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Defending Jacob (TV Tie-in Edition) Reader’s Guide

By William Landay

Defending Jacob (TV Tie-in Edition) by William Landay


A Conversation with William Landay

Random House Readers Circle: What was the  seed of this novel? What drove you to write it? When did you first realize that this was the story you wanted to tell?

William Landay:
There was no single “seed,” honestly. I have never been the visionary sort of writer who  conceives an entire  novel  in a lightning flash of inspiration. I am more  of a  plodder,  an  experimenter. I develop my ideas slowly, by trial and error, teasing them out in draft after draft. It is a slow, tentative process, and it is filled with worry because  I am never quite  sure what   I’m after.  That is how Defending Jacob was born.

To understand where the book came from, it helps to understand where I was at the time.  I had written two novels that were tradi- tional crime stories in the sense that they were set in the street-corner world of cops and hoods. I had been an assistant DA for most of the 1990s, and crime fascinated me. I felt that,  as a writer, I had found my subject. But by the time I began to imagine Defending Jacob, I was thinking of crime in a different   way—and   thinking of crime novels in a different  way  too. By then, I had left the DA’s office to become  a full-time writer, and I had started  my own family. Crime had been an everyday  reality when I was  a courtroom prosecutor; now it was just a memory,  an abstract idea, the stuff I made stories out of. As I thought  about crime  now, from the perspective  of a writer and a young  father, it seemed to me that the questions  that haunt us as parents were not so different from the questions  that animate criminal law: Why do people do what they do? How do we encourage good behavior  and punish bad? How do we understand one another?  How, for example,  do we respond  to the fact  that good  people  do bad  things, or that good  people  are  victimized? Above all, what does crime tell us about ourselves?  That last question, of course, is the reason crime has always fascinated storytellers and audiences: we read (and watch) crime stories not for what they tell us about criminals, but for what they tell us about ourselves. The criminal we read about is us—at  least, he is a little, wicked part of us, all of us.

RHRC: How do you  feel about the concept of the “murder  gene”?

I think it is fashionable now to use DNA as an explanation  for all sorts of behaviors. Genomics is a new  and fast-developing—and seductive—science,  and we tend to think of it in an overly determinative way, as if it explains  everything about us. But we humans are unfathomably complex. None of us is simply our DNA. So I think we have to be careful  when  we encounter  a new idea and a new science like behavioral genetics. We have to be careful  about terms  like “murder gene” and “warrior  gene,”  lest we think of these things, inaccurately,  as simple triggers. The truth is, we are  still  talking about a gene-environment interaction,  still talking  about nature versus nurture,  as we always have. The difference is that now we have a window  into the “nature” side  of the equation.
In some ways, the effect of our physical construction—the chemicals and electrical impulses, the bones and meat we are made of—on our behavior  and character is  a revolutionary idea, a completely new way to think about ourselves.  But in other ways, it is merely  a very old idea that has simply been detailed  a bit by science. We have always understood that we all have certain innate, “hardwired” tendencies and temperaments;  now we understand  the precise mecha- nisms of that physical hard wiring a  little better.  The interesting question for readers  and novelists is what this new  science means.

How should we think about ourselves in light of these new discoveries? What should  society do with the knowledge that some of our neighbors  bear genes predisposing  them to violence or disease or a thousand other human traits? These are rich topics for novelists.

RHRC: Which character in Defending Jacob do you identify with most strongly? Who is your least favorite character?

WL:  The truth is that all the main characters are fragments of myself. We are all many things in the course of our lives, and at various times I have been sullen  and withdrawn like Jacob, warm  and sensi- tive like Laurie, steely and loyal like Andy. When you write a novel, at least a novel as deeply felt as Defending Jacob was to me, you find yourself excavating all these various  aspects of your own personality. On the other  hand, I do not believe the simplistic assumption that all characters in all novels are reflections  of the novelist.  I have created many  characters  that have  felt external  to me—real and credible characters, I hope, but not reflections of me at all, not family. The Barbers  were the first  kind, the sort of characters that are slivers of me. So I find it hard to see them  with any objectivity  or distance, let alone to choose a favorite.  Maybe I will, in time.

With that said, I confess I have a soft spot for Andy, for his stead- fast devotion  to his child even  in the darkest times. Andy is  not perfect, of course. But to me,  even his flaws do him credit. Who would not want  a father  so unshakable, who would stand by you, right or wrong, right to the end?

RHRC: Do you see any of yourself in Andy?

WL:  A little bit, yes. I am stubborn  and doggedly loyal, as Andy is. And my emotions  can cloud my perceptions, though I think everyone is vulnerable to that.
But I can’t quite see myself  in Andy  because I see so many others in him too. When I was a young  lawyer,  there were several older, respected prosecutors   like Andy Barber who were role models for the younger lawyers  coming up. At least they ought to have been. Andy is an amalgam of those older lawyers  whom I admired as a young man. He is the prosecutor  I might  have become if I’d stuck with it for an entire career. I like to think so, at least.

RHRC: What has been the most  surprising aspect of the huge reader response to Defending Jacob?

WL:  Well, to borrow your word,  the sheer hugeness of it. I am still stunned. No writer would  dare imagine that sort of commercial success. No sane writer, anyway. The odds are so long. So many things have to go right, including  a good deal of luck. It is humbling.

I have also  been amazed at the intensity of readers’ reactions. Even now, more  than  a year  after the book was published, I get  email every day from readers who tell me how deeply moved they were by Defending Jacob. Most write to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. A few write because they  are outraged  at Laurie’s or Andy’s behavior—which is to say, they are outraged at me for making them misbehave this way. But for good and bad, the emails  keep pouring in, often beginning with “I have never  written to an author  before, but I just had to tell you . . .”

It has  been a wonderful,  bewildering experience to see my book hit a nerve that way. Writing is a lonely  business.  A writer’s days are filled with silence and solitude   (if he’s  doing it  right). Inside that bubble, while writing, it is easy to believe that the book is a purely private  experience, written only for the writer himself. It  sounds silly,  but you can forget  that other  people will  actually  read your story, let alone that  they might  be deeply touched by it. Books are essentially   a private  medium,  for both the artist and  audience— imagined  by a writer in a lonely  room,  then reimagined by a reader in the quiet of her own thoughts. The public life of books—the brief moment when they show up in book reviews (for those lucky enough to be reviewed), bookstores   (increasingly   rare), or advertisements (rarer still)—has more to do with bookselling  than reading. A book’s essential purpose is to be opened  by a single  reader and read in silence, to slip into her thoughts quietly. So it has been shocking— I don’t  know what  else to call it—to see my book  become such  a public hit. I am very, very grateful for it, for all the readers who have enjoyed the book and written  to let me know. I would like to thank every last one of them, if I could.

RHRC: What are the one or two things readers  have said to you about Defending Jacob that you treasure most?

WL:  The other day, I heard from a woman  whose  teenage son was convicted of murder. The boy served eight and a half years in prison, then took his own life. This  grieving mother wrote to tell me that Defending Jacob had actually  helped her to process what  she had been through,  that the book captured her own feelings and experiences accurately  (“spot-on” was  the phrase  she used),  and that  she wanted to thank  me for writing it. As a parent, it is staggering to imagine that sort of pain. As a novelist,  it is humbling even to imagine that your book might  help someone that way.

Of course, that sort of dramatic email is rare. More often, I hear from readers with the ordinary,  everyday worries of parents: children who communicate too little, stare into their smartphones too much, and wander into all sorts of trouble. Defending Jacob seems to speak to them too.  Jacob Barber  is not so different from a lot of teenagers, really. And Laurie and Andy’s worry about  Jacob and even their fear of him are emotions every parent will recognize, if only in a small way.

RHRC: Both Andy and Laurie Barber  are strong presences in this novel. What do you find are the difficulties  in tackling  male and female characters? Is one more difficult than the other?

WL: The expected answer, I suppose, is that male authors  must find women more difficult to write, and female authors  must struggle to create men.  It is a logical assumption:  the closer one’s own experience is to any subject, the less guesswork must be required. But I am not sure it actually works that way. Personally—and  I don’t pretend to speak for other writers—I  don’t  find my female characters  any more mysterious or elusive than my male characters, at least not as a  rule. There are  difficult people to create, certainly,   but I don’t think the difficulty correlates to gender.

That must sound odd from a writer who has just written  a novel in the voice of a man  very like himself. And it is true that I have written more  male  characters  than female.  But that has mostly been  a  result of the topics I have chosen.  I have  written mostly about the worlds of cops and criminals, and these are dominated by men, still.  But I would love to center a novel  on a woman—a novel not just with a female protagonist,  but actually told from a woman’s point of view, with her sensibility and her voice. Maybe that is foolish, maybe I will  find it more difficult than I expected to write credibly from a woman’s perspective at novel length. But I think one of the worst bits of advice writers hear is “write what you know.”  If  writers  did not feel free to break  that rule and imagine worlds beyond their personal  experience, we would not have so many of our favorite stories and characters,  from Harry Potter to Humbert Humbert. Anyway, if I wanted to do things the easy way,  I probably would not have  become  a writer in the first place.

RHRC: One of the powerful  emotional arcs in this book is the evolution of Laurie and  Andy’s marriage/relationship.  Was this very complicated and intense relationship difficult to write?

WL:  It was difficult in the sense that it was painful to watch these characters suffer so. I like Andy and Laurie. They are my friends,  or would  be but for the fact they are fictional. I like them as a couple too, how they  complement  each other,  how they fit  together.  And the fact  that their lives—Andy’s  work, the town they live in, the stage of life they are in—are  so similar to mine  made their descent especially uncomfortable to watch. This  story hits literally close to home.

But the Barbers’ unraveling was not difficult to create in the sense that it was complex or technically  challenging. Writing  is an em- pathic,  instinctive thing, at  least when  you are  in the heat  of it, building your story sentence by sentence. You don’t stop to calculate which emotion logically fits in a given situation;  you just feel it, you react in real time, and you hope your instincts  are right. (And if you  get it wrong,  the fix is easy enough: throw it away and write it again. And again, and again.) So, was it hard to trace the emotional  arc of Andy and Laurie’s relationship? Yes, but hard like heartbreak, not hard like math.

RHRC: How do you want your readers to feel about Laurie?

WL:  I would  never prescribe how readers ought to feel about any- thing. That’s  their business. But I do think Laurie’s  warmth, her emotional honesty, is something Andy treasures  and sorely misses when  the couple is forced apart by Jacob’s  case. No doubt it was part of what attracted him to her in the first place. Andy’s personality is built on a secret; Laurie seems to have none. At least, she seems to believe  that keeping  secrets  like Andy’s  is  unhealthy.  Whether Andy  really  had a choice about divulging his past, whether it is Andy’s secrecy that  comes back to haunt the family, whether it would have made a difference  if Laurie’s honesty had ruled the household— all that I leave to the reader.

RHRC: If you had investigated  the case, would  you have focused on Jacob, or would  you have gone after Patz?

WL: I would  certainly  have looked into Patz. There is enough smoke there that any good investigator   would have to check it out. One thing that Andy comments  on, which was always my experience too, is that in the early  stages of an investigation  it is very hard to differentiate signal from noise—to tell which  odd-seeming facts are significant evidence and which  are just odd, irrelevant distractions. Once the investigation  fixes on Jacob, it becomes very  hard  for the detectives to see Patz  as anything but a distraction.  But that has as much to do with their own perceptional bias, their “target focus,” as it has to do with the real weight of the evidence. When  the bal- ance tips—when  the weight of evidence truly points to Jacob, if it ever does—that  is up to the reader.

RHRC: If you weren’t a writer, what profession would you choose? Would you practice law again?

  Oh, I could  go on and on. There are so many things I would truly love to do. I doubt I would  go back to practicing law. I am too conflictaverse   and  at  this  point I am  too interested  in  creating things. I would love to do something in the visual arts, in design, photography,  even filmmaking. One of the frustrations of novel-writing is that it is entirely a verbal medium.  As grand and elastic a form as the novel is, it really offers nothing to the visual imagination, to the eye. And nothing  tangible, as the advent of eBooks makes painfully  clear. Yes, a printed  book is a tangible object,  but it is not entirely the author’s own. It  is co-produced  by the publisher.  Only the words are mine.  I love technology too; maybe I would throw myself into the Next Big Thing on the internet.  I would love to start a business.  Maybe get into the shoe business,  which  is what my family has done for several generations  and which  I always  imagined I would go into when I was  a kid.

Or teach. I have always  wanted to teach English in a middle school somewhere, though I suspect I’d be  a lousy teacher (too impatient). The truth is I would need  several lifetimes  to get through all the careers I dream about, but I will never try any of them  because I al- ready have the one job that trumps  them all: writer. What  a remarkable, privileged thing to be. If I never dreamed of becoming  a writer as a kid, it is only because it would  have seemed so preposterous— like saying you were going to become an astronaut or a major-league ballplayer. There were no artists or writers in my world back then. Even now, I feel a little fraudulent  using that word to describe myself; I think of myself as just a guy  who has written a few books,  not a writer. So I consider myself damn lucky to have this job, and I intend to keep it. It is only a handful  of writers who  get to earn their living
this way. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember that.

RHRC: Does plot come first for you, or character?

WL: They come at the same time.  I’m not sure I could even separate the two as neatly as the question  implies. Plot is just character in action. Character, in the end, is what you actually do. In my books I design both plot and character to achieve whatever  effect I’m after, to suit whatever subject I’m trying to discuss. One of the pitfalls of dividing our books into genre novels  versus  “literary” novels  is that we have come to expect too little character out of the first and too little plot out of the second, leaving both poorer. A good novel needs both, of course,  and the two should be  wrapped   as tight as the strands in a rope.

RHRC: If  you had  to write Defending  Jacob  again,  would you change any of the major plot points?

I never, ever think that way. For me, when a book  is done, it’s done,  and I move on. I have heard  stories about famous  authors who would take their own published books down off the shelf and obsessively rewrite them over and over. I have never felt that urge. In my experience, as soon as I finish a manuscript,  a happy amnesia settles over me.  I can barely  recall  the details of the book, never mind  feel tempted to rewrite it.  The question of “wrong” creative  choices,  it seems to me, misperceives how stories are made. As a reader, the incidents in a book  feel inevitable. There is a chain  of events: A leads to B leads to C. The reader reacts to that chain in a binary  way: either  she approves or not. But to the writer, who  faces a blank  page (or computer screen) every day, every plot decision involves infinite possibilities. A might lead  to B, but it also might lead  to a thousand   other things. The writer chooses  because he has  to choose. The story must proceed. But he  is  never under  the illusion  that there  is  a  correct   or best choice. Every decision is contingent. Every choice involves compro- mises, tradeoffs, flaws. So he makes his bargain and he moves on.

In the  case of Defending Jacob, the ending has received  a lot of attention, understandably. But the novel  might  have ended a differ- ent way—or  ten different ways. In fact, the published novel does not end the way my original manuscript did. Is the final version better, is it the “right” ending?  There is no way to answer that question. My advice to writers: don’t look back. As Satchel Paige said, “Something may be gaining  on you.”

RHRC: Which  authors  do you admire and why?

WL:  This  is a common  question  and one I hate because my reading is so random. I tend to read whatever  catches my interest at the moment, from the current fiction lists or the classics. I have loved books by a  crazily varied list  of authors:  Austen and Dickens,  Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Larry McMurtry and E. L. Doctorow (particularly Billy  Bathgate), Bellow and  Roth and  Updike, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. On and on.
I do find it difficult to read when I’m writing, however. The part of a reader’s imagination that a good novel  occupies is the very same space that  a novelist uses to dream up his own original stories. So I often fall back on nonfiction when I am writing, lest I start stealing from someone else or, worse,  being led astray by my betters, writing their stories rather than my own.

RHRC: If you had to cite just one novel aspiring  writers should read before starting  to write their own work, what would it be?

WL:  I think the answer would  be different  for everyone. The books that inspired  me to write likely would not have the same effect on others. That is the nature of reading. Those magical, electric reading experiences—the  unforgettable  books that are  seared  into us and mark us for life—depend on so many things  besides the book itself. It happens when  the right reader opens the right book  at just the right moment in her life. It is like dating. All of us who are devoted readers have had the experience of meeting the same book twice and feeling  completely different  about it.  At eighteen,  I hated  Moby Dick;  at thirty, I was blown away by it. So it goes.

I am also  a very  slow reader, so I haven’t racked up the mile-long reading lists that other writers have. Worse, I tend to reread my fa- vorites, especially as I get older. I find I enjoy  the company of old friends like The  Great Gatsby more than the sexy new titles at the front of the bookstore.  And of course I read with a  professional’s eye now.  I try to take apart every book to see how  it works, how it was built, to see what  I can take from it.

So I would not presume to tell any aspiring writer what she ought to read. Personally,  I have loved Fitzgerald  and Hemingway,  those polestars of the tender and tough schools  of romantic writing. Roth and Bellow too. I always  have Ian McEwan nearby; when I am stuck in my own writing, I often read McEwan  just to hear the sound  of good English prose and get myself  moving  again. Works every time. I have enjoyed  the richer sort of genre stuff like Scott Turow  and John le Carré (especially A Perfect Spy), and  I’ve enjoyed Stephen King and Elmore Leonard too. I have enjoyed  a lot of “good bad books,” as George Orwell called them, pop novels like The  Godfather.  And I have  made  sure to work in a  few classics,  especially Dickens. I read screenplays,  as well, to learn about  dialogue  and how to structure  a plot. So that is my haphazard list. At least, it is the bits that come immediately to mind.  The main thing for any aspiring  author is: read. Just read. Read anything  at all that excites you. Don’t  worry about how sophisticated or impressive your list sounds. Don’t worry what people will think. If you like junk, read junk. Find a book  that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, then pull that book  apart scene by scene and figure out how the author did it. Then go do it your- self.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. How would  you have handled this situation if you were Andy?  Would you make the same choices he made? Where  would  you differ the most?

2. Before  and during the trial, how would you have handled  the situation if  you were Laurie? Do you feel she made  strong choices as a mother  and a wife?

3.  Is Andy  a good father?  Why or why not?

4. Do you  believe Jacob is guilty?

5. Is Jacob a product  of his upbringing? Do you think he is a violent person  because his environment   made him violent, or do you think he has had violent inclinations  since birth?

6. How  do you think  people  could  or  should stop adolescent bullying?

7. How much of a factor did Jacob’s age play  into your sympathies for him or lack thereof? If  Jacob were  seventeen,  would you view him differently?  What about if he were nine?

8. Do you think Neal Logiudice acts ethically in this novel? What about Andy?

9. What is the most damning  piece of evidence against  Jacob? Is there anything that you felt exonerated him?

10.  If Jacob hadn’t been accused, how do you think his life would have turned  out? What kind of a man  do you think he would grow up to be?

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