Interview with Robert Dugoni
Former lawyer and best-selling US legal thriller writer, ROBERT DUGONI talks about his writing, jury selection, and the need for a system that is colour blind.
Former lawyer, Robert Dugoni is one of the world’s greatest writers of legal thrillers and police procedurals. A regular New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller and winner of countless prestigious writing awards, his novel, My Sister’s Grave was the number one download on Amazon, in both the UK and US.
Olly Jarvis caught up with him for The Crime Hub …
It is often said that after working for a law firm in San Francisco, you woke up one morning and decided you were going to be a writer and to fulfil a promise you’d made to your wife. Was it really that simple?
Don’t I wish.
No, I had written my entire life for newspapers, both while in school and then the Los Angeles Times. I also majored in communications and took a lot of creative writing courses while at Stanford. I’d wanted to be a writer since the seventh grade, but I chickened out and went to law school to ensure I could make a living.
I did have an epiphany one morning, however, as we all do when we reach 39 and suddenly realize, our life was not what we had intended and we aren’t getting any younger. And I did wake up one morning and said to my wife, “I can’t do this anymore.” And her response was simply, “Then we won’t.”
That I wanted to take a chance, to do what I’d always wanted to do, to pursue my dreams. She supported me. I couldn’t have done it without her. But it was a long haul with a lot of ups and downs along the way. It wasn’t until 2013, about 15 years after I made the decision to leave the law, that I was writing full-time.
Having made the decision, you took off from San Francisco and spent three years writing books in a tiny eight by eight foot office in Seattle. How did you feel during that time? Were there times you regretted the decision to give up the law?
No. I loved every minute of it. I was doing what I wanted to do, and I naively believed that I’d be a best-seller in just a year or two. As writers know, it was a lot more difficult and I had to take two steps back for every step forward, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I haven’t regretted a single moment
It is said by other crime writers that no one can write courtroom scenes like you. How much did your life as an attorney help you with that? Do you think you could have made it as a legal thriller writer if you hadn’t been a lawyer first?
It’s a nice compliment. There are many who write strong courtroom scenes. What I do, frankly, is try not to be repetitive. A lot of trial work is being thorough and taking a witness step by step. But you can’t do that in today’s thriller market. So I tend to summarize the boring parts and quickly get to the parts that are fresh and contain pertinent information that the reader needs.
What the law taught me was there are no shortcuts to success. Hard work remains the best way to succeed. I learned to put my butt in a chair and to go to work for 8 to 12 hours every day, even weekends when I’m in the flow. I also learned to write quickly and succinctly which has helped my productivity. I try to stay in the public eye with new books every six months, but I also won’t sacrifice quality for quantity.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given that has helped you in your writing?
When you’re having an off day, don’t waste it. Write scenes you know are going to be in the book, even if they’re a hundred pages in.
Then go back and write the scenes leading up to the scenes you’ve written. Mike Lawson, a terrific writer, gave me this advice and its one of the reasons I can write novels quickly and rarely have a bad writing day.
Many people in The UK see the US criminal justice system as a fascinating circus. Famously, the OJ Simpson trial, which would have lasted a week or two in English courts, lasted a year in the US, playing out largely in the media. What are your views on defence attorneys courting the media during a trial?
They’re doing their job. We can say what we want, but the attorneys that represented OJ did their job.
I had a defence attorney once tell me his job was to ensure that the prosecutors followed the letter of the law and the constitution, not to necessarily get his client off.
The best defence lawyers are the ones who find the weaknesses in a case, the evidence the prosecution has not thoroughly or properly analysed, and then they exploit it. On the other hand, the attorneys who grandstand, who play out their cases in the media, I think set a bad precedent for the law and for lawyers. Cases are to be tried in a court to a jury.
They are not supposed to be tried to the general public. Usually that is the attorney not doing his best for his client, but doing his best for himself.
The process for selecting jurors for a trial in the US seems to be an art form in itself. In English courts, the peremptory challenge was abolished in 1988 – the right of lawyers to object to a juror without giving a reason. Parliament saw it as a derogation from the principle of random selection. Now we even have police officers sitting on juries if there is to be no accusation made against police conduct in the trial. Which system do you favour?
Wow. I did not know that about English courts. It’s an interesting conundrum. Juries, first and foremost, need to be fair, as well as to represent society.
Jurors are not supposed to have a preconceived notion about a defendant or a case based upon their own predilections and experiences. I think some occupations, by their very nature, provide the individual with preconceived notions and beliefs. Some people believe, “If the person was charged with the crime, they’re probably guilty.” Others believe, “African Americans are statistically singled out for crimes and the justice system is prejudicial.”
Can a person in these situations provide an unbiased opinion, even if they might be right? I didn’t try enough cases to say definitively which system is better. I can certainly understand how the challenges could be a derogation of random selection. I think the bigger issue here in the United States is a number of people – usually people in higher socio-economic positions, have learned they can ignore a jury selection subpoena without any consequence.
If it becomes more widespread, that could really become a derogation of the principle of random selection.
There is an age old debate going on over here about whether barristers should stop wearing wigs, a tradition started in the sixteenth century! Some say they add an appropriate solemnity to the proceedings. How would wigs go down in US Courts?
Ha! I’m laughing out loud only because the thought is hysterical, but I understand the English tradition, and the rationale for it makes sense.
Court proceedings should be respected. The consequences of legal proceedings can change lives forever. I think here in the United States we’ve become a bit too casual with the proceedings and with finding the truth. Too often civil cases become all about winning rather than finding justice. And that often is decided by which side has the most money.
I think anything that forces people to understand that appearing in a courtroom is a solemn and a formal proceeding with possible grave consequences for the parties is a good thing.
If you could change one thing about the US criminal justice system, what would it be?
Finding a way to make it truly color blind. Unfortunately, overworked defense attorneys and prosecutors can’t always devote the time needed for each case.
Too often plea deals are made that aren’t in the defendant’s best interest, but to keep the wheels of an overworked justice system turning, and a far significantly higher percentage of people of color get caught in those wheels. Something needs to change.