A Debut Novel, after 65 Years of Writing: An Interview with Jethro K. Lieberman
By Kat Georges
When Jethro K. Lieberman first became a published author at age 12, IBM had just invented the hard disk, Elvis Presley’s first hit, Heartbreak Hotel, was all over the radio, the Yankees’ Don Larson threw the only perfect World Series game in baseball history, and the polio vaccine was made available to the public. Since then, Lieberman has written a column for a local paper, served as founding editor of Business Week Magazine‘s Legal Affairs department, and written, co-authored, or edited more than 30 books—in addition to practicing law for six years, and teaching law at Fordham and New York Law School, where he retired as the Martin Professor of Law Emeritus. But he has never published a novel under his own name—until now. On October 12, Lieberman makes his first “official” appearance as a fiction author with the release of his Three Rooms Press debut novel, Everything Is Jake. 3RP co-director Kat Georges spoke with him about how he got here, his current work as a full-time writer, and what makes his debut effort the perfect novel for these times.
Kat Georges: Tell us some highlights about the fascinating career path that finally led you to becoming a mystery author.
Jethro K. Lieberman: There’s no single highlight. One way or another, I’ve been a published author for more than 65 years, beginning when I was 12 and co-wrote a goings-on-at-school column for the town paper. My first book came out 10 years later. In college, like every writer I’ve ever heard of, I began keeping notes and files with project ideas, including ideas for novels. A particular idea that popped into my head in 2015 suddenly resonated in 2018 when I was reeling from the then two-year shock wave that had taken over the White House. I realized that there was something that could be said in the form of fiction beyond what the journalists and political scientists were publishing. I should also admit that I was finding myself blocked on a project to which I had been devoting much time for the past several years. I finally decided that I could best unblock by ignoring that project and committing to something wholly different. I thought I could do it in six to nine months. I did not reckon that Everything Is Jake would take two and a half years. Just as well, I suppose, or I might never have started it.
KG: You’ve spent your career writing non-fiction. How do you compare that with writing a mystery?
JKL: Lots can be (and has been) said about the differences between these two forms. One is that once you understand your non-fiction topic, you generally know where you are going and how you are going to tell the reader about it. Fiction gives you much more wiggle room–and much more space for pratfalls. Another, and to me, fascinating difference is that, just as some of the books on writing I’ve read claim, the characters can take on a life of their own. For example, one of my principal characters, Mallory Greenstock, was originally unnamed and existed solely to facilitate some of the legal maneuvers in the opening chapters. But she wouldn’t take anonymity lying down, nor would she shut up when she got to the fence around Part 1. She found a way to burrow under, connect herself to the main character, and play a significant role throughout. Likewise, the characters together found a way to construct the plot, mainly by rejecting various vagrant thoughts I had about what was central to the story.
Just as some of the books on writing I’ve read claim, the characters can take on a life of their own. For example, one of my principal characters, Mallory Greenstock, was originally unnamed and existed solely to facilitate some of the legal maneuvers in the opening chapters. But she wouldn’t take anonymity lying down … She found a way to burrow under, connect herself to the main character, and play a significant role throughout.
KG: When did the urge to write mystery stories kick in? Did you have dreams about writing detective fiction as a young man?
JKL: No, I never thought about it when I was younger, though I read many mysteries, beginning with Conan Doyle when I was 11 or 12. In my mid-30s a friend and I had lunch one day and tossed around an idea for a thriller that grew out of the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976. That became The Aleph Solution; it was well-reviewed but there were various publishing complications, including that I wrote under a pseudonym. A few years later, thinking that I might have a future in books, I wrote a mystery story, not based on any real event, that went nowhere (a draft still sits in a filing cabinet); one of the criticisms at the time was that it was lightly humorous and humor and mystery can’t mix. That idea was wrong even then, but I was busy with other projects and didn’t fight it. By the time I retired from salaried work a few years ago, readers’ and editors’ preconceptions had changed, and writing in this vein seemed worth another try.
KG: Now that you are a full-time writer, tell us about your writing practice—and process.
JKL: I read a lot, always have (I am probably of the last generation of writers to form a reading habit before television intruded). And always with a notebook in hand. Ideas constantly emerge and if I don’t write them down when they first surface they’ll vanish in a puff some seconds later. Most of my non-project-based reading I do in the evening, and so first thing the next morning I will walk downstairs to my office with scribbled notes in longhand on two or three memo pad-sized pages, which I transcribe (read, type – still the word I use) into as many project files (or create new ones) as necessary. Some of these files go back decades – one or two as far back as 1982, when I first began working on a desktop computer. I write in WordPerfect, a program still far superior to Word. I have been eyeing other software packages, like Scrivener and Nota Bene (I own them and keep them up to date), but so far have not found the time to learn them. Sometimes the act of transcribing will spur me then and there to write an additional paragraph or two on a current project, but inevitably I turn to email, on which I spend too much time each day, responding to what I must, deleting what I can, and reading online too many journals and newspapers and magazines that seem beguiling but rarely are. When I eventually tire of that I return to whatever the current project is and try to add something new. It doesn’t always happen every day – even in the pandemic there are other things going on, but once a project is not merely a personal fancy but a committed assignment, I try to spend as many hours a day as I can moving it along. I usually reread what I wrote the day before and fiddle a bit, but global revisions and major edits always await a completed project. Everything Is Jake, perhaps because it was a new form for me, went through about 15, over a year’s time.
KG: Who are your literary inspirations in the detective/mystery arena, both past and contemporary? Who’s your favorite living mystery author?
JKL: At the top of the list are Ross Thomas, Robert B. Parker, Donald Westlake, and Elmore Leonard: I’ve always been attracted to their adept dialogue and comic tone. I have read many other mystery writers, from earlier days (Christie, Ambler) to contemporary writers (Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Andrea Camilleri, Sue Grafton, and I’ve lately discovered Louise Penny) and ranging from scintillating to exasperating, but just to name a few is to cast unfair aspersions, perhaps, on all the many others that space prohibits listing (you know, Charles McCarry, Walter Mosley) – but I said I wasn’t going to do that . . . My favorite? Unfair, unfair: probably Ross Thomas. Oh, you said favorite living mystery author? I’ll get back to you.
At the top of the list [of favorite authors] are Ross Thomas, Robert B. Parker, Donald Westlake, and Elmore Leonard: I’ve always been attracted to their adept dialogue and comic tone. I have read many other mystery writers, from earlier days (Christie, Ambler) to contemporary writers (Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Andrea Camilleri, Sue Grafton, and I’ve lately discovered Louise Penny) and ranging from scintillating to exasperating, but just to name a few is to cast unfair aspersions, perhaps, on all the many others that space prohibits listing (you know, Charles McCarry, Walter Mosley)
KG: Your new book, Everything Is Jake, introduces readers to private investigator T. R. Softly, fiction’s newest and most charming and intuitive sleuth. Tell us more about Mr. Softly.
JKL: T. R. Softly is someone I’d like to know; he was only partly self-consciously willed. A few friends have asked if he is me. No, but as those who know me will no doubt attest, he has interests and some experiences (we both went to Yale) akin to mine (making my research job easier) and is no doubt, someone, imagining a different life, I might like to have been. He’s unconventional, mostly imperturbable, and sees to the heart of things, rather than filtering his impressions and thoughts through preconceived patterns, as his father and others around him do. He’s genuinely curious about a wide range of human activities (he goes to the trouble of demanding that a Yale administrator let him take courses that don’t seem to belong together). He’s got a good BS detector. He’s also, perhaps admirably, perhaps surprisingly, naïve about his personal life. He has good friends.
KG: Who do you see playing T. R. Softly were the Everything Is Jake film production to start today? And who would play the other major characters of the book—including the out-of-control president so similar to you-know-who?
JKL: Those are tough questions, in part because my film heroes are now mostly in the past. I look online and recognize few of the young ones said to be the “hottest actors working in Hollywood today.” For Softly, I guess you won’t allow me Steve McQueen, George Peppard, or even Denzel Washington or John Cusack; the latter two by now are probably too old. Still, shooting for the stars (so to speak): I could envision Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chris Pine, Jake Gyllenhaal. Who might play Mallory? Stana Katic, Elizabeth Banks? Playing Khaki: Elizabeth Moss, Rachel McAdams, Zoe Saldana? The President: John Cusack, Sam Rockwell, Clive Owen, Will Smith, Mark Ruffalo, or if we age our president slightly, Tony Shaloub or Stanley Tucci.
KG: What are some of T. R.’s hobbies and how closely do they reflect your own?
JKL: TR’s hobby, which this book doesn’t really explore, is letterpress printing. I grew up with presses in our home and learned to set type, one letter at a time, beginning when I was nine. So TR’s hobby reflects my experience. If there’s another Softly adventure, it will play a larger role.
KG: Everything Is Jake is quite humorous—especially in the names of many of your characters. Give us a few of your favorite EIJ character names and tell us the story of how you came up with them.
JKL: I’m a great fan of Dickens’s characters’ names. I’ve never thought bland, “conventional” names useful – all those Davids and Lisas and Johns – in fiction. And I suppose it’s no great leap to point out that I’m blessed or cursed with a highly unconventional name myself and have plenty of stories to tell about just that small point. For years I’ve been writing down potential character names – I have hundreds, most of them probably too ludicrous ever to use. But some popped out of that list – for example, Formerly Mumford, one of TR’s full-time employees. It’s modeled on a technique that Ross Thomas used well in several of his books to name a character after a verbal or linguistic tic. I should also say that some of the names (Luana), and even street addresses (Dumbarton), are nods (or tips of the hat) to friends of mine, who, I hope, will recognize a reference to a shared experience – or see it as a salute to them.
For years I’ve been writing down potential character names – I have hundreds, most of them probably too ludicrous ever to use. But some popped out of that list – for example, Formerly Mumford, one of TR’s full-time employees. It’s modeled on a technique that Ross Thomas used well in several of his books to name a character after a verbal or linguistic tic.
KG: What’s the hardest thing about being a mystery author? How do you overcome the challenges and keep writing?
JKL: The hardest thing? There are lots of hard things. At first blush, I’d say plotting. In non-fiction, you’re usually picking apart someone else’s plot; in fiction you’re assembling it. I have many books on plotting on my shelves—and have even read several of them. They are mostly junk. They rarely teach anything about the intricacies of doing it; they rely instead on platitudes. Beyond the long arc of the story, plots depend on various strands of personality, desire, need, and objectives, all coming from different directions, to intersect with each other and form a rope that pulls readers along to a plausible ending that ought to be unguessable not merely at the outset but pretty much throughout. I took it on faith that I could figure out the way and began and kept going without knowing, for months, how the plot would spin out, connect, mesh, or resolve. That’s due in no small part to having to keep two different audiences simultaneously in mind: readers and characters, who rarely learn the same facts at the same time. I spent many days writing memos to myself saying, essentially: “Well, if she does this, then he could do that, but why would she, if the other guy needs to . . .and besides, wouldn’t the reader then think that . . .”
KG: What makes Everything Is Jake the perfect novel for these times? Why should someone read this book?
JKL: I’m not sure that the author is the best one to answer those questions, but I can venture the hope that what motivated me to write it will carry the reader through. Although the idea that prompted the story didn’t begin with politics in mind, for reasons that readers will see, it prompted a story line that transformed itself into at least three general human inquiries of particular interest to mystery readers: what are the causes of events; how do things come to be? How can we figure out what they are? And what can explain the madness of our times, the personalities of the people whose hands hold our fate, and how can they be dealt with? My solution is obviously unorthodox, obviously even fanciful, but those observations are meant to suggest that conventional solutions were (or continue to be) unlikely to be workable. Beyond all that, early reviews seem to agree with my fondest hope for the book: that readers will find it fun.
Preorder EVERYTHING IS JAKE now directly from Three Rooms Press or at your favorite bookshop.
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