Sunday, October 25, 2009

George Fletcher talks about The Bond

Guest Blogger

George Fletcher

[A Conversation with Columbia's George Fletcher about his first novel, The Bond, recently published in the U.K.:]

Q: You have written well over a dozen non-fiction books. Why were you inspired to write a novel?

A: About five years ago an article appeared in the New York Times explaining that many professors had written novels in order to explain their fields to undergraduates. This had been done a couple of time in economics, once in artificial intelligence, and I think once in architecture. No one had ever done this for law. The kinds of books we get on law all focus on trials or law firms – places where there is dramatic human interaction. No one in the field of fiction has taken on the law as the romance of ideas, but in fact it is the ideas that wed us to the law. This, I figured, was the great untold story. The problem was figuring out how to do it in a culture that is generally skeptical about ideas.

It occurs to me now that another experience I had in 2005-06 encouraged me to believe I could bring theoretical ideas to the page in a way that would engage readers. The JAG corps tapped me to help them on a case that challenged President Bush's policies in conducting trials of suspected terrorists before military trials. The army lawyers themselves were offended by Bush's shortcuts with the principles of criminal procedure worked out in the Uniform Code of Criminal Procedure. They had a glimmer of an idea but no developed argument about how they could win. I took over the intellectual side of the case and developed an argument that I thought was the best available but probably too theoretical to win. The funny thing is that my argument won four votes on the Supreme Court and we got a fifth vote from Justice Kennedy on a less theoretical point. The amazing thing is that we won – thee first time liberal lawyers won against the Bush Administration – and that we won on the high ground of intellectual argument.

This experience led me to believe that I had underestimated the ability of educated people to appreciate the theoretical side of the law. Therefore I had to try to win adherents to the beauty of theoretical argument by presenting it in the most palatable way possible – that is, by adding a story, mixing in a little romance and intrigue, and keeping readers waiting and wanting to find out what happens next.

Q: THE BOND is set at an Ivy League university in New York—a similar setting to Columbia University where you currently teach. How did you use your real life experiences to develop the narrative?

A: THE BOND draws on lots of local scenes and people. For example, I have two long scenes with the beloved Columbia philosopher Sydney Morgenbesser who died a few years ago. One scene is his 75th birthday party and I mention some of the famous people who came to pay homage to him – Robert Nozick, Edward Said, and Robert Silvers. Mentioning these people locates the story in time and space. The birthday did happen. The novel could have as well.

But by far, the most important factor in developing the narrative is the class I actually teach to the incoming post-graduate students. THE BOND follows part of the lesson plan for the class. The students from the class can recognize much of the material discussed in the book. But the actual students and the professor's dialogue with them are all fictional. There is no student in real life replicated in the novel. The characters in the novel are all composites of people I have known.

Q: You have said that anyone who has an interest in the law or is studying law would enjoy this book. How are you hoping the reading experience of THE BOND will contribute to learning about the law?

A: First, by reading the book, they will actually learn something about the way lawyers think. Whether they learn this or that rule of the Constitution is not important. What is important is the mode of intellectual interaction that thrives in law schools. It is a distinctive culture – highly verbal, competitive, obsessed with distinctions and analogies, and has a general sense of importance both of the people and the calling. I know of no other book that communicates both the value and the dark side of legal studies.

Q: THE BOND has a strong narrative beyond the classroom. How do you see THE BOND appealing to the general reader?

A: I like the mystery about the meaning of the title. If you look at the cover you think the relevant bond is between men and women. And the word "bond" is used many times in the novel to speak of special friendships and relationships. The real bond, however, is something much deeper and only becomes clear at the end. Reading the novel should be a journey of discovery about the depths of various human relationships.

Q: What other audiences beyond those involved in law do you see being attracted to the novel?

A: THE BOND should appeal to all people interested in political maneuvering in large organizations – that is what academic fights in law school are all about. People who like moral problems will find themselves engaged as well.

Q: What are some comparisons in literature, either names of books or authors that can be drawn with THE BOND? Why?

A: I think of myself as writing in the tradition of C.P. Snow and David Lodge, both English novelists who wrote about campus life. I never read much of Snow but Lodge has been one my favorites. He combines humor, authentic portrayal of campus life, and insights into the English profession, with solid narrative skills. It is not an accident that most campus novels are about English departments. It is something new to focus on a law school.

Some people might associate THE BOND with the successful book some years ago by Scott Turow called "One-L." It is a diary of the first year of the Harvard Law School. Other books have appeared in that genre. They are mostly complaints about the anxieties of being a law student. They are not of much value in communicating the life of ideas in the law.

Q: You have said that the last novel published most similar in genre to THE BOND was Sophie's World. Would you elaborate on how you think they compare?

A: The Story of Sophie's World is interesting. It was written by a Norwegian philosophy professor named Jostein Gaarder and first published in Europe. I read it originally in France, where it was a best seller. It finally made it across the Atlantic and succeeded here, but only the result, I believe, of its European popularity.

It is a bit of a mystery to me that the book succeeded at all. Its structure is a series of letters about the history of philosophy, each letter about a specific time period. There is no connection between the outside plot and the inner development of the letters. The outside plot is in fact rather trivial. It is about a girl waiting for letters from her father. I think the plot of THE BOND stands on its own as a valuable read. That is the sense in which I would like to be writing in the tradition of David Lodge. But if people find my discussion of the law as interesting as they found Gaarder's discussion of philosophy, I will be very happy indeed.

Q: Adam Gross is a strong protagonist and given the way the story ends is there a chance that you might want to expand his story in future book? What are your plans as a novelist?

A: I have the sequel to THE BOND thought out. Interestingly, however, it centers not on Adam but on Aschkin. In my mind, she turns out to be the heroine of THE BOND. In the end she travels to Jerusalem. That is where the new story unfolds. It is more in the nature of a murder mystery, which Aschkin solves, in cooperation with the local police, by applying material she learns in a local course about Biblical interpretation. It is called "The Bible Lesson." It takes the book of Genesis as a backdrop in much the way THE BOND relies on legal ideas as the background of the story. In neither case are the ideas an end in themselves. The ideas are important because they matter in the unfolding of the story and in the lives of the characters.

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