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Reader’s Guide: GLITTER AND GLUE by Kelly Corrigan

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Corrigan_GlitterandGlue “In this endearing, funny, and thought-provoking memoir, Kelly Corrigan’s memories of long-ago adventures illuminate the changing relationships between mothers and children—as well as everything else that really matters.”—Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. As a young woman, Kelly thinks, “Things happens when you leave the house,” and books a round-the-world trip to Australia. Do you think that these types of adventures are necessary to gain life experience? Does Kelly’s maxim change by the end of the book?

2. Milly and Martin respond differently to Kelly’s entry into their lives. Why do you think this is? When (if ever) do things begin to change with Milly?

3. Like the characters in the book My Ántonia, Kelly wants to be someone important to Evan. What does she mean by that? Based on what Kelly reveals about Evan at the end of her story, do you think she was successful? Why or why not?

4. During her time in Australia, Kelly realizes that it’s only when she’s away from her mother that she can truly appreciate her. Do you agree? Kelly hears her mother’s voice in her head, offering advice as she tries to care for Milly and Martin. Has something similar ever happened to you?

5. What is the significance of Walker the American? How does he influence Kelly’s understanding of life experience?

6. Are daughters’ relationships with their fathers inherently different from their relationships with their mothers? Does Kelly’s relationship with Greenie support this? What does the fact that Mary kept Kelly’s shoplifting a secret from her father suggest?

7. John Tanner is barely hanging on by a thread when Kelly arrives. How does he change over the course of the book?

8. When Kelly works at her mom’s real estate agency, she is shocked to hear co-workers describe her mother as “the life of the office” (page 87.) Why is this an important moment for Kelly?

9. On page 146, Kelly explains the phenomenon called “Reader Response.” Did you find yourself interpreting Glitter and Glue through the lens of your own personal experiences? How so?

10. Kelly remembers many vivid moments from her stay with the Tanners, including her trip to the beach and Martin’s tantrum walking home from school. Why does Kelly still remember these events so clearly twenty years later? Why do you think she chose to write this story after her cancer scare?

11. Of all the ideas juxtaposed in the pages—mothers and fathers, adventure and life experience, stepping out and stepping up—which resonate the most with you? Why?

12. On page 47, we learn where the title Glitter and Glue comes from. What do you think of having one parent as the glitter and another the glue? Is this what it was like in your family? Was this always the case?

Join the Conversation with Kelly on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using #GlitterandGlue!

Reader’s Guide: GOLDEN STATE by Michelle Richmond

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Richmond_Golden State “A breathtaking read and one I’ll not soon forget.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife

“I haven’t read such a gripping, bittersweet, moving novel in ages. Golden State sweeps you up, whisks you away, and doesn’t let you go till the very end. Michelle Richmond, author of the unforgettable The Year of Fog, does it again.”—Tatiana de Rosnay, author of Sarah’s Key

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. The author uses an unconventional timeline to tell her story, moving back and forth between past, present, and earlier that morning. What elements does this add to the reading experience? How would the experience have changed had the author used a strictly linear approach?

2. How are music and lyrics important throughout the story? What does the incessancy of Tom’s voice on the radio mean to Julie?

3. Describe how Heather and Julie’s relationship changes. What are the most influential moments? If you were Julie, would you have been able to forgive Heather?

4. On page 148, Julie questions her and Tom’s relationship by saying, “Without a child, are we even a family?” Ethan undoubtedly transforms Julie and Tom’s life, but does he prove that children are necessary to have a real family?

5. On page 80, Julie wonders, “Between a marriage one chooses and a blood relation one doesn’t, shouldn’t marriage be the more powerful bond?” Does Julie find an answer to this question? Which do you think is the stronger bond?

6. What does Julie’s mother represent? Why are Julie’s memories of Mississippi and her childhood so important? Why might she reflect on them during the stress of the hostage situation?

7. The characters in Golden State grapple with the idea of things either happening for a reason or happening due to cause and effect. Julie spends most of the novel defending the latter, but which do you believe in? Why?

8. Explain Dennis and Julie’s relationship. How is it possible that Julie could feel remorse for Dennis in the midst of a hostage crisis?

9. Throughout the novel, Julie views her life as a series of beginnings and endings, rather than a continuum of learning and growing. Does this mindset hurt or help her? Does her attitude change by the end of the novel? Through which interpretation do you view your life?

10. The author leaves certain questions unanswered at the close of the story. If you were to write a sequel, how would you tie up the novel’s loose ends?

11. On page 94, Tom says, “We become so used to the way things are . . . we can’t imagine things being any other way.” What does he mean by this? How does the premise of Golden State encourage readers to imagine the impossible?

12. Of all the themes in the novel—-forgiveness, family, belief, patriotism, identity, etc.—-which was the most relevant to you? Why?

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for CARTWHEEL by Jennifer duBois

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

DuBois_Cartwheel “[You’ll] break your own record of pages read per minute as you tear through this book.”—Marie Claire

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The first paragraph of Cartwheel ends with a chilling statement: “The things that go wrong are rarely the things you’ve thought to worry about.” Why do you think the author makes such a pronouncement at the beginning of the novel? What does she mean? Is this true in your life?

2. The story in Cartwheel is very much of our time. Lily’s case becomes an international sensation because of Facebook, blogs, and the way shocking news and information can travel around the world within minutes. Social media plays a big role in Cartwheel. Does this change your view of social media? How do you use social media to share details of your life? What about your family members?

3. Why do you think Jennifer duBois chose to tell the story from four points of view? How does that affect the experience of reading it?

4. At one point, Lily’s sister Anna says “… everyone wants to love Lily,” that she’s always played by different rules. Why does Anna think this?

5. Lily’s father, Andrew, believes “. . . everything vile about your children was to some degree vile about yourself.” Is this a fair statement? Do Lily’s parents fail her, or is this parental guilt?

6. What impact does her sister’s ordeal have on Anna?

7. The title of the book comes from the cartwheel Lily turned between interrogation sessions. Why did the author choose this image as significant?

8. In what ways are Lily and Katy different? Why does Lily feel Katy’s life was “easy”? Is she being fair?

9. Have you, or someone you know, studied abroad? Do you think it benefits college students to visit other countries? Why do you think Lily wanted to study abroad? What was she looking for?

10. Eduardo, attorney for the prosecution, believes Lily is guilty but that she doesn’t understand why what she did was wrong. Do you agree?

11. Sebastien is an enigmatic character. What do you think Lily is attracted to about him? Where do you think his addiction to obscuring half-ironies come from, and what consequences does it have for the unfolding of events?

12. The author uses ambiguity to tell this story. How does that affect your understanding of what happened? Which character do you trust the most?

13. Lily calls her family “repressed,” saying they never learned how to mourn their first child, the sister who died before Lily and Anna were born. Why does she say she and Anna were treated like “replacement children?”

14. Do you believe the whole story comes out at Lily’s trial?

Reader’s Guide: PERFECT by Rachel Joyce

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Joyce_PerfectPerfect is one of the best book club picks for 2014.

This spellbinding novel from Rachel Joyce, the author who brought you The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, will resonate with readers of Mark Haddon, Louise Erdrich, and John Irving. Perfect tells the story of a young boy who is thrown into the murky, difficult realities of the adult world with far-reaching consequences.

Perfect is a poignant and powerful book, rich with empathy and charged with beautiful, atmospheric writing.”—Tana French, author of In the Woods and Broken Harbor

We have the book club questions to get your chat started. Trust us, you’ll have a lot to talk about with this one!

1. The attempt to achieve perfection is central to both Diana’s and Byron’s behavior. Has the novel changed your perception of what it may mean to be ‘perfect’?

2. Rachel Joyce portrays time as a slippery and unpredictable concept. Has this affected your attitude towards the ways in which we measure the paths of our lives?

3. Responsibility is a theme that plays a key part in the novel. Who do you believe holds the greatest responsibility for the accident?

4. Is Jim’s mental illness the inevitable result of the events of his childhood?

5. Diana says, ‘I’m beginning to think chaos is underrated.’ Do you agree?

6. Byron identifies the moment at which he no longer considers himself to be a child. How does the novel question traditional definitions of childhood and parenthood?

7. Rachel Joyce writes beautiful descriptions of Cranham Moor and the English landscape. What is the significance of the natural world in the novel?

8. What is the significance of class in the relationship between Beverley and Diana?

9. Several characters struggle with depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior in the novel. How effectively do you feel mental disorders are portrayed?

10. Diana believes that the course of her life is determined by destiny. What part does spiritual belief play in the novel, and do you agree that our actions cannot influence our own fates?

11. Seymour and Andrea Lowe express strong views about feminism. How does Rachel Joyce represent the role of women in the novel?

12. How does Rachel Joyce represent the different time periods of the novel? Are there echoes from 1972 in the present or is it a world and time that has disappeared without trace?

13. Diana is lonely despite having a family and friends; Jim experiences intense loneliness. What do you think makes people feel connected to each other, and what creates fulfilling relationships?

14. Byron and James Lowe are best friends as boys, and the employees at Mr Meade’s café form bonds of kinship. How does Rachel Joyce represent friendship, and what do you think it means to be a true friend?
Who is the most powerful character in the novel, and why?

15. Eileen and Jim are damaged, in different ways, by their pasts. To what extent do you feel their private pain is transformed through the act of sharing?

Connect with Rachel on Facebook!

Reader’s Guide: ANDREW’S BRAIN by E.L. Doctorow

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Doctorow_Andrew's BrainThis brilliant new novel by an American master, the author of Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, Billy Bathgate, and The March, takes us on a radical trip into the mind of a man who, more than once in his life, has been the inadvertent agent of disaster. This book hits bookshelves today and we have discussion questions to kick off your book club discussion!

For more information visit the author’s website.

1. Near the beginning of the story, Andrew says that he is indirectly responsible for Briony’s death: “indirect—not directly causal.” How might he have reasoned that he was responsible for her death? Do you agree that Andrew ultimately has a hand in it, or not?

2. Andrew switches back and forth between telling the story in the first person and the third person, sometimes describing what happened to him, sometimes describing what happened to “Andrew.” Why might he do this switching back-and-forth? Did you notice any patterns in the moments at which Andrew switched from one form of narration to another?

3. In speaking to “Doc,” Andrew says, “Your field is the mind, mine is the brain.” What do you understand to be the difference between mind and brain, within the context of this book? Would the meaning of the title have changed for you, if it was called Andrew’s Mind instead of Andrew’s Brain?

4. Andrew says, “What else can we do as eaters of the fruit of knowledge but biologize ourselves?” Does the quest to “biologize ourselves” contain pitfalls or dangers? How might it relate to the tension, within the story, between the biology of the brain and the more intangible aspects of the mind?

5. Andrew describes the Wasatch mountains as ruling the town, as a “mountain bureaucracy” that negotiated the light and colonized the townspeople. Why might Andrew have decided to describe the mountains in such specific and unusual terms, as a “bureaucracy”? How might this connect with Andrew’s later experience with a different kind of bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.?

6. When Andrew connects Briony to the brain graph machine, he says, “I saw things more intimately Briony’s than if I had seen her undressed.” What does he mean by this? What are the implications of this “cephalic-invasive” voyeurism for Andrew and Briony’s relationship?

7. Mark Twain is a recurring motif in the book. Why do you think Andrew is so drawn to Twain? Think of when Andrew refers to the “imperial outrages annotated by MT in the last years of his life.” Twain lived through a different imperialistic era in America (the late 1800s and early 1900s), but how might this resonate with “imperial outrages” in Andrew’s own lifetime?

8. Andrew describes the possibility of a human yearning for a group brain, a larger social mind: “Perhaps we long for something like the situation these other creatures have— the ants, the bees— where the thinking is outsourced.” He mentions that this kind of thinking “brings us to politics.” What does he mean by this? How might this relate, specifically, to his encounters with the White House later in the book? What are other instances, in the book and in real life, when humans are drawn to this kind of “group brain” phenomenon?

9. Briony seems to transform Andrew. He speaks of how “watching her lifted me into a comparable state of happiness.” How do you think Briony manages to rescue Andrew from his “cold clear emotionless pond of silence”? What is it about her that inspires such life in him?

10. Andrew also remarks about Briony that he finds “redemption” in “the loving attentions of this girl.” Then, at the very end of the book, he describes how Mark Twain found a different kind of redemption in the world, when his children “remember this tale and laugh with love for their father.” What is similar about their two kinds of redemption? What is different?

11. How does love transform Andrew? Is it a permanent transformation, or is it temporary? Andrew describes love as “the blunt concussion that renders us insensible to despair.” He also describes the happiness that stems from love as a feeling “possibly induced by endormorphin, the brain’s opiate.” Why do you think Andrew gravitates towards physical metaphors to describe the power of love?

12. By the end of the story, how much did you trust or believe in the literal truth of what Andrew was saying? Did your attitude towards his narrative reliability change at all, over the course of the novel?

Giveaway Opportunity: THE AVIATOR’S WIFE by Melanie Benjamin

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Benjamin_Aviator's Wife Don’t let 2013 slip away without reading Melanie Benjamin’s bestselling novel, The Aviator’s Wife. In the spirit of Loving Frank and The Paris Wife, acclaimed novelist Melanie Benjamin pulls back the curtain on the marriage of one of America’s most extraordinary couples: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

“The history is exhilarating. . . . The Aviator’s Wife soars. . . . Anne Morrow Lindbergh narrates the story of the Lindberghs’ troubled marriage in all its triumph and tragedy.”—USA Today

“Fictional biography at its finest.”—Booklist (starred review)

Enter below for your chance to win! And join the conversation online with Melanie Benjamin via Facebook and Twitter.

Reader’s Guide: THE AVIATOR’S WIFE by Melanie Benjamin

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Benjamin_Aviator's WifeIn the spirit of Loving Frank and The Paris Wife, acclaimed novelist Melanie Benjamin pulls back the curtain on the marriage of one of America’s most extraordinary couples: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

“The history is exhilarating. . . . The Aviator’s Wife soars. . . . Anne Morrow Lindbergh narrates the story of the Lindberghs’ troubled marriage in all its triumph and tragedy.”—USA Today

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The epigraph for this novel is from Antoine de Saint- Exupéry who, like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was both a celebrated
author and a noted aviator. Do you agree with his statement, “One must look with the heart”? What do you think that means? And do you think it means something different to an artist (author) as opposed to a scientist (aviator)?

2. One of the recurring themes is how Anne will choose to remember Charles. How do you think she concludes she’ll
remember him by the end? How does it change?

3. Anne’s father says, “And there’s Anne. Reliable Anne. You never change, my daughter.” (page 11) How does Anne change over the course of this novel? Or does she?

4. How does Anne’s nomadic lifestyle as the daughter of an ambassador later infl uence her concept of “home” with Charles? What do you think defines home?

5. Anne seems to think of herself as an outsider—someone too shy and insular to make a big impression. Do you agree, or do you think Anne misevaluates herself? Do you think this insularity made Anne appealing to Charles, or do you think he was drawn to her because he saw past it? Is Charles an insular character himself, whether by nature or because he was forced into a “celebrity bubble”?

6. “Had there ever been a hero like him, in all of history?” (page 16) Anne starts her description of Charles with hero worship, comparing him to Columbus and Marco Polo. How does her opinion evolve as she comes to know him better? How did your opinion of Charles Lindbergh evolve throughout Anne’s story?

7. The title of this book is, of course, The Aviator’s Wife. Do you think that’s how Anne views herself upon marrying Charles? Do you think she sees that as a role she’s playing, or as a defi ning characteristic of who she is? Does it change over the course of the book?

8. Have you ever been up in a biplane? Do you think you would ever go, even with an expert aviator at the controls?

9. Compare the relationships Anne has with the men in her life: her brother, Dwight; her father; and Charles.

10. What right to privacy do you think a public figure should have? Can a public fi gure decide what parts of his or her life stay private?

11. Have you ever met someone famous? Did he/she live up to your expectations?

12. Do you think Charles and Anne were in love? Why or why not? Did that change over time?

13. Do you think you could keep the secrets that Anne keeps from her children? Why or why not?

14. What do you think fl ying represents to Anne? How does it compare with writing? Which do you think is more important to Anne?

15. Do you think Charles Lindbergh was a good husband in any ways? What do you think makes for a good partner?

16. Is Anne a hero? Why or why not?

17. If you could ask Anne one question, what would it be?

18. How does Anne’s relationship with her family change after she marries Charles?

19. How would you react to the scrutiny by the press that Anne and Charles endured? Would you want to be famous if it
meant being constantly under the microscope? Would you answer differently if there weren’t social media outlets but
the same type of newspapers and newsreels from Anne and Charles’s lifetime?

Stay connected with Melanie on Facebook and Twitter.

Reader’s Guide: THE DINNER by Herman Koch

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Koch_The DinnerWe have the discussion questions for Herman Koch’s New York Times bestselling novel The Dinner, and believe us when we say that these will whet your literary appetite!

“The best part about The Dinner was this tension taking place above the plates. As the meal wore on, I realized I couldn’t get up from the table.” —Rosecrans Baldwin, NPR

Questions for Discussion
1. How did your opinion of Paul and Serge shift throughout the novel? How might the story line have unfolded if it had been told from a mother’s point of view?

2. In what way do the courses of a meal— from aperitif to digestif— echo the experience of savoring a suspenseful novel? As the waiter described each delicacy in The Dinner, did the food appeal to you, or did you share Paul’s belief that it was pretentious?

3. What do you think of the sympathy Paul and Claire feel for their son? As a parent, how far would you go to defend your child?

4. Do Michel and Rick represent the indifference of their generation, or are teenagers more socially conscious in the Information Age?

5. How much influence do Claire and Babette have over their husbands? How do they define good mothering?

6. The novel opens with Paul’s commentary on how much Serge irritates him. What accounts for their attitude toward each other? Does Paul’s animosity run deeper than typical sibling rivalry?

7. Discuss Paul’s and Serge’s career paths. What does it take to succeed in politics compared with succeeding in the classroom? What skills do the Lohman brothers share?

8. Ultimately, who is to blame for the homeless woman’s death? What does the novel indicate about the responsibilities (or irresponsibility) of the upper class? What separates sympathetic souls from heartless ones?

9. Discuss the portrait of a marriage that Paul paints as he recalls Claire’s illness and confronts the possibility of losing his family. Why is Claire so protective of Paul? What keeps their relationship going?

10. In chapter 30, we see the details of Paul’s approach to history and humanity. As you watched him lose his teaching job, did you perceive him as someone who is ill or simply selfish? Or rational?

11. What does the story of cousins Michel and Rick say about nature versus nurture? How do you think Beau/Faso sees his adoptive family? What have they taught him about getting ahead?

12. How did you react to Claire and Michel’s “solution”?

13. What commentary does the novel offer about the author’s homeland? What aspects of The Dinner would change if it were set in Washington, DC, rather than in the Netherlands?

Guide written by Amy Clements

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Reader’s Guide: THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES by Kim Fay

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Fay_Map of Lost Memories

“Captivating . . . has qualities any reader would wish for: adventure, romance, history and a vividly described exotic setting.”—The Washington Post

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. At the beginning of the novel, Irene has strong feelings about her right to possess the scrolls and the fact that her possessing them will be in the Cambodians’ best interests. How much of this mindset is justified by the era in which the novel takes place, and could this mindset—art should belong to whoever can best protect it—be justified today? If so, how?

2. In addition, when the book opens, Irene is an ambitious—and arguably self-centered—character. Did you admire or dislike her attitudes and behavior? And if you disliked her, do you think you would have found her actions and ambitions more forgivable if she were a man?

3. Because of her complexity and unpredictable irrationality, Simone is a “love her or hate her” type of person. What traits do you feel make Simone alienating and what traits make her sympathetic?

4. Perhaps Simone deliberately killed Roger. Perhaps it was an accident. Which do you think it was, and why?

5. From the debauched streets of Shanghai to the humid landscapes of the Cambodian jungle, setting serves as its own character in The Map of Lost Memories. How do you feel that these environments shaped the characters? For example, the influence of Shanghai on Marc’s childhood, and the influence of the Cambodian wilderness on Irene ’s mindset as she treks closer toward her goal?

6. At one point in the book, Anne talks about the importance of going to the other side: “The place where one feels truly alive. Too many people surrender to a place of safety. That place where all they do is long to sleep so they can dream about living. Even if you don’t find what you think you’re looking for, darling, it ’s the going out and looking for it that counts. That is the only way you can know you have lived.” Do you agree or disagree with Anne ’s assessment of how most people live? Do you think this is what both Simone and Irene were doing over the course of the story, each in her own way? What about other characters such as Marc? Is the idea that “it ’s the going out and looking for it that counts” a motto you would live by?

7. Although The Map of Lost Memories is considered an adventure novel, it is not fast-paced. Aspects of the era—lack of airplanes, freeways, mass communications systems—contribute to how the story unfolds. Discuss how different this novel would be if set in a later time period; for example, how the existence of helicopters or the Internet would alter such a story.

8. The Map of Lost Memories is primarily Irene ’s story, and as such is told from her perspective. If you could ask the author to insert a chapter from another character’s point of view, who would it be and why?

9. Both Irene and Simone are motivated by their own ambitions to the point of betrayal. Do you feel these women would have been better off had they been honest from the start, instead of using each other to a certain extent? Consider a woman’s position in the time period and the choices (or lack thereof ) they had regarding their futures. In that sense, do you think by keeping secrets each of them were doing the best they could to protect themselves and their futures?

10. To expand on this, the novel is full of examples of blighted ambition and characters trapped by circumstance. Do you feel that unhappiness excuses the scheming behavior or betrayals of certain characters?

11. Although there are unexpected revelations about all the characters in the novel, perhaps the most surprising has to do with Henry Simms, Irene ’s beloved mentor. Did you find Mr. Simms to be a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

12. At the end of the novel, Irene changes her mind about where she thinks the scrolls belong. Was there a specific turning point for this decision, or was this decision the result of an evolution in her thinking? Is her change of heart selfless, or is she simply turning her initial selfish desires in a new direction?

13. Similarly, in many ways, Simone is a very different person at the end of the novel than the woman Irene first encounters at Anne ’s party. Discuss the path of her transformation. Are there any ways she essentially doesn’t change?

14. What one adjective do you think best captures the character of Irene? Were you surprised by how others in your group perceived her? What are her strengths and her weaknesses? How does your perception of Irene change throughout the story?

15. The title of the novel is The Map of Lost Memories. Discuss the power of memories as a theme throughout the novel. Why do you think the author selected this title?

Join the conversation with Kim Fay on Facebook!

A Conversation with William Landay

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Landay_Defending Jacob

“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.

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