Julia Dahl is one of the featured authors at the 9th Annual Writers for Readers Book and Author Event, April 5, 201 at the Friday Center. Click here for more information.
What was your inspiration for Invisible City and for your main character, Rebekah?
It’s a bit of a long story, but, in a nutshell, when I moved to Brooklyn in 2007 I moved into an apartment where the previous tenant – an Hasidic Jew who was shunned by his family for being gay – had committed suicide. As I learned more about him and his world from my neighbors I became fascinated by the Hasidic men and women around me. I thought: they’re Jews, like me, but also totally unlike me. I wanted to know more about how they lived and what they believed. At the same time, I had just gotten a job at the New York Post, doing the job Rebekah does – basically, running around New York City collecting information. I was in a different neighborhood every day, talking to all kinds of different people, and I wanted to explore how difficult – and interesting – that job would be to someone younger than me (I was 30 at the time). I mashed the two ideas together and started writing.
Did you begin by having a particular readership in mind or were you just writing a story that you felt you had to tell?
I definitely didn’t have a readership in mind. I knew I wanted to write a mystery that focused on how people in a notoriously insular community would behave when one of their own was murdered. I knew I wanted to create a strong, but flawed, female narrator. And I knew there were several “issues” I wanted to explore: the corrosive power of secrets, the perils of performing journalism irresponsibly, and how we treat our mentally ill friends and family.
How does writing about crime for CBSNews.com influence the novels you write?
I’ve been writing about crime since 2004 when a friend who worked at Seventeen magazine asked if I wanted to do a feature about a girl who had been killed by her mother in Alabama. I found the work – meeting with law enforcement, interviewing victims and their families, reading trial transcripts – riveting, but it wasn’t until I started working as a stringer at the New York Post that I realized I could turn some of what I was experiencing as a crime reporter into fiction. Whether it was covering a kidnapped child in Borough Park, Brooklyn, or reporting on the Sandy Hook school shooting, I’ve taken moments from my life as a reporter and used them as jumping-off points for my novels.
How do you balance writing for CBSNews.com with being an author?
It’s tough, especially now that I have a 4-month-old son! Fortunately, I have an unbelievably supportive boss who has let me take big chunks of time off to write. I really have the best of both worlds; I get to be part of the “conversation,” so to speak, as a member of the press, but I also get the freedom to create characters and events, and to more closely examine human motivations, as a novelist.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the reaction to your work from the comments of critics and readers alike?
I’ve been surprised by how much readers like Rebekah. She is immature in a lot of ways – she’s careless about her work, terrible at romantic relationships, and has a deep chip on her shoulder stemming from the fact that her mother abandoned her as an infant. But I think people appreciate her bravery, and the fact that, although she suffers from severe anxiety, she isn’t felled by it. She faces her handicap head-on, without shame or self-pity.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing the third novel in the Rebekah Roberts series, which will be out in early 2017. The book focuses on the murders of a family in Brooklyn in 1992, the year after the Crown Heights riots. It’s inspired, in part, by the many cases of young black men who were wrongfully convicted in that era and have since been exonerated.
Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com. Her first novel, INVISIBLE CITY, was named one of the Boston Globe’s Best Books of 2014 and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, RUN YOU DOWN, is now out in paperback, and the third novel in her Rebekah Roberts series will be published in 2017. Julia was born and raised in Fresno, California and now lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and son.