Interview with Dylan Schaffer

Interview by Bob Williams

Bob: What prompted you to become a writer?

Dylan: There are children that fall in love with reading and move naturally into their own story telling. I was not one of those children. Until well into my college years books seemed to me an invention of adults who couldn’t quite grasp the value of television. I did finally start to read, and the idea of writing fiction occurred to me. But by that time I had student loans and thought that I ought to get a profession. So I went to law school. After about a decade in practice, and on the brink of becoming a terminally boring person, I started writing. Whether it has helped with my dinner party repartee I would not dare to opine. But I think fear of dullness is the closest I can come to a direct answer to your question. Oh, also, my father was a playwright before he became a professor, so there may be a genetic element at work.

Bob: Your works display writerly qualities of a high order – prodigious skill in the organization of complex material and a rare ability to write English that is both grammatical and lively. What is your formal – or informal – training as a writer?

Dylan: Hey, wait a second. I’m a lawyer, so I recognize a when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife type question when I see one. If I were to describe my training “formal or informal,” I’d be accepting the premise of the question, i.e., that I possess all the nice qualities that you describe. And to do that I’d have to be a far less insecure person.

How about this: I have never taken a writing class. But as a criminal appellate lawyer I often had to digest records of tens of thousands of pages, produce procedural and factual summaries relevant to highly complex legal questions, and do so in a manner that would avoid putting law clerks and judges to sleep.

Bob: Santa Rita, the city that provides the background for Misdemeanor Man and I Right the Wrongs, does not appear on the map. You provide such abundant and convincing descriptions and are so specific about locations that it is difficult to believe that it is not a real city. If so, why have you given it a fictitious name?

Dylan: Believe me, if I had to do it over again, I’d call it Oakland. I live in Oakland, I love Oakland, and I’d have been very happy to write about a lawyer living in Oakland. So, why did I not call the town Oakland? Well, because when I wrote Misdemeanor Man I had no idea what I was doing. So I turned for advice to the master of the genre. Scott Turow’s books are obviously about Chicago. But he sets them in a place called Kindle County. It seems to me he does so because it’s (A) easier to start with a real place, (B) hard to get every detail right, and (C) nice to be able to make up stuff when it seems appropriate and not get angry letter from readers regarding the same. So, I went with Santa Rita.

By the way, one angry reader let me know that Santa Rita does, actually, appear on a map. Which shows just how thoroughly I had no idea what I was doing.

Bob: Your first book, Dog Stories, was a happy collaboration with photographer Jon Weber. Both of you showed extraordinary empathy with dogs. Do you have one or more dogs? Tell us about him, her or them.

Dylan: Now there’s a question that I can sink my teeth into! Unfortunately, I understand this interview is confined to fewer that one hundred pages, so I can’t possibly do this important subject justice. But in any case, yes, I have two dogs. One is named Sheva (Hebrew for seven). A rescue from the West Bank town of Ramallah. She is a mutt of such obscure origins that when people ask, I say she is an Iraqi Bird Toller, an invented breed. The other is named Jake – a Dachshund and Aussie mix (no, I can’t imagine how that happened either) – who likes to eat small electronic devices (palm pilots, ipods, that sort of thing). The only living creature I adore more than my dogs is my wife. As for my wife, she prefers the dogs to me.

Bob: Gordon Seegerman is an unusual hero in a society that sees those in the legal profession as villains. Is Gordon to any extent designed to offset this prejudice?

Dylan: People don’t like lawyers? I had no idea.

Actually, your question is an excellent one. I think laypeople fear the legal system because (A) it’s a realm into which most of us have to wander in the normal course of our lives and (B) most of us feel powerless within it. So people tend to demonize lawyers simply because they are the public face of justice – and this applies with particular force to the criminal justice system – that is so downright scary. Which is not to say that there are no evil or incompetent lawyers. Of course there are, just as there are evil chefs and incompetent mechanics. But we hate lawyers because they have so much influence over our lives, we don’t really understand what they do, and we figure, therefore, that they must be up to no good.

So, I thought it might be interesting to place at the center of my series of legal thrillers a character who is a lawyer, who has some of the power I’ve mentioned, but who also pines after a woman he can’t have and longs to be a rock star and is often miserable in his work and who faces the sorts of profound challenges that non-lawyers can relate to. Indeed, much of the comedy in Gordy’s affairs is to know that he is powerful – that he holds the fates of his clients and others in his hands – and to watch him make a complete mess of things anyway.

Bob: Gordy’s life is beset by an unusual number of troublesome and even depressing elements. From our conversations I sense that your childhood and general experiences have been much unlike Gordy’s. To what degree is this true and untrue?

Dylan: Geez, you don’t mess around. Do you? You realize, I hope, that there are therapists getting very good money (including a lot of money from me, I should add) for engaging in these sorts of discussions. In any case, the answer is: true and also untrue. Gordy’s problems are not my problems – he lost his mother at a tender age, his father suffers from a form of Alzheimer’s that arrives at a young age, and Gordy is at risk for the illness. None of these are true of my life. And, for the most part, I lead (and have led) a blessed and happy life.

That said, I’ve had my share of traumas and I don’t believe I could have written Gordy under other circumstances. While I hope my narrator is funny, as with many funny people, he is actually in a great deal of psychic pain. My mother was a life-long depressive who committed suicide before I started writing seriously. And I’ve inherited some of her tendency toward melancholy. It’s hard to pinpoint precisely from where one’s narrative voice derives, but certainly my experiences and struggles are, at the very least, highly relevant to my characters.

Bob: Barry Manilow is an important figure in Gordy’s life. How important is he to you and to what extent is he simply a way of creating an important aspect of Gordy’s character?

Dylan: I’m a big fan, and always have been. But Gordy’s near obsession with Mr. Manilow is mostly a reflection of his need to find meaning in his extraordinarily difficult life. Having read lots of lawyer-thrillers, most of which involve gung-ho persecutors or defense lawyers, I thought it would be interesting to create a central character whose primary focus isn’t doing justice or saving the innocent, who would much rather be playing in his band than practicing law, but who, like most of us, is constrained by the need to earn a living. An I wanted to give him a musical focus that would set him apart, that would immediately identify him as quirky and, at the same time, serious. Manilow fit perfectly. Because the music has been unfairly derided for years, Gordy could make the case for his hero, and in doing so, give us a window into his authentically romantic character.

Bob: To what degree are your often unflattering descriptions of judges, attorneys and law enforcement officers based on real person.

Dylan: Alright, now, you’re just trying to get me disbarred/sued/fired/in big trouble. Let’s just say Misdemeanor Man and the sequel [I Write the Wrongs] are works of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or real people is coincidental, unintentional, and/or inadvertent. On the other hand, having worked in the system for a long time, certain types emerge, and I’ve made ample use of those types in my novels.

Bob: How do you manage both a career and writing? Do you have a writing schedule?

Dylan: Here’s my schedule. First, buy a large quantity of eggs. Boil them. Refrigerate. Turn on the computer. Write. When hungry, eat an egg. Write some more. If necessary, sleep. But not too much. Wake several times when sleeping to take notes in the bathroom, trying not to disturb wife. Wake, eat eggs, write more. Write and write and write until a first draft emerges. Then collapse. Then practice law until the last possible moment and then begin process again for draft two. And so forth and so on until you receive an e-mail message from publisher’s lawyer. Then send in draft.

This approach worked wonderfully until someone told me that on top of writing the book, the author is expected to sell (in other words, promote) the book as well. When I first heard such a thing, I laughed. It seemed absurd. How could one be expected to write, earn a living, and also run around trying to get people to buy one’s books? But, alas, it was no joke. So for the last couple of years, while promoting book one and writing book two, and now promoting book two, I’ve given up earning a living.

Bob: Do you miss your career as an attorney?

Dylan: I do miss it. I loved being a full-time criminal defense lawyer. I always had the best stories at dinner parties. Some people made a show of disapproving, but they always lingered to ask me questions about my many high-profile matters. Now what do I have? Bookscan? Publisher’s Lunch? I mean, come on, people’s eyes start to glaze over.

I am able to keep my hands in a few matters and, depending on the sales for I Right the Wrongs, I may well be back to my law practice real soon.

Bob: Is there a work in progress and what can you tell us about it?

Dylan: After writing two novels, I’ve moved for the time being into the world of non-fiction. I’m working on a book about a case I handled for many years, involving a man who was convicted of a murder he did not commit. The book will be called Trouble: A True Law Story.

I’m also working on a small memoir about my father, who died just a week after I got the contract for Misdemeanor Man. Six weeks before that, in June of 2003, he and I took a weeklong bread making intensive at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. He was quite ill, but was intent on completing the course with me. The core of the book will be our experience baking together, but it will also delve backward (to our history) and forward (to the few weeks before he died). How’s this for a title? – Baking with Flip: Life, Death and the Perfect Pumpernickel.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: