Jeffrey Toobin is the author of six previous books of non-fiction, including The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court and The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which was recently adapted into an acclaimed miniseries. A staff writer at The New Yorker and CNN's senior legal analyst, Toobin's latest book is American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.
Why did you write your new book?
I wanted to explore the under-recognized ugliness of the 1970s in the United States – a time when the idealism of the 1960s curdled into madness. I wanted, too, to try to solve a mystery – whether Patty Hearst really did join in with the terrorists who kidnapped her, or whether they compelled her to commit an extraordinary series of crimes. From a personal perspective, I also liked the idea of opening dusty boxes of decades-old documents and finding the journalistic gold inside. I like working alone – and in writing the Patty Hearst story I was very much alone.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
The best advice I ever received was the time-honoured "show, don't tell." Nothing is less revealing, or less funny, than describing someone as "funny." You have to prove it with stories. A related piece of good advice was the mentor who dismissed an idea of mine by saying, "That's a subject, not a story." These pieces of advice are why I always regard the reporting of my books as equally important as the writing. I think it's most useful for a writer to think of herself as a storyteller above all – because people want to read stories, not "writing."
What scares you as a writer?
Being boring. I recognize the amazing number of options that people have to entertain themselves – and that's in their phones alone. As writers, we are competing for attention with the whole world of digital and video entertainment. The easiest thing in the world to do is not to read a book – except perhaps for not buying it in the first place. I need to provide a fast and immediate answer to the question, "Why bother?"
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He's the narrator of my favourite novel, and I've always loved the way he is both inside and outside the story – mostly an observer, but also a participant. He's a flawed person, like all mortals, but there's a fundamental decency about him, too. And Fitzgerald puts the most gorgeous sentences in American literature in Nick's voice – which is a pretty good deal, I'd say.
Who's your favourite villain in literature?
My favourite villain is (spoiler alert) Bill Haydon in John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The story is the perfect distillation of the personal and the political, and it reveals that for all our brave talk about ideology in the Cold War (and other wars), the weakness of individual human beings is the most powerful force in the world.