‘not a novelist’
Law professor Jed Rubenfeld turns to fiction with a mix of Freud, Shakespeare
By Lisa Tolin
NEW YORK — Jed Rubenfeld doesn’t know how he got here.
Before writing the best-selling novel "The Interpretation of Murder," the Yale Law School professor hadn’t set down a page of fiction in his life. He never intended to be an academic, let alone a writer.
And yet somehow he managed to combine some of his eclectic interests — Sigmund Freud, Shakespeare and turn-of-the-century New York — into a potential blockbuster, with a reported high six-figure advance and a movie option.
"Basically, everything that has happened in my life has happened by accident, contrary to my best intentions," he says. "I don’t know what I’m doing now being a novelist, because I’m not a novelist. I’m a law professor."
Don’t believe a word of it. Although reviews have been mixed, Rubenfeld’s novel has been among the most-hyped, drawing comparisons to "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Alienist." And it started as, of all things, a vacation.
Rubenfeld had just finished a 10-year constitutional law project, a massive effort that culminated in two books and eight articles mostly read by other legal scholars. With a semester off, he sat down to write, this time for fun.
He thought back to a real-life mystery that had intrigued him: In 1909, Sigmund Freud made his first and only trip to the United States. The trip was a success, drumming up great enthusiasm for psychoanalysis and making Freud a star. But Freud walked away traumatized, blaming the trip for the collapse of his health and calling Americans "savages."
What happened in the interim is the blank space that Rubenfeld has tried to fill with a dazzling murder mystery, based in part on Freud’s famous "Dora" case and his real-life friction with Carl Jung.
At 47, Rubenfeld is now the law school’s deputy dean, still spending much of his time writing about constitutional law. He tried writing a more "popular" book about it, but was turned down. One agent responded: "So sorry, we only like to represent material that people might actually want to read."
When he sat down to write a novel, he had a little more motivation. His wife and fellow law professor, Amy Chua, had already written a best-selling book, "World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability."
"I’m just old-fashioned enough to want to sell more books than my wife," he says, calling it a "horrible, horrible" reflection on his character.
Henry Holt paid a reported $800,000 advance for "The Interpretation of Murder," with an initial printing of 185,000 copies. It debuted in September at No. 11 on the Wall Street Journal best-seller list but quickly dropped off. It still continues to sell, though.
For better or worse, it is the kind of book that seems to inspire passion. Some critics have called it original and fun, while the Miami Herald called it leaden. The New York Times is of two minds: Janet Maslin wrote that Rubenfeld developed an exciting, original tale using "deep reserves of insight, data, wit and anecdote." The Times Sunday Book Review called the book "both smutty and pretentious."
Even that stinging review, though, conceded that the book is hard to put down.
Rubenfeld is not sure if he’ll write a second novel. He wrote the first draft of "The Interpetation of Murder" in six months because the history and ideas moved him.
"This book, this was my way of not doing law," he says. "I still don’t think I’m really a novelist. ... I think that I was able to write this book because it didn’t require someone who was really a novelist."