MARCH 28, 2017
A NATIVE OF FRESNO, CALIFORNIA, Julia Dahl has been living in Brooklyn for the past 10 years. The borough features heavily in her Rebekah Roberts mystery series, the latest installment of which, Conviction, has just been published by Minotaur. Roberts is a young tabloid reporter whose job and personal life take her deep into the insular world of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, where she finds both beauty and some very dark secrets.
Like the fictional Roberts, Dahl — a Yale graduate with master’s degrees in creative writing and journalism from The New School for Social Research and American University — worked for three years as a freelancer for the New York Post. Her feature articles have also appeared in Salon, the Columbia Journalism Review, Pacific Standard, Seventeen, and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, among other outlets. She has also been an associate features editor at Marie Claire and the deputy managing editor of The Crime Report, and these days writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com.
Conviction draws on Brooklyn’s recent history and demography, using the 1991 riot in Crown Heights — at the time a neighborhood composed mostly of African Americans/West Indians and Hasidic Jews — to explore broader issues related to race and criminal justice. Among those are the problem of wrongful convictions, an issue that has received a lot of attention in Brooklyn and throughout the county, and the relationship of the police to the communities they serve.
I talked to Julia over email.
HELLA WINSTON: Your main character works at a New York City tabloid, and so did you. Aside from serving as inspiration for your main character, did that job influence this book in any other ways, either in terms of its substance or style?
JULIA DAHL: The vast majority of what I saw working at the New York Post never made it into the paper: the humiliation people felt when they realized their bad behavior was going to be fodder for a glib headline; the anguish of parents being hounded for a quote after their child was found dead in some horrific way; even just the curious, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes bias-busting details of people’s homes, or their reactions, or their ideas. I wanted to tell some of those stories in a way I could control.
I also wanted to explore some of the things I thought were problematic about the way tabloids work, especially the lack of editorial support and guidance for young reporters, who are thrown into incredibly fraught circumstances and told to “get a quote.” The people on the bottom — the stringers, or runners, as they are alternately called — don’t have beats, meaning they don’t develop expertise or sources; they just bounce around day to day, always the new kid in a neighborhood or on a subject. What this means is that the people who often do the most delicate interviews have virtually no understanding of the context or background on a story. In my opinion, this doesn’t serve anyone well.
Another thing I thought was worth illustrating was how fractured the system is: one person is in the field getting information, which they call in to a second person in an office who writes a story; a third person creates a headline, a fourth a caption for a photograph — it’s just way too easy for errors to slip in. A lot of my readers have asked me about this aspect of the series. They’ll say, “Is it really like that?” I get their surprise because it shocked me, too. One of my first days on the job, I took my laptop with me to the scene where a little boy had been fatally hit by a truck in Queens. I did the interviews then typed up the story in my car and emailed it in. One of the rewrite editors called me and was like, thanks, but that’s not really how this works.
Prose-wise, however, I actually think working at the Post made me a better fiction writer. I entered an MFA in fiction program in 2002 and wrote a novel about my hometown while I was there. I was aiming for “literary,” as almost everyone in MFA programs seems to be directed to do. But I couldn’t sell it, perhaps because it was meandering and self-indulgent. You can’t be either of those things at a daily newspaper. I learned to honor the story, I internalized the value of concision, and I found the courage to write about people from a totally different world than the one I inhabit.
This novel, like the rest of your series, is set in part within the Hasidic world in Brooklyn and, without spoiling anything, some of your Hasidic characters do some pretty unsavory things. What made you choose to write specifically about crimes committed by Hasidic people? How did you go about researching that world?
When I started writing the series, I was actually thinking more about crimes committed against Hasidic people than by them. I’d read about people in the Hasidic community avoiding and misleading police and other secular authorities when it came to sexual abuse, and I thought: What if there was a murder? Would people break that code of silence and speak up then? But because most crimes are perpetrated by someone in the victim’s world, I necessarily had to examine the motivations and circumstances that might lead someone in that community to commit crime.
I chose to write about the Hasidim for a number of reasons, some coincidental, some personal. My mother is a Reform Jew and my father is Christian. I was raised in Fresno where there are no Hasidim (or at least there weren’t in the 1980s and 1990s), so their world was utterly foreign to me when I moved to New York City in 1999. All of a sudden, I saw men in black hats and women in wigs and thought: they’re Jewish, like me, but also nothing like me. I was curious.
And then, in 2007, I moved into a Brooklyn apartment where the previous tenant had committed suicide just weeks before we arrived. He was, I learned, a Hasidic man whose family had shunned him for being gay. Living in the rooms where he lived and died, collecting the mail he still received, I couldn’t help but wonder where he’d come from and what kind of community throws you out for being gay? It didn’t fit with the relatively tolerant Judaism I’d been brought up in. Around the same time, I started working for the New York Post and was sent to try to interview the family of a Hasidic bride whose teenage husband had leapt out the window of their honeymoon suite, to his death. All this converged and pointed me toward writing about this community.
As far as research, I started with your book, Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. I swear! It’s the first book I downloaded when I got a Kindle for Christmas in 2007. From there, I began interviewing people who had grown up in the Hasidic world, but left, and were thus willing to tell me their stories and let me bounce ideas off them. As I met people, they introduced me to other people, some inside and some outside the community. It took years, but I feel good about the portrayal.
The book goes back and forth in time. Why did you choose this nonlinear structure?
I knew I wanted to tell a story about the Crown Heights Riots — or more accurately, the aftermath. But I’m writing a series where the protagonist is a twentysomething reporter in present-day New York, so I knew I had to tell the story in two different time periods. It was a huge organizational challenge, but also a lot of fun. I used the fact that I was jumping out of Rebekah’s world and into the past as an opportunity to play with chapter length, voice, and point of view. I enjoyed the experience so much that I’m doing something similar in the fourth Rebekah book, which I’m now writing. The back and forth in time won’t be as dramatic — months, not decades — but I love that it gives both me and the reader the ability to be inside multiple worlds within the same story.
This book deals with a potential wrongful conviction. It seems these kinds of stories are getting a lot of attention of late (e.g., Serial, Making a Murderer). Why do you think they are so compelling?
As both a reporter and a novelist — and, I suppose, a human being — I feel that part of my mission is to expose injustice. And what more egregious, obvious example of injustice is there than someone incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit? But I think that perhaps the reason so many people are thinking and writing about this now is that we are finally coming to the terrible realization that we have incarcerated a lot of innocent people in this country. There is guilt and shame associated with that — as there should be. But it also sparks the imagination: if there are all these innocent people in prison, there must be guilty people walking around free. What are they doing? What have they done? Dramatically, at least, the possibilities are endless. And as a novelist, that’s very exciting.
In the course of writing this book, did you consult or draw on any of the research or academic literature related to crime, policing, and incarceration? If so, which work(s) in particular?
I’ve been writing about crime, policing, and incarceration for various publications for more than a decade now, so there is a lot I’ve read — and experienced — in that time that helped me create the characters of the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, the cops, and the accused.
Several years ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of “suicide by cop” for Pacific Standard magazine and interviewed Professor David Klinger, author of Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force. Klinger was a Los Angeles police officer who shot and killed a suspect and has been studying police shootings for decades since. From him, I learned not just how the experience of killing someone on the job can change a person, but also how utterly inadequate our data is on everything from police shootings to how many people are incarcerated at any given time, to whose DNA is in rape kits languishing in police lockers in cities across the nation. It’s outrageous.
Another book that helped inform my ideas for Conviction was The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding by Sarah Burns. The book, and the documentary her father Ken Burns created, tells the story of the five young teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape in 1989. The book, which was published in 2011, helped me understand how such a thing could happen, and I wrote a piece for Poynter about the media’s role in creating the environment that led to them being railroaded. I spent a lot of time in the library looking at old microfilm copies of the Post and the New York Daily News for that story, and I remember thinking that someday I wanted to write about that time — the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, with Conviction, I got the chance.