William Landay is the author of 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 and a Barry Award nominee. A former district attorney who holds degrees from Yale and Boston College Law School, Landay lives in Boston, where he is at work on his next novel of suspense. His latest release is Defending Jacob.
Q: Thank you for this interview, Bill. Can you tell us what your latest book, Defending Jacob, is all about?
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. So it is first and foremost a taut, suspenseful story.
But it is “about” much more than that. The difficulty of raising kids. The impossibility of truly knowing another person, even a family member. 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.
The book also includes in its sweep a scientific question: could there be such a thing as a “murder gene”? It is a haunting idea, but it is based on very real science. Study after study suggests that a predisposition to violence may indeed be a genetically heritable trait. It is not quite a “murder gene” — human behavior is not triggered by a simple gene but by an unfathomably complex interaction of genes and environment. Still, it opens a new window on the ancient question of “nature vs. nurture.”
The book also delves deep into the criminal justice system. It is told 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.
So Defending Jacob is about a lot of things. In fact, the sheer variety of “what it’s about” is one of the reasons the book has received such an overwhelming response. (The “Barnes & Noble Recommends” pick for February, Defending Jacob has been on the B&N bestseller list since the week before it was actually published.) It is just a rich, engrossing book. It generates great discussions because it touches on so many difficult decisions and interesting topics, which makes it a great book-club book. And it appeals to 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.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
There are three main characters at the center of the story. Andy Barber is a 27-year veteran of the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office, near Boston. He is the First Assistant, which means he is the top deputy to the District Attorney herself. In Andy’s case, that means he is the number-one trial lawyer in the office — the top gun who handles all the biggest cases. But Andy is harboring a few secrets about his past, about his true identity, secrets that even his wife does not know until the murder charge against Jacob begins to strip them bare.
Laurie, Andy’s wife, is in some ways Andy’s opposite and his complement. Where Andy is tough, disciplined, devoted to law and order, Laurie is gentler, more expressive, more inclined to talk through a difficult problem. They are a lovely couple, perfectly suited to each other and still deeply in love after many years of marriage. Which is why it is so hard to watch them writhe under the strain of Jacob’s murder charge.
Then there is Jacob. A teenager with a moody, saturnine personality. But he is no monster. On the contrary, readers who know a few teenagers may find Jacob is uncomfortably familiar. He can be surly and withdrawn at times, but he can be funny and charming too. Physically he is poised between a gawky, awkward adolescent and the emerging young man he will soon become. He is smart and articulate — a fan of video games and computers and Facebook — but also prone to rash, foolish decisions. In short, he has all the maddening contradictions and emotional swings of any teenager.
For that matter, there is not much to separate any of the Barbers from the family next door. Or even your own family. Until the screw is tightened, then tightened some more. And all three of the Barbers try to resist the pressure as best they can.
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
I never explicitly base a character on a real person, especially someone I know. Using a real-life model makes it awfully hard to write. I always worry about offending someone or hurting their feelings if the character tends to misbehave — as my characters regularly do. It is inhibiting to me.
At the same time, every character comes out of my imagination, so I know full well that I am borrowing bits and pieces of different people in my life and bolting them onto my characters. It is just inescapable.
The question is especially relevant in this case, because Defending Jacob is set in a real town and in a real District Attorney’s office — the same town where I live and the same DA’s office where I worked as a prosecutor for most of the 1990’s. So I always point out that the characters in this book have absolutely no connection to anyone I know. They are 100% pure products of my imagination. I promise.
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
Both. I am always aware of the plot before I begin, and the story always develops and changes as I write. I am a ruthless planner and outliner. It is the only way to manage the sort of complex plots and narrative devices I like to use. So I try to nail things down as much as I can. But then, inevitably, you feel the thing wriggling under your hand, coming to life, and all my plans go out the window. I usually go through multiple outlines as I make my through the manuscript, stopping every 75-100 pages to get my bearings and figure out where the story ought to be headed.
Q: Your book is set in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?
First, I chose it simply because I live there. There’s nothing especially dark or mysterious about Newton. Quite the opposite, it’s a lovely, wholesome place. Even a little dull, at least as the setting for a crime novel.
In fact, Newton’s ordinariness is another reason why I chose it. I had written a couple of novels with gritty urban settings, and I wanted to change that. I wanted to discuss crime — which has been my topic from the start — in the context of a familiar, ordinary suburb, a world more like the one I actually lived in, and more like the one many of my readers live in. I was looking for a typical suburb, an Everysuburb. Newton seemed as good as any.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Only in the sense that many readers will feel at home there. They will feel they’re on familiar ground. Again, this is a story that feels familiar at first: an ordinary town, an ordinary family. And then…
This is a difficult question to answer without giving away an important plot point, so I’ll have to be a little vague here.
It is May 11, 1950, in Lowell, Massachusetts. A salesman named Rusty Barber has come to call on Birke’s clothing store to show the new line of Mighty Mac winter parkas. After the sales call, Rusty stops for lunch at a hot dog place he liked called Elliot’s. Then this:
As he left Elliot’s, there was an accident. A car swiped the front of Rusty’s Buick Special as he crept out of the parking lot. There was an argument. A shove. The other man produced a knife. When it was over, the other man lay on the street, and Rusty walked away as if nothing had happened. The man stood up with his hands pressed to his belly. Blood seeped through his fingers. He opened his shirt but held his hands over his stomach a moment, as if he had a bellyache. When the man finally pulled his hands away, a slick coiled snake of intestines drooped out of him. A vertical incision split his stomach from the pelvis to the bottom of the chestbone. With his own hands, the man lifted his intestines back into his own body, held them there, and walked inside to call the police.
Again, I can’t say much more about that incident for fear of giving away too much. Defending Jacob is woven pretty tightly. It’s hard to pull out one page without unraveling a lot more of the plot.
But I will say that this scene grows out of my experience as an assistant D.A. My first assignment was in Lowell, a great community where Elliot’s and Birke’s were real places. (Elliot’s is still going strong and I highly recommend it. Great hot dogs. Tell them you want one “all around.” You won’t be sorry.) The stabbing described in this scene is based on an incident that occurred while I was working in Lowell — a man gashed across the belly, forced to hold his intestines inside by holding his hand over his belly, pressing it closed, while he was driven to the emergency room.
As for the salesman, well, it was my own grandfather, Harry Wolf, who sold Mighty Mac parkas to old stores like Birke’s all over New England. As a writer you grab what you can from any source available, your own history or the lives of others, and you spin it into your story.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
Veteran prosecutor Andy Barber gives a weary but hopeful take on the court system, in which he has worked for 27 years:
Now, this was not exactly true. I do not believe in the court system, at least I do not think it is especially good at finding the truth. No lawyer does. We have all seen too many mistakes, too many bad results. A jury verdict is just a guess — a well-intentioned guess, generally, but you simply cannot tell fact from fiction by taking a vote. And yet, despite all that, I do believe in the power of the ritual. I believe in the religious symbolism, the black robes, the marble-columned courthouses like Greek temples. When we hold a trial, we are saying a mass. We are praying together to do what is right and to be protected from danger, and that is worth doing whether or not our prayers are actually heard.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Bill. We wish you much success!
Thank you for having me.