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Year End Review: Defending Bill, An Interview with William Landay

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite posts from the past year!

When you ask folks in the crime fiction community about Defending Jacob, William Landay’s new legal thriller, you better be holding a small brown paper bag – because they’re going to start hyperventilating when they talk about how good it is. Before it ever hit the shelves, it had already garnered a stunning list of blurbs, a blinding assortment of starred reviews and no shortage of industry buzz.

Since then it’s become as much of a commercial success as it was a critical one. At a time when the self-publishing evangelists are questioning whether conventional publishing is still capable of breaking out a new author, Defending Jacob has become a loud argument for the power of the Big Six. Landay’s book has set up shop on the New York Times Bestseller List, having spent the last eight weeks (and counting) there, going as high as No. 4.

Bill and I recently sat down – or at least I presume he was sitting while he wrote his half of this exchange – for a virtual chat…

You and I first met at Bouchercon last year. And I’ll admit there was nothing that impressive about you. You’re self-effacing. You’re a nice guy (especially for an ex-lawyer). You have a little bit of a beaten-down air about you. And you have a worse haircut than I do (which is saying something). I knew that an Advance Review Copy of your book, Defending Jacob, had been included in everyone’s goody bag and was already starting to get some buzz. But, frankly, I didn’t think much of you. Then I read your book and, in a word: Wow. So I guess my first question is: Will you ever forgive me for not being properly deferential to you, Mr. Landay?

It will take a lot of genuflecting, but I’m willing to consider it.

Actually, this is the great thing about writing. Only the books matter. The author’s personality will only take him so far. Yes, it probably helps to be a showman like Dickens or a self-promoter like Mailer or an egomaniac like … well, lots of writers. But you can be a recluse, too, like Dickinson, Salinger or Pynchon. In the end, you’ll be judged by the quality of your work and nothing else. That’s a comforting thought to an unimpressive, self-effacing, beaten-down sort of guy like me. (But please, a word in my barber’s defense: that’s not a bad haircut; it’s bad hair.)

I realize I’m going out of order here, but I have to ask about Defending Jacob’s ending first. It is, without exaggeration, one of the best Holy Shit endings of all time. Without giving anything away, at what point during the writing did you know that was how the book was going to end?

Not until the very end of the writing process. I love Holy shit! endings, but they’re very difficult to achieve in novels because you have to manipulate the audience while not losing their trust. That is, you have to hide relevant facts but never lie — a very fine line. The best Holy shit! endings work because they are utterly fair. I read a novel recently (which I won’t name) that had a surprise ending that, to me, felt like a cheat. The author had simply misrepresented some very important facts in the story, then, at the end, she announced “what I said before wasn’t true.” The effect on me was not the pleasure of a surprise ending. It was a book thrown across the room.

Anyway, the first manuscript of Defending Jacob that I submitted actually had a different ending. What followed was a very long discussion about how the story could end in a way that was both big enough to be dramatically satisfying yet small enough to be credible for the ordinary people who populate the book (so: no car chases, fist fights, gun battles, etc.).

Beyond that, I think we ought to keep our mouths shut, because even without spoilers, all the talk about Holy shit! endings puts readers on alert: Look out, there’s a Holy Shit! ending coming. And of course that undermines the effect.

I was talking to my agent, Dan Conaway of Writers’ House, about you the other day. And he – like a lot of people, I think – assumed Defending Jacob was your first book. In fact, it’s your third. And it’s not like the first two were flops: Mission Flats won the Dagger Award as best debut crime novel of 2003 and The Strangler was nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award as best crime novel of 2007. But, obviously, they didn’t break out and get you the kind of attention Defending Jacob is. What about Jacob made it pop? Do you think you’ve just gotten better as a writer or is there something about Jacob in particular that’s connected with people?

Probably it’s a little of both. No doubt I am getting a little better with each book. At least that’s what I like to think. But it’s incremental progress. I don’t think Defending Jacob is such a quantum leap in quality from my previous work. Also, I hope — and expect — that I will continue to get better for the next 20 or 30 years. Otherwise, why bother?

So the bigger part of Defending Jacob’s success has probably been the subject matter, which has a broader appeal. My first two books were easy to categorize as “crime novels.” I have no problem with that label, but the fact is a lot of mainstream readers simply won’t even consider them. You could call Defending Jacob a crime novel, too, but you could just as easily call it a family drama. That opens up a much wider potential audience for it.

My publisher, Random House, did a terrific job of squaring that circle in the way they packaged and promoted the book. The cover art, for example, suggests the sort of mainstream domestic drama that Oprah used to promote, but it also includes a fingerprint to signal to readers of crime, mystery or suspense that there is something here for them, too. It’s a very difficult message for an advertiser to get across, because these are such different audiences, with very different tastes.

I am fully aware, too, that there is a lot of luck involved. There are lots of good books out there with broadly appealing subjects, well written, well promoted by their publishers — and still they never find the audience they deserve. In a market as crowded as publishing, that’s bound to happen. It’s just hard to make yourself heard above all the shouting. So I consider myself damn lucky to have a book succeed as this one has. And, as an eternal pessimist, I am absolutely sure it will all come to a screeching halt at any moment.

Following up on that last question… 2003… 2007… 2012… I think I speak for legions of your new fans when I ask: Dude, can’t you write any faster??

This one kills me. It’s completely true: it’s been too long between books. The problem has not been that it takes so long to write each book, the problem has been projects that I began but never completed, forcing me to go back to square one after investing a lot of time. Obviously that is every writer’s nightmare. You don’t get paid for abandoned manuscripts. And the market will punish you for disappearing for long stretches, as I have.

On the other hand, I didn’t get into this to be a fast writer. I went into it to be a good one, or at least the best my talent would allow. I don’t mean to sound grandiose, so let’s put it another way: If you write a crappy book, readers aren’t likely to forgive you because you pushed it out quickly. No reader ever said, “This guy writes crap, but at least he writes it fast!” (It’s like the old Woody Allen joke about the restaurant where the food is terrible: “Yeah, and the portions are so small.”)

Of course, it’s not an either/or proposition. You have to be good and fast. I’ll get faster. I promise. (And better, too. Stick with me.)

So, yeah, I’m jumping around. Sue me. (Oh, wait, you can’t… you’re not practicing as a lawyer anymore. Ha!). But when you got that blurb from Joe Finder: “A novel like this comes along maybe once a decade.” (And, by the way, he’s not exaggerating). Your reaction – other than to write a check to Joe’s favorite charity – was… what?

I changed my undershorts. Immediately.

Actually, I don’t really know how to respond to a statement like Joe’s. It’s very, very flattering, obviously, and I’m very, very grateful. (Thanks, Joe.) At the same time, every writer is horribly aware of the weaknesses in his own work, the limitations of his talent, the sentences or entire scenes that just didn’t seem to work for whatever reason. So I tend not to think in terms of once-a-decade books. I sort of believe that every artwork fails in some ways. It’s just the nature of art. There are no Nadia Comaneci’s in novel-writing — no perfect tens. We try, all of us, to write the best book we can, and inevitably we produce imperfect books, and we just move on because that’s the nature of the work. I like Becket’s phrase: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” To me, that’s the key for all of us: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

I know you’re far too humble to say it, so I will: Defending Jacob is a very special book. If we can put your natural humility aside for a moment, was there a point – during the writing, during the revision, after you had finally turned in the last draft, perhaps? – that you knew you had something special in Jacob? Or has this all taken you by surprise?

I never felt it was special. Still don’t. This whole thing continues to take me by surprise every day. In fact I’ve been struggling along with my next book in my usual left-handed way, so there is this weird split between the struggle to write the next book and the ecstatic response to the last one.

I wonder if any writer is able to judge his own books accurately. We spend so long staring at them, wrestling with them.

The other thing is, when I finish a book, a weird sort of amnesia descends on me. I just sort of lose interest in the finished book, and I immediately become obsessed with the next one. Which is a good thing, I suppose. I read once that John O’Hara used to take down his own published books off the shelves and begin rewriting them. He couldn’t help himself. I have the opposite problem: I can’t seem to stay interested once they’re done.

You did an interview on AuthorMagazine in which you were asked to complete the sentence, “If writing has taught me anything, it has taught me…” and you completed the sentence “… not to compromise.” Expand and expound, please.

Just what I said earlier: The great thing about writing is it gives you the chance to accomplish something truly great. That sounds like a cliché but if you think about it, most people never get that chance. They go to work, they do their job well or not so well, and they collect a paycheck. But no sane person would ever take up novel-writing for the paycheck. It’s just a bad deal in most cases — too little pay for too demanding work. The job only makes sense if you are in it for other reasons: for the chance to do the work itself. So why compromise? Why settle for writing books you aren’t proud of, books that aren’t the very best you’re capable of? I don’t mean to be too highfalutin about this. There are bills to pay and deadlines to meet — there are lots of things that keep us from trying to write our magnum opus every time out. And every writer defines greatness her own way, of course. I get that. But generally speaking, why not go for it?

I think of it this way: My last name starts with L. That means my books are going to be shelved next to le Carré and Lehane and Elmore Leonard and Stieg frickin’ Larsson. Do I want to be judged by that standard? No, honestly. But too bad, because that’s precisely the choice a reader faces when she comes into the bookstore: should I pick Landay’s book or one of these other guys’? (Yeah, yeah, gals too. Just go with it.) That’s what it’s all about. To be a writer is to choose to be judged by those standards, to compete not with the shlub in the next cubicle, but with the handful of the very best in your profession, ever. (I say ever because dead authors’ books remain in the bookstores, a regrettable fact for the living ones.) That’s a privilege. It sucks sometimes, but it’s a privilege.

(For the record, Mr. Parks, other authors shelved under the letter P: Palahniuk, Robert Parker, Patterson, Richard Price… Hah! Good luck sleeping tonight.)

Yeah, some of them are okay. But I don’t think that Patterson fellow will ever amount to much – not commercial enough… Anyhow, this is a little bit of an Inside Baseball question, but you do happen to work with a pretty incredible editor in Kate Miciak over at Ballantine-Bantam-Dell. So I’m going to give you a chance to suck up to her: How much did she help to shape Defending Jacob?

Not at all! Listen, Kate has been riding my coattails for years now, and it’s about time someone called her out.

Wait, you’re actually going to publish this? You’ll delete that last line, won’t you? Parks! Won’t you?!?

Absolutely. I got your back, pal. It’ll never see the light of day…

All kidding aside, it’s a privilege to be edited by Kate. Her job, as she has explained it to me, is to give her writers whatever they need to do their best work. Sounds simple enough until you think about the range of skills required. Not just the “real” editing work of critiquing and marking up manuscripts, though she’s obviously very good at that. It also means giving the writer time and space to work — insulating the writer from whatever heat Kate herself is getting from her superiors when a deadline is missed. It means managing the writer’s [cough] twitchy personality, which may require a hug or a kick in the pants, or a hug and a kick in the pants (kick first, usually). It means advocating for the author in sales meetings or pushing the Art Department for a better dust jacket or wheedling just a little bit higher advance out of the publisher. It means fighting and cajoling and negotiating and endless, tireless hard work — and Kate is a master of it all. So much so that all I have to do is write. Which is all any writer could ask for.

In the case of Defending Jacob, Kate was involved at every stage of the project from the concept to long discussions of that Holy shit! ending to promoting it after publication. I can’t think of an aspect of the book she wasn’t involved in, one way or another. At the same time, I am pretty secretive when I’m writing. I tend to go off and work in silence for months at a time. Kate let me get away with that, too, though she must have been wearing body armor as her superiors kept asking when the damn thing would be finished.

There’s obviously some of William Landay in Andy Barber, the protagonist, inasmuch as you were both prosecutors. But in what way is William Landay most in this book? (And William Landay doesn’t have to answer this question in the third person, unless William Landay would like to.)

William Landay will be happy to answer in the first person.

Look, every character is filtered through the author’s sensibility, so there are parts of me in all of them, including Jacob. With that said, I think you hear my voice in Andy quite a bit. My thoughts about prosecuting crime, about the courts, about raising kids and living in the suburbs — there is a lot of me in what Andy thinks. But there is also a tone in Andy’s speech, a way of thinking and speaking that people who know me find awfully familiar when Andy Barber speaks. That is probably the most intimate thing I could give Andy: my own voice.

I know you’re a tough-guy former prosecutor. And I’m a tough-guy former journalist. So we don’t let things like feelings get to us, because we’re men, dammit, but… okay, I’m also a dad. You are, too. And, I admit, there were some points while reading Defending Jacob, particularly when it delves into the father-son dynamic, when I found myself getting choked up. Did you cry while writing it or am I just a big sissy?

You are a big sissy.

Oh, alright, dammit, there was one part when I got a little teary while writing, but I was very, very tired and really they were just sniffles — and sometime too much testosterone can cause that, you know. It was the scene where the family fantasizes about Jacob running away to live in hiding in Argentina. And I might have had a cold, that’s all, so my eyes were watering and my nose was running. I swear.

Yeah. Sure. And mine was an allergy attack… Okay, finishing off, I have to ask the question every writer hates: What’s next?

Can’t say. And by “can’t,” I mean “won’t.” Only because these things evolve and morph so much as you write them. Any synopsis I give you today will be totally inaccurate by next Tuesday. Suffice it to say, it’s in the same ballpark as Defending Jacob, an ordinary suburban family confronting the eruption of violence into their peaceful lives. Beyond that, you’ll need a waterboard to get anything out of me.

Luckily, I think they still have surplus waterboards left over from the Bush Administration… bidding for one on E-Bay now…

William Landay is the author of the novels Mission Flats and The Strangler. The first won the Dagger Award as best debut crime novel. The second was nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award as best crime novel of the year. His third novel, Defending Jacob, was published January 31, 2012.

Brad Parks is the author of the Shamus- and Nero-Award-winning Carter Ross series. The most recent, The Girl Next Door, received starred reviews from Booklist and Shelf Awareness and reached No. 4 on Baker & Taylor’s Mystery Bestseller List.