I don’t know that there is ever a single moment of lightning-bolt inspiration for a novel, at least for a novel of any complexity. Usually the writing process involves the slow, methodical development of a story from a minuscule idea, like the grain of sand that, at length, becomes a pearl. That is how my own books tend to start, anyway.
In that spirit, here are a few of the little inspirations that led to Defending Jacob, the story of a man whose teenage son is accused of murder.
(1) I read a story once about a Long Island detective who was the son of a convicted murderer. This detective was a strict law-and-order man, but his own son was subsequently accused of murder, just as the detective’s father had been. The story was told in a famous Esquire magazine article by the New York crime reporter Mike McAlary. It later became the basis of a movie called “City by the Sea,” which starred Robert De Niro and a very young James Franco. That story, which was published in 1997, long before the birth of “behavioral genetics,” was the first time I ever heard the phrase “the murder gene,” a haunting idea, if not a scientifically accurate name.
(2) Before turning to writing, I was an assistant D.A., and my primary interest as a writer has always been in the human drama of crime stories. My first two novels were set squarely in the world of street crime. They are peopled with cops and criminals. All of which resulted in me being labeled a “crime writer.” The term never really fit. I always thought I was writing novels that happened to involve crime, rather than “crime novels.”
In any case, as time went on — I have been writing full-time about ten years now — my life became more about kids and family. I have two little boys, ages 8 and 10 now. Nowadays I’m more likely to be watching a Saturday soccer game than a criminal trial. So it was natural that I would want to combine these two strands in my life, the criminal justice system and the quieter life of raising kids in the suburbs. The result was Defending Jacob, a novel about a prosecutor and suburban Everydad whose son is accused of a murder.
(3) Inevitably, every book — every artwork of any kind, for that matter — is inspired by other artworks. Harold Bloom wrote about “the anxiety of influence,” but, as every honest author will tell you, it is really the ecstasy of influence: the feeling of enjoying a book or movie so much that you say, “I want to create something that good, a story that gives people as much pleasure as that one gave me.”
In this case there were so many artistic inspirations that it’s hard even to remember them all. There is Presumed Innocent, of course, the ur-legal thriller, the book that revived a moribund genre and showed us all how it’s done. And of course To Kill a Mockingbird, the greatest courtroom drama of them all — and written by a non-lawyer to boot (though Harper Lee’s father was an attorney and the model for Atticus Finch). Throw in the Paul Newman movie The Verdict, as well, as a model of how to depict the grubby everyday reality of practicing law. There are the twisty stories that rely on a storyteller within the story and therefore add an element of slipperiness into the narration: The Usual Suspects and No Way Out. I have always loved puzzle-within-a-puzzle stories like that because they surprise and challenge the audience.
I am sure there are other stories that inspired this one, too. Too many to name, but to all of them I am indebted, as some author someday will be indebted to me, I hope.
(4) There were so many people I met and stories I ran across during my time as a prosecutor. I always feel, after every book, that I have used up my supply of these stories and I’ll have to get out there and do some original research, finally. But looking back on Defending Jacob, I see how much of my experience seeped into it. Characters who borrow aspects of real people. The grungy courthouse where I used to work. Little stories and phrases from the old days. The story is fiction, of course, and the characters are invented. But every invention takes off from some basis in experience. I am sure there is more of the real world in Defending Jacob than I like to believe.
About The Author:
William Landay is the author of The Strangler, a Los Angeles Times Favorite Crime Book of the Year, and Mission Flats, winner of the Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for Best First Crime Novel and a Barry Award nominee. A former district attorney who holds degrees from Yale and Boston College Law School, Landay lives in Boston, where he is at work on his next novel of suspense.
BUY THE BOOK: Defending Jacob
Book Description: Defending Jacob
Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney in his suburban Massachusetts county for more than twenty years. He is respected in his community, tenacious in the courtroom, and happy at home with his wife, Laurie, and son, Jacob. But when a shocking crime shatters their New England town, Andy is blindsided by what happens next. His fourteen-year-old son is charged with the murder of a fellow student.
Every parental instinct Andy has rallies to protect his boy. Jacob insists that he is innocent, and Andy believes him. Andy must. He's his father. But as damning facts and shocking revelations surface, as a marriage threatens to crumble and the trial intensifies, as the crisis reveals how little a father knows about his son, Andy will face a trial of his own - between loyalty and justice, between truth and allegation, between a past he's tried to bury and a future he cannot conceive.
Award-winning author William Landay has written the consummate novel of an embattled family in crisis - a suspenseful, character-driven mystery that is also a spellbinding tale of guilt, betrayal, and the terrifying speed at which our lives can spin out of control.