by Dylan Schaffer
Published by Bloomsbury USA
352 pages, 2004
Mystery and thriller writers have a habit of never quite looking like who they are, or what they do. These Scheherazades of literary mayhem with their warm, open-eyed, smiling faces seem, on the whole, like guys you'd want to hang around with at the local beer-and-burger palace. It's hard to imagine doing the same thing with any other group of writers -- certainly not poised, well-dressed and well-coiffed romance writers; or the grim practitioners of "serious" literary fiction; or the Best-Selling Authors with their larger-than-life personas, who can appear anything but spontaneous and approachable. No, it's the mystery guys who are the loosey-goosey, fun bunch. They spend their working hours spinning out tales of human brutality and venality in often horrible detail, but come across in person as benign and amiable. Think Michael Connelly or John Connolly. Think Robert Crais or Lee Child. Think T. Jefferson Parker. Think Eddie Muller.
Now add to that pantheon Dylan Schaffer, an appellate lawyer from Oakland, California, whose first novel, Misdemeanor Man, has won tons of favorable coverage and terrific word-of-mouth from fans all across the country. And who is in the habit of bringing fresh-baked cookies to his book-signings, to thank his fans for showing up. Cookies! Did I mention that Schaffer is sweet-natured?
And funny, to boot, though Misdemeanor Man (or MM, for short) packs some moral angst, heartbreak and bittersweet pathos along with its wacky irreverence. Set in the fictional city of Santa Rita, California -- a place suspiciously Oakland-like -- this is most definitely not your father's legal thriller. Its story builds around Gordon Seegerman, a lovable, slacker public defender and Barry Manilow devotee, who's trying to get a handle on the tilt-a-whirl that is his personal and professional life. Perfectly happy to deal with bottom-of-the-barrel misdemeanor cases -- like his current one, featuring a client who was caught exposing himself in a downtown department store -- Gordon just wants to zip through each workday as quickly as possible, so he can devote his evenings to playing gigs with his beloved band, Barry X and the Mandys. That's not too much to ask, is it? But when corruption and murder complicate his "misdo" case, events spin out of control and Gordon is caught in the middle, hoping for relief. If only his client wasn't so good at lying to him. If only his ex-girlfriend, Silvie Hernandez -- the assistant district attorney who happens to be prosecuting Gordon's flasher -- weren't now married to some other guy. If only his father, a disgraced ex-cop, weren't suffering from a particularly virulent, genetic strain of Alzheimer's. If only singer Barry Manilow would show up at the Mandys' homage gig and show his approval. If only the murder of a witness hadn't interfered with Gordon's plans. But sometimes life just has a way of kicking you in the teeth, and then all you can do is smile -- missing molars not withstanding.
The sudden acclaim for Misdemeanor Man seems to have caught the friendly, self-effacing, 40-year-old Schaffer rather off-guard. Married for the last three years to Dr. Jennifer Dykes, an Oakland internist, he's accustomed to spending his days defending "lost causes" in court. But lately he's had to shift over into self-promoting author mode. He is learning to deal with nosy interviewers who always have one question more; with Internet book lovers who have taken his fiction to heart, and aren't shy about saying so; and with the quandary of how best to divide his life between lawyering and literature. Flush with the excitement of having published one novel, with a sequel on its way, Schaffer finds himself slightly overwhelmed by the opportunities open to him as an author. He's already contemplating work on four more books -- not all of them fiction. "But," he says, "along with my law practice, I'll probably always return to fiction. There is something uniquely gratifying about being able to change someone's hair color or the number of fingers on his right hand without having to consult anyone."
After returning recently from a whirlwind week in New York City, Dylan Schaffer took some time to answer January Magazine's myriad questions about his "chaotic and insane" childhood, his choice of a career in the law, his bumpy road to the novelist's life and, of course, his longstanding love of Manilow's music.
Yvette Banek: Let's start off with an easy question. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Dylan Schaffer: I was born in East Lansing, Michigan. My dad was a professor of history at Michigan State; mom did her medical residency there too. I grew up, for the most part, in New Rochelle, New York, a suburb about 25 minutes from Manhattan.
What did your parents do when you were growing up? And are they still living?
I'm an orphan now. My dad, who lived for the past 30 years in Clemson [South Carolina], was a history professor. He died, a year ago, exactly one week after I got the contract for Misdemeanor Man; he'd been a playwright in his earlier days, and he was thrilled that he lived to see me sell a book. MM is dedicated to my father: "Alfred, Flip, and Alan," which are the names he used during different stages of his life.
My mom was Dr. Carol Schaffer, a child psychiatrist in New York. She suffered from depression her whole life and committed suicide in 1996.
I can't leave the subject of your parents without asking why your father used three names. And I understand that a memoir of his last years may be in the works.
My father was named Alfred, which he always said he hated. His friends called him Flip, either because of the way (underhanded) he shot baskets, or for a jazz trombonist he either resembled or liked, or both or neither. Correspondence to and from him, and plays he wrote before the age of 40, all refer to him as Flip Schaffer. Later, he changed his name to Alan, presumably because (a) Flip is a rather silly name and (b) he still disliked Alfred.
There is a more complicated story -- he had a difficult childhood, and was a bit of a fabulist, so his explanations and remembrances are minimally trustworthy -- but you'll have to wait for the book. So, yes, I am beginning to work on a memoir of my father's final three months, which we spent mostly together. I'm hoping to call it Making Bread With Flip: Life, Death and the Perfect Pumpernickel, but goodness only knows whether I'll be able to slip that one by any semi-conscious editor.
Tell me a bit about your growing-up years. What were the highs and lows?
I wrote a novel [in 2000], called The Kickball War, which, although the narrative is entirely fictional, would give you a good sense of what it was like to be me as a kid. It's a pretty good book, but has some marketing problems, so probably won't make it. If you want to read it at some point, let me know.
Yes, I most certainly would love to read it.
Anyway, I grew up in a wonderful, small, somewhat insular, largely Jewish community within a decent-sized town outside of New York City. The area, called Bayberry, was developed in the 1950s, and had a "Jewish Mayberry" feel to it. Everyone knew one another. Each day after school I roamed around the neighborhood on my bike with a pack of kids, rarely checking in at home. My parents were divorced (dad lived in the South) and my mom worked 60 or 70 hours each week. My brothers [Cullen and Guthrie] were several years older and younger, respectively, so the Bayberry kids and their families became my family.
The joys of Bayberry provide all the highs of my childhood, because life in my house was chaotic and troubled. The community pool opened each year on Memorial Day. My friends and I would be the first ones on line to be admitted. We would snag the best lockers for the summer, and immediately make friends with the teenage Greek girls who, with their father, ran the concession stand where burgers and frozen Charleston Chews could be had on credit. We began games -- of tag and hide-and-seek and Marco Polo (a sort of tag variant in the pool) -- that would last the entire summer. Each August 12, I'd gather my favorite Bayberry kids and celebrate my birthday, at the pool, always with a chocolate ice-cream cake from Carvel (to this day I cannot stand the normal form of birthday cake, and require ice-cream cake on my birthday). I have 8-mm movies of those parties, in the early 70s. I was bossy and a bit fat.
My best friend, Laura, was an extremely tall girl whose parents, I suppose, could see that my home life was difficult, and made me an honorary member of their family. I ate dinners at Laura's house several nights each week, both over the summer and during the school year. Her father, a famous scientist, who had two daughters and may have longed for a son, made crude jokes and tried to talk to me about sports, a subject I had no knowledge of at all. After school, Laura's mother had craft projects laid out for us on her dining room table. At one point I think I learned to do macramé, though, mercifully, I did not pursue it as a career.
My lows were largely the lows of others, absorbed through a preternaturally thin skin. My parents split in 1971. I have a distinct memory of my father walking out of the house with a white end table that dominated his office. Over time, the smell of his pipe tobacco in the den, where he worked, faded. I spent hours in that room breathing in the scent, hoping he'd return. But he did not. And because he was first in New York, but then quickly moved to South Carolina, he played very little role in my life until I was an adult.
My mother was left with three young children to care for, as well as a full-time medical practice. We had a string of live-in nannies, but my mother coped minimally after my father left. A few months later, she attempted suicide and entered the hospital for the first of several psychiatric institutionalizations.
You know the sort of rainstorm that happens in the tropics, in which the rain comes down in sheets and blankets, in which the water does not simply fill the sky, but replaces it? That was the size of my mother's sadness. She was brilliant and funny, but so consumed with her own pain that what mothering she had for us was irrational and undependable and, ultimately, failed. So my lows were her lows. I wished she could see what I saw, that there was much to be laughed at and savored in living. But she could not, so I sought succor and solace elsewhere, and was extremely fortunate to find it in the homes of my friends. I would not have survived without them.
I'm wondering -- and please forgive me if this sounds too much like pop psychology -- if the bittersweet, and very effective, note of sad longing that is always evident in Misdemeanor Man (even during the laughs), comes from your melancholy childhood. Could MM possibly be a way you've tried to deal with those memories, maybe by donating any residual angst to your protagonist, Gordon Seegerman?
I hope I didn't suggest that my childhood was melancholic. My childhood was chaotic and insane; my mother was melancholic and as a result, I was compelled to escape to other families for succor. But I am, by nature, somewhat sad, and somewhat anxious, and so I imagine some of both slipped into Gordon's character.
Were you a big reader as a child? What was your favorite book as a boy?
Actually, and slightly embarrassingly, no. I couldn't sit still for a minute. I'm sure I had AD/HD [Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder], though they weren't calling it by any scientific name back then. I watched an enormous amount of television (hours each day) and read only the backs of cereal cartons. I started reading in my late adolescence, and then hesitantly. I read what I was required to read in school, but mostly resented not being out on my bike. I do remember loving Bartleby the Scrivener [by Herman Melville], and in my teens I thought Bartleby might make a good model for my future. My family was quite radical, politically, and Vietnam books filled our shelves. One that made a lasting impression on me was Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake.
It says in your official bio that you come from a "long line of ACLU members." I take that to mean that your people were quick to prevent the trampling of the U.S. Constitution, but also quick to defend the rights of the little guy. Am I correct?
Generally, my people were Jewish lefties, so yes, both defending civil rights and sticking up for the downtrodden. My grandmother was a member of the American Communist Party when such a thing was in fashion among Jewish intellectual New Yorkers. She was a labor and civil-rights and anti-war activist her whole life. My dad was a columnist (at the ripe age of 18) at a socialist paper in New York around the time of the Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign in the 1948 [presidential] election.
So how did this association with the American Civil Liberties Union affect your growing-up and your choice of professions?
When I was deciding where to apply to college, it was clear that I'd have to go someplace inexpensive. My options were (a) my dad's school, in rural South Carolina, and (b) one of the statutory colleges at Cornell [in Ithaca, New York]. It happened that one of those [Cornell] schools is the school of Industrial and Labor Relations. My grandmother was fairly well-known in the New York labor scene, and I figured the connection might well make up for my lackluster grades. I wrote my essay about her life, and I got in. Did I go to a school of labor relations because my grandmother was a labor activist? Yes, but, frankly, not because I was a gung-ho lefty. In fact, I'd say my natural instinct is to hide from activism.
I don't blame you, given the furtive state of activism in today's repressive political climate. And yet, I understand that you celebrated Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency in 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal.
I was on vacation in Martha's Vineyard when Nixon resigned. It was four days before my 10th birthday. We danced through the night. I really hated Nixon, though in retrospect it seems clear I had no idea why I hated him or what he'd done to deserve my loathing.
So how did you end up living in California -- Nixon's home state?
After college I came to California to escape the cold of upstate New York. I thought I'd go to grad school of some kind, and California schools offered the best deal. I liked reading cases, and I figured I'd be a law professor. But after graduating, clerking for a year with a federal judge and teaching at Stanford, it became abundantly clear to me that I'm not the professorial type. So I got a job as a lawyer.
I don't think my career choice was consciously connected to the political leanings or activism of my family. That said, it's hard to imagine me working at a corporate firm, or for the American Enterprise Institute, which must mean that some of the political stuff must have soaked in.
You did, after all, do some union organizing at one point, right?
I did some organizing work in college -- for the musician's union -- and enjoyed it. So I thought it might be the right career for me. I was broke after graduating from Cornell, so unemployment was not an option. Organizing was the obvious choice because it did not involve more schooling, paid well (at least for a broke college kid) and fit with my political perspective (generally left, but not radically so; I wasn't about to go to El Salvador and organize farm workers, which is what some of my friends did). I tried to get a job on the East Coast, including with the Teamsters, which was doing impressive work with "pink collar" workers at the time. But no one in New York or D.C. would hire me.
Have you ever looked back and wished you'd gone into something other than law?
I intended to be an actor, actually. That was my passion as a kid. I studied quite seriously in New York and during my teenage summers. Then I found girls. I can't even remember when I gave up on acting. That's what romance did to me. ...
But sometimes these things work out the way they are supposed to, right? I love being a lawyer, and I have no regrets whatsoever.
How did a nice guy like you wind up as an appellate lawyer -- a kind of specialist in lost causes, dealing with clients who've already been found guilty by the courts?
Appellate law is academic law. Most lawyers -- corporate, trial -- spend very little time thinking about law. They are concerned with deals, with facts and witnesses and experts and discovery and so forth. As an appellate lawyer, the focus is on law. Appellate practice is as close to remaining in law school as one can get as a working lawyer. Which is why I ended up doing appellate work. In fact, I tried to get a job as a civil appellate lawyer, but no one would hire me. I didn't originally intend to do criminal work, but Dennis Riordan [a partner at Riordan & Horgan in San Francisco] gave me a job, so that's where I landed.
As for lost causes, there's something enormously gratifying about aligning oneself with the bad guy, the underdog, the outcast. I suppose it has something to do with clinging to my rebellious adolescence. Anyway, whoever says I'm a nice guy needs to have his/her head examined. I'm a rotten person. Nasty, obnoxious and often gassy.
Can you tell us a bit about some of your more famous, or infamous -- or just downright bizarre -- legal cases?
I worked for most of my career for one of the nation's best criminal appellate lawyers, Dennis Riordan. Because of Dennis' profile and brilliance, he gets some of the best and most interesting cases, many of which are the subject of media attention. So, I got to work on a wide array of famous and infamous cases, in state and federal courts around the United States.
Most recently we represented (actually, we still represent) Marjorie Knoller, whose dog mauled a woman to death in an apartment building in San Francisco. It's one of the cases I'm most proud of, although everyone appears to think that I'm some kind of evildoer for being involved. It's a complicated case, but simply stated, we represented Marjorie after she had been convicted of murder because, it was supposed, she ought to have known that the dog was going to kill someone. In fact, she couldn't possibly have been guilty of murder, as the trial court ultimately held in tossing out her conviction, because as a rule dogs do not kill human beings. She was certainly guilty of a lesser offense, and served years in prison as a result.
Another case that received lots of press attention was the Franklin, repressed memory murder case. In the late 80s, Eileen Franklin accused her father, George Franklin, of killing her best friend 20 years earlier. But having waited 20 years to report the crime, she had a credibility problem. So she told police she "repressed" the memory and "recovered" it when she saw her own children behaving in a way that reminded her of her childhood friend. There was no evidence of Franklin's guilt of the brutal murder of a child beyond his daughter's say-so. But that didn't prevent 12 jurors from convicting George and sending him to prison for life.
Then there was the lady who buried nine bodies in her backyard. I don't want to talk about her.
At what point did you decide that fiction was what you really, truly wanted to do when you grew up?
I still haven't decided. In fact, I'm doing my best to put together a non-fiction project about a fascinating case I handled years ago, involving a corrupt [district attorney's] office and an innocent client.
But you've always known that you eventually wanted to do something more artistic?
Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew there was some creative work to be done, but I had no idea what form it would take. I wrote several things along the way -- screenplays, songs, short stories, novels -- but it wasn't until I got an agent and she gave me some sense of what I might do as a professional writer that I got organized and wrote a novel that might appeal to more than a handful of people.
So there are unpublished novels lurking in your past?
Ugh, yes, the ones in the drawer. Two, actually. One [The Kickball War], as I noted before, I really like, but is a marketing nightmare. It's about five 12-year-olds in 1976, told in the voice of one of the kids. Not adult enough to be an adult novel (or so say the experts), and not young enough or contemporary enough to be interesting to today's teenagers. But what do they know, anyway?
Today's young adult market seems quite flexible to me -- perhaps you'll have more luck in the near future. I, for one, am very fond of books told from a kid's point of view. So I hope you won't give up on trying to place The Kickball War. Maybe you could throw in a couple of dead bodies here and there. A little blood-letting usually catches someone's attention.
Actually, there is quite a lot of action in The Kickball War, including some spousal abuse and arson and other juicy items, [as well as] a very exciting kickball match. I would like to believe that the book has not sold because of its marketing problems. But every major house has resolutely rejected it, and that may well be because the book simply isn't strong enough. My fondness for it may have more to do with sentimentality about my childhood than with the book's quality.
You said you wrote two novels before selling Misdemeanor Man.
The other is garbage. Enough said on that subject.
How many years did you practice law before beginning to write fiction? Or have you been working on fiction all along?
I've been writing small stuff all along, but I wrote the first novel only a few years ago. I wrote the second the next year, and then quit the life of a full-time, practicing lawyer, which precluded focusing seriously on fiction. During the first two years after I left Dennis Riordan's firm, I continued to work about half-time. And I continue to practice, although less and less.
So, all told, it's been about five years [that I've been writing novels].
Although Misdemeanor Man is your fiction debut, it is actually your second published book. There is a previous, little-known and out-of-print tome in your past, titled Dog Stories (1997). It's a charming volume in which photographs of dogs, taken by Jon Weber, are bracketed by humorous captions written by you. Can you tell us a little about how that book came about?
Drunkenly, in fact. My pal Weber was photographing dogs for a class (he is a graphic designer). For his final project, he thought he'd make a little book of pictures with accompanying text. He approached me at a Christmas party (I was on my fifth eggnog) and asked me to do the writing. I took five pictures home that night and figured I'd try to see things from the dogs' perspectives -- at 3 a.m., if I recall correctly, which I may not. Weber made the book, his professor thought he should try to get it published, and a few months later we had a deal. The book actually sold many thousands of copies, and to this day I find excerpts from the book on dog-related Web sites from around the world.
I know you currently have two dogs (and a cat named Fisch, but let's not go there). So can we surmise that you are, besides being an extremely nice guy, also an animal-lover at heart?
My wife is an animal fanatic. And you can tell her I said so. In my vows, I promised to permit/accept/not whine about up to nine animals in our residence. I love my wife, so I've become an animal person. But like having children, once you have them, you cannot help falling in love. My dogs are short, and a bit ugly, so they are an excellent reflection of me, which helps me stay fond of them.
Competition helps keep the ego in check -- don't you think? OK, we know your cat's name. What about your dogs' monikers?
[One of them is] Sheva, which means "seven" in Hebrew. She is 8, from the West Bank of Israel, and was my wife's seventh rescue in her work for an animal foster organization in Israel. Jen did her medical school in Tel Aviv. The other dog is 2, named Jake, and is half Dachshund and half Australian Shepherd. As my wife says, "I'd rather not imagine how that happened."
So tell us about your path to publishing Misdemeanor Man. Was it a rough road?
I was enormously lucky. I found an agent before I had a book, and she decided I was going to publish something long before I had something to publish.
A friend and I submitted a proposal for a he-said/she-said novel to this very agent, who represented my friend on an earlier book. The agent, who has the lovely name Lydia [Wills], rejected the proposal, but expressed an interest in my writing. I probably would never have submitted anything to any agent or publisher had it not been for that expression of interest. I wrote [The Kickball War], and she rejected it. I wrote another, and she rejected it. Then I wrote MM, and she said, "You did it," and sold it a few months later.
I'd say it wasn't the easiest book to sell. Some publishers rejected it, because it's not exactly a mystery, and not exactly a legal thriller, and not at all a serious novel. It's got bits and pieces from each of these genres, and so it had trouble finding a home initially. But Lydia assured me that eventually someone would fall for the book, and eventually Bloomsbury did.
In MM, protagonist Gordon Seegerman's main passion in life is his band, Barry X and the Mandys, a kind of homage group that delights in interpreting Manilow's vaunted musical oeuvre. It's very unusual, though a winning part of Gordon's wacky personality. But let me ask: Why Barry Manilow? Are you a longtime fan of Mr. B as well?
Yes, Manilow, definitely. But the Manilow angle developed slowly. Initially, I was inspired by Scooby Doo. I figured I'd write a book about a band that gets into trouble, with a lackadaisical lawyer as the lead guy. At the time I thought a Manilow cover band would be just quirky enough. But I had no plan to turn the book into a Manilow homage.
Then I went out and did the research on Manilow and discovered something that the rest of the world apparently has known for a long time, but which came as a total surprise to me. That is, people really, really hate Barry Manilow. Among people who pretend to know something about art and culture, Manilow is considered a lightweight, a joke. All of which pissed me off. I love Barry. I always have. My iPod is filled with all sorts of music -- Eminem, Mozart, RJD2 -- and Manilow, too. His work is moving and catchy and intensely passionate. His career has been as successful and long-lasting as any solo recording artist in history. I decided it was time to make the case for his greatness, and it fit nicely with the character of my narrator, who clings to Barry like a life raft.
What first led you to Manilow's music?
If you scroll back to the mid 1970s, it was impossible to avoid the music. People simply don't remember how big Barry was. He was the man during that time. He had hit after hit after hit -- the number-one album five times in a row. I was in my early teens, learning to play the piano, and eating it up. The first pop song I learned was "I Write the Songs."
Also, the popular press has the idea that because certain narrow-minded critics now view Barry as uncool, he was always uncool. In fact, between 1974 [when "Mandy" was released] and 1980, Barry was the coolest. And God knows I wanted to be cool.
So, do you have a favorite Manilow number?
That's an impossible question to answer. OK, fine. "Somewhere in the Night," but also "Sandra," and "Lay Me Down," and the last minute of "Tryin' to Get the Feeling" and, of course, "American Bandstand," and "Ships" and ...
And what do you say to all those readers, especially those born after, say, the Watergate break-in, who think Manilow is about as cheesy a singer as you can find?
The Watergate break-in was in June of 72. Which means a person born the day after would have been eight in 1980, and would have been more than adequately awake to witness Manilow in his prime. I'll only excuse people born after [Jimmy] Carter got elected.
In any event, for a full explanation of why Manilow matters, see page 124 of Misdemeanor Man. But, simply put, there is no defense to the "cheese" criticism. Life is cheese, is it not? It's sentimentality and romance and heartbreak and so on. Barry is great because, as I say in the book, Barry is the truth -- about life, about us. And as I say in the sequel, it isn't because he's been so successful that he matters. Manilow matters because his music (and his life, for that matter) is a mirror to which we can always turn for an honest look at ourselves.
Can Misdemeanor Man and its sequels help rehabilitate Manilow's rep?
The man is hardly in need of rehabilitation. When I wrote the book, maybe. In the meantime, he's had a full-scale revival. He's been on countless TV shows, had a couple of hugely successful record projects, and is about to embark on a tour of major venues. He's very much back.
But I am proud to say that my book is the first time anyone has suggested that his work is culturally important, and I'm hoping that it will serve as an effective rebuttal to the many dismissive reviewers and critics. I'm also hoping it will get me a backstage pass to the concert at Madison Square Garden in October. If you happen to be Barry Manilow, please contact me at email@example.com.
So far, no word from the man himself. But I'm still hoping.
You mentioned Eminem and Mozart -- quite a broad spectrum of musical tastes. What other music do you enjoy listening to?
My tastes vary widely. I listen to bluegrass quite a lot, and hip hop, and electronica, and metal, and classical (whatever that means). My favorite band of the moment is my neighbors', called Farma, which will one day be fabulously successful. You read it here first.
Oh, and I have to ask: Between you and Gordon, who would win a singing-in-the-shower contest?
You know, until this moment, I've never heard Gordy sing. I've written about him singing, and I've heard him talking (endlessly, and at times annoyingly), but never singing. But now that you've brought it up, I think his voice is quite nice, and mine is lousy. So, I think he'd win. But if he gets too cocky about it I'll kill him off. And believe me, it won't be quick and painless.
In Misdemeanor Man, I especially like the touching way that Gordon explains his late mother's interest in Manilow, and how it fostered his own. By venerating Manilow, this is one way Gordon stays close to his mother's memory, and it helps explain part of the reason why he loves the music. That episode, though sentimental, is written in an unsentimental way, adding an emotional richness to MM. Where some writers might've been afraid to explore their main character's psyche so deeply, you delved right in. You seem to "know" Gordon very, very well. How long he has been simmering in your psyche?
He's been in there for a while, and there's quite a lot of me in him, although he's not me. What's interesting is that I came up with the idea of Gordon worshiping Manilow before I knew where it came from. I knew his mother died when he was a child, and I knew he was struggling with his father's illness, but it wasn't until fairly far along in my thinking about the book that I discovered the connection between Gordon's mother and his fondness for Barry. But when I discovered it, it felt like it had been true all along. I'd just failed to notice it. Gordon's mother died in 1980, and she was of an age that would have been touched by Barry's superstardom.
Gordon's take on life is often hilariously skewed. For those who haven't yet read Misdemeanor Man, could you briefly frame that outlook? And do you share a similarly skewed perspective on life?
Skewed, huh. OK, I guess that's fair enough. Gordon is a cynic. He trusts no one. He assumes life is going to disappoint him, and it mostly does. But he meets life's difficulties with a raised eyebrow and finger in his ear. He makes fun of the pitch-black maze in which he lives his life, because insanity is the only other option. And he clings without apology to Manilow, because in Manilow he can relax his mocking countenance and sustain himself with sweet sentiment.
No, I'm a much happier person. I'm far more trusting than Gordon. We share a sort of lopsided romanticism, though.
That's a perfect description of Gordon. You really do know your guy, inside and out. And it comes across in the novel. The problem is that now the readers have taken him to their collective hearts, and will probably never forgive you if he doesn't follow true to form. (Although, a little growth spurt, wouldn't hurt.) But are you aware of the danger of creating a cherished character? Fans can be very proprietary. Lots to think about, Dylan.
I'm learning, believe me. I've had an enormous amount of advice during the last few months about what Gordon should or should not do with himself, particularly regarding his ex-wife, Silvie, and his untested 14th chromosome. So yes, I realize Gordon is now in the public domain, and that I've lost complete control. But I think you will be happy with what becomes of him in the second book. He grows, but not too much. And he begins to come to terms with his complicated life. And he remains a romantic cynic.
So, tell us about this Seegerman sequel, I Right the Wrongs. (Another great title, by the way.)
To keep myself interested, I thought I'd write a prequel, and that's what I told everyone I was doing. I wrote a draft and sent it to my agent and my editor. I got back the same response from both: good book, but, uh, it's not a prequel. In other words, while the collateral stories took place before the action of the first book, the central narrative was the sort that, logically, should occur now, after the action of MM.
My first reaction was one of outrage. That lasted about five minutes, because they turned out to be totally right. I really hate when that happens.
I spent the last few weeks turning it into a sequel, and now I have a decent book. There is still much work to be done, but the consensus is that I Right the Wrongs is, overall, a far better book than Misdemeanor Man. It will lack, for readers of MM, the sort of newness that comes from reading an author for the first time, but the underlying narrative may be (I'll let others judge) more sophisticated.
In the new book, Gordy gets assigned a misdemeanor, which turns into a much bigger case than he expected. All the while, he's preparing for a show at which he hopes to meet Barry Manilow. Sound familiar? Hey, I've seen enough Hollywood sequels to know you don't stray too far from the formula. Actually, other than those elements, it's a totally different book. I can't wait to get it out there to see what readers of the first book think of what happens to the characters.
OK, fine, I'll tell you one thing. [Lesbian drummer/office manager] Maeve [O'Connell], at age 45, is pregnant. She swears the conception was immaculate.
Yup, sounds like Maeve, all right. I can't wait to read it. Meanwhile, you said in another interview that you weren't originally sure Misdemeanor Man was the first installment of a series, but that the strong audience response to the novel has encouraged you to continue exploring Gordon's life. Was it really you who needed the encouragement, or your publisher?
Because I don't read much genre fiction (or, I should say, I didn't used to read much genre fiction), I wasn't familiar with the notion of a series. I wrote a legal thriller, and I tried to do something slightly different than what had come before. It was only after I got a contract and had discussions with my editor that I learned that many series don't take off until the third or fourth book. The response in-house, among sales reps and so forth, was very positive, and so the publisher committed to a second book. So, while I certainly did not exhaust my interest in the characters and stories with one book, I really never imagined writing another. But I'm glad I got to do so, because it was a challenge, and a great learning experience.
How far do you think you can take Gordon Seegerman, without burning him -- or yourself -- out?
Oh, I think if I grow as a writer I could do several more Seegerman books. He has a lot of growing up to do. I have the third book fully conceived in my head. Whether there will be a market for future books is another question.
In the meantime, I have two other series I'd like to start, and two or three non-fiction books in mind, so I don't intend to be idle even if I have to put Gordon to rest.
Those other series you have in mind writing -- do they also involve lawyers?
I hesitate to go into too many details, because I'm just working it out. One is about a prosecutor (not in Santa Rita; rather, in a small town in California's central valley with a large maximum-security prison) who suffers from depression and whose mother is bipolar (which would rely to a large extent on my relationship with my own mother). The other is about a Court TV anchor who discovers the defendant in a case she covered is innocent. Too many books, too little time. I'm also starting to work on that non-fiction book about a case I worked on as a young lawyer, which, if I count correctly, makes four books I intend to write, not counting any more in the Misdemeanor Man series. I'm totally out of my mind.
Would you like someday to write novels that reach beyond crime fiction?
It's funny. Two years ago I would have told you I'd never write a lawyer book. Now the genre fiction seems the obvious place to mature as a writer. There's a market, there are lots of terrific role models, and it's fun. It also happens to be what I know, after 15 years in the criminal justice system. So I suspect I'll be writing mysteries or thrillers from now on. [But] I'd love to go beyond the world of Gordon Seegerman, although I also like the idea of having characters from different series meet up, à la Michael Connelly.
Misdemeanor Man is set in the fictional city of "Santa Rita." Isn't that just really Oakland with a more Spanish-sounding name? Why didn't you simply set the novel in Oakland?
In retrospect, that's exactly what I should have done. You have no idea how much flak I've taken for that decision. People seem really bothered by it, like I was trying to hide something. The truth is, I've been reading Scott Turow's books for years, and given how good and successful he is, I tried to copy him in as many ways as I could think of without actually using his sentences. He writes about Chicago, but calls it Kindle County. There are advantages to this approach: it permits you to make stuff up, and get stuff wrong, and avoid getting taken to task for it. But for some reason (perhaps because I'm not Scott Turow), I've been faulted for not simply sticking with Oakland.
Please forgive me.
I don't really have a complaint about it. I like the name Santa Rita. But that's what I mean about fans, sometimes they can latch onto things -- silly or not. And, God forbid, you should get a gun fact wrong. So I say, never mention a gun fact, and you'll be fine. Or do you have a handy-dandy cop friend who will help with the gun minutiae in the future?
I do have some friends to turn to for technical advice, but the best advice I got was from my dad, who said, "Unless you have a reason to go into details, call it a gun. People know what a gun is." My inclination is to avoid the technical stuff unless it seems critical to the narrative. There are writers who do the technical stuff very well, and I know lots of readers love it. I'll stick to the intricacies of the law and criminal justice system, and leave the weapons and CSI stuff to others better equipped to avoid reader wrath.
I hear that you've been pleasantly surprised by MM's ready acceptance by the community of mystery/thriller readers. Why the surprise?
Yes, it's been a pleasure to find acceptance among such a well-read and intelligent community. ... First, the Mysterious Bookshop in New York chose the book as a selected first mystery for June, and then I started hearing from readers all over the country, and now I see that the book has appeal to mystery readers. I suppose I was a bit scared by all the extraordinary books out there. And, also, because mine is a bit quirky on a variety of levels (the Manilow angle, the slightly off-kilter take on the legal thriller), I thought perhaps mystery readers would not know what to make of it. But in the end you have all proven me wrong, and for that I am profoundly grateful.
Were you unaware that this particular reading community is probably the most eclectic in their tastes?
The truth is, I shouldn't have been surprised. But when I wrote the book I really had no familiarity with the fabulous world of mystery/thriller readers. Believe it or not, two years ago I didn't know how to pronounce Bouchercon. Hard to imagine, I know.
Speaking of which, I know you can't be at Bouchercon in Toronto this October, because of a scheduling conflict. But are you planning to attend next year, in Chicago? Bouchercon is the gig for mystery writers and fans, and its non-stop promotion for new authors.
I'll absolutely be at Bouchercon Chicago (I'll have another book out by then, and MM will be in paperback, so I'll have plenty to promote). I'll also be at Left Coast Crime in El Paso, and probably at one or two other regional conferences over the year.
MM has several strong female characters -- Silvie Hernandez, Maeve O'Connell, Mila Miravich, even Mary Godfrey. I'm wondering, is this a kind of naturally evolving societal occurrence, or a conscious effort on your part?
Geez, I never thought about it that way. I think you're right. No, not particularly conscious, but probably easily explained. I was raised by brilliant, strong, powerful women. My mother, though quite mentally ill, was a very successful professional, single woman. The nannies who lived with us were from the West Indies, where matriarchy (at least if my nannies were accurate representations) predominates. And the women I've dated, and the one I married, are of the same type: big personalities, strong-willed, intellectual powerhouses. I think I'd have a hard time writing a wimpy female. I may try that. ...
But there have been many strong women in my life, including my grandmother who was a single parent in the forties and fifties, who worked her whole life, and who claims to have been responsible for naming the soft drink 7-Up, which I have always assumed was a total fabrication. But who knows?
Gordon Seegerman's father has a rare form of Alzheimer's Disease that afflicts its victims at a younger age and stands a 50/50 chance of being passed down to the offspring. There is now a test that can determine if a child carries this wayward gene. But rather than find out his fate, Gordon prefers to play Russian roulette with his life and remain untested. Dare I ask if you, as Gordon's creator, do you know whether he is doomed? And would you tell us if he were? Or do you not know yet?
Of course, I know. Actually, I have no idea. No, I would not tell you. The second book has a lot to say on this subject. You might want to check that out next year if you're curious.
If you were in Gordon's position, would you want to be tested?
One point I make in the book is that the question is not meaningful unless one is actually in Gordon's position. What Gordon says is that almost everyone who is not at risk says, "Of course I'd be tested," but among those at risk, many, perhaps half, choose not to be tested.
So, the answer is, I don't know.
And what made you decide to have a knife hanging over your main character in this way?
The disease angle was one of the earliest aspects of the book. I actually started writing a book, not a legal thriller, about a character with Huntington's Disease, another genetic illness. I became fascinated with the quality-of-life issues raised by living at risk, and caring for a parent who may or may not be a preview of one's horrific descent. Eventually the book evolved into a legal thriller, but I preserved the illness and ill parent features because they inform the character of the narrator so powerfully.
That is especially evident in your rainstorm scene, where Gordon copes with his father as they perch precariously on the roof. All the while, he's desperately pretending that nothing untoward is happening. A very moving scene, Dylan. We grasp his terror, but Gordon's basic character stays true. Beautifully done.
Tell us about your writing rituals. How many days a week do you actually devote to writing? Do you write late into the night? Or early in the morning? Or maybe you're an afternoon person.
I am not a writer. I am a typist. I actually have a sheet of paper on my wall that says, "You're a typist; so TYPE!"
Tsk, tsk, Dylan. Of course you're a writer. Haven't you learned that by now?
Here is how I write. January 1, I sit down at my computer. On March 1, I get up. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but not as much as you might imagine. I eat a lot of hard-boiled eggs, because they are tasty, nutritious, and can be consumed while typing. I sleep very little.
Between March 1 and January 1 I try to avoid writing, because, as I mentioned before, I have a hard time sitting still. Although with rewrites and edits and promotion and the occasion interview and so forth, it's hard to avoid writing altogether, but I really try.
Of course, my job involves writing, so you might say I'm always writing. But the fiction thing I've relegated to eight cold weeks between December and March. It's a good way to spend the winter, especially if you look bad in ski garb.
How organized an author are you. Do you outline every chapter and work out every character's bio? Or do you write spontaneously and let the story take you where it will?
Some of each. I spend some time taking notes, particularly about the characters. I usually have a character bible, which describes her or his likes and dislikes, physical appearance, the quality of his or her voice, and so forth. I also take lots of narrative notes -- who does what to whom. While I don't produce a formal outline, I do have what I call a chapter outline, numbered from 1 to 50, which shows "trial" at around 42, and some sort of plot point or twist around 35, and so forth. This is extremely fluid, and changes drastically during the [writing of the] book.
The story, though, evolves organically, and often takes me places I had no idea I was going. The second book turned out (around page 300) to be about something I hadn't even considered for the first 300 pages. In retrospect, I can say I should have seen it to begin with, but I didn't.
What was the hardest thing for you to learn as a novelist?
You know, and this will sound like false modesty, but it is not: I'm not a novelist. I'm a person who wrote a novel and has just written another, and will write a few more. Someday I might be a novelist, who has a clear sense of what he's doing, who is learned and experienced and practiced. For the time being, I'm happy with typist, because I'm a really good typist. The hardest thing about being a typist is working up the strength in your pinkies. Most people don't realize how important pinkies are to typing, and lots of other stuff too. I have damn strong pinkies.
Do you compose on a computer, or do you prefer -- like Loren D. Estleman -- an old-fashioned typewriter? Or maybe you write in longhand, like Bill Clinton? Don't spare the minute details here, man! As you'll probably find out, true fans appreciate any and all eccentricities in an author. It adds to the aura.
I work on a PC (Windows 2000 Pro) with one of the original MS ergonomic keyboards. I type so much and so hard that each year I wear the letters off the keys and have to replace the keyboard. It occurred to me recently that at some point Microsoft might stop making the keyboard I love, so I went out and bought 10 of them.
I have completely illegible handwriting. I often cannot make heads or tales of it myself.
I sit in one of those high-tech ergonomic chairs, which cost an arm and a leg, but seems to work for someone who often spends 20 hours in a row sitting, and not sitting correctly, I'm sure. I squirm around quite a lot at my desk -- legs up on the desk, feet on a box under the desk, legs crossed, legs underneath, and so forth.
When writing the two [Seegerman] books, I've listened to Manilow during Internet-surfing breaks, but otherwise music distracts me. At about noon, my dogs start whining and I take them for an hour walk. I carry a little voice recorder and take notes. I take the recorder to bed with me, too, and keep it clutched in my hand while I sleep. Needless to say, my wife and I have separate bedrooms.
Wait, wait, let me get this straight. You walk your dogs and talk to yourself, or at least, into a recorder as you go along? What do your neighbors make of this, Dylan? Are you the local neighborhood eccentric? I thought I was the only one who walked her dog and talked to herself as she went along. Of course, I don't speak into a recorder, possibly there is a difference.
Sorry Yvette, no difference. You are an eccentric, too, and that is a good thing. Actually, my neighborhood is filled with artists and writers, and what seems like a thousand dogs in need of walking, so I doubt I make much of an impression. The guy who sits on a park bench yelling at the top of his lungs most mornings gets a lot more attention.
By the way, you should try the recorder. It's pretty interesting to listen to this stuff later.
Do you have a favorite book about writing, one that you'd recommend to would-be Hemingways?
I love Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. She's a fabulous writer, and captures some of the joys and horrors of the writing life. I'm also a big fan of Elements of Style [by William Strunk and E.B. White], though I cannot say my writing reflects absorption of that most hallowed of manuals.
You suddenly find yourself trapped on a desert island. What three things would you most hope to find there? (No fair choosing some mode of transportation back to civilization.)
My wife, my dogs, and my iPod. If I can't choose things with beating hearts, I'll go with the iPod, the complete works of Joan Didion and an enormous supply of pepperoni.
Do you have any plans to give up your law practice in the future, should Gordon make you rich and famous and beloved by all? Or will you practice dual careers?
Beloved by all. That sounds nice. How do I get that?
Actually, you're well on your way. Hey, you're a very humble guy who happens to be a talented writer, who's written a terrific book. You're happily married, you're an animal lover and as a lawyer, you handle lost causes. This is an embarrassment of riches, Dylan. What's not to like?
Before I sold MM, I was able to practice and write at the same time. What I didn't anticipate was the time commitment associated with promotion, publicity, selling, et cetera. That is itself a full-time gig, and given the drop-off in fiction sales and the many, many fine books out there, it's simply impossible to have a career as a genre writer and not put an enormous amount of time and energy into marketing.
So, while I did not intend to give up my law practice, that is precisely what I've done in the past year. I miss it, and I intend to go back shortly. But then the sequel will be in production and I'll have to do more promotion and so forth.
As yet Gordon and his friends have not produced the income required for a life of leisure, but I remain cautiously optimistic.
What is it, do you think, about lawyers, that drives so many of them to become novelists? Is storytelling part of a successful attorney's bag of tricks?
Lawyers, in general, like to hear themselves talk, and what is a novel if it is not three or four hundred pages of the author talking? Novel-writing is also an exercise in narcissism, in acting like God, assuming powers of creation, et cetera. Lawyers are, by and large, narcissists. Also, lawyers, in many instances, are miserable. They spend their lives fighting over piles of other people's money, pushing the piles around on a table, back and forth, back and forth. Novels provide an escape from that, probably.
OK, there's the cynical view. Another way of looking at it is that lawyering, at least trial-lawyering, is about who has the best narrative. I always say that prosecutors lose, if they lose, because they don't get that jurors aren't particularly interested in truth or justice. Jurors want to be engaged by a good story. They want to be entertained. They want the underdog to come out on top. So, yes, lawyers, at least the good ones, are good storytellers and the leap to writing may be a natural one.
I read that MM has been optioned for a one-hour TV series. Any idea when such a series might debut? And will you be offering input on casting and directing? My vote to play Gordon, by the way, goes to Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody. What do you think?
Adrien Brody. I like it. Truth is, I do not own a television. I overdosed as a kid, and am essentially a junky. So, best to simply avoid it. Otherwise I'd get nothing done. My wife and I are rather funny -- when we go on vacation or travel for work, and stay at a hotel, we spend all our off-hours glued to the tube, trying to catch up on all the popular culture we've missed.
But if you say Adrien Brody, I'm good with that.
The rights were optioned by Paramount, for the purpose of developing an hour-long TV show. The studio is pitching to networks this month, and I should have a better idea in the fall whether there's any chance of the project going forward. In general, these things are a long shot, but all the people involved are very smart, and seem genuinely enthusiastic about our chances.
Your wife, Jennifer, is a doctor -- that makes two high-powered careers in one family. How do you maintain balance?
I don't. And neither does she. Actually, she's just out of her residency, so we haven't seen much of one another for years. From what I remember, she's quite a nice person. But we're just getting to know one another again.
As for future balance, I think the key is separate bedrooms. My father and his wife were very happily married for 25 years. They lived in different states, about three hours by car, and saw each other on weekends. That may be a bit extreme, but I think they had the right idea.
Does you wife encourage you in your literary endeavors? Does she have writing aspirations of her own?
Oh dear, God help us, I hope not. She's extremely encouraging, although at some point when things were most hectic this year she started to call my life "La Carnival de Dylan."
One rule we have, which may not seem obvious, is that she doesn't read what I write until it's done -- and by done, I mean done done, finished, in hardcover. She's terrifically smart, and a great editor, but I just can't handle it. I want her approval, and anything short of adoration from her sends me spiraling downward. So, I type, and she reads medical journals, and everyone gets along fine.
I'm a sucker for romance. Tell me: How did you two meet and fall in love?
We met at a dinner party. I was supposed to be fixed up with someone else. Jen was seated at the opposite end of the table, and I quickly changed seats. Then I chased her for the next six years, and finally she married me. As for falling in love, that happens at least once each week.
Which other authors do you read nowadays? Do you have a favorite crime novelist? And do you read thrillers written by other lawyers?
I don't read much when I'm writing. But when I finish, I read constantly -- political books, literary fiction, magazines. Since getting into the mystery/thriller world, I've been exposed to many writers I might not have heard of otherwise. David Corbett comes to mind. His crime books [The Devil's Redhead and Done for a Dime] are brilliant, authentic, moving, and the sort of bleak you actually look forward to. I reread everything Joan Didion has written each year. I just finished a wonderful book called The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem, that came out last year. I'm still getting over Myla Goldberg's Bee Season. I read everything by Turow before I started MM, and I still think Presumed Innocent is the standard bearer. And Dickens, and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And Hunter Thompson, too.
Which author has influenced you most?
Other than Shakespeare? I'd like to be able to say Didion, but to have been influenced by someone so gifted is to suggest that some of it has rubbed off on me, and it hasn't. The same goes for Russell Banks. If I could be any writer, I would be either Didion or Banks. I so admire their access to the emotional lives of their characters. Let's just say I am trying hard to be influenced, but succeeding only minimally.
You mentioned your fondness for Hunter Thompson. He turned out several must-reads, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hell's Angels and The Great Shark Hunt, but since then, he's become famous simply for being famous. He doesn't seem to connect with readers in the same way he did during the 1960s and 70s. Have you kept up with his work? If so, which of his newer books should every Thompson admirer of old be reading now?
Actually, I think you identify the problem. Attention seems to have ruined Thompson. I have read some of the later stuff, and I haven't been moved. But I continue to return to The Great Shark Hunt and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and the other books you mention, time and again for inspiration.
You're writing in a genre that's becoming increasingly overstuffed with contributors. Do you foresee a time soon when crime fiction might just be too popular for its own good?
I think it's already too crowded, when a guy like David Corbett isn't a best seller. This guy writes brilliant books. He ought to be rich and famous. But, so far, he's not. But then again, it seems like there's always room for good work.
What is your all-time favorite book -- fiction, or non-fiction?
You can't be serious. That's like saying what's your all-time favorite sexual position. My favorite is position A, except for all the other positions. How about this: my all-time favorite book is Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake, and Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter, among many, many others.
Do you have a favorite movie?
I have three favorites: Manhattan, Raging Bull and Apocalypse Now. But if absolutely forced, I'd say Manhattan. And Casablanca. And The Third Man.
And do you have time for any hobbies? When you're not writing or practicing law, what are you doing?
I bake fresh bread most days, play piano, paint, compose sonnets for my dogs, whittle strikingly accurate statutes of hummingbirds from bars of Dial soap, and manage a local Home Depot, contributing my salary to charity, of course.
Ten years from now, what's the one question you would have the most fun answering?
"Looking back, why do you think your books have been relegated to complete and total obscurity?" My answer would be as follows: I really ought to have put more sex scenes in my books.
Finally, about those cookies I hear you bring to all your book-signings. Do you bake them yourself?
Of course I bake them. You think I'd serve my guests store-bought cookies? But I'll never give up the recipe. You can't make me. Never. Never! | August 2004