May 4, 2015
ROBERT ROPER: TROUBLE IN BERKELEY
A world-famous epidemiologist suspected of serial murder? That has to be a first. How did Dr. Anthony Landau, the wonderfully flawed protagonist in your new thriller, The Savage Professor, come to be?
I have a friend who is a famous retired epidemiologist—he worked at San Francisco General in the early 1980s and did a lot of the heroic first studies of AIDS in America. A few years ago I was between projects and started writing a little profile of him for my own amusement, because he’s such a fascinating man, and the profile just took off on its own. He had been waiting to become a character in a book of mine without me knowing it.
And then you put him in the middle of a hunt for a serial killer in Berkeley. Epidemiology? And serial killers?
The connection isn’t obvious, I admit. Although I will say that being an epidemiologist bears a strong resemblance to being a detective: both are types of investigators seeking to solve mysteries, usually with a whole lot of gruesome death involved. I still don’t know why the book came tumbling out of me in such a rush, though. But since it was tumbling out, I decided to take it seriously and I tried to make Landau’s situation as absolutely real as I could. He’s a man accused of a series of monstrously terrible crimes. So I thought about that and I learned what I could about such crimes and talked with a number of prosecutors and criminal law professors and I began to get an idea of how things would have gone down, in the legal arena. And so all of the court procedures and lawyer maneuvers described in the book are as right as I could possibly make them.
Landau also has to face a swarming tabloid press that seems determined to make him a pariah in his community. His public humiliation adds a deep uneasy layer to the book.
Yes, we all know we’re living in an era of sensational take-downs, of rejoicing in the vile truth hidden behind the proper public mask, and Landau is a man with a slightly checkered, slightly off-color romantic past, along with his fame and eminence. He was only briefly married and he has a grown son, and mostly he’s lived alone while having a number of affairs. And he’s had some complaints about his behavior from some female colleagues, but I don’t think he feels guilty or thinks he’s wrong about any of that. And he may not be correct in his thinking, but then this series of savage crimes against women starts happening, and his life becomes a nightmare.
And the private becomes public, grist for the chattering class.
Yes, well, we all think we know what other people are “really” up to in their sex lives. It’s just when it becomes a matter of our own private lives that we see how complicated it is, and we hate like hell for the world to rush in and deliver a judgment. Landau’s dilemma grows out of this private part of him. He’s a very respected scientist and on the face of it an honorable man, but somehow a weakness, in his case problems in past relationships with women, seems to be where his real identity is located. He has to deal not only with the criminal charges but also with a lot of innuendo and with the very publicness of it. You have to remember, Berkeley is a sturdily feminist town, a censorious and judgmental town in some respects, as well as a place where people have come to live more freely and eccentrically for generations. I myself raised a wonderful feminist daughter there. Wouldn’t’ve had it any other way, or done it any other way.
What else about Berkeley? It doesn’t feel like a natural setting for a thriller – not anonymous or cruel, like the L.A. of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler, for instance.
No, you don’t get swallowed up by Berkeley, but there are existential dilemmas peculiar to it. I lived in Berkeley off and on for thirty years. The first thing you have to mention about it is that it’s a college town, with a bunch of professors probably more full of themselves than professors anywhere else in America except for maybe Stanford or Princeton, and of course now it’s a ridiculously wealthy town – those funny-looking stucco “Mediterranean villas” up in the Berkeley hills are all worth millions. But it’s always been a town with a lot of crime, too, a lot of mean street crime, drug crime, murders every now and again, a lot of homeless people, a lot of hustlers and people from other countries, sometimes without the right papers, trying desperately to get over. It’s a small city, pop. only about 125,000, but it’s known all over the world, which is strange. You say “Berkeley” in Durban, South Africa, or Phnom Penh, Cambodia and people know what you’re talking about, same as if you said “New York.” It’s bizarre.
In some ways your Berkeley – which is gritty and hyper-real, but also mysterious, plagued by phantoms – reminds me of Ross Macdonald’s Santa Barbara. The buried past, the deep family betrayals, which beg for unearthing. Any comment?
No, not really. To be compared to Ross Macdonald is an honor, though. I always found his books haunting, he’s one of the great California mystery writers. I’ve never been sure he wasn’t the same guy as John D. MacDonald, though, the guy who’s famous for Cape Fear and all his Florida detective stories. The two men were born and died on practically the same days and the tiny difference in the way they wrote their last names is almost like a wink – as if they’re saying, “Yeah, we’re the same guy, you got us, now don’t tell anybody else.”
The press, the lawyers, the academics who live in Berkeley and some of the police—they all come in for comic treatment in The Savage Professor, and there are very few other people or groups who aren’t hoisted on their own petards. Was it your intent to write a satire?
No, not at all. This is realism, this is the way I see things, not satire. There’s black comedy plastered all over the world as I know it. I mean, I include myself in the figures of fun, the objects of amusement – I’m sure I’m plenty comical to other people, as they are to me. To see yourself in a comic light, now that’s a little different, I don’t think that’s all that common. Most of us see ourselves as quietly heroic strugglers in an unfair matchup with life, persevering despite everything, bestowing acts of kindness along the way, fighting an impossible battle but pushing on. Landau half sees himself that way, but he also sees the insane comedy of everything he’s mixed up in, is always mocking and undercutting himself in his own mind, aware of what’s ridiculous. Meanwhile other people see him as powerful and very adept at getting his own way, a truly formidable figure. As this big hulking mathematician-scientist with a British accent who throws his weight around, isn’t easily done under or intimidated, and just may have tortured and sliced to death a number of beautiful young women.
What started you writing fiction?
Desire to copy, to be like. Desire to emulate the writers I read in my youth, who created these marvelous things, books, books that fascinated and excited me. I think that’s how most writers get started, not because they have something worthwhile to say but because they have this insane dream of being like the writers they love. You start writing and then sometimes you get lucky and make a real story, and then you’re in it, you’re launched, there’s no getting out of it.
Had you ever met a writer before you decided to be one? And who has influenced you?
No. I grew up in a writer-deprived environment. My parents got good free public school educations but there weren’t a lot of books in our house, although the ones that were there got read by me, including the encyclopedia. I started going to the library early and had a bunch of favorite boyhood authors, all of whose books I read: the marvelous Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks, sports books by John R. Tunis and Duane Decker (Good Field No Hit was a special favorite), everything by Jack London that had a dog or the Klondike or the ocean in it, a series of little brown books about frontier heroes like Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett written by different authors, then Hemingway, then…I don’t know, a whole bunch of others. I read a lot that I didn’t understand, simply because the book covers called to me. Several books by a guy named Faulkner. “The Alexandria Quartet” by Lawrence Durrell, which I understood maybe 50-60% of. But I never met a living-breathing author. I’m not sure I really believed in their existence until I became one.
You have also had an academic career and written many non-fiction books. What has it been like to be a novelist and a professor?
At a certain point in my novel-writing career my agent suggested to me that he could get bigger advances if I wrote nonfiction, something biographical or historical, and that turned out to be true. As I’ve aged I’ve become a bigger reader of nonfiction than of fiction, though I’m still drawn to both, and in the last fifteen years or so I’ve written five books, two of them novels and three of them works of history – biographies really, but with a lot of social context. While I was working on The Savage Professor in fits and starts I was “really” working on a book about the poet Walt Whitman in the Civil War (pretty big advance by my standards) and, while I was finishing up Savage, on a book about the author of Lolita (another much-needed advance), called Nabokov in America. Just by luck I finished Savage and Nabokov within months of each other, and both are being published in the spring of 2015. To have two things to work on at the same time is really good luck for someone like me; I always have an urge to write, I wake up with it every day, and if I’m in a period of heavy research on one project – just a lot of reading and note-taking to do, no real writing required – then I can get off my writing jones by working odd hours on the other thing. Certain writers are like beaver who have to keep chewing or else their teeth grow out of their mouths.
Will you be writing more Landau tales?
Well, who knows? Will he let me, mysterious Dr. Anthony Landau? But it was hard to say goodbye to him at the end of The Savage Professor, and he keeps popping out of me at odd moments, like Mr. Hyde appearing from behind the sweet face of that nice Dr. Jekyl. Some mornings I can feel him wanting to take over again. It’ll probably be impossible to resist if he presents me with a juicy and demented new tale to tell.