Although Presumed Innocent was a blockbuster bestseller, it took you 23 years to publish a follow-up. Did you always intend to write a sequel to tie up loose ends?
To be honest, I thought for many years that I never would write a sequel. I always thought self-imitation is an inherently limiting thing for a writer, and I was afraid of trying to equal a book whose success at the time depended in part on breaking new ground. [But] at this stage, I was no longer worried about constraining myself. And by now, enough time has passed that I thought many people would be curious about Rusty—starting first of all with me.
Some of the events in Innocent eerily echo Rusty’s experiences in Presumed Innocent. How do you approach these parallel circumstances but twist them so they are fresh and new?
Well, I think one of the deepest truths about life is that people are sometimes compelled for reasons they don’t understand to keep repeating the same mistakes. So I regarded the parallel circumstances as deeply revealing of the character, and full of a meaning that wasn’t as clearly there the first time around. All the characters in Innocent are informed by the experience of the first book, and are trying desperately, in a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, not to step in the same river twice.
Often lawyers who become authors of legal thrillers have a difficult time developing a fluid writing style, but your writing has always been gripping and accessible. What is your secret?
I was a novelist before I was a lawyer, having been a creative writing fellow at Stanford before I headed to law school. As a result, I was not trying to “find” my narrative voice after my style had been shaped by legal writing. I see legal writing as a distinct and somewhat limited voice that I’ve mastered, but one that does not really interfere with the creative voice I’d found before.
Given that you are still a practicing lawyer, what drives you to write fiction that also deals with the law?
I always say that the great break of my literary career was going to law school—it was one of the most fortuitous decisions of my life. I was a lecturer in the English department at Stanford, and for me going to law school meant giving up a teaching career. But I realized I was passionate about the law and the questions it asks, about deciding right from wrong for an entire society, fashioning rules that are firm yet flexible enough to fit the multitude of human circumstances. Those questions continue to preoccupy me. The truth is that I became not only a much more successful writer when I started writing about the law, but also a much better one as well, because I was writing about things that gripped me to the core.
The law often relies on individuals interpreting laws and regulations as best they can. To what extent do you think your novels contain characters and actions that are subject to the interpretation of your readers?
Without subscribing too heartily to deconstructionism, there is a truth that every reader reads a book his or her own way. But art of all kinds also depends on creating universals; in the case of narrative, we seek to create a fully imagined individual, a character, to whose life readers have something of a universal reaction. There are great differences in nuance in terms of readers’ responses, but if there is not a common element, a book is probably not a success.