- Give a brief biographical sketch, including what led you to the law. What has surprised you about the practice of law, and what are your specialties?
I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. The law also drew me from a young age, probably because of my mother, who went to law school when I was a kid, commuting a hundred miles each way to St. Paul from our home in Western Minnesota. Even as a child, I was immensely proud of and inspired by her. She eventually became a judge, and her achievements, dedication, and above all her deeply compassionate search for fairness in the law are qualities that continue to inspire me to this day.
Writing was always my first passion, however, and after college I went through an MFA program at Cornell and had a great experience there with an extremely talented group of writers and teachers; then I was lucky enough to land a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. After the Stegner, I knew that I needed a career that would engage me as powerfully as writing does, and I’d come to feel that I was ready to try the law. My law practice has been a great fit for me and has proved to be a continuing inspiration to my writing. I’m a plaintiff’s lawyer, typically representing individuals against corporations and the government in employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and civil rights cases. I fight for the underdog, and the values I advocate for are values that I hold dear.
- How has your fiction writing changed since you became a lawyer?
By the time I started law school I’d become bored with myself as a so-called “literary writer.” Achieving distance from the academy helped me rediscover my love for storytelling, and writing became fun again, which is probably what makes all the difference. Being a lawyer has also made me more conscious of writing for an audience; in the law, you’re always aware of who your audience is, be it a judge or a jury or another lawyer, and what you’re trying to accomplish with a given brief or argument or line of questions. The law has also provided me with a heightened awareness of purpose; when you’re running a complex civil case, for instance, you never take any step, no matter how small, without asking yourself what you’re trying to accomplish and how that goal serves your client’s interest. The same with each and every scene in a novel, each line of dialogue. As a writer, at every moment, you have to sense how the smallest part fits into the whole.
- How did the book originate, and at what point did you plan a series?
The idea for the book began to germinate during the summer after my first year of law school. I was working at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office as an intern, shadowing a lawyer in the misdemeanor unit who was young but very, very good at what he did. We tried five cases to juries that summer, winning three of them, and I was there every step of the way. All in all, it was a marvelous introduction to the culture and practice of criminal defense, and one of the most intense and satisfying experiences of my life.
I knew from day one that I wanted to write about the world I’d dived into. I’m not a documentarian, so nothing in Bear Is Broken is lifted from real life, but from the beginning I had the idea of writing a novel about two brothers, one older and very accomplished, the other just getting his start as a criminal lawyer. Sometime during my third year of law school I wrote that opening scene, found Leo’s voice, and knew at once that I had my novel. I knew that it would be a series of novels about halfway through the first draft when I made the decision that in the opening scene of Bear ,Teddy should be grievously wounded but not killed. The second book, Lion Plays Rough, which picks up near where the coda of Bear is Broken leaves off, is now finished and accepted, and I’m told by those who ought to know that it’s just as good as (and perhaps even better than) the first book. Lion takes place in Oakland and has Leo investigating corruption in the police department while trying to navigate the new terms of his relationship with Teddy. I’m currently halfway through the first draft of the third novel, which involves Leo’s father getting out of prison and being accused of another murder.
- Has there been a shift in American popular opinion from the defense lawyer as hero to the prosecutor, and why?
There clearly has. I think a lot of it has to do with the cultural dominance of “Law and Order” and the extension of the realistic police procedural into the courtroom. Prosecution is formulaic, focusing on the elements of a given offense, and rests on values that conform to conventional wisdom; criminal defense, on the other hand, resists formula and partakes of more abstract and less accessible notions of heroism. To be popular, Perry Mason had to be unrealistic, with the clients always innocent and truth in easy reach. That’s not how life is. The defendants usually are guilty, and the system does immense harm to almost anyone who comes into contact with it. Popular culture doesn’t have a lot of room for heroes who defend the guilty and, at least in the short term, contribute to the share of harm that the system inflicts on the innocent–particularly on the victims–especially given our unquestioning acceptance, as a society, of skyrocketing imprisonment rates and the hyper-criminalization of petty offenses.
- What writers have influenced you and in what way?
Scott Turow, for all the obvious reasons. After Presumed Innocent my favorite courtroom novel is Anatomy of a Murder, by Robert Traver. Elmore Leonard has taught me a great deal about using dramatic (as opposed to narrative) tools whenever possible. My favorite series writers are John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos, and Lawrence Block, and each has given me insight into how to plant the seeds of series self-renewal in every book. Chandler lurks in the background for each of these writers, and I return to Farewell my Lovely or The Big Sleep whenever I feel like I’m losing my way. Among younger writers, my favorites are Tom Franklin and Megan Abbott.
- What was the hardest part of the book to write?
It’s actually hard to remember. Once I complete a book I seem to develop a kind of amnesia for the daily frustrations of writing. It’s sort of like being a parent — I think there’s a self-protective mechanism of forgetting that kicks in and makes it possible for you to restart the process, forgetting how hard it all was. The most difficult part was probably cutting 20% from what I thought was the final draft at the suggestion of my wonderful agent, Gail Hochman, who read and commented on two full drafts before the book was ever sent out. And this is after she’d done the same for two previous literary novels that hadn’t sold. Her loyalty and dedication are awe-inspiring.
- Discuss how the first chapter is written, and the choice to use the subjunctive?
To tell the truth, it came to me that way, as an essential part of Leo’s voice in that scene. So I can tell you what effect I think it has, but that doesn’t mean there was a conscious decision. Though the first chapter is told in the present tense, the narration of what the shooter must be doing at each moment adds an overlay of memory and distance, capturing Leo’s impulse to understand what he couldn’t know at the time. The voice is Leo reliving and interrogating what, for him, is the second-most traumatic event of his life. It is also a way to sneak an elegaic tone into a book that otherwise starts out fairly hard-boiled.
- How does that set up the rest of the book?
It sets up the theme of Leo trying to understand the layers of secrets beneath the surface of events — the impulse that sets every mystery in motion. I think it also introduces an essential theme of Leo’s personality, how on some level he’s always reliving and compensating for his formative experiences of violent trauma and loss.
- What themes in the book would you identify?
The search for justice and resolution — a search colored by deep ambivalence for what justice means in a morally ambiguous world and skepticism as to whether this ideal we seek can ever even provisionally be achieved, and doubts as to whether the price we pay in seeking it and the damage inflicted by the search is worth the end result. Also whether there is a functional difference between justice and revenge. The moral ambiguities of criminal defense and the interplay between conscience and ethical advocacy. Trauma and its aftermath, and the incomplete and perverse ways in which the scars of violence heal (or don’t).