Boston-born District Attorney-turned writer William Landay is the author of The Strangler and Mission Flats and New York Times bestselling author of the legal thriller and courtroom drama Defending Jacob.
His new novel has been hailed as “smart, sophisticated and suspenseful capturing both the complexity and fragility of family life” by Lee Child, while Nicholas Sparks said “Do yourself a favor and read it.
It’s that good.” Associated Press compared Defending Jacob to Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and Landay has been talked about as the new Grisham.
William Landay talks to London Glossy about Defending Jacob and being a writer.
Did you feel whilst writing that you were on to something that would make the best selling list?
Never. Even now, with Defending Jacob a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list, I can’t quite believe it. I had written two earlier books, both well reviewed, and neither had sold in any great numbers. So I assumed this was my lot as a writer: a small but loyal readership that I might grow slowly over time. And I was perfectly content with that.
But my American publisher seemed to know Defending Jacob might break out. Even before I’d finished writing it, the manuscript was being passed around eagerly within the Random House offices in New York. Still, after doing this for a number of years, you learn to lower your expectations. I suppose I am also a pessimist by nature.
The other aspect of predicting blockbusters is that there is no correlation between commercial and artistic success. You have only to skim the bestseller lists to realize that bad books become hits all the time. I don’t mean this in a snobby way; I am all for “good bad books,” as Orwell called them, but there are of course books that are simply bad. So writing a good book is no guarantee of success, and writing a bad book is no bar to success.
There is an element of chance. As a writer — as any sort of artist, I suppose — the only thing you can do is focus on the work itself. Write the best book you possibly can, then let the chips fall where they may. In the case of Defending Jacob, while writing it I thought it was perhaps incrementally better than what came before, as you would expect of any craftsman who improves over time. But I did not — and do not — think it was a quantum leap forward. This is equally true as I look forward: I expect my work to improve steadily over the next ten or twenty books, but I know too that I will likely never have another hit like this. It’s just the chancy nature of the business.
Is becoming a writer a leap of faith?
To some extent I suppose it is, because you have to commit to learning the craft before you know what the limit of your talent will be. On the other hand, if you are a writer, you have likely felt the urge to write from a very early age. You feel a sense of fluency and comfort when expressing yourself in writing, a naturalness, and you are drawn to it. You may even have written stories or poems or journals, which sit in a drawer or on your hard drive. All of which is to say, I am not sure you actually “become” a writer at all. More likely, you are — or feel like — a writer long before you actually write anything.
Defending Jacob has been promoted as a courtroom or legal thriller. I think it is much more cerebral than that. It crosses into literary fiction. The inner struggle of a DA who is also the father of a teenage boy is central to the story. Is this why Defending Jacob appealed to such a wide spectrum of readers, you think?
I think that is one reason, certainly: it’s written in a richer style than people expect from legal thrillers, and it offers a richer reading experience. I do like to think of it as a novel that happens to involve crime, rather than a “crime novel.” The other likely piece of the novel’s success is that it strikes a universal chord. We all begin our lives in families of one kind or another, so a family drama like Defending Jacob feels intimate and “true” to readers from every demographic. The drama of parents and children is central to all our lives, and that is the real subject of Defending Jacob.
Did you find that your extensive knowledge of the workings of the criminal justice system was an advantage or was it sometimes overwhelming you during writing? Storytelling and the legal profession: is there any connection between the two?
I have always considered my time as a courtroom prosecutor an enormous advantage to me. It gave me a deep understanding of that world — its procedures, its argot, its little idiosyncrasies — that no amount of research could match. If there is a sense of authenticity about my books, it is a direct result of my time as an assistant DA.
As for storytelling and the legal profession, yes, I think there is a clear connection. When you are before the jury, the better story is likely to win, so the better storyteller has an advantage. There is some discussion of this issue in the book, when Andy Barber, the veteran courtroom prosecutor, talks about the “story of the case,” the narrative that each lawyer will try to sell the jury as the likeliest explanation for the various pieces of evidence. Trial lawyers are storytellers — with an occasional, unfortunate storyteller’s gift for fictionalizing.
Andy Barber, the narrator and protagonist of Defending Jacob, is a tragic actor in that he’s torn between his quest for the truth and his love for his son. Where did you draw your material to create his character?
There is a lot of me in Andy Barber, honestly, for better and worse. I think of him as the lawyer I might have become if I’d stuck with criminal law for an entire career. Certainly there are many older, admired, wise prosecutors in the criminal justice system. It is a type you tend to see over and over. For younger lawyers like I was, they are the models to emulate.
Defending Jacob is a structurally complex story. What is your writing process? Do you know the end of the story before the story is written? How much did the story change during the editing process?
I am a fanatical outliner and planner. It is difficult — impossible, really — to construct complex stories without a good deal of forethought and planning. But then, inevitably the story begins to wriggle under the writer’s hand, and it becomes necessary to update the outline constantly to fit it to the evolving manuscript. That is a good thing; it means the story is growing and alive. A story is not a building or a bridge — it can’t be engineered and built to a precise blueprint. So a novelist has to both plan in advance and improvise in the moment.
In the case of Defending Jacob, I did know the ending I was working toward, but the ending in the final version is not the ending I had envisioned. In fact, the original manuscript that I submitted had a quite different ending. “The best laid plans…”
What next? Defending Jacob the movie?
Well, for me, I am back to writing my next novel. I am desperately far behind schedule. It generally takes me a long time to get started on a new book. What readers often do not realize is how much work is required for the novelist simply to reach page one. I am finally at the point where I have a situation and a cast of characters in mind so I can begin writing, which is very good news after several bleak months of struggling to bring the story into focus.
But yes, there is a film version of Defending Jacob in the works. Of course, film projects are always precarious, and no one should count on there being a movie of Defending Jacob until they are actually sitting in the theater watching it. But, having said that, I am very excited. The movie will be written and directed by Steve Kloves, who scripted most of the Harry Potter movies and is a wonderful, talented guy. I can’t wait to see what he makes of my book.
Defending Jacob UK hardcover – Publisher Orion