In his debut novel Public Pretender, WSBA member and Bar News/NWLawyer writer Royce Roberts draws on his own work with the juvenile court system to tell the story of Gavin Young, a young lawyer who accepts a public defense job out of desperation — and has no idea what he’s getting into. Although it’s described as legal humor, the author says his book also addresses serious issues such as family, the true definition of success, and the importance of our public defense system. We asked him a few questions about the challenges and rewards of writing a novel.
What made you decide to write a novel about your work with juvenile court?
This book began as a way of understanding what I was experiencing at juvenile court with my clients and the child welfare system. First, I wrote a series of short stories, which were published in magazines and state bar journals. After a few years, I felt ready to start this novel. After several revisions (and a few vacations), 10 years had passed and I felt the book was finally ready.
Are Gavin’s misadventures directly inspired by your own experiences?
My first day at juvenile court was a chaotic blur, much like the scene Gavin Young encounters in Public Pretender: parties rushing in and out of court, agitated clients shouting questions, teenagers jumping on couches. Only gradually did the chaos form a kind of order, and on some days I began to feel that sense of beginning and end that makes a story. Families are divided and reunified; children are sent to foster care or returned to parents. Clients are defiant, then tearful, and then act to create their own redemption. I wrote Public Pretender to translate this world to people outside the court system, to capture that sense of having lived a story.
What did you learn as an author during the writing process?
Writers learn that novels have beginnings, middles, and ends; that scenes should have goals, conflicts, and resolutions. But what can’t be taught is the creation of characters who take the stage with their own truth, their own motivation; a character who doesn’t care about the writer’s outline because she has her own purpose.
This requires the honesty to let clients be human beings, not heroes, and to respect life by allowing some of them to fail, even if failure is tragic. We must allow for the addiction that cannot be broken. We must allow for selfishness as well as sacrifices, for self-delusion as well as wisdom. To deny honesty is to deny humanity. It is also to deny a satisfying story.
Any advice for lawyers who want to write fictionalized versions of their own cases?
Try to invent situations of conflict that differ from your actual case. This will usually force you to create characters that usually have an interesting combination of traits necessary for the dramatic resolution of the conflict. If you adhere too closely to the facts of one case, you will not only risk exposing client confidences, but your story will feel flat and uninteresting.
Are you working on any new writing projects now?
Yes, I’ve started a new novel about a professor of history who slowly goes crazy during his never-ending search for tenure. (I like stories about characters who are slightly off balance.) He is based on an old professor of medieval history at my college who always snorted after he told a joke during lectures. The students did laugh, but not at his jokes. Such is life.
Roberts will be giving a reading and book signing on December 13, 7 p.m. at Third Place Books in Ravenna. You can read an excerpt of his novel in the Dec/Jan issue of NWLawyer. Public Pretender is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as these local bookstores: Third Place books in Ravenna (Seattle) and Parkplace Books in Kirkland (Eastside).