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Q&A with Bestselling Author William Landay '90

ebrief feature

William Landay, Defending Jacob
William Landay, class of 1990,
author of the bestselling novel Defending Jacob

eBrief Summer 2012 Features

Law Day Slideshow

Commencement 2012: Video


We often hear about writers taking liberties with the legal process in order to create a better story. You’ve practiced law yourself. How do you juggle the realities of the law and the courtroom versus the way you might need to shape the novel for the highest dramatic purpose?

I have a pretty simple rule: it is better to be credible than authentic. By that I mean, it is more important to to tell a good story than a perfectly accurate one. As a storyteller, my first responsibility is to entertain my readers, to keep them turning the pages. Part of that, it’s true, is creating a setting, a fictional world, that feels true, that seems real. But what seems real on the page is a very different thing from an actual, faithful description of the real world. I’ll give you a favorite example: Until John le Carré wrote about “moles” and “honeypots” and “lamplighters,” the terms did not exist. But soon enough, real spies started using those terms, imitating le Carré. It turned out, the fictional world of his spy novels was more “real” — more convincing, more authentic- feeling — than reality, and now those terms are in common use by spies and spy-novelists alike. The same thing happened with Mario Puzo’s descriptions of the mob. Phrases like “going to the mattresses” and “an offer he couldn’t refuse,” both of which Puzo invented for The Godfather, were so good that real mobsters began using them too. So authenticity and reality are two different things. As an author, only the first matters. Story trumps fact. The trick is to falsify in a way that makes it seem more real.

This seems like a more intimate novel in many ways — first person POV, a D.A. as the main character, the setting in Newton. You’ve expressed before that you feel it’s important for the author to remain “off-stage.” Were you able to keep enough distance from this book? Or did you let more of yourself in than you have in previous novels?

It’s funny, relative to my first two books, Defending Jacob does seem much closer to my real life — the narrator who lives in Newton, has a son, works as a prosecutor in Middlesex county. And in some details, I did borrow even very small, intimate things from my life, as all novelists do. But the truth is, to me, Defending Jacob didn’t feel any more intimate than the others. That’s just how novel-writing works, for me at least. When I am writing, I am always aware of how artificial a creation my novel really is. I am always aware that I am making it up sentence by sentence — I am fabricating in both senses. I have never had the experience that some writers talk about, where the characters magically spring to life and the writer has only to watch them and write down the things they do and say. My own novels never come to life that way, not for me anyway. I am too aware of the process. Too self-conscious. I can see all the rivets and the glue and the Scotch tape holding it together. So, yes, I am in Defending Jacob, but no more or less than I am in the others. They’re all me and they’re all not me. (How’s that for an evasive answer?)

Cold Spring Park is less than two miles away from BC Law’s campus. Did you give any thought to setting any of the scenes at the law school?

No, but if I’d thought of it at the time...

What, to you, is the saddest moment in the book?

There is a scene near the end where Jacob and his parents, anticipating that the teenage boy will be convicted of murder, fantasize about him running away to live in hiding in Argentina. They dream up a whole parallel life for him, knowing it is all impossible, that Jacob will never be able to escape the murder charge. I actually got a little weepy while writing that one. I have two sons, boys aged 8 and 11, so the stuff that touches on the father-son relationship always hits me hard.

The ending of the novel has generated some controversy. Did you know how Defending Jacob would end when you began writing? If not, when did you think of it?

I actually submitted a first draft with a different ending, so it was very late in the process when I settled on the current ending. It’s hard to talk about the ending without giving too much away. So I won’t.

What parts were the hardest to write: courtroom scenes, police procedure, family dynamics (father-son scenes, husband-wife scenes)?

It’s all hard, honestly. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive, but none of this ever feels easy to me. Writing is always hard, even when it’s going well. The courtroom stuff is marginally easier because I chose to write it as mostly dialogue, which is a more impressionistic, free-form sort of writing. But it’s all damn hard. And you never get any better at it. I’ve been doing this for many years now and I’ve written a hell of a lot more than I’ve published — but it never seems to get any easier. I never seem to get any smarter. Every time I sit down in front of a blank page (more accurately, a blank computer screen), I feel like an absolute beginner.

How did you get inside teen culture to capture their attitudes and nonchalance so perfectly?

Well, I used to be one. A long time ago, but still...

What was the seed for this story — your “what if” moment? How long was it germinating before you started writing?

Actually there was no “Eureka!” moment. Most of my novels evolve slowly and fitfully. There were a few ideas, a few real- world cases that got stirred into the pot, but there was never a moment when the light bulb clicked on and I said, “That’s it! I’ll write a novel about a boy accused of murder.” I’m much too tentative and self-doubting for that.

There’s a particular idea in the novel that has to do with genetics and the “nature v. nurture” debate. Have you ever handled a case that involved something like this? What kind of law currently exists in this area?

No, I never handled anything like it. Very few American lawyers have. Genomics in general and particularly the aspect of “behavioral genetics” that comes up in the book — the suggestion that certain genetic mutations might be linked to a predisposition to violence — is a very new and fast-developing science. The idea that defendants might use their own genetic “hard-wiring” as a defense to a crime — to argue that they are not guilty, or less guilty, because they were born with a violent streak — is rare and has not met with much success in this country yet. But it has come up in a few cases, and as we continue to study the intersection of law and neuroscience, it is likely to crop up more. In Italy in 2009 a first-degree murderer did see his sentenced his reduced on appeal when he successfully argued that he carried a particular genetic mutation which has been associated with violence. It is a plausible argument, and for a novelist an interesting one. After all, we’ve been talking about “nature vs. nurture” for a very long time. Now, for the first time, we are beginning to understand how the nature side of the equation might work.

Defending Jacob has done incredibly well, landing on the bestseller lists for weeks running. What were your own personal expectations for the novel? Has it exceeded them? In your opinion, what has made this book resonate so well with so many readers?

Oh, it’s exceeded my expectations by a country mile. My first two books were well reviewed but did not sell much. To go from futility to the sort of success Defending Jacob has had — as I write this, Jacob is in its 18th week on the Times bestseller list, has been optioned for a movie, and is already in its tenth printing — is just surreal. My publisher was anticipating that it might be a Big Book as early as last summer, but honestly I never believed it.

As for why it’s resonated with readers, I think it probably has something to do with the fact that the family at the center of the story is an ordinary, relatable family. But that’s true of a lot of books that bomb, too. So who knows? Like most entertainment businesses, there’s no real way to know what is going to hit or miss. It’s like William Goldman said about the movie business: “Nobody knows anything.” Amen.