An interview with Jed Rubenfeld, author of The
Interpretation of Murder
What inspired you to write a book with Freud as a main character?
I'd say the
biggest turning point for me was the phenomenal success of my last non-fiction
book, Revolution by Judiciary, which was published last summer and which sold,
I think, six copies -- four of them to members of my immediate family. When
you've conquered a field that completely, there's really not much left for you
to do, and you naturally start thinking about trying something new.
Seriously, it was all my wife's idea. She was the one who said I should write
a novel, and she was even the one who suggested using my knowledge of Freud in
it. Then I remembered something I had known about for years but hadn't focused
on a for a long time: the real-life mystery surrounding Freud's one and only
visit to America in 1909. Freud came to the United States to deliver lectures at
Clark University. The trip was a tremendous success. His lectures were attended
by famous figures such as William James. He was portrayed glowingly in
newspapers. And psychoanalysis took off in the United States. But despite all
this, Freud never returned to America and later spoke of his trip here as if it
had scarred him. He called Americans "savages" and "primitives." He blamed
America for the breakdown of his health, even though the ailments he was
referring to had afflicted him well before 1909. Freud's biographers have long
puzzled over this. Could something have happened to Freud during his week in New
York City, something we still don't know about, some event that could account
for his severe antipathy to America? When I remembered all this, I thought to
myself -- that might make a good novel. What if Freud got involved in a case in
America, a case in the sense of both a murder case and a psychoanalytic case?
What kind of research did you have to do for the book? How long did it take
Countless hours. I think readers of historical fiction today -- even
murder-thriller historical fiction -- have become very sophisticated and very
demanding. They don't want only to be entertained. They want to be educated.
They want to learn some history. In certain ways this may be a new development.
Just one example: E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is not airtight in its historical
details, but Doctorow wasn't trying to be airtight. He was doing something more
fanciful, and nobody minded. But today, readers want and expect historical
accuracy, which I think is a good thing. Certainly it was in my case. The more
in-depth and in-detail and real I made my descriptions of Manhattan in 1909, the
better my book became. I tried to get right every background detail I possibly
could, down to the color of the wood paneling on the first motor taxi cabs. And
then there was all the biographical material on Freud, Jung and the other
historical figures who appear in the book. I must have bought or borrowed a
hundred books and read thousands of old newspaper articles to write The Interpretation of Murder. The availability on-line of the historical New York
Times and other old newspapers is an unbelievable resource.
What writers influence you?
Because I was writing about New York City in 1909, I got a lot of help from
Wharton, James, and Doctorow, to name just a few. (I've tried to indicate that
debt at several places in the text.) In the historical-thriller genre, I thought
Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club was a fantastic book, which helped me a lot too;
Caleb Carr was certainly an influence too. I'm also a huge fan of Patrick
O'Brian's seafaring novels set during the Napoleonic wars; his ability to create
a historical period, to bring it to life, was an inspiration. Right now, I'm
reading every novel written by Kazuo Ishiguro -- I just wish I had a quarter of
Which do you enjoy more, fiction writing or non-fiction writing?
Well, as you know, this was my first work of fiction, and I have to confess I
had more fun writing it than anything I'd ever written before.
Do you have any plans to write another novel?
I do, but if I told you, I'd have to kill you. Actually, my publishers keep
asking me the same question, but I won't tell them either.