A Conversation With James — 2007
Q: Peyton Shields, the lead character in Lying with Strangers, is a twenty-eight-year old woman doing a pediatric residency at Boston Children's hospital. That's a far cry from Jack Swyteck, a Miami criminal defense lawyer pushing forty, who is the star of your series. How much research went into Peyton's character?
A: Tons, but I love research. That's the great freedom of a writing career, being able to dive headlong into any subject matter that interests you. Research not only gives the story an authentic voice, but it helps keep me as a writer connected to the real world. By research I really mean getting out in the field. I owe a huge thanks to Dr. David Weinstein, who at the time was chief resident at Boston Children's Hospital. The hospital allowed me to shadow David, and since I was writing about a woman, David made a point of introducing me to female residents. I couldn't have possibly captured what it's like to work at the best pediatric hospital in the world without spending time there. To have that kind of access to such a fabled institution made this some of the most enjoyable research I've ever done.
Q: Was it difficult for you to write from the perspective of a female main character?
A: It helps to be married to an English Literature major. But even so, it took me years to get it right. I started Lying with Strangers in 1999, and I can still see my wife looking up from the early manuscript, rolling her eyes, and telling me "A woman would never say that!" Now, the feedback from women readers is glowing, so it was worth sweating the details.
Q: The Internet plays an important role in Lying
with Strangers. Do you find the Internet as dangerous as you present it?
A: One thing thriller writers agree on: It's difficult to overstate the danger of just about anything in today's society. Identity theft over the Internet is the fastest growing crime in the world, and we are all vulnerable. Readers find the stalker in Lying with Strangers so frightening because he knows his victim so well. For better or worse, the Internet gives all of us—criminals included—the power to uncover intimate details about perfect strangers. Even scarier, it enables predators anywhere in the world to reach into our homes and target and communicate with their next victim. It's interesting that I started writing Lying with Strangers before the dangers of the Internet were even talked about. The book is more relevant now than ever.
Q: You were a trial lawyer for many years, starting your career in Janet Reno's law firm, and you're currently Counsel to David Boies' firm. Has that work shaped any of the courtroom scenes in Lying with Strangers?
A: My legal career has triggered many ideas, but more than any specific case, it's the overall experience of being a trial lawyer that has benefited me most in my writing. As a trial lawyer, you see the best and worst of people. You see victims of crimes who have the courage to come into a public courtroom, look their attacker in the eye, and work through the emotional pain of telling a jury exactly what happened. Just as courageous, you see people with no personal stake in the case come forward—sometimes at the risk of their employment or personal safety—simply to make sure that justice is done. So, in some sense I see the world as filled with unlikely heroes. On the other hand, you deal with the snakes who can't give an honest answer to a simple question. You deal with some lawyers who think litigation is just a game and that the rules are for losers. That overall perspective that I've gained through personal experience is written into every chapter of Lying with Strangers.
Q: Is there much of yourself in the character of Kevin, the "lawyer with a dream" who is Peyton's husband ? And, are there really that many lawyers who want to become writers, as you hint in your book?
A: I can definitely relate to Kevin's experiences as a young lawyer dreaming about becoming a writer. Like him, I was working 50-60 hour weeks in a big law firm, secretly writing a novel nights and weekends. And also like Kevin, I had my share of disappointment along the road to success. After four years of writing, not a single publisher wanted my first manuscript. By my agent believed in that book. "Jim," he said, "you got the most encouraging rejection letters I've ever seen." It sounds goofy, but what else can you say to an author who's taken his best shot and landed face down on the floor? Artie the optimist, I called him. With Artie's encouragement, I wrote another novel in seven months, and it sold in just a few days to HarperCollins Publishers. The Pardon is now all over the world in over 20 languages. Fortunately for me, the scene from Lying with Strangers in which Kevin and dozens of other lawyers are scammed by a con-artist who preys on aspiring writers is totally fiction. But yes, there are many, many lawyers who want to become writers. I get e mails from them every day. I answer all of them, except the guys who think they have it all figured out—I write the book, we split the profits, he does the Today Show and I get Good Morning America. Seriously, I get those e mails.
Q: You present especially destructive kinds of love in Lying with Strangers—obsessive love, possessive love. Do you find love so destructive?
A: No, I just find it more interesting to write
about the destructive side of everything. All love has the potential to become
destructive, but as readers will also see in Lying with Strangers, love
can help us overcome any adversity. In one of my favorite scenes, an older and
wiser character explains how he dealt with his wife's infidelity. The wife
confessed everything and told him that she was sorry, but that's not why he
forgave her. "Her contrition made it possible for my ego to get out of the
way," he says. "But that has nothing to do with forgiveness. I forgave her
because I loved her." I think those words reflect more of my personal feelings
Q: Lying with Strangers is one of those novels in which the reader is not quite sure if the whole truth will ever see the light of day, which can be disquieting. Is that the same feeling you lived with as a trial lawyer?
A: When the truth comes out in the courtroom, it is
one of the greatest feelings in the world. But you have to be realistic, or
you become bitter. In high school I read the Pulitzer Prize winning play A
Man for All Seasons. It's the story of Sir Thomas Moore, who was tried for
treason and beheaded after he refused on principle to sign an oath approving the
marriage of King Henry VIII to Ann Boleyn. It stuck with me throughout my
career as a lawyer, especially early-on, when I was young and naïve and
appalled to discover how many witnesses lied under oath. People complain that
lawyers are always trying to trip them up with their clever questions, but in
my experience witnesses too often had to be tricked into telling the truth. In
my most cynical moments as a trial lawyer, I'd go back to Sir Thomas Moore and
the sanctity of an oath.
Q: All the characters in Lying with Strangers have something to hide. Do you think everybody has something to hide?
A: Without a doubt. In my second novel, The
Informant, one of my characters says, "The only people who can be totally
honest with each other are lovers or strangers. Everyone else is just
negotiating." I believe there's a lot of truth in those words.