“Ingenious . . . Nothing is predictable. All bets are off.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Random House Reader’s Circle sat down with New York Times bestselling author William Landay to discuss Defending Jacob, which hits bookshelves in paperback on Tuesday, September 3rd. Have you read the novel everyone is talking about? If not, then you are in for a real treat. This psychological and legal thriller will have you on the edge of your seat and talking for weeks.
Random House Reader’s Circle in Conversation with William Landay
Random House Readers Circle: What was the seed of this novel? What drove you to write it? When did you ﬁrst realize that this was the story you wanted to tell?
William Landay: There was no single “seed,” honestly. I have never been the visionary sort of writer who conceives an entire novel in a lightning ﬂash of inspiration. I am more of a plodder, an experimenter. I develop my ideas slowly, by trial and error, teasing them out in draft after draft. It is a slow, tentative process, and it is ﬁlled with worry because I am never quite sure what I’m after. That is how Defending Jacob was born.
To understand where the book came from, it helps to understand where I was at the time. I had written two novels that were traditional crime stories in the sense that they were set in the street-corner world of cops and hoods. I had been an assistant DA for most of the 1990s, and crime fascinated me. I felt that, as a writer, I had found my subject. But by the time I began to imagine Defending Jacob, I was thinking of crime in a different way—and thinking of crime novels in a different way too. By then, I had left the DA’s ofﬁce to become a full-time writer, and I had started my own family. Crime had been an everyday reality when I was a courtroom prosecutor; now it was just a memory, an abstract idea, the stuff I made stories out of. As I thought about crime now, from the perspective of a writer and a young father, it seemed to me that the questions that haunt us as parents were not so different from the questions that animate criminal law: Why do people do what they do? How do we encourage good behavior and punish bad? How do we understand one another? How, for example, do we respond to the fact that good people do bad things, or that good people are victimized? Above all, what does crime tell us about ourselves? That last question, of course, is the reason crime has always fascinated storytellers and audiences: we read (and watch) crime stories not for what they tell us about criminals, but for what they tell us about ourselves. The criminal we read about is us—at least, he is a little, wicked part of us, all of us.
RHRC: How do you feel about the concept of the “murder gene”?
WL: I think it is fashionable now to use DNA as an explanation for all sorts of behaviors. Genomics is a new and fast-developing—and seductive—science, and we tend to think of it in an overly determinative way, as if it explains everything about us. But we humans are unfathomably complex. None of us is simply our DNA. So I think we have to be careful when we encounter a new idea and a new science like behavioral genetics. We have to be careful about terms like “murder gene” and “warrior gene,” lest we think of these things, inaccurately, as simple triggers. The truth is, we are still talking about a gene-environment interaction, still talking about nature versus nurture, as we always have. The difference is that now we have a window into the “nature” side of the equation.
In some ways, the effect of our physical construction—the chemicals and electrical impulses, the bones and meat we are made of—on our behavior and character is a revolutionary idea, a completely new way to think about ourselves. But in other ways, it is merely a very old idea that has simply been detailed a bit by science. We have always understood that we all have certain innate, “hardwired” tendencies and temperaments; now we understand the precise mechanisms of that physical hard wiring a little better. The interesting question for readers and novelists is what this new science means.
How should we think about ourselves in light of these new discoveries? What should society do with the knowledge that some of our neighbors bear genes predisposing them to violence or disease or a thousand other human traits? These are rich topics for novelists.
RHRC: Which character in Defending Jacob do you identify with most strongly? Who is your least favorite character?
WL: The truth is that all the main characters are fragments of myself. We are all many things in the course of our lives, and at various times I have been sullen and withdrawn like Jacob, warm and sensitive like Laurie, steely and loyal like Andy. When you write a novel, at least a novel as deeply felt as Defending Jacob was to me, you ﬁnd yourself excavating all these various aspects of your own personality. On the other hand, I do not believe the simplistic assumption that all characters in all novels are reﬂections of the novelist. I have created many characters that have felt external to me—real and credible characters, I hope, but not reﬂections of me at all, not family. The Barbers were the ﬁrst kind, the sort of characters that are slivers of me. So I ﬁnd it hard to see them with any objectivity or distance, let alone to choose a favorite. Maybe I will, in time.
With that said, I confess I have a soft spot for Andy, for his steadfast devotion to his child even in the darkest times. Andy is not perfect, of course. But to me, even his ﬂaws do him credit. Who would not want a father so unshakable, who would stand by you, right or wrong, right to the end?
RHRC: Do you see any of yourself in Andy?
WL: A little bit, yes. I am stubborn and doggedly loyal, as Andy is. And my emotions can cloud my perceptions, though I think everyone is vulnerable to that.
But I can’t quite see myself in Andy because I see so many others in him too. When I was a young lawyer, there were several older, respected prosecutors like Andy Barber who were role models for the younger lawyers coming up. At least they ought to have been. Andy is an amalgam of those older lawyers whom I admired as a young man. He is the prosecutor I might have become if I’d stuck with it for an entire career. I like to think so, at least.
RHRC: What has been the most surprising aspect of the huge reader response to Defending Jacob?
WL: Well, to borrow your word, the sheer hugeness of it. I am still stunned. No writer would dare imagine that sort of commercial success. No sane writer, anyway. The odds are so long. So many things have to go right, including a good deal of luck. It is humbling.
I have also been amazed at the intensity of readers’ reactions. Even now, more than a year after the book was published, I get email every day from readers who tell me how deeply moved they were by Defending Jacob. Most write to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. A few write because they are outraged at Laurie’s or Andy’s behavior—which is to say, they are outraged at me for making them misbehave this way. But for good and bad, the emails keep pouring in, often beginning with “I have never written to an author before, but I just had to tell you . . .”
It has been a wonderful, bewildering experience to see my book hit a nerve that way. Writing is a lonely business. A writer’s days are ﬁlled with silence and solitude (if he’s doing it right). Inside that bubble, while writing, it is easy to believe that the book is a purely private experience, written only for the writer himself. It sounds silly, but you can forget that other people will actually read your story, let alone that they might be deeply touched by it. Books are essentially a private medium, for both the artist and audience— imagined by a writer in a lonely room, then reimagined by a reader in the quiet of her own thoughts. The public life of books—the brief moment when they show up in book reviews (for those lucky enough to be reviewed), bookstores (increasingly rare), or advertisements (rarer still)—has more to do with bookselling than reading. A book’s essential purpose is to be opened by a single reader and read in silence, to slip into her thoughts quietly. So it has been shocking— I don’t know what else to call it—to see my book become such a public hit. I am very, very grateful for it, for all the readers who have enjoyed the book and written to let me know. I would like to thank every last one of them, if I could.
RHRC: What are the one or two things readers have said to you about Defending Jacob that you treasure most?
WL: The other day, I heard from a woman whose teenage son was convicted of murder. The boy served eight and a half years in prison, then took his own life. This grieving mother wrote to tell me that Defending Jacob had actually helped her to process what she had been through, that the book captured her own feelings and experiences accurately (“spot-on” was the phrase she used), and that she wanted to thank me for writing it. As a parent, it is staggering to imagine that sort of pain. As a novelist, it is humbling even to imagine that your book might help someone that way.
Of course, that sort of dramatic email is rare. More often, I hear from readers with the ordinary, everyday worries of parents: children who communicate too little, stare into their smartphones too much, and wander into all sorts of trouble. Defending Jacob seems to speak to them too. Jacob Barber is not so different from a lot of teenagers, really. And Laurie and Andy’s worry about Jacob and even their fear of him are emotions every parent will recognize, if only in a small way.