(Above) Author Julia Dahl (photo by Chasi Annexy)
Julia Dahl has been chasing stories ever since she was in high school back in the mid-1990s. And more often than not, she’s caught them—first as a student journalist, later as an intern for a national magazine, then as a tabloid “stringer” and a criminal justice reporter for CBSNews.com’s Crimesider blog, and now as a prize-amassing crime novelist. Along the way this Fresno, California, native has learned a thing or two about herself, including: she’s more comfortable than many people would be with researching the seamier side of life (“As a crime reporter, I bear witness to a lot of evil”); she doesn’t need to outline her novels before beginning their composition (“Since I’ve been writing mysteries, I start each book knowing who dies, who did it, and having a loose idea of why.”); and life can occasionally provide all the inspiration one needs for fiction.
Dahl emphasized that last point during a lengthy conversation she had with a Chicago magazine contributor several years ago, around the time her first novel, Invisible City (2014)—about a young tabloid reporter’s struggle to solve a murder committed within New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community—first reached U.S. bookstores. After explaining that she’d relocated to America’s East Coast in order to attend college in Connecticut (at Yale University, if you must know), and then settled in Gotham in 1999, Dahl recalled:
My family on my mom’s side is Jewish, but I had no idea that the ultra-Orthodox even existed in the U.S. Then I moved out east. … If you’re in New York City, you see men with black hats and women in wigs on the subway all the time, but it wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn that I started seeing them a lot, and a couple of things happened that piqued my interest and made me focus on the community. It was something that I wanted to explore in fiction. One was just that I saw these people and thought they’re so like me and yet so unlike me. So there was just this sense of wanting to know more about them. In the fall of 2007, I had just started working at the New York Post, and my then-boyfriend—he’s now my husband—and I were looking for an apartment in Brooklyn. We went to visit an apartment that looked great on paper. It had a great price, it was right by the park in a neighborhood we like. On the way there, the broker told us that he felt like he needed to tell us that the previous occupant of the apartment had committed suicide there.In Invisible City, Dahl introduced readers to Rebekah Roberts, an anxiety-bedeviled, 20-something journalism-school graduate from Florida, currently laboring in the role of overworked, underpaid stringer for the fictional New York Tribune. (No relation to the famous Manhattan newspaper of yore.) Building on her study of the city’s influential but insular Hasidic Jewish subculture, the author imagined the nude body of a Hasidic woman being pulled from a Brooklyn scrap yard. Rebekah, who Dahl has described as “braver than I am, and angrier,” determines to figure out who the deceased was and why her life was so cruelly ended. This newsie is particularly interested in the case, because her long-vanished mother, Aviva Kagan, was also Hasidic. However, the odds are against our intrepid heroine succeeding. The New York City Police Department is quite deferential toward the ultra-Orthodox population, and Hasidic leaders are prone to stymie close examination of misdeeds within their community, even going so far as to let the dead woman in Invisible City be buried without an autopsy. In the end, Rebekah’s efforts to cut through obstruction and obfuscation, and to peel back the layers of the closed society that had ushered her own mother into the world, led her to solve the murder mystery. They also won Dahl a Barry Award for Best Novel, a Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel, and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel.
So, we went and we saw the apartment. It was a great apartment, and there certainly were no signs that anyone had committed suicide there. We decided to take it, and after we moved in, I went to sign the lease. It turned out that the building was owned by an old Orthodox man in Borough Park. When I met him he said he was really glad we took the apartment, that the man who lived there was “really sick” and so on. He didn’t really tell me any more, and then I started talking to the neighbors and I found out that the man who lived there had been an ultra-Orthodox Jew who had a wife and children, but he was gay. He was shunned by the community, and he ended up alone in this apartment where he died. I started having this kind of imaginary relationship with this guy who used to live in the apartment. I would get his mail because, as you know, you often get mail from the previous tenant. These people didn’t know he was dead. I never opened the letters, but I would keep them all with the idea that maybe I would give them to his family or—I don’t know. I just kept them and started building this idea of who the guy was.
At about the same time, the Post sent me out to Borough Park to cover a story where an ultra-Orthodox young man had gotten married—they tend to get married very young—and jumped out of his honeymoon suite the night after his wedding and died. He had committed suicide, basically. So they sent me out to Borough Park to try to talk to his family. Both of those things happened at about the same time. I was also living in a neighborhood that was on the border of a very ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, so it kind of just became this thing that I kept bumping into. I was just really curious about who these people were and how they lived, and when writers get curious we start to write. I was also covering crime and it sort of came together.
Making further good use of her research into the history and practices of New York’s Hasidic minority, Dahl came back in 2015 with a sequel, Run You Down. That tale found Rebekah scrutinizing the bathtub demise of a Hasidic housewife, facing off against neo-Nazi hatemongers, and locating a surprisingly large contingent of ultra-Orthodox Jews who’d rejected their religious upbringing. Oh, and Run You Down reintroduced Rebekah to her mother, who narrates alternating chapters of the novel.
Now—just this week, in fact—comes Conviction (Minotaur), the third installment in the Rebekah Roberts series. The story starts with Dahl’s protagonist being exasperated by her insecure position with the scoop- and scandal-hungry Tribune, and prospecting around for a bigger news story that might propel her onto the staff of a superior publication. Conveniently, a lead may have just landed in her lap, via a note that causes the reporter to re-examine the 1992 slaying of a black family in Brooklyn. The problem is, memories of that bloodshed are short and undependable, and even people who were once conversant in its details (such as her ex-cop friend Saul Katz) don’t want to revisit the incident. Worse, Rebekah’s digging has drawn the unwanted notice of folks with secrets they’d prefer not to share, and who might go to deadly lengths to protect them. In its brief assessment of Conviction, New York magazine says “Dahl writes deftly about race, religion, and politics in NYC, both then and now.” Kirkus Reviews adds: “The novel’s authenticity is enhanced by Dahl’s painfully spot-on grievances about the deteriorating newspaper industry and her cogent observations about Brooklyn in both its post-millennium growth and its past lives—which somehow never seem all that far in the past.”
After first meeting Julia Dahl at Bouchercon 2015, in Raleigh, North Carolina, and then reconnecting with her last year during Bouchercon in New Orleans, I took the opportunity recently to ask her questions (via e-mail) about her reading history, her reporting career, and how becoming a mother in her late 30s has affected her fiction writing.
J. Kingston Pierce: Do you come from a family of readers?
Julia Dahl: Absolutely. Growing up, my mother’s motto was, “bring a book.” To the dentist, to the grocery store, to camp. If you have a book, you’ll never be bored. My parents are both retired now, and they take classes at their local university. My mom just finished a class in the detective novel. We talk about what we’re reading all the time. She is usually reading more than one book at a time—one “serious” (like Flannery O’Conner), one “fun” (like Liane Moriarty). My parents have been doing cross-country road trips since the 1970s, and when they drive, they read to each other. And all four of my grandparents were readers, too. My grandmother died just two years ago, at 93, and read novels voraciously until the very end.
JKP: What were your early reading experiences like?
JD: I read everything, from the Oz books. by L. Frank Baum, to Agatha Christie and Stephen King. But I think the first time books expanded my empathy toward other human beings—which is, I think, what art is supposed to do—was when I read The Diary of Anne Frank with my elementary school best friend. During fifth and sixth grade, we read probably a dozen biographies and historical novels about the Holocaust, and as a Jew, it became “read: these girls could have been me.”
JKP: Did you show a bent toward writing at an early age, or did you develop that interest later in life?
JD: Other than bad poetry, I wrote almost exclusively non-fiction until my mid-20s. I had a lot of opinions, so I wrote editorials and reviews in high school and college. I lacked the creativity—or maybe the courage—to make things up. At some point I realized that good fiction reflects and examines the truth. Once I figured that out, I was hooked. I’ll be making up stories until the day I die.
JKP: Unlike your protagonist, Rebekah Roberts, your move to New York City did not launch you immediately into tabloid reporting. You started, instead, as a freelance reporter/fact checker for Entertainment Weekly, then moved to Redbook and Marie Claire magazines. How did you make the leap from Yale into Manhattan journalism circles?
JD: Basically, I got an internship. I applied to dozens of magazines and newspapers—from Vogue to The Village Voice—and Entertainment Weekly hired me. I had no real path I was trying to follow during those first few years in New York. I went where the opportunities took me, and I’m glad I did. I got my first assignment writing about crime for Seventeen magazine from an editor I’d known while at Marie Claire. That story changed my life.
JKP: Rebekah is often frustrated with the assignments she receives as a stringer for the fictional New York Tribune, and disturbed by what editors there do with her copy. Is all of that a reflection of your own experiences in the tabloid world? Was the Post the model for the Trib? And does it function in similar fashion?
JD: Not really. But after going to journalism school I knew I wanted to test myself, to write and report every day, and that was why I took a job at the New York Post. Would I have rather gotten the same gig at the Times? Sure—but they weren’t hiring. And if it weren’t for my work at the Post I don’t think I’d have the career I have as a novelist. Being a good reporter means being good at talking to people, and at the Post I talked to every possible kind of person you can imagine—often about things they did not want to be discussing. I had to be respectful and aggressive, simultaneously. I had to be fearless, and I had to constantly check in with my gut: was I about to do something I considered immoral in the name of getting the quote for my editor? It would have been easy to just say, I’m doing my job. But that’s not the kind of person I am, and that challenge was one I wanted the protagonist in my novels, Rebekah, to grapple with.
JKP: What was the oddest assignment you were given by the Post?
JD: When Isiah Thomas was still coaching the Knicks, I was sent to Madison Square Garden with two homemade signs that said “Fire Isaiah” and told to hold them up until I got kicked out. It was horrible. Somehow they’d finagled floor seats, so I was down there with all the people who’d paid hundreds of dollars to watch the game and I’m silently holding this sign, wishing I could just run away. Somebody finally ripped them from my hands and I bailed. The next day, my editor apologized. I think it was the only time an editor has ever apologized to me.
JKP: What is it about Rebekah Roberts that makes her the ideal protagonist for the stories you wish to tell? And if you could do it all over again, are there elements of her character that you would have changed?
JD: Honestly, when I began writing Invisible City in 2007 it didn’t occur to me that 10 years later I would still be writing about Rebekah. I didn’t conceive the book as a series, but as soon as I finished writing it, I knew I had more to tell. I’m actually pretty happy with how I’ve drawn her. She started very young, just out of college, so she has a lot of room to make mistakes and mature.
JKP: I’ve read that you originally wanted to call Invisible City something else. What was that other title?
JD: The Stringer.
JKP: Your stories about New York’s Hasidic community paint it in both favorable and questionable tones. How has that community reacted to your representations of its traditions and practices?
JD: I haven’t heard much from those deep in the community, but what I have has been mixed. One woman I used as a source told me she was hanging out with some frum women who were talking about how much they “hated” me—though she didn’t think they’d actually read the books. But another Hasidic man I know recently told me that his wife loved my books. I thought maybe he was kidding, but he swears it’s the truth!
JKP: A big component of Invisible City was Rebekah’s search for her missing mother, Aviva Kagan. But that search ended in your first novel, and since then, Aviva’s importance to the stories has become rather less clear. How do you see their relationship, and Aviva’s role in your stories, evolving over time?
JD: Run You Down focused heavily on Aviva’s life, and I think that now that she and Rebekah have met, even though their relationship is fraught and evolving, it won’t be as central to the plots of the novels. Honestly, there are just other stories about other people that I want to tell.
JKP: Conviction is your first novel to employ third-person storytelling. Your previous two books were both told in the first-person, either by Rebekah or, in Run You Down, also by Aviva. How do you think the decision to use third-person narration in this new novel benefited the story, and perhaps also benefited you as its author?
JD: Because I didn’t anticipate writing a series, I didn’t write Invisible City thinking I was locking myself in to a particular style for the next three books. As I started conceiving Conviction I knew I wanted to create different points of view, not just Rebekah’s. I ran the idea by my editor at Minotaur and she basically said, if it works, you can do whatever you want! So I did. And I’m really happy with the result. I’m working on the fourth book in the series now doing the same thing. It’s made the writing process more exciting and more of a challenge.
JKP: I understand that you owe a debt to Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame, for turning you into a crime-fictionist. Can you explain?
JD: I met Gillian when I was an intern at Entertainment Weekly and she was a TV writer. We didn’t know each other well at all, and years later I remember seeing [her 2006 novel] Sharp Objects in the bookstore and thinking, “I remember that girl!” I read it and something clicked in me. I’d been reading mysteries and watching crime shows and writing articles about true crime, but somehow it had never occurred to me that I could write crime fiction. So she inspired me, and then, when I finished Invisible City, I e-mailed her, saying I wasn’t sure if she remembered me but that I’d written a novel and wondered if she had any advice. She wrote back and recommended I contact her agent. I did, and she’s been my agent ever since. Then, she was kind enough to give me a pretty amazing blurb. She didn’t have to do any of that but, like so many people I’ve met in the crime-fiction world, she is generous and supportive.
JKP: Can you see yourself eventually penning novels that don’t include Rebekah? Might you already have one or two of those in mind?
JD: Yes! I have two ideas percolating, but that’s all I’ll say for how.
(Left) A pregnant Julia Dahl accepts the Shamus Award at Bouchercon 2015
JKP: How much of a boost was it to your self-confidence and profile as an author to win the Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel?
JD: A huge boost. Being recognized by my peers is the highest honor. When I won that award I looked around the room and thought, all these people write books I want to read, and they chose me. It was unreal.
JKP: I assume that in addition to all of the positive things reviewers have said about your fiction, you’ve also received negative responses here and there. Are you somebody capable of ignoring knocks, or do you obsess over less-than-enthusiastic assessments and swear to one day get back at those critics in wholly satisfying ways?
JD: I’m pretty sensitive and bad reviews hurt. I can handle them, even ones I consider unfair, but it takes me awhile. All I can do is try to feel as good about the good reviews as I feel bad about the bad ones.
JKP: When you began writing fiction, you were single, pushing 30. Now you’re married and the mother of a son, Mick, who’s just over one year old. Has motherhood changed your approach to fiction writing?
JD: Motherhood has changed my writing only insofar as it has dramatically decreased the amount of time I have to write. Suddenly, there is a human being who lives in my home and must be watched 12 hours every day. I’m nervous about getting this fourth book done on time, but I’ve been nervous about that before, and somehow I’ve always managed to pull it off.
JKP: Can you say something about your intentions with that fourth Rebekah novel, or the direction of its plot?
JD: It revolves around a missing New York University student whose family is one of the wealthiest in Manhattan, and who lives in the same dorm as Rebekah’s brother.
JKP: Your husband, Joel Bukiewicz, designs and creates “world-class kitchen cutlery.” Does this mean that you have kitchen drawers filled with beautifully sharpened knives for every possible use? Or are you still the one-knife-for-all-occasions sort of person?
JD: Joel’s been making knives since 2004, and I’ve learned a lot since then. One thing I’ve learned is that most people really only need one or two knives. A big chef’s knife and a smaller paring knife. If they’re sharp, they can do anything you need.
JKP: Finally, what novel that doesn’t already bear your byline would you most like to have written, and why?
JD: I would love to have written almost anything by Joan Didion. Play It As It Lays or Slouching Toward Bethlehem, if I had to narrow it to two. She sees people so clearly, sees right into them. She looks at the world and its inhabitants with both tenderness and real concern. I admire her prose, of course, but it’s her vision, her anger, her bravado that I admire most.
READ MORE: An excerpt from Conviction can be enjoyed here; “Julia Dahl: Crime Fiction Among the Pious,” by Lisa Levy (Lit Hub); “To Expose Injustice,” by Hella Winston (Los Angeles Review of Books).