As a parent, you would do anything for your children. But what if your 14-year-old son was accused of murder, to what lengths would you go to prove his innocence?
Laurie and Andy Barber, the central characters in William Landay’s third novel, “Defending Jacob,” are forced to consider this question when their son is denounced as a suspect in the slaying of a classmate. Andy, an assistant district attorney, must see through the cloud of his emotions and straight to the facts of a case that has rocked his quiet suburb. His devotion to Jacob’s innocence is tested under the extreme pressure of a floundering marriage, convincing evidence and sheer uncertainty. As if that isn’t jarring enough, a family secret reveals that the accusations might not be so outlandish.
In his thrilling and unpredictable novel, William uses his expert eye to steer the reader through the ups and downs of parenthood and the court system. Below, the author offers insight into how his experience in the courtroom informed the compelling narrative.
How did your experience as an Assistant District Attorney influence this book? There is no doubt my years as an Assistant DA informed the writing of “Defending Jacob,” but only in a general way. I never write about real cases, at least not directly. What I drew on from those years is a familiarity and comfort in describing the criminal justice system, a fluency in the language of cops and lawyers. When people respond to the book’s sense of authenticity, it’s that deep experience they’re sensing.
What goes into the art of crafting a crime novel?
The same things that go into crafting any novel, I suppose. All novels need to entertain the reader – not just crime, suspense or mystery novels. The basic bargain between writer and reader is this: You give me eight or ten hours of your time, and I will give you a reason to keep turning the pages. If a writer ignores that obligation, the reader is within their rights to put down the book. I think the emphasis on storytelling that is associated with crime novels—on telling a story that is taut, suspenseful, complex, surprising, entertaining—is something every book ought to offer. As a reader, it’s something I always look for.
Why does this story hit home for readers?
I hope none of my readers will ever be in the position that Laurie and Andy Barber find themselves in, with a child accused of murder. But most parents know the helpless feeling of being shut out of a teenager’s life and thoughts. And of course the readers who are not parents have been children, they understand what it’s like to feel misunderstood. The truth is, what the Barbers go through is not entirely different from what every family goes through; the Barbers’ troubles are just much, much bigger.
In this book, you dive into the science of criminology, what type of research did you conduct?
As little as possible, honestly. The science is fascinating, and there’s a good deal of it in “Defending Jacob,” but I did not want the science to take over the book. It is very interesting to write about human behavior—about why we humans do what we do—because we are finally beginning to unravel the science of it. As interesting as that is, in the end it is not what “Defending Jacob” is about. The novel is about people, about families. The science, like the legal aspects of the book, is there only to support the drama.
What do you want readers to take away from this novel?
I would never tell a reader what they ought to think, about my book or any book. A novel is like sheet music: The story is coded there in 300 pages of squiggly black lines, and it is up to the reader to pick those words up off the page and “play” them—to tell the story and imagine it in their own head. The result is that every reader’s experience of a book will be different. I’ll leave it up to A Bullseye View readers to decide for themselves!
What is your favorite genre to read?
Not suspenseful crime novels, oddly enough. I tend to read mainstream fiction, both old and new. I don’t usually read within any genre; I get bored too quickly. You read differently when you are a writer. You’re also aware that what you read will inevitably influence what you write. So you choose your books carefully, just as an athlete chooses his dinner carefully — no junk food allowed. Not while you’re working, anyway.
“Defending Jacob” was optioned for a movie. Any developments you can share with us?
I will not be writing the screenplay—that is being done by wonderful screenwriter Steve Kloves, whose credentials and talent far exceed my own. He scripted some of the “Harry Potter” films, and was nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel “The Wonder Boys.” I know he will do an amazing job on this. As for news, all I can say is that the work is ongoing, and everything looks good at this point. I am very optimistic.
This is your third novel. Are there plans for a fourth?
Of course! I’m working on it right now. In fact, there are plans for a fifth and a sixth and a twentieth. I’m just getting started!
Thanks to everyone at Target—the guests not least of all—for making “Defending Jacob” this month’s book club pick. I am very grateful. And if you’ve read the book, feel free to drop me an email, and let me know what you think. Just remember, as the old joke goes: I can take any criticism at all, as long as it is unqualified praise.