Searching for Justice in the Fallout: A Conversation with Julia Dahl




JULIA DAHL’S FIRST three novels featured Rebekah Roberts, an intrepid crime reporter in New York City. With her new stand-alone thriller, Dahl, who has covered the crime beat for outlets such as the New York Post and CBSNews.com, sticks with that topic, but from a different perspective. In The Missing Hours, a riveting, single-sitting read, rich-girl Claudia and very not-rich Trevor run into each other in their New York University dorm the morning after Claudia’s been sexually assaulted. The ensuing story encompasses the failures of our criminal justice system as well as the vagaries of new money, old money, no money, and the privileges and limits of trust-fund money in today’s America.

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DANEET STEFFENS: There’s been a longer time span than usual between your last book and this one. Was that because you were trying something different?

JULIA DAHL: I’ve been working on this book for four years. I was supposed to have finished it two years ago, but I had a baby and I ended up totally rewriting the book. Claudia’s story was always the same, but I couldn’t figure out how to write it for a while. I knew I wanted it to have multiple points of view because it was really important to me that the story was not just about the impact on her, but also about the impact on the people around her. But it took me so long to figure out who says what and when. It was definitely a harder book for me to write, and I think some of that was because it was the first book I’d written as a mom. I didn’t have the long spaces of time, not just to write, but to think, to walk. Walking is how I write my books — I come up with ideas and the plot and moments of conversation — and I didn’t have that anymore. I’d go long stretches without working on it, so it just stayed in my head: sometimes it would go dark and then wake up again.

Wasn’t this book meant to be a Rebekah Roberts book? In previous interviews you talked about this being another Rebekah novel, that Claudia lives in Rebecca’s brother’s dorm. How did you decide to leave Rebekah behind?

The initial idea was always drawn from reporting I’d done at CBS, mostly about the Steubenville rape case in 2012, an awful case of this teenager who’d been raped at a party. There were all these details that made me think, “What would it be like to be that girl? What would it be like to be her family?” I had a contract for another Rebekah book so I started thinking about how Rebekah could be connected. But as I started writing, I realized that this is not a Rebekah story, that forcing Rebekah in didn’t make sense. Happily, my editor was supportive. When I realized that maybe I could just not write a Rebekah book, just write the story that I was interested in, that was cool and freeing. As much as I love Rebekah — I will probably write another book about her someday — I was ready to write about other people. It was fun and challenging because suddenly I didn’t have an anchor character who I knew so well.

The Missing Hours is a kind of anatomy of the aftermath of a crime, all the different people that it touches, from powerful, high-profile attorney Ridley Drake, to outlier Trevor who is such a large part of the story.

I really wanted to include Trevor’s perspective, partly because I have a son and partly because my best friend is my husband, a man. I wanted to write about the confusion that young men feel around their own sexuality. Trevor is a good guy, he has a good heart. He’s put in a situation where there’s a girl he can’t help but be attracted to, but she’s also in this position where he feels like he can be her savior. That’s something that boys are taught constantly — “Be the hero! Thwart the bad guy! Save the princess!”

So Trevor can be that to Claudia maybe, and that makes him feel good. But he’s also super confused because he knows she’s been raped. So it’s not like he can be trying to kiss her, right? He recognizes that he can’t do that, but he still wants it. My husband and I talk a lot, and he has talked about being confused a bit as a young man, a teenager, by the messages that boys would get about women: you’re supposed to be a gentleman, but women also love the bad boy. What are you supposed to do, and what do they really want? I wanted to explore that with Trevor, and I also wanted that class element where he’s just experienced the world totally differently than Claudia has. They’re forced together and they hold on to each other, but they’re so far apart.

Part of the book’s power is showing that a violent act often makes others act violently. That includes the way Claudia pushes people to help her, how she uses her position of privilege to follow her own form of justice.

Totally. The rape is a bomb that’s dropped, and it injures all these people; there’s shrapnel everywhere, and it begets more violence. You bring violence into someone’s life and it doesn’t just go away. And it’s not just about the one person — it impacts multiple people beyond them. And Claudia is not necessarily a good guy. Something horrible happened to her: part of what I wanted to write about is that it changed her.

She’s also aware of how dysfunctional the justice system can be.

Yes. And that’s what all my books on some level are about. I started writing about criminal justice in about 2005 or so, and what I did for my whole journalism career was look at how screwed up our criminal justice system is for everybody. It’s just broken in so many ways, and I feel like each book I write in some way comes out of my knowledge of how screwed up it is. Claudia avoids the criminal justice system because even she, who is not an expert, recognizes that she is not going to be looked kindly upon.

Everything that Ridley says and does reinforces that.

Exactly. For me, Claudia is a person who is used to being powerful in her life. She is used to being listened to and admired and envied, but now she realizes no one’s going to believe her, or, even if they do, that they might be like, “You got drunk and had sex and now you feel sad about it.” No one’s going to want to hear what she went through.

A lot of where this book came from was this idea that in the news we have “dirty” victims and “clean” victims: a “clean” victim is the white girl who gets kidnapped and murdered; a “dirty” victim is a sex worker or someone who uses drugs or somebody who’s promiscuous. And in a way Claudia is a “dirty” victim in that she’s the kind of person we love to tear down. She’s living in her wealthy bubble, but even she knows enough to know that no one’s going to feel outraged for her. And I wanted the book to force you into the understanding that you don’t have to like a rape victim for her to deserve justice.

And Claudia knows, because of the nature of social media, how this assault on her will impact her life.

Yes — and that’s partly because she has made herself the person that documents her life online, you know? It’s not not her fault — that’s who she is. That’s how the world is, and she’s embraced that part of the world. And now it’s about to bite her in the ass.

As a fiction writer, what has your time as a crime reporter taught you?

It gave me a window into how, when a crime happens, it doesn’t ever feel better after that. Even if the perfect outcome happens — you’re the victim of a crime or your mother’s the victim of a crime — and they find out who did it and that person goes away for life, it’s still torn your life apart and your life will never be the same. It’s important to have a justice system, but the violence that a crime can do to you does not go away. And most of the time it’s a not-perfect outcome, right?

And the flip side, which I wrote about in Conviction, is that the system itself victimizes people — and it doesn’t just victimize the wrongfully convicted or too harshly punishes certain kinds of people. I wrote a couple of stories at CBS about women who were sexually assaulted and the women were issuing complaints, basically saying that the interactions they had with police were as traumatic as the assault — that they were not believed, that they were interrogated, that it was clear that there was no investigation. So the system itself traumatizes at times. That’s something that I’m always going to be thinking about.

What’s next for you, book-wise?

I’ve started to write my next book! One of the main characters is a reporter at a small newspaper. He feels thwarted because he wanted to have a bigger career, but he got his girlfriend pregnant and came home, but he still has that drive to uncover things and snoop around. It allows me to write about the media, and I really love writing about the media — it’s just so ubiquitous in our lives. Even with The Missing Hours there’s some of that, in Claudia’s fear of the headlines, that fear that the media is going to find out.

Finally, you’re also teaching journalism at New York University. What’s that like?

I teach undergrads and graduate students, as well as doing things like career advice and helping with our awards program. I have taught a feature-writing course, but mostly I teach the “how to write an article” class: basic journalism, interviews, source-finding, the inverted pyramid, what’s a lede, what’s a nut graf, and “Practice, practice, practice, practice!” These students want to be part of the media and they want to make it and the world a better place. So that part of my life is helping people perfect a skill that I think is so important: journalism is a social good, it’s the pillar of our democracy, and I love helping young people get better at it.

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Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.

 

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