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Interview: William Landay, Author of Defending Jacob

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A former district attorney who holds degrees from Yale and Boston College Law School, William Landay is the author of The Strangler and Mission Flats.

Visit him online at www.WilliamLanday.com.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Let’s see. Born in Boston. Worked for most of the 1990s as an assistant D.A. before turning to writing. Have been writing full time the last ten years or so.

My two previous novels before Defending Jacob are Mission Flats (2003), which won a lovely prize called the John Creasey Dagger Award for best first crime novel (the prize is an actual dagger, though it’s not even sharp enough to use as a letter opener); and The Strangler (2007), about Boston in the time of the Strangler murders (think L.A. Confidential meets The Friends of Eddie Coyle).

I have two young kids, boys aged 8 and 10. So when I’m not working, I’m generally tending to them in one way or another — driving them around, watching them play soccer or basketball, begging them to brush their teeth or pick up their dirty clothes or do their homework or stop bashing each other over the head.

In the little time that remains, I do have other interests. I love sports, as all Bostonians seem to. I love books and movies, as all writers seem to. Music, too, everything from rock to old blues, soul and jazz, though I’m no expert on any of these. I am interested in computers and technology, and art, photography, and design. I used to be a bartender, and I still like mixing cocktails for guests. 

What made you first decide to become a writer?

I can’t say that I ever actually decided to become a writer. It kind of snuck up on me.

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. To be clear: 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 so there was no one to guide me. So I learned the hard way, maybe the only way, by trial and error.

By the late ’90s I had left the D.A.’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.

When I finished my first decent manuscript, Mission Flats, I was about to give the whole thing up. It was time to admit defeat and move on. My wife and I were about to have our first child. It was time to get a “real” job. 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 — without ever actually deciding to be one. 

Can you tell us about your latest book?

Defending Jacob is the story of an ordinary suburban family — father Andy Barber, mother Laurie Barber, and 14-year-old son Jacob — who endure the unfathomable ordeal of seeing Jacob put on trial for the murder of a schoolmate.

But it is “about” 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?

I don’t know that there is ever a single moment of lightning-bolt inspiration for a novel, at least for a novel of any complexity. Usually the writing process involves the slow, methodical development of a story from a minuscule idea, like the grain of sand that, at length, becomes a pearl. That is how my own books tend to start, anyway.

In the case of Defending Jacob, there were a lot of different inspirations.

One example: I read a story about a Long Island detective who was the son of a convicted murderer. This detective was a strict law-and-order man, but his own son was subsequently accused of murder, just as the detective’s father had been. The story was told in a famous Esquire magazine article by the great New York crime reporter Mike McAlary. It later became the basis of a movie called City by the Sea, which starred Robert De Niro and a very young James Franco. That story, which was published in 1997, long before the birth of “behavioral genetics,” was the first time I ever heard the phrase “the murder gene,” a haunting idea, if not a scientifically accurate name.

I also wanted to write a book that was closer to my life now, after a couple of books that were about more typical sorts of “street crime.” When I began Defending Jacob, I had left the DA’s office and my life had become more about kids and family, less about crime. I wanted to combine these two strands in my life, the criminal justice system and the quieter life of raising kids in the suburbs. The result was Defending Jacob, a novel about a prosecutor and suburban Everydad whose son is accused of a murder. 

What is one thing you hope readers will take away from this book?

Well, I hope readers will take lots of things from Defending Jacob. There’s a lot in it to think about and talk about. But the main thing, I suppose — the idea that underlies all the rest — is that families are fragile things. If you’re lucky enough to have one, take care of it. It could all be taken away from you. 

Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?

Any bookstore. If you want to purchase it online, it is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and IndieBound. But if you have a local independent bookstore, consider buying it there. Our neighborhoods are more interesting places when they include bookstores. 

If you could meet any writer (living or dead) who would it be?

Dickens. So prolific, so industrious, put so much of his heart into his work. Brimming with interests and projects and ideas. And a master of publicity to boot — the first recognizably modern celebrity writer. I’d love to ask him how on earth he managed it all. 

What is one fact about yourself you wish to share with our readers?

Well, it’s not a fact so much as a thought. I’d like to tell readers that it’s a privilege in our society to be a writer. Very, very few people get to spend their days as I do, as a full-time novelist. It is my readers who make this possible. Without my readers, I’d have to go get a “real job” and the books would stop. So, thank you for this privilege. I hope I’ll be worthy of it. Lord knows, I try. 

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. 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 I have a feeling it’s going to be my best book yet. 

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thanks for having me. And thanks to your readers for their interest in Defending Jacob. I appreciate it. 

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About Cheryl C. Malandrinos

  • Susan in Denver

    Just read he character, “Lard-Ass Rivera”, a Latina. Having grown up in California, gone to university in San Diego, and currently living in Denver, I can tell he is from Boston, and a man. Disgusting profile of a Latina. Lost my respect at that point but will finish the book; like the general idea.