Interview: William Landay, Author of Defending Jacob
William Landay is the author of Defending Jacob, the much buzzed-about new novel that has drawn comparisons to Presumed Innocent and We Need to Talk About Kevin. His previous novels are Mission Flats (2003), which won the Creasey Dagger Award as best first crime novel of the year, and The Strangler (2007), which was named an L.A. Times Favorite Crime Novel of the Year.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Boston area. In fact, except for my four years in college, I’ve never left. That makes me horribly parochial, I’m sure. Most of our romantic visions of writers involve world-travelers like Hemingway. But I like to think of long-rooted writers like Eudora Welty, who lived in the same house most of her life in Jackson, Mississippi. At least I’ve got Eudora beat — I’ve moved many times.
When did you begin writing?
I started writing fiction in a casual way when I was 26 or 27. That is very late in life, and even then I did not think of myself as “a writer,” just someone who liked to write. I wrote stories in my free time. They were awful, I’m sure.
When I was 30 or so — by that time I had become an assistant D.A. — I decided I would try to write a novel. Note that I did not decide to become a novelist. Honestly, it never crossed my mind that I could actually earn a living as a professional novelist. I simply wanted to write one publishable novel, just to see if I could do it. But I’m a stubborn guy, I guess. I kept trying and failing, trying and failing, for years. I never took any writing classes, and I did not know any novelists to guide me, so I learned the hard way, maybe the only way, by trial and error.
By the late 90’s I had left the DA’s office to write full time. (I worked as a bartender at night to support myself.) Still, I was thinking of it only as a one-book project — it was simply a project that was taking a very long time. I got married around then, to a woman brave enough to marry an unpublished writer. (Everyone who is not a published writer is technically an unpublished writer. “Unpublished writer” is a title that every plumber and convict can fairly claim.)
When I finished the first decent manuscript, a book called Mission Flats, I was about to give the whole thing up. My wife and I were about to have our first child. It was time to admit defeat and move on. In fact, when the first offer for Mission Flats came in, my wife and I were at the obstetrician’s office to hear the unborn baby’s heartbeat. We took the call on my cell phone while we sat in the doctor’s waiting room, my agent telling me we’d received a generous offer for the book. I wound up with a two-book deal, which, happily, required me to keep writing. And that is when I became “a writer,” finally.
Do you write during the day, at night or whenever you can sneak a few moments?
During the day, mostly. Nights and weekends, I’m usually with my kids, who are now 8 and 10 years old. But I write all day, or try to. I never have been able to write “whenever I could sneak in a few moments.” For me, writing requires long stretches of time and deep concentration. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
What is this book about?
Defending Jacob is the story of an ordinary suburban family — father Andy Barber, mother Laurie Barber, and son Jacob — who endure the unfathomable ordeal of seeing 14-year-old Jacob put on trial for the murder of a schoolmate.
But it is “about” so much more than that. The difficulty of raising kids. The impossibility of truly knowing another person, even a spouse, even your own child. In Defending Jacob the characters are constantly surprised by what they learn about one another. Long-held secrets bubble up to the surface — secrets that might never have been divulged, that might never have troubled their happy marriage.
There is also the scientific question of the “murder gene,” the very real science which suggests that a predisposition to violence may indeed be a genetically heritable trait.
The book also delves deep into the criminal justice system as seen by a consummate insider, the veteran prosecutor Andy Barber, whose views of the defendant’s position are informed by his many years on the other side.
I think the sheer variety of “it’s about...” is one of the reasons the book has received such an overwhelming response. It is rich material. Defending Jacob generates great discussions, because it touches on so many difficult decisions and interesting topics. (It’s a great book club book.) It works on many levels, for many different audiences: fans of legal thrillers, of family dramas, of scientific stories. That is why it has pulled endorsements from writers as wildly different as Lee Child and Nicholas Sparks — two writers who have rarely been mentioned in the same sentence till now.
What inspired you to write it?
Oh, I don’t think a book ever has a single inspiration. There is never a moment where a writer leaps up out of his chair and says, “Aha! I’ve just had a vision of a novel!” At least, I ‘ve never had that experience. What happens is that you start with the little seed of an idea, or in this case several seeds: a true story about a homicide detective who was both the son and father of a murderer; my own experiences in the courtroom and then as a father raising young kids; the emerging science of behavioral genetics and the haunting notion of a “murder gene.” All these ideas and many others, I’m sure, get mixed together and over time a story emerges. Often slowly — very slowly.
Who is your favorite character from the book?
Well, I like them all, even the surly, moody, possibly homicidal teenager, Jacob. They are all my creations, my babies. But I do love Andy Barber, the father so unshakable in his devotion to his child that he simply can’t abandon him, even when that might be the morally right thing to do. I feel for Andy. I am a father, and I can’t imagine abandoning my sons either. I’m also a son, and who among us would not want a father like Andy Barber, who will stick by us no matter what?
Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?
Here are the links.
Do you have a video trailer to promote your book? If yes, where can readers find it?
Yes, you can view the trailer here. What is one piece of advice you would like to share with aspiring authors everywhere?
Stick to it. Be stubborn. Believe in your own vision of the book you are creating. Don’t be put off by criticism or negativity. Believe that what you are doing matters. You have to believe in it first — others won’t believe until they see it, after it’s been created, or at least mostly created.
Also, don’t try to anticipate what the audience wants. They don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said ‘A faster horse.’” The same is true in writing, or any other art. The artist leads the audience, not the other way around.
What is up next for you?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but talking about an unwritten book is probably the one bad idea I haven’t tried. I don’t mean to be evasive. It’s just that every book twists and morphs as you extrude it from the muck of your imagination. Anything I told you today would be inaccurate by next Tuesday. But stay tuned, because it’s going to be my best thing yet. I’m convinced of it.
Interviewer's note: Read my review of Defending Jacobhere.