William Landay: “I try to avoid writing novels that too closely resemble real crimes”
“Defending Jacob” is the latest book by William Landay. The book tells the story of how peaceful life of Andy Barber, assistant district attorney, is shattered when their son is accused of murdering a classmate. The book addresses some questions: How far will a father go to protect his son? Do parents know their children? In “Defending Jacob” we find not only a book that tells the story of a crime; it is also a book about a family drama.
William Landay (born 1963, in Boston, Massachusetts) is an American novelist. He’s degree in law from Yale and Boston College Law School. Before turning to literature, he worked for many years like an assistant district attorney. William Landay is the author of the novels “Mission Flats” and “The Strangler“, the latter winning the Creasey Memorial Dagger for best first novel. With his last book, “Defending Jacob”, has conquered the charts of bestselling books in the United States.
“Defending Jacob” is not just a crime thriller; it is also a family drama. The book talks about how the possibility that a son might be a murderer affects a family. Do you think that this is one of the strengths of the novel?
Yes, I think one of the reasons the book has been such a hit in the US is that it is accessible to so many readers. It doesn’t matter is you tend to read crime stories or mysteries or family dramas or “literary” fiction, the book will likely appeal to you. In fact, the strongest and most frequent reaction I’ve had is “I don’t usually read crime or suspense novels, but I tried this one and I just couldn’t put it down.” It’s as if mainstream readers have forgotten how suspenseful and exciting reading can be! And maybe, too, we writers have forgotten (or taken too lightly) our obligation to entertain the reader.
Unfortunately, in the United States and other countries, crimes like the murder in the book are not uncommon, children killing other children. Why did you decide to write about this sensitive subject?
It wasn’t because such murders are in the news. I find that I can only write well if the story speaks to me personally, and those sorts of news stories don’t really interest me much — though obviously they sadden me. Really, I chose to write about this sort of case because I wanted to explore this idea that we cannot really know one another. Even the people who are closest to us — our children, our parents — are strangers in a way. There is a limit to how well we can understand any other person. I have two children myself, little boys ages 8 and 11, and like every parent I try to do the best that I can for them. But sometimes it is hard to understand these little strangers. And of course, sometimes, as every mother or father knows, it doesn’t matter how good a parent you are. Good parents produce bad kids, bad parents produce good kids — there is an element of randomness in how all our children turn out. Hard-wiring, it turns out, is just as important as good parenting. It is a troubling thought for any parent, and it is an anxiety I wanted to explore in my book.
You said the story of the book is not based on a true story, but, do you know similar cases like of the book?
Yes, there have definitely been similar cases, but none exactly like the one in the book. I try to avoid writing novels that too closely resemble real crimes. It limits what I feel free to say. I would not want to cause anyone real pain. As a former prosecutor I try to be as sensitive as possible to the feelings of crime victims, who never asked to be in the public eye. At the same time, little details do sneak in. In Defending Jacob, the last words of the murder victim — “Stop, you’re hurting me” — were actually the last words of the victim in a child-on-child murder near Boston, where I live. It’s the sort of heartbreaking little detail that it is hard to forget, as a writer, as a parent, as a human being.
The Andy’s father was a murderer, and the book talks about the influence of genetics on behavior. Did you have to study the neurocriminology for to write the book? What most attracted you to this science?
Yes, I did study as much about neurocriminology and neuroscience as I could. But I would point out that I am not a scientist and Defending Jacob is not a science book. The facts in the book are scientifically accurate, but as a novelist what interests more is what this new science suggests about us. What does it mean to be human if, as we are now learning, our inborn nature is more important than we’d ever imagined? What is our DNA determines more about who we are than we have previously assumed? Here in the US, we like to think that a child can grow up to be anything at all if she works hard enough and aims high enough. We believe in the “self-made man.” But of course deep down we all know it is not true. We know that most children just don’t have the talent to be, say, a professional athlete or musician or mathematician. Hard-wiring does matter. We all have always known this, of course, but until now we have never really had the scientific tools to look in the precise mechanisms of how we are born to be what we are. DNA is such a powerful breakthrough, we are only beginning to understand what it says about human nature. Of course, it is fashionable at the moment to attribute everything to DNA, as if we all were no more than out genetic code. That is not true, of course. We are all the products of nature and nurture, of a gene-environment interaction. At the same time, we are not quite as unformed at birth as we like to think.
In the book, Andy doesn’t believe in the court system, and he thinks at least it isn’t especially good at finding the truth. Do you think the same? Are you satisfied with the legal system of your country or would like to change something? What would you do to improve it?
I think the court system certainly has its flaws, as any system made and administered by human beings does. The jury system essentially has not changed in centuries. If you were sick, you certainly would not want to be treated by a doctor using medieval methods; but if you are accused of a crime, in the end that is exactly how your guilt or innocence will be determined. It is a sobering thought.
On the other hand, no, I do not have any easy answers to improve things. When I think about the court system, I tend to fall back on Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy: “It is the worst system of government in the world, except for all the others.”
In Spain, some people complain that the Spanish justice is not very hard with children who commit crimes, especially with children who commit murder, and this people want that some juveniles be tried as adults. What do you think about this? How does the American justice with juvenile criminals?
The American justice system, by comparison, is very, very hard on children accused of murder. In the state where I live, Massachusetts, all children aged 14 or older accused of first-degree murder are automatically tried as adults and sent to adult prisons. It is a ridiculous policy, if you ask me. It does nothing to deter future criminals. When we are faced with rising crime levels or with a single, spectacular crime, the tendency is to make the punishments ever more severe. That policy can be justified, logically at least, in terms of moral justice: some crimes are simply so horrifying they demand a punishment scaled to the crime. But as a practical matter, we should fool ourselves into believing that filling our prisons — or building ever more prisons, as we Americans have done the last few decades — will diminish crime rates. The numbers simply don’t bear out that conclusion.
You worked like an assistant district attorney for several years and you are father of two children. How do you would act if you were in the situation of Andy Barber?
Probably just as Andy Barber himself did. I am intensely loyal person and I don’t think I could bear to see any harm come to my children, no matter what they did. I don’t suggest that this is the appropriate way for a father to respond — we all have duties to our neighbors as well as our children; we need to keep each other safe as well as our families. But then, that is precisely Andy’s dilemma: how to balance your duty as a parent (to protect your child) and your duty as a citizen (to obey the law and protect your neighbor)?
Before you devote to literature, you worked as an assistant district attorney. What made you devote to literature?
I loved books and writing, and always have.
Your first novel Mission Flats was awarded the John Creasey Dagger (now called the New Blood Dagger) as the best debut crime novel of 2003 by the British Crime Writers Association. Do you remember this moment?
Yes, but honestly I don’t think much about awards and reviews all that. I try to focus only on my books and making them as good as they can possibly be. For a writer — for an artist of any kid, I suppose — it’s easy to become too focused on pleasing others: critics, publishers, the audience. And of course you have take the market into account a little bit. But in the end, you have to write books that you believe in, that matter to you. So that is how I think about these things: awards and good reviews and sales are all very nice and I’m grateful for them; but the important thing is to write great books — books that you, the writer, believe are great. Then you have to hope that somewhere in the world there are readers who will see what you see, who will support the work you are doing.
You said do not consider yourself a writer, only a guy who writes with the intention of seeing how characters act under pressure. What goals do you propose as a “writer”?
Just try to do the best you possibly can on every project. There are no masters in writing, no Mozarts. You have to work incredibly hard every single time. You have to push yourself to work at the absolute outer limit of your talent. Then let the chips fall where they may. Some books will be popular, some won’t. You can’t control how a book will be received.
In Spain “Defending Jacob” has been edited by “La Esfera de los libros”. Do you know how your book has been received in Spain? Have you received reviews from Spanish readers?
No, I haven’t heard a thing. I have seen the book that La Esfera de los Libros produced and it is a beautiful object. One thing I have noticed about bookmaking in the U.S. is that the books themselves are of increasingly poor quality. The paper is thin, the binding and production and design all are very ordinary. In the age of ebooks, you would expect that the quality of books as physical objects would be more important, not less. After all, that is what separates “real” books from ebooks: their permanence, their physical beauty, their tactile pleasure. The Spanish hardcover is indeed a beautifully made, heavy, lasting book, very different from the American product. That is probably telling about the different ways books are perceived in the U.S. and Spanish markets.
Warner Bros has bought the film rights to “Defending Jacob” and apparently Steve Kloves will be responsible for writing the script and direct the film. Do you know anything more about this project?
Right now, the screenwriter/director, Steve Kloves, is writing a screenplay, and that will likely take at least a year. So a movie is likely several years off. But I have high hopes. A film is a completely separate project from the novel, so I don’t really have any role in it. My expertise is only in book-writing. But the filmmakers involved in the project are very, very good. So I am cautiously optimistic.
Did you ever imagine you’d see a movie based on one of your books?
No, I try not to think too much of my stories as movies. Novels work differently from films. They have different strengths, particularly the ability to delve into the interior lives of their characters — their thoughts, their consciousness — in a way that movies cannot. At the same time, I think my books do have a cinematic, visual quality. They are easy to “see” in the mind’s eye.
Are you working on another book? If the answer is yes, can you anticipate some about this new book project?
I am, but it is always a mistake to talk about a book in progress. It always changes as you write it, so anything I told you today would be inaccurate by next week.
You had been compared several times with writers like John Grisham or Scott Turow. Do you think you have a similar style to these writers?
I think, stylistically, I’m sort of a blend of the two. My prose sounds a little like Turow’s, but my plots tend to be more crowded like Grisham’s. In any event, I am flattered to be compared to either of them!
Could you recommend a book for fans of our program?
I just finished rereading The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, one of my favorite books from one of my favorite authors.
Thank you for giving us a bit of your time. You mean the last words?
Thank you to everyone who has read and enjoyed my book, in Spain and elsewhere. I’m very grateful.