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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Jeremy Blachman is not a hiring partner at a major law firm, but he is the author of a popular American blog called Anonymous Lawyer. The blog was profiled in The New York Times and receives an average of more than 100,000 readers a month. Blachman is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Mark Thwaite: Anonymous Lawyer started out as a blog. Did you conceive back then of it ever becoming a book?
Jeremy Blachman: I didn't. Honestly, I started the blog mostly on a whim. Second year of law school, I had just finished interviewing for a summer job at a law firm, and mostly I'd been struck by how similar all of the interviews were, and how similar most of my interviewers had seemed. I'm sure I was a terrible interviewee -- I didn't have a burning desire to work at a firm, and I'm not a very good actor, and each time I stepped out of one of the interviews I was convinced they'd seen right through me and knew I wasn't terribly committed. But even if they thought that, none of them could say it in the interview.
I started thinking about what must be going through the minds of these hiring partners as they interviewed dozens of students in a row, surely getting the same over-rehearsed answers over and over again. And there weren't any blogs written by actual law firm partners -- how could there be -- they'd lose their jobs if they were anything close to candid -- so I figured I'd start my own. I thought it would last maybe a week and then I'd run out of things to say, but I quickly discovered I liked writing in this guy's voice, and law school had given me all sorts of material, the readership built up quickly, and so I kept writing. Eight months later, I was getting about 2500 readers a day, and the New York Times ran a story about the blog... and immediately I started hearing from publishers and agents... and that was really the first time I thought about turning it into a book, and writing a novel from the character's perspective.
MT: What gave you the idea for writing a blog (and then book) from the fictional perspective of a "hiring partner at a major law firm"?
JB: I guess I've answered most of this question in the previous answer. It really stemmed from my experience going through the law firm recruiting process, meeting all of these lawyers at probably three dozen different firms, and thinking about how they would be reacting to someone like me, who, to some extent, was only doing it for the money and didn't have a real commitment to working there -- an attitude I think is pretty common among law students looking for jobs. As well as my shock as I started to discover the excesses of the summer programs and how much money and energy was being spent to recruit law students. My actual experiences at the firm I worked for were pretty positive -- but I started to imagine the worst of what it could be like, and the blog grew from there. And it was a lot more interesting (and fruitful) to write satire from the perspective of the guy at the top than from my own perspective as merely a law student.
MT: As you are not a "hiring partner", how much research do you have to do? Do you have to sound authentic to be funny?
JB: At first I thought I would be uncovered as satire immediately -- that I would be missing key details and that my limited experience at a firm would be apparent. But as I kept blogging, and as I read the comments people would leave on the blog or the e-mails readers would send me, I realized it wasn't as hard to fake it as I'd feared. And in fact, the more over-the-top I started to get, the bigger the response. I'd write something I thought was incredibly farfetched and unrealistic -- about associates working on their BlackBerries from the hospital an hour after giving birth, or getting fired for the tiniest infraction -- and I would hear from lawyers who said these were exactly their experiences. The more over-the-top I thought I was getting, the more I'd hear from lawyers telling me I was reflecting their lives -- which baffled me, because I didn't honestly think the law firm world was quite this bad. At the beginning of the blog, the character was much more restrained than he is now. As I've gotten more comfortable with the voice, I've made the satire broader, I think, and aimed for funny more than authentic. But hopefully I've been able to keep it grounded in reality enough that there's some element of truth there that people are responding to. As far as research, most of it was honestly guesswork, and occasionally I'd use Wikipedia to grab a detail I needed -- the name of a restaurant, or a high-end service provider someone like Anonymous Lawyer might use. The Internet is very helpful for that -- even though the blog and book take place in Los Angeles, I'd actually never even been there until after the book was finished.
MT: How long did it take you to knock the blog into shape for a book?
JB: I started working seriously on the book right after law school graduation in June '05, and really got rolling after the bar exam that July. I had a draft to the publisher around January '06, and I think the revisions were finished in March. With every draft, there was less and less blog material and more new material, until it ended up that the book is about 85% new material that isn't on the blog. To get the plot to work and to fill out Anonymous Lawyer's world with a whole supporting cast of characters, I kept finding that the existing material didn't really belong, and I needed to start from scratch. And it would also be silly to ask readers to pay money for something they can get for free online -- so I'm very glad that the overwhelming majority of the novel ended up being new material. I see the blog as the character background, and the novel as Anonymous Lawyer's real "story" -- since the blog doesn't have a plot going through it at all, and there are no other characters besides Anonymous Lawyer himself. They're really two different pieces of work.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
JB: Directly onto a computer, and then I print things out, mark them up by hand, and edit back into the computer. Since high school I haven't really been able to write longhand anything that I know will eventually need to be typed, but I've never developed the ability to edit much on screen. I ended up with about two thousand pages of draft printouts, all marked up. Only in the past few months have I run out of the backs of those pages as my printer paper and had to actually go out and buy paper.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
JB: I go to see a fair bit of theater, watch movies and television, spend time with friends and with my girlfriend, watch baseball games, try new restaurants, I read a lot. In theory, I like to think I play sports, but in practice I find that even though I have a tennis racket, golf clubs, and a baseball glove, I don't actually use them very often, unfortunately. I think part of that is because I live in New York City, but that's probably just an excuse.
MT: Do you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Do you write specifically for them?
JT: I've found over time that my best motivation is external rather than internal, and I like having an "adult" who I respect and who I'm trying to impress. That's probably who I write for the most, whether it's my editor or whoever's in charge of whatever project I'm working on. The times I'm least productive is when there's no one filling that role; the times I'm most productive is when someone's demanding something of me. It's probably not what *should* motivate a writer, but it seems to be how I'm wired. For the book, it was definitely all about impressing my editor. I'm not sure he knows that.
MT: What are you working on now?
JB: I've been working on a sitcom adaptation of Anonymous Lawyer -- Sony optioned the rights to the novel and paired me up with a terrifically talented television writer/showrunner named Jeff Rake. We co-wrote a pilot for NBC, but they've passed on it for now, so we're trying to shop it around elsewhere. I've been writing some other television scripts and am hoping to get staffed on a show. I've also got the beginnings of another novel, but I'm not sure I'm ready to write another novel until I have some more life experiences and something that I'm really burning to say. There's also a non-fiction I've been playing around with, and have interviewed some people about it, but it's nothing concrete yet. Ideally, I'd like to end up working in television -- writing the novel was incredibly rewarding, but there's something about the collaborative process that really excites me. I wrote for a theater group in college, and again in law school, and that kind of experience, being in a room with other creative and talented people, all trying to pitch jokes, hammer out story, and really create something together -- I don't think I've found any other experiences that give me the same rush as that does, and I also think the time pressures and creative obligations you have as a member of a writing staff motivate me in a way that makes me more productive and more fulfilled than I am just sitting in front of my computer trying to crank out a manuscript on my own.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
JB: I think Bill Bryson is terrific. I've read everything he's written. I'm A Stranger Here Myself is probably my favorite. Paul Collins is amazing -- his book, Not Even Wrong, about his son's struggles with autism, interwoven with a history of the condition, is an absolutely terrific read. David Shields has written a couple of books I love -- Remote and Enough About Me -- about culture and society and the nature of autobiography.
I like books that get me inside an author's head and give me a glimpse of how they think. I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction -- in a way, I hope Anonymous Lawyer reads like a non-fiction, because that was sort of my goal throughout. I want it to feel real, even though it isn't. Seth Mnookin is a great writer -- his book about the New York Times and the Jayson Blair scandal, Hard News, is one of my favorites from the past couple of years. Donald Margulies's plays -- especially "Dinner With Friends" and "Brooklyn Boy" -- I find wonderful.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
JB: Start a blog. Anything to make yourself write a little bit each day, to start thinking about the world like a writer, and have a place to save your thoughts and observations. And think about what you really have to say -- what's motivating you to write -- and let that be your guide. I started Anonymous Lawyer not because I thought it would make a good book, or that I even thought it would ever *be* a book, but because I had something to say. And that's my challenge as I work on new projects -- finding that same spark inside of me, that same desire to say something. That should be the motivation, not merely the desire to have written something.
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