very limit, then hope the public finds you.

Things I’ve done wrong: Mismanaged some novels either by sharing them too soon (which results in a book with potential being rejected) or sticking with a flawed idea too long (which results in wasted time). The result is manuscripts abandoned before completion --- the author’s worst nightmare.

BRC: At this point in your career, what goals have you attained that you wanted to accomplish when you first started writing? And what goals, if any, do you have yet to achieve? 

WL: I don’t think in terms of career goals, honestly. I just try to do each project to the very best of my ability. As an artist, you go from project to project, and it is only at the end, when you look back over all those created, that you can see the whole thing as a career. You can impose a design on it. As you’re doing it, though, the whole thing has an improvised, haphazard feeling to it.

To put it another way, my goal is to write as many great books as I can. That is a goal that by definition can never be reached. Which is just how I like it.

BRC: If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing? 

WL: Off the top of my head, in no particular order: running a restaurant, practicing law (happily), working in the shoe business (as my family has for a very long time), teaching, working in visual arts somehow (graphic artist? web designer?).

BRC: Most great authors are great readers. What authors and/or books have influenced you in your desire to write? And what have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

WL: The best thing I’ve read in the past six months, hands down, is Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON. Very highly recommended.

Authors or books that have influenced me over the years? This will be an incomplete list, and again in no particular order: LONESOME DOVE, LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE; Updike as a model of professionalism and productivity, not to mention a beautiful sentence writer; Philip Roth for embodying such complete commitment to craft and excellence over a very long time; John le Carré as a model of crafting intelligent genre fiction from a youthful job experience as well as using the raw material of a troubled childhood in his work; Fitzgerald, whose romance and gorgeous prose so impressed me as a young reader; and some of the great short adventure stories I heard as a kid (Leinengen Versus the Ants, The Most Dangerous Game, Saki’s The Interlopers), which made me feel the delight of being told a good story; Salinger’s Nine Stories. There’s lots more, but I’ll stop there. It’s getting late.

BRC: What are you working on now? Given that your novels to date have been stand-alone works, have you ever contemplated writing a series?

WL: I’d love to write a series, honestly, but I’ve never come up with a premise that doesn’t feel small or cliched. Also, I like to give readers a truly full, complete dramatic experience with each of my novels, and series novels don’t usually do that, since so many options are off the table (the hero cannot do certain things, for example: die).

As for what I’m working on now, it’s kind of a companion piece to DEFENDING JACOB, the flip side of the coin: a family dealing with life after the murder of their teenage daughter. We’ll see where it leads.

Thanks for reading, everyone!