William Landay Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with William Landay, author of the novel Defending Jacob. William is an award-winning author of two previous novels, The Strangler—a Los Angeles Times Favorite Crime Book of the Year, and Mission Flats, winner of the Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for Best First Crime Novel. He’s recently received high praise from numerous acclaimed authors for Defending Jacob, which released in audio simultaneously with the hardcover on January 31, 2012, and was also narrated by yours truly. Hi Bill, and thank you for joining us today to talk on our Audiobook Insider.
WILLIAM LANDAY: Thank you for having me.
GG: Your new novel, Defending Jacob, just came out. It’s already gotten fantastic reviews from Booklist and a starred review from Publishers Weekly, as well as recommendations from some very big-name authors. You’ve had two previous books, but this is your first courtroom drama. Is that right?
WL: That is correct, yes. I wrote two earlier novels that were crime novels, but not courtroom novels.
GG: And what was the idea of moving actually into the courtroom, as opposed to the law enforcement end? Now you’re in the defense end, so to speak. What prompted that move?
WL: It’s a funny thing. For most of the 1990s, I had been an assistant DA in the Boston area, and so most of my experience with law enforcement was in the courtroom. I was a trial lawyer. When I started writing, it always seemed to me that the real action was out on the street. It wasn’t in the courtroom. And so I just started writing crime novels that imagined the cases that I had handled. But it’s part of the experience of being a prosecutor that you are inside the courthouse. And you’re really left to imagine what happened out there from police reports and from what witnesses are telling you. It really didn’t cross my mind that the more dramatic aspect might actually be what happens inside the courtroom. It had been a very long time since there was a courtroom thriller that really took off, and it seemed to me that there was an opportunity there. I loved the classic courtroom thrillers. I love Presumed Innocent, whose imprint is all over this book, I think. And I thought that the time was ripe to bring that back a little bit.
GG: The main character of the book is an assistant district attorney, Andy Barber. And he’s put in the position of having to quit his job, essentially, or remove himself, recuse himself, because his own son is accused of murder, and then he participates in the defense of his own son. This is a family situation. A very tense and a very taut one between himself, and his son and his wife. How did the family aspect come into it?
WL: Well. All books sort of develop slowly and morph slowly from the tiny seed of an idea. In this case, I had been writing full time for about, I suppose, seven or eight years by the time I started this book. So, I had been out of the courtroom and out of law enforcement for many years by the time I started this project. And probably more importantly, I’d had two kids. I have two little boys right now who are ages eight and ten, and so my life was really much more about family and bringing up these kids than it was about law enforcement. And so there were these two strands of time that I spent as a DA in law enforcement, and there was my current life as full-time writer and as a father. So the idea was to bring these two things together in my own life. The other piece of that also is that it always struck me that readers of crime novels don’t live in the world of crime they like to read about. You’ll see ordinary housewives, and accountants, and doctors and lawyers who’ll read about criminals quite happily and obviously feel that they are getting something out of that. There’s something in those stories that resonates with them and that is meaningful to them. And I wanted to bring home to these readers that the crime world that you’re reading about—the source of all that drama and all that evil—is not out there. It’s not in some other world. It’s part of human nature and it’s part of the world that we live in. It’s part of us. And so I wanted to tell a crime story that was set in the world that my readers would recognize and would feel is very familiar—I wanted to bring that home so they wouldn’t think of crime novels as a fantasy story, but as a story that was set in their own world.
GG: Was there a real-life incident that inspired this? Something “ripped from theheadlines,” as they say? Or did this just kind of come out of your own family experience?
WL: Well, it certainly didn’t come out of my family experience. (laughs)
GG: I’m glad to hear that.
WL: Yeah. There wasn’t a single case that it took off from. I think a lot of people hear the basic facts of the story and they think about Columbine. But it’s really not a Columbine situation at all. It’s really a small kind of private crime that happens in this case. There have been a lot of kid-on-kid murders and kid-on-kid violence that have made the news. And some of those stories did get spun into the mix in one way or another. There have also been a couple of cases involving violence that seems to run in families. And there was in particular a very famous case about a New York detective—a Long Island detective—who was the son of a murderer. And then that detective’s own son was accused of murder. So the violence seemed to have skipped a generation, but still seemed to run in that family. It was the subject of a very famous Esquire magazine article by Mike McAlary, who was a very well-known crime writer in New York. And I remember being struck by that article—it came out in the late nineties—I think it was ’97 or ’98. And that was the first time I had ever heard a suggestion that there might be such a thing as a murder gene. That violence could be transmitted genetically. That it could be inheritable. And that got my imagination working. That actually predated some of the science that has since caught up to that story. We’ve only mapped the human genome in the last ten years, but the science is starting to back up that suggestion, and of course that gets a storyteller’s imagination going at such a rich and haunting idea.
GG: The storyteller is Andy, himself. It’s a first-person narrative. And I don’t want to give away too much here, but I do want to touch on something that I think is very interesting and very pertinent to the experience of reading the book and trying to figure out the story. He’s not … would it be fair to say that he’s not a reliable narrator, in the classic sense, where we’re not sure we’re getting the whole picture?
WL: Yeah. I’m very wary of that term, “unreliable narrator”...
WL: …because to me, I think Andy is very reliable. What’s one of the interesting aspects of the book is that Andy is relating the story to the reader as he is testifying about it before a grand jury. And so he is on the witness stand as he is recollecting and retelling this story. So Andy himself is very upfront about when he might be hedging, what are the limits of what he is willing to say, and what he might be holding back. But he never misrepresents anything, and he certainly never misrepresents to the reader what’s going on. However, he is in a situation where he is sitting on the witness stand as he’s speaking, and so to some extent he is unreliable because he’s shading his testimony. But the fact that that’s built into the story—that you know he’s being interrogated as he’s speaking—really puts the reader on edge. It gives them fair warning that you really need to pay attention to what he’s saying. And I think that if people go back and really look at the book they’ll see that he wasn’t unreliable at all. He’s simply allowed the reader to make suppositions that weren’t necessarily justified.
WL: Which is to say, I think is to play it fair—
GG: Okay, um … Go ahead, I’m sorry.
WL: Oh that’s important. I feel like in a mystery, it’s a cheat to have a narrator who simply misleads the reader. You have to play fair with the reader. At the same time, it’s important just for the reader’s pleasure to provide surprises and twists and things that they don’t see coming. And at this point, so late in the life of the genre—and with readers so smart they’ve seen so many mysteries—and now even, you know, there are cop shows every night on TV, you can see a Law & Order running in syndication practically twenty-four hours a day. It’s very hard to surprise these readers, to surprise this audience, which has become so savvy. And so you’ve got to reach deep into the bag of tricks to pull out a real surprise. But it’s that sense of surprise that I as a reader really enjoy. I think the point of a great book is to delight the reader in ways that they haven’t been delighted before, and I think that that really relies on surprise and it’s a part of the pleasure of this book.
GG: Well, without giving anything away, I will say that the twist at the end is very surprising, but it’s also very well prepared. The groundwork is very well laid. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. And again, I think part of the way it’s so well set up is the fact that we come to understand that he’s grappling with the story as he’s telling the story. That he’s struggling to find a way … I think you’re absolutely right. He wants to be honest, but he does have to be careful because he is testifying—
WL: All right.
GG: But he’s as honest as he knows how to be, and yet still there’s a sense that the surprise at the end comes as a surprise because we still don’t have everybody’s point of view. We only really have his point of view to rely on.
WL: Right. And I think that the reason it works, the reason you’re sort of willing to go that far with Andy, is that the reason he’s torn is that he’s a father, and this is his family that’s come under fire. And when he’s on the witness stand talking about this case, he’s not just talking about any criminal case. He’s talking about his own wife, and his own child, and he wants to do the right thing. He wants to be a good parent, and he wants to be a good person. It’s just not clear to him what that means, and I think that’s something that will resonate with a lot of parents and with a lot of readers—we all want to do the right thing. But it’s not always clear what is the right thing for a good parent to do. The other piece that I think makes it interesting is that even though he’s talking about his own son, he doesn’t necessarily know everything about his own son. He doesn’t necessarily know who Jacob Barber actually is, and again that’s something that a lot of parents and a lot of spouses and a lot of people will recognize—the difficulty of knowing anyone else, even your own child, who was part of you—and at the same time is another person who’s a human being, every bit as complex as you are and harboring just as many secrets. We’ve all had the experience of talking with a teenager. For those of us who are parents, talking with our own child and wondering, “What’s actually going on inside that head of yours?” And so some of that is happening with Andy, too. He just doesn’t really know who his child is exactly.
GG: I think that touches on a very deep-seated fear, for every parent. Especially in the teenage years, when there’s so much going on. Teenagers tend to withdraw, and tend to sort of defend themselves against interference from their parents, and the sense that do you really know what they’re doing, who they are, who they’re hanging around with?
GG: And I think that portrays that very effectively, the sense that Andy is surprised to learn many things.
WL: Yeah. I think that’s true. I think that’s part of the reason that people are responding to this book as strongly as they are. Jacob is not a monster. He’s not a serial killer. He’s not a psycho. When you meet him, he is very much like a lot of teenagers that you’ll meet. Only more so. And his secretiveness and his moodiness, his withdrawn nature, is something that a lot of parents are going to recognize, and it’s only the exaggeration of these very common teenage traits that begins to get Jacob into trouble and it begins to sort of take on a sinister tone when it’s in the context of a murder case.
GG: I’m not going to ask you to answer this except just to confirm. Do you yourself know whether Jacob is guilty or innocent?
WL: Sure! (laughs)
GG: Okay. All right. That’s all I wanted to know. I’m going to leave that for the reader or listener to figure out. Because I think that one of the beauties of the book is that you’re constantly kind of flipping back and forth.
WL: Right, right—
GG: Courtroom drama. I was watching an old movie the other day, from the thirties, and there was a courtroom scene where someone’s accused of murder. It was ridiculous, because all of a sudden he was on the stand, accused of murder. There was no evidence, but somehow someone testifies, and everybody says, “Well, he’s guilty.” But then the ex-wife gets up and she goes crazy on the stand and confesses to the whole thing, sort of out of nowhere. Notoriously, courtroom dramas can be a little like sports books or other things where a knowledgeable reader will go, “Oh, no, no, no. That doesn’t happen.” I think they are very difficult to pull off. There are so many temptations to kind of twist things around so that it’s entertaining or it’s convenient for the plot. But this is very convincing. How concerned were you with making sure that because the whole thing is almost all set in the courtroom or revolves around the courtroom scenes—there seems to be a great deal of accuracy in there. How much did you have to pull out of your own experience to do that?
WL: Well, I think what you pull out of your own experience is just a fluency with the system. It’s not a particular case that was in my own experience. I think one reason courtroom stories are hard is that most storytellers want to build to a climax that includes a resolution. They want to remove all doubt. And that’s why you always have this confession from the witness stand which never happens in court. Because the storyteller wants that satisfying climax where the doubt simply vanishes, and the audience is allowed to feel comfortable because they’ve achieved that sense of resolution. In court, it never works that way. Even when you have a verdict, it comes back guilty or not guilty, and you still walk out feeling that there is some bit of doubt. You still don’t know for sure what happened. When the judge gives the jury its instructions, he says you have to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Not beyond any doubt, because everything that we do is subject to some measure of doubt. So, as you become more experienced as a lawyer and you go from trial to trial, your tolerance for this doubt grows. You simply accept that that’s a limitation of the court system. None of us—none of the professionals who were there—the judge, the lawyers, the court officers, even the police officers, none of us were there to actually see the crime. And so even if you reach 99 percent certainty about what happened, and 99 percent confidence in the verdict, there’s always that nagging 1 percent of doubt that always—it always used to eat me up as a lawyer. And it simply can’t be eliminated. It’s built into the system. But it’s not built into novels and stories about the system, because it’s viewed as antithetical to ordinary storytelling, which builds to climax and resolution. An unresolved story is perceived as intolerable by the audience. I don’t see it that way, and I feel that the doubt that this family takes away from the trial—and I won’t spoil the climax—but the doubt that they take from the trial is actually fuel for the rest of the story, and for what they must have been thinking “what will the rest of our lives be like?”—not knowing for sure. And that sort of leads into the final act of the book, which I understand your hesitation to talk about, but again, it’s part of the court system and I wanted it to be part of this book too.
GG: The trial comes to an end as sort of the result of an extraordinary intervention…
GG: Which I won’t reveal, but there’s room there—I think that’s very masterfully set up in the sense that the trial ends, but as you say, it doesn’t answer the questions.
WL : Right. As no trial ever does, because you always walk away with that little doubt.
GG: Is there something in the works coming up?
WL: There’s always something in the works. I’m hesitant to talk about it. It’s a cardinal sin to talk about a book in progress, but I will say it’s in the same general ballpark as Defending Jacob. It’s another story of a murder involving an ordinary family in an ordinary town, but very different. It’s about how a family moves on, and what the limitations of our sense of justice are, and how a victim’s family reaches some sense of peace afterwards, and what it is that they need to move forward. So I hate to be vague about it, but to be too specific is bad luck for the book and also inaccurate, only because the book develops as you write it, and so whatever I told you now would be inaccurate by next Tuesday.
GG: (laughs) All right. Well, I have to tell you, having narrated the book—I wouldn’t normally bring this up, but—it was extraordinary. I found it fascinating, moving. It was an interesting tightrope to walk, telling Andy’s story for him, and I found myself always tempted to try to color it—make some assumption, or draw some conclusions. But I really had to fight against that, because there’s too much going on, and there’s too much that we don’t know and that he doesn’t know and he admits he doesn’t know, and that he doesn’t understand, and so I had to just let it pull me along.
GG: And it was quite an experience.
WL: What’s interesting about the story—the fact that it’s told in the first person is always seductive. You hear that person’s voice in your head and he’s speaking in the first person and he’s saying I, I, I, and so he seems to be speaking directly to you. And yet in this case, you have a narrator who’s a very, very smart, experienced guy. And yet he’s very frank about the limits of his own knowledge, and the limits of what he can tell you. And so it’s very hard to go around him and try to outguess him because he’s very frank about the limits of what he knows. So it just adds a layer of complexity and interest to the story that’s often missing.
GG: Thank you very much for talking with us today. This was a great discussion. The book is fantastic.
WL: Thank you.
GG: Not only a wonderful plot and plenty of fantastic twists, but also a really gripping, realistic, and compelling courtroom drama and family drama, as well.
WL: Thank you, Grover. I appreciate it.
GG: So many great things going for it, so we’re really looking forward to hearing from our listeners about it. Thank you so much for your time, and we really appreciate it.
WL: Happy to do it. Thank you for inviting me.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview. You can find all of Blackstone Audio’s titles and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in January 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney in his suburban Massachusetts county for more than twenty years. He is respected in his community, tenacious in the courtroom, and happy at home with his wife, Laurie, and son, Jacob. But when a shocking crime shatters their New England town, Andy is blindsided by what happens next: his fourteen-year-old son is charged with the murder of a fellow student.
Every parental instinct Andy has rallies to protect his boy. Jacob insists that he is innocent, and Andy believes him. Andy must. He’s his father. But as damning facts and shocking revelations surface, as a marriage threatens to crumble and the trial intensifies, and as the crisis reveals how little a father knows about his son, Andy will face a trial of his own—between loyalty and justice, between truth and allegation, between a past he’s tried to bury and a future he cannot conceive.
Award-winning author William Landay has written the consummate novel of an embattled family in crisis—a suspenseful, character-driven mystery that is also a spellbinding tale of guilt, betrayal, and the terrifying speed at which our lives can spin out of control.