Justin Peacock is living the dream. The lawyer-turned-successful-writer dream, that is.
His first novel, A Cure for Night, got rave reviews. The Washington Post called it “terrific.” The New York Times praised Peacock for forgoing “the flashier precincts of John Grisham, where all is conspiracy and the legalese is leavened with bombs and gunplay, and head[ing] toward Scott Turow country, where characters get enmeshed in the murky, moral corners of the actual law.” The Mystery Writers of America recently nominated Peacock for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
After all the accolades, Peacock, 38, quit his litigation job at Patterson Belknap last year to concentrate full-time on writing. We caught up with him at Ozzie’s Coffeehouse in Brooklyn on a rainy Wednesday afternoon this week. Read our interview on making the transition from law to writing, after the jump.
Justin Peacock had a spiraling journey toward law, and has a fairly schizophrenic resume to show for it. After undergrad at the University of Michigan, he got an MFA at Columbia University, spent a few years working at NYTimes.com, and then packed his bags for New Haven and a J.D. at Yale. He spent a year at Proskauer Rose, a year clerking for Judge Frederic Block (E.D.N.Y.), a couple years in-house at the Hearst Corporation, and finally two years at Patterson Belknap. These days, he lives the life of a writer– no alarm clock, but lots of time in front of a laptop.
In A Cure For Night, Manhattan Biglaw attorney Joel Deveraux hooks up with a paralegal named Beth who turns him on to heroin. After disaster strikes, Joel is laid off and find works as a public defender in Brooklyn, where he winds up working on a big murder case. Peacock wrote A Cure For Night over a period of three years while working at Hearst and then at Patterson.
Kash: How did you write a book while working full-time?
Peacock: Lots of nights and a lot of weekends. If I’d known then what I know now, I don’t know if I would have attempted it. I mean, I’m glad I did it, but trying to balance the two things was really difficult.
Kash: So now that you’ve “made it” in writing, are you done with the law?
Peacock: I don’t see myself as someone who will never practice again, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a big firm, full-time thing… I was working on a case that was scheduled to go to trial in L.A. the month the book was going to come out. And I asked the firm, “Is there anything we can do about this?” And they said, understandably, “No, not really.” There came a time, when I realized the two things weren’t going to balance any longer.
Kash: How did you find your agent?
Peacock: I compiled a list of about 20 or 25 agents by looking around on the Internet and looking in the back of people’s books where they thanked their agents. I sent the first 50 pages of my book to a slew of agents, and had a few responses. I chose my agent because she was the most enthusiastic.
Kash: And how did you get published?
Peacock: I racked up a good amount of rejections on the way to getting published. There were two or three people interested but weren’t ready to make offers. I did more work on it, and sent it to them again… and ended up with Doubleday. It was probably a six-month process to actually get the book out.
Kash: You’ve been in Biglaw. You’ve worked in the Brooklyn courts. Were you taking notes along the way knowing you might write about it?
Peacock: It can be a tricky thing how much you draw from your own life and your own direct experiences. I don’t think I could have written a Biglaw law firm book while working and practicing in that area. If I’m writing something too close to my lived experience, it becomes more of a journal exercise than a work for future. I tried to find something where I knew enough about it to not make a complete fool of myself in terms of getting things wrong. But the book isn’t really reflective of my actual legal career.
Kash: Given that, how did you do your research for the book?
Peacock: I had a public defender friend who did a thorough vetting of the book. I got on Lexis and did some actual legal research, and hung out in New York courtrooms. Clerking was a helpful experience in terms of the ambiance of the courtroom. The Brooklyn federal trial courts are a lively and eccentric place.
Kash: Beyond telling a great story, what kind of themes did you hope to tackle in the book?
Peacock: I wanted to tell a more realistic story about criminal law. A lot of legal thrillers are about high-level government conspiracies and some hidden Thomas Jefferson scroll from the 18th century or what have you…
Kash: Any particular authors in mind there?
Peacock: (laughs) Absolutely not. I wanted to tell a story grounded in race and class, and something reflective of what really happens in a big city criminal courtroom. And I wanted to explore Brooklyn and the intersection of some different worlds that exist here. (Ed. note: Peacock loves Brooklyn.)
Kash: Is there any advice you would offer to practicing lawyers who want to make the transition into writing?
Peacock: Write a lot. Quality comes later. Very few people sit down and in their first attempt at writing fiction, do a very good job. It’s a lot of trial and error. Most books that deserve to sell do sell. Agents and editors are very smart, hard-working people who really do want to discover work. People shouldn’t focus on writing something publishable. Just keep doing the work until the work gets good.
Kash: When developing a book, where do you start? Plot? Characters?
Peacock: Characters come first. I’m not a very good plotter, in terms of planning out the story in advance. But law school did help me in terms of thinking structurally, and outlining, in terms of the advance planning that goes into a legal brief. But at the end of the day, I still start with the characters and go from there…. For A Cure for Night, the first character was the narrator — a lawyer who had fallen from grace, and ended up as a public defender against his will, and that character’s effort to find his place in the new world he found himself in.
Kash: I’ve heard some lawyers-turned-writers say that law school “untaught” them how to write. How do you feel about the transition from legal writing to fiction writing?
Peacock: There are dangers, particular in how legal writing is done. There’s simply no place for emotion, for example. One of the things they do teach out of you in law school is the human element. There are modes of legal writing that become very formulistic and use too much Latin — though not in the best legal writing — and there can be a formality and pretentiousness which isn’t ideal. There’s a danger of becoming so analytical that you lose a bit of your humanity. But there is a lot of great material in the law.
Kash: What’s next?
Peacock: A novel that I’ve been working on for two years. Again set in New York City, it relates to New York commercial real estate. Which is much in the news now, but wasn’t when I started. The real world kind of caught up and superseded the book in a sense.
Kash: Are there any links between the two books?
Peacock: Both books deal with younger lawyers who are trying to find how they can exist within the system of practicing law. I think every lawyer in the early stages of their career has to answer that question as to how you work within this vast, impersonal system.
Case Worker [New York Times]
Addictive Prose [Washington Post]