Rubenfeld mixes Freud, Shakespeare

Law professor turns to fiction in his best-selling murder mystery

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2006

NEW YORK - Jed Rubenfeld doesn't know how he got here.

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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 for fall, 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.

Along the way, Rubenfeld unwittingly broke all the rules.

First, he violated a taboo of historical fiction: He made things up about the time and place where the novel was set. Friends who read the first 100-page draft were outraged.

"I said, 'But it's a novel, what do you mean? Did you think Freud actually participated in a murder mystery?"' he recalls. "To be fair to my friends, they were right."

He started over, this time using hundreds of books and thousands of newspaper articles to make the history accurate. He based the main female character, Nora, on one of Freud's most famous case studies.

"All of a sudden, the book was totally different, and so much better," he says. "Not surprisingly, the reality was so much more interesting than my imagination."

He sent a draft by e-mail to agents, ignoring big warnings on their Web sites that such manuscripts would not be considered. Somehow his cover letter caught the eye of several, and before he knew it, his personal project was a hot commodity.

George Hodgman, executive editor of Henry Holt, which published the book, said it reminded him of Sherlock Holmes.

"It's not an ordinary thriller," he says. "It's more like an intellectual puzzle - a very fun, intellectual puzzle."

He laughs at the idea that Rubenfeld didn't know what he was doing when he sat down to write.

"There's nothing Jed Rubenfeld doesn't know what he's doing about," he says. "Jed is a brilliant man."

Ask Rubenfeld about Freud, or about Shakespeare or New York, and he leans forward, his blue eyes nearly boring a hole in his listener. Ask about himself, however, and he becomes reticent. His eyes roam the walls and you feel as if you might be subjecting him to an undiscovered torture.

The son of a psychotherapist and an art critic in Washington, D.C., Rubenfeld studied philosophy at Princeton University, writing his senior thesis on Freud. But he was certain he didn't want to become a professor, so he turned to his other love: acting.

He went on to the Juilliard School of Drama, where he was in a class with Marcia Cross of "Desperate Housewives" and Eriq La Salle of "ER."

"The little problem in the whole plan was that I couldn't really act," he says. "I don't know why I got in."

He used the opportunity to spend hours in the library, poring through Shakespeare criticism. With his acting career going nowhere, he decided to go to Harvard Law School, still intent on avoiding academia.

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