Julia Dahl is the author of the new novel Conviction, the third in a series featuring her character Rebekah Roberts, a journalist. The first two books in the series are Invisible City and Run You Down. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Salon and the Columbia Journalism Review, and she writes about crime for CBSNews.com. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: This is your third novel about your character Rebekah. How has she changed since you started writing about her?
A: I think she’s gotten a little less angry and a little more mature. She’s better at her job, and her understanding of being a reporter has evolved—she’s a cog in a giant wheel…her idealized version of journalism didn’t jibe with that.
Now that she’s doing projects on her own, she realizes you have to do it yourself, dig up documents, use your ingenuity to get the story. Instead of being amazed and shocked, she recognizes this is her job.
She recognizes that her mother is alive, and she’s coming to terms with how much she wants her mother in her life; when she was a kid, she would have embraced her, now it’s much more complicated…
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the time period surrounding the Crown Heights riots in the early 1990s?
A: There are a couple of reasons. One, as I finished Run You Down and was thinking about the third book, I was thinking about young black men convicted [at that time] being exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit. Every week I was reading a story about evidence that was lost or buried, or witnesses that were backtracking.
I realized I was writing a series exploring the Hasidic world, and as I started looking at the dates, it was around the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and I realized the Crown Heights riots were in ’91. I was in California then, a teenager, and I remember the aftermath of the Rodney King riots.
I could tell the story of someone wrongly convicted, and the story…half African-American, half Orthodox Jewish, exploded. So much of [what] I write is about the perils of insularity. Not just the Hasidic world, but all groups, just interacting with your own and what that can lead to. It seems the Crown Heights riots are an awful example of two communities who couldn’t see each other.
I felt I could do a story I want to and explore the Chabad world. It’s different from other sects I was writing about. I wanted the third book to be an origin story for my character Saul…what had he been doing during the Crown Heights riots?
Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?
A: I tend to know who died and who did it, and have a vague idea of why—jealousy, rage, misunderstanding.
With this one, I knew who died, and I knew the son was going to be convicted, and the challenge for Rebekah would be finding out did he do it. I had a sense of who the killer was, but it changed throughout. I did a lot of rewriting…
Q: What does the novel say about people who are wrongly convicted of crimes?
A: I think it says a lot of people wrongly convicted are young; if not teenagers, they’re often under 25. They’re susceptible to coercion from authority. So many people falsely confess to crimes. It took a while to get my mind around that.
They break: "If I just say I did that, I will get out, they won’t possibly lock me up for life." It’s a fooling-yourself thing. They are often victims of, if not actual police misconduct, the system being very flawed. It’s run by human beings. They make mistakes. It has such real human effects. It’s still hard to wrap my brain around someone in prison who didn’t do it…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on the next book in the Rebekah Roberts series. It’s not about Hasidic Jews. I’m interested in other groups of people and themes. I felt I had done an examination of that group.
I’m not an expert on Hasidic Jews, it’s not my world, and there’s a limit to what I can write about it, not being of it. It’s about a missing NYU freshman, and Rebekah is investigating what happened to her.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of the things I wanted to explore was how dramatically different life is in New York City today than it was 25 years ago. I live in gentrified Brooklyn. It’s still pretty dirty and gritty, but it’s safe.
I remember a statistic that there are about 350 murders [a year] in recent years in New York, but in 1990 there were more than 2,300, with the same number of people. I’ve been thinking about how different that was.
I’ve thought about it a lot from the point of view of the police. You’re out at a murder scene and you get a call for another. How can you investigate? What does a crime wave like that do for justice?
Also, what it was like to live in the city. I was chatting with a police officer. I live in Gowanus. I’m probably going to have to leave my building in a couple of years. I said I can’t afford to live in Crown Heights, and he laughed and said you couldn’t give away an apartment there 25 years ago. I’m excited about exploring how New York City has changed.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Julia Dahl, please click here.