Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Interview with William Landay

Recently, I read Defending Jacob, written by former prosecutor William Landay. It was an amazing book that I'll have to reread just to study the technique he employed. The story explores the effect on the family of the arrest of their fourteen-year-old son for murder--the doubts, the pressure, the need to stay upbeat and normal. The story itself is compelling, but the weaving of it is astounding. Takes a mastermind writer to do something like that, and I believe Bill fits the description.

While I was researching him, I found this quote: “Novelists — all storytellers — approach the world through misdirection, from oblique angles, through stories. We come on like crabs, scuttling up to the truth sideways. A more direct, forthright sort of person would be writing essays or memoirs or some other form that addresses the world head-on.”

I loved his description, and I enjoyed interviewing him. Hope you will enjoy the results:

Q: Congrats on having Warner Brothers option Defending Jacob for a movie! How is that going so far?

A: So far it’s been great, but we’re in the very early stages still. We have a screenwriter and director, Steve Kloves, who directed one of my all-time favorite movies, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and more recently scripted seven of the eight "Harry Potter" movies. So, a big-time talent. I’m honored to have him on the project and excited that Defending Jacob will mark his return to directing after a long period where he has focused on screenwriting. Besides the "Harry Potter" movies, Kloves was nominated for an Oscar for adapting Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys for the screen, so he has a deep understanding of the issues involved in book-to-movie projects. He and I have been exchanging emails the last month or two about writing and so on, and I can tell you he is a good guy, to boot. So, all positive.

Q: Defending Jacob is an excellent psychological study of the impact of traumatic news on a family, in this case, not so much the fourteen-year-old defendant himself, but on his parents. Your characterization is amazing. For a prosecutor, you illustrate incredible powers of empathy to be able to step into the shoes of a defendant’s family and convincingly describe their side of the story. Did you allow yourself this empathy on the job? Do you draw on your experience as a prosecutor for your characterization?

A: Yes, absolutely I drew on my experience as a prosecutor in drawing Andy Barber and his world. That is the one irreplaceable advantage of having done the job for eight or so years: I know and understand that world intimately, I can speak the language fluently, I understand the process as an insider. No amount of research could replace that.

In some ways, it makes it daunting to move on to other sorts of stories after Defending Jacob. Of course I could keep writing about prosecutors and their cases, but I have no desire to write the same book over and over, to churn out the literary equivalent of TV’s “Law & Order.” I hate the idea of falling into a rut. As Orwell said of Dickens, “What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once.” Amen. So I will have to venture out of my comfort zone — it’s the only thing I’m comfortable with.

As for “allowing myself” to empathize with defendants and their families while I was a prosecutor, I’m not sure I ever had any choice. I just have that sort of over-sensitive temperament. I was able to do the job, of course. But I was never able to harden myself quite enough that I could forget that defendants were people, too, even the worst of them. That is probably the reason I would not have lasted forever in that job. But it is also probably the reason I can do this job. The ability to empathize is essential for any writer. Imagining what it is like to be someone else is the essence of the job. I’d go even further: it is the special power of novels, the gift that novelists have to offer their readers. Only a novel allows you to enter the consciousness of another person, even if it is a fictional one. Only novels allow the audience actually to feel what it must be like to be someone else. Other dramatic forms (movies, TV, plays, etc.) all show you the character visually. Of necessity, they remain outside their characters — the audience sees them from a distance, from the outside. That is an exercise in sympathy, not empathy. No less valuable, of course, but different in kind. Ian McEwan had a beautiful essay in the Guardian in the first few days after 9/11 where he wrote, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” That is a novelist’s credo: novels train readers to empathize and so make them better people. Nothing less.

(I will now stop quoting famous novelists and write my own damn answers. I promise.)

Q: I saw a “tweet” about Defending Jacob, saying the novel was “one of the most frustrating books I've ever read. So many unanswered questions and I feel betrayed by the author/narrator.”

To a certain extent, she’s right. You didn’t wrap up the novel in pretty paper and pink ribbons. Much is left for the reader to determine, but you did leave her with enough information to come up with her own conclusions. Since the story is told exclusively through the POV of an unreliable character, I’m thinking this is by design. Right?

A: It is definitely by design. In fact there was some feeling at Random House during the editing process that I should add a chapter near the end that removed all this ambiguity — you know, the drawing-room scene where the detective solves the mystery, the baddy confesses, and the reader can sigh with relief knowing exactly what happened. Life just doesn’t work that way. We never know with 100% certainty what happens in our absence. That is equally true of parents and prosecutors, the two perspectives from which Andy Barber views this story. I think that is one reason people find the story so moving and so close to home: we all know that feeling — doubt, worry, uncertainty. Every parent has felt it.

One aspect of your question I disagree with: Andy Barber is simply not an “unreliable narrator.” In fact, he abhors dishonesty. He is a veteran of the court system, and the idea of swearing an oath to tell the truth is something he holds sacred. Where Andy misleads — where he withholds or shades his story — it is part of the chess match with his inquisitor, Neal Logiudice. (For those who haven’t read Defending Jacob, the novel is told within the framework of Andy Barber’s grand jury testimony during one very long, grueling day in the witness chair, where he relates the entire story to a grand jury investigating the case.) But Andy never lies, either to Logiudice or to the reader.

That, too, is very much by design. In an earlier novel of mine, Mission Flats, I had a narrator who pushed the line of “unreliable narration” further, and a few readers complained that I’d broken the rules. Well, I was surprised to learn that there were rules but happy enough to have broken them, and I would cheerfully break more if I could find them. But in Defending Jacob I wanted to achieve the seemingly contradictory ends of giving readers a genuine shock at the end while never actually misleading them — never resorting to the dreaded “unreliable narrator.” The way to achieve that was to build Andy’s storytelling into the story itself — to show him narrating the story “on screen,” as it were. That is, Andy is very frank with the reader from the start: I am on the witness stand and the stakes are very high. You understand right from page one that I am not at liberty to tell the story as if this were a mere novel. That is not an unreliable narrator (unless all narrators are unreliable). It is a thoroughly frank narrator confessing at the start that he cannot be frank in his storytelling.

Q: You said: "But Andy never lies, either to Logiudice or to the reader." His honesty came through on the stand, but he seemed to do a lot of lying to himself. He rationalized quite a bit and never once admitted to himself that his kid could've taken a life. In his own thoughts, for instance, when he wasn't on the stand, much less to his wife when she pressured him. I believed his rationalizations for quite some time in the story, but finally shifted and wondered if he'd ever admit it to himself. That's where I got the "unreliable narrator" idea. What am I missing?

A: I think that's exactly right. Andy is completely honest with the reader but is not -- and maybe cannot be -- completely honest with himself. That may make him an unreliable narrator, I suppose, but not unreliable in the sense that he intentionally misleads. He is not a con artist. He is just a victim of his own biases and emotions -- like the rest of us.

Q: This novel is so intricately layered, I can’t imagine that it wasn’t planned and plotted down to its last punctuation mark, so I’m certain you’re an outliner. Do you have a particular method of outlining you follow?

A: I am a fanatical outliner, it’s true. But I don’t really have a method. I write extensive outlines, not just so I will know where I’m going but so that the prose will have that feeling of certainty right from the first page. As a reader, I hate books that meander for the first 50-100 pages while the writer searches for his story. I want to feel, as a reader, that I am in good hands right from the start.

With that said, all my outlining tends to fail in the end. The book — if it is working — morphs as it grows. It happens organically, in the moment of creation. Little by little, it diverges from my outline, and every hundred pages or so I have to stop and reassess where I am and where I am going.

I do have a pretty analytical mind. I like putting together complex plots. And as a reader (and moviegoer) I like seeing them come together too. There is something satisfying about a story that seems impossibly complex and fragmented all being magically knitted together at the end.

Q: How long did it take you to get published? Did you receive a lot of rejections before you finally hit the jackpot? Do you have older manuscripts dry-rotting in a drawer somewhere?

A: I spent most of the 1990s teaching myself to write. I was a prosecutor for most of that time, writing on nights and weekends. Toward the end, as I got more serious about it, I would take sabbaticals from the DA’s office to write full-time for several months, until the money ran out, or the inspiration, or both. So, yes, I do have several manuscripts dry-rotting on my hard drive.

But I never had much rejection, thankfully. I am my own worst critic, and by a very wide margin. All those years in the '90s when I was discarding manuscript after manuscript, the trouble was not that editors were unsatisfied. No editors ever saw those god-awful manuscripts. The trouble was that I was not satisfied. To me, the point was never just to write a mediocre novel and settle for the joy of seeing my name on a book cover. The point was to write great books — as great as I was capable of, anyway. So, by the time I had a novel that I thought was good enough to shop to publishers, I’d already been through the wringer. Which is to say, I’d had plenty of rejection — from myself. Thankfully, that book, Mission Flats, sold quickly, and I was off and running.

I don’t recommend this to other aspiring unpublished authors, by the way. One of the chestnuts that published authors peddle to newbies is to turn off the “inner editor,” and I am sure that is sound advice. But I just can’t turn off my own. I wish I could, honestly. I would have produced more books by now. Maybe they would not be quite as good, but an author can never judge his books accurately anyway. The key is to produce a lot and trust that somewhere in all that output, there might be one or two of the deathless, transcendent books you are dreaming of. I understand this — but I just can’t do it. I have to believe, deep down, that the book I am writing has a chance to be great. Otherwise I find it very hard to get out of bed in the morning. There are easier ways to make a living, after all. If you’re going to go into novel-writing — as foolish a career choice as there is — you might as well swing for the fences. Otherwise, why not just be a lawyer or a dentist or a ditch-digger and sleep soundly at night?

Q: How did you learn to write fiction — how-to books, conferences, Internet courses? Do you still study the craft? Do you learn from other authors? Is there one who frequently inspires you through his or her technique?

A: I learned through trial and error. I suppose I read a lot. Watched a lot of movies, too, which help enormously (the plot structure of movies is much easier to see and usually follows an obvious formula). But I never took a course or joined a writers’ group or anything like that. I’m too stubborn to listen to anyone else, I guess. Then again, Shakespeare and Dickens never got an MFA, either.

As for writers who inspire me, I tend to be attracted to good sentence-writers more than clever plot-makers. Just a few names off the top of my head: Updike was the most graceful fluent sentence-writer. Fitzgerald. Tom Wolfe is flashy but I liked him a lot when I was younger. Roth and Bellow, of course. DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. Doctorow, especially Billy Bathgate. The point is just to hear the sound of good, confident, fluent English sentences. When I hear that sound, I want to rush to my typewriter (or computer) to capture it — or my own version of it. If you feel that urge upon reading very good writing, then maybe you are a writer, too.

Q: As far as marketing goes, you’re an enigma. Granted, with Defending Jacob, you got blessed with that rarity — publisher-arranged promotional tours and marketing dollars — but for the most part you do very little that authors are ordered to do these days. Your Facebook page is largely neglected, your tweeting is sporadic and primarily in response to those who tweet to you, your blog gets few comments, and you put out only one book every five years. How do you maintain your fan base?

Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar
with her copy of Defending Jacob
A: Well, I’m not sure that I have ever had much of a fan base, at least until Defending Jacob broke through, so I certainly wouldn’t say that my personal marketing efforts are a model for anyone.

But I actually feel like I do a lot. I have written quite a bit for the blog, though I have neglected it recently. There are lots of reasons for that — mostly that I’ve been so damn busy touring and writing in support of Defending Jacob, but also because so many people are reading the blog now that it has been a little inhibiting. I have enjoyed blogging about my writing process in a way that is — by my introverted standards — pretty naked and revealing. That was easier when I felt like nobody was reading the thing. Now, not so much.

The other thing, of course, is that all this self-promotion gets to be a job in itself. You can spend all your time tweeting and blogging and Facebooking if you like, but in the end only your books matter. I have a family, and I write slowly and meticulously — and I try to confine the online stuff to the little time I have left over. To me, that is the right order of priorities. I highly doubt that on my death bed I will be content to say, Sure, I could have written more and better books, but I sure was a hell of a Twitterer.

Also, just to be clear, I don’t think that I am as absent online as you’re suggesting. I just don’t broadcast as much — I don’t push as much material at my readers as some other authors do. But I am very available. I get emails every day and answer every one. I check my Facebook page every day and answer every visitor who leaves a comment. I try not to be obnoxious about filling every subscriber’s Twitter and Facebook feeds with messages promoting Defending Jacob, but that is not the only way to promote oneself online — it may not even be the best way.

Q: On your website, Bart Simpson tells us, “Don’t have a cow, man. More books are on the way.” What’s in the works now?

A: Oh, if only I knew. I have been agonizing for the better part of a year now over my next book. It is not so much that I am anxious about following up a hit like Defending Jacob, which is what everybody presumes. It’s that I always want my books to be great, and that sort of pressure makes it hard to get to page one. Every concept has to be — or at least has to seem — immaculate, brilliant, genius. And of course creativity just doesn’t work that way. The greatest “high concept” idea can be botched in the execution (and usually is), and the simplest idea can be carpentered into something transcendent.

Q: Any words of wisdom or encouragement you’d like to share?

A: Wisdom, no. I suppose I’ll just say “thank you” to everyone who has supported Defending Jacob. It’s been a wonderful six months, with more to come, I hope. I am truly grateful.

Add to Technorati Favorites
Bookmark and Share