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 you?
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 his talent.
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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