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  • William Landay

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    William Landay is the author of the highly acclaimed Mission Flats, which was awarded the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for best debut crime novel of 2003. A graduate of Yale University and Boston College Law School, he was an assistant district attorney before turning to writing. His latest books is The Strangler. He lives in Boston, where he is at work on his next book.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Strangler?

    William Landay Well, I think most novels have multiple sources, since a novel of any ambition will usually take on more than one topic. So let me answer that by citing a few of the seeds of this story.

    One was the simple fact that Boston, now one of the most prosperous cities in America, was until fairly recently a city withering on the vine. For most of the 20th century Boston endured a very long, very steep decline. The industries that once fed the city (textiles, shipping, manufacturing) all abandoned it. Even in the post-WWII boom, when virtually every major U.S. city grew exponentially, Boston actually lost population. Essentially, by the time we reach the year of the Strangler murders -- 1963, also the year of my birth in this city -- Boston seemed destined to become another dead city, a husk like Detroit or Newark. So what happened? Why did Boston not become Detroit or Newark? I knew there was a good brass-knuckles political story there, and I wanted to tell it.

    I also knew there were some of the other sort of brass knuckles stories, too. A very bloody mob war was going on in the city's underworld. And the Strangler case, of course. I remember first hearing that Albert DeSalvo, the presumptive Boston Strangler, might have been the wrong man. Now the possibility is widely accepted; when I first heard it, the story was making the rounds of law enforcement and it would have struck most citizens as plainly ridiculous. But the idea worked on me over the years. I confess, the Strangler case itself was not what fascinated me (and readers of my novel will find that the historical Strangler is only one piece of a complicated mosaic). What fascinated me was the idea that this city, so busily reinventing itself, allowed it to happen: a serial murderer (or two, or three, because there is no consensus about how many hands actually committed the murders ascribed to the Strangler) was allowed to get away with it.

    So there was this confluence of events in Boston at this time that made it a fascinating period. And I wanted readers to see what I saw: this mysterious, impenetrable, tough-talking city, now long gone. I wanted to bring that whole city to life, then send the reader strolling through it, like a flaneur novel in which the reader accompanies the narrator through a city and registers the sights and sounds along with him. So I created these three brothers and sent them out into different corners of the Boston crimeworld in that wonderful horrible year of 1963 to see what they'd find there.

    MT: Your novel Mission Flats won the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for best debut crime novel of 2003. How did winning affect you and your writing?

    WL: It didn't affect my writing, certainly. I wish it could make writing easier. Unfortunately, when you close that door and you're alone in front of the computer screen, all those external things -- prizes, reviews, as well as everyday things like phone bills and mortgage payments -- all those things vanish. Don't misunderstand: I'm very grateful for winning it, of course, and I have no doubt that it brought me a lot of new readers who would not otherwise have taken a chance on a new writer. But as a practical matter, I tend to be completely obsessed with whatever novel I am working on at the moment, and past novels seem very far away indeed.

    I will say this: my 5-year-old son Ted loves the dagger award and he occasionally asks me to take it out of the drawer so he can see it. The prize itself is a small thing, more like a letter opener than an actual dagger. But Teddy thinks it's cool, and anything a dad can do to appear cool in his son's eyes is a comfort.

    MT: Was your time as an assistant district attorney all the research you need to write your crime novels?

    WL: No. Not even close. In fact it took me a very long time to overcome the misapprehension that my experience would directly feed my crime novels. The trouble, of course, is that the real life of cops and prosecutors is by turns too dull, too chaotic, too repetitive, and too shapeless to be the stuff of good drama. A crime novel that is absolutely true to life would be a bad book. The material has to be shaped. So I had to learn, through writing some very bad books indeed, that much of what I knew had to be thrown out the window. I heard John le Carre say in an interview once that for a novelist "it is better to be credible than authentic," and it is precisely so. So now I research fanatically. The research for The Strangler took months and months, and much of it was original research, interviews and such -- painstaking work. And the point, of course, is not to become an expert in this or that subject; it is just to be able to write convincingly about the the setting, like a piano player playing rhythm with his left hand while the right hand bangs out the tune.

    MT: What aspects of your novel did you find most challenging to write? And how do you go about overcoming those difficulties?

    WL: Well, it's all challenging. I am not one of those writers who says, "The characters took over, I merely took dictation," or "I merely watched the story." That said, one of the hardest practical problems was the question of how to weave together fact and fiction in this book. Most of the settings in The Strangler are absolutely accurate, even obscure places like bars where the characters meet. And of course the historical background story is based in fact: the Strangler case was real, as was the Mob war depicted in the story, and the bulldozing of the West End of the city. So it was a constant effort to get the balance right between fact and fiction, always with le Carre's words in my ear: "It is better to be credible than authentic." That is, tell a ripping good story first, then worry about getting the facts right.

    MT: How long did it take you to write The Strangler?

    WL: About 18 months, not including some of the editing and polishing that goes on after the manuscript is submitted in nearly final form.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    MT: Directly on a computer, always. In fact I think I am among the oldest of that first generation who really grew up writing on computers; I'm 43, and my roommate in college had a primitive DOS computer with an early version of WordPerfect on it, and I've been writing that way ever since. By now, my handwriting is a disaster. I think that computers are absolutely liberating for writers because they make revising so much easier. There is a temptation, I suppose, to edit your prose too much, until the life is drained right out of it. Still, on balance this seems like such a boon. If I were forced to write longhand, my career might be over.

    I do rewrite, but not a lot. Not as much as some. I am a fanatical planner and outliner, so I already have a pretty good idea where I'm going when I sit down to write a scene. That allows me to focus completely on the sentence-writing, which is, I think, where the greatest satisfaction and the greatest art is. You cannot focus completely on each sentence, you cannot become completely immersed in a scene, if all the while a little voice in the back of your head is whispering, "Now, which clue should he find in this scene? How will this scene fit with the next one?" and so on. Well, maybe some writers can -- I can't.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    WL: I have two sons, ages 3 and 5. So the short answer is: nothing. Which is to say, I spend most of my time rushing around to swimming lessons and soccer (football) games and birthday parties. But I love music and sports and movies. At least I seem to remember I did.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    WL: No. I don't have an audience in mind at all. That "ideal reader" sounds like a fatally inhibiting idea to me. As I said, when I sit down to write, the goal is absolute, trance-like immersion in the scene I'm working on. In a way, the sensation is of a complete absence of thought. It is impossible to inhabit the scene perfectly, I imagine, if you're trying to imagine how the whole thing will be received by some hypothetical ideal reader.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    WL: Forget it, pal. I've made a lot of mistakes in my brief writing career, but talking about unwritten books is not one of them. Suffice it to say, it is a crime novel set in Boston, unconnected either to "Mission Flats" or "The Strangler."

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    WL: Too many to name. I am asked this question a lot and I never seem to give the same list twice. So with that caveat... I love F. Scott Fitzgerald and especially Gatsby for the beauty of his prose. I love all the old dead Englishmen who wrote gentlemanly, expert "entertainments": Greene, Maugham, Ambler (I am reading Ambler's Journey Into Fear now). The next generation of Americans seems over-stocked with giants: Bellow, Roth, Updike, DeLillo -- all very different from one another, each great in his own way. Among individual books, again too many to name. Some that leap to mind: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. I'd give my right arm to be able to write like Jonathan Lethem in The Fortress of Solitude or Michael Chabon in Kavalier and Clay. On and on.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    WL: I'd feel presumptuous giving any. Just write, I suppose. Writing is not like violin-playing or ballet; there are lots of rigid, formal exercises you can do to learn those arts. But writing does not have any such training program. So: just write. And don't listen to critics.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    WL: I'd just like to thank everybody who gave Mission Flats a read -- the response in the UK was tremendous, I'm still bowled over by it -- and I hope you enjoy The Strangler. And thanks to The Book Depository for having me. It's been a pleasure.

    MT: Thank you, William.

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