I’m always amazed at anyone who manages to hold down a real job and write a novel on the side. It was a feat famously performed by one of the most prolific novelists of all time, Anthony Trollope. From the 1830s to the 1860s, Trollope worked as a civil servant in the British Post Office—and, in his off-time, he published an astounding 21 novels. Like any good Victorian writer, Trollope didn’t shy away from maximum density, either, with his books generally exceeding 500 pages.
Would-be writers who know his story find Trollope’s work ethic either inspiring or paralyzing, or perhaps a combination of both. As he explains in his Autobiography, he credits his success to a belief in “the virtue of early hours.” “It was my practice,” he writes, “to be at my table every morning at 5.30 A.M.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. . . . By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.” Operating under the maxim that “three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write,” he would devote himself utterly to churning out a specified number of words: “It had at this time become my custom . . . to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. . . . This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year.” A model of discipline, Trollope kept up that schedule even after he quit his job to write full-time, and the result was another 26 novels before he died at age 67. (Aspiring writers, if you’re not scared off by what you’ve just read, you can find Trollope’s complete Autobiography here, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.)
As I’ve recently found out, similar early hours have been observed down the street from my house, by a neighbor and friend who just published his first novel. Robert Bailey, whose debut novel, The Professor, hit book shelves last week, holds a full-time job as an attorney, but he’s been getting up at 4 a.m. to write in the pre-daylight hours before heading to the office. In this day and age—with the myriad demands of a 24-hour work cycle, family and kids, and social and community commitments—Bailey’s productivity perhaps deserves even more credit than Trollope’s. Trollope may have had a watch sitting in front of him to keep time, but did he have to deal with a dinging BlackBerry?
Bailey’s book hits close to home for me, as it covers territory all over the state of Alabama, as well as on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Alabama. While Bear Bryant lingers like a shadow in the background of this legal thriller, your blood doesn’t have to run crimson to enjoy this page-turning novel. The Professor focuses on one particular case between a family torn apart by an accident and the company who may bear the responsibility. It’s a high-stakes lawsuit that brings one of the Alabama School of Law’s foremost professors out of the classroom and back into the courtroom to try his hand at trial work again. Like riding a bike, he picks right up where he left off decades ago, but his efforts are thwarted at every turn by crime and corruption. Strange things begin to happen to all the major players in this case, but, as in a compelling football game, you don’t know the outcome until the fourth quarter.
Bailey’s book fits well into the genre of novels penned by real-life lawyers who also happen to tell good stories. Of course, John Grisham comes immediately to mind as the master of that genre, and as someone who managed to produce a novel while also clocking 60 to 70 hours a week as a lawyer. Though he didn’t make it big until the publication of his second novel, The Firm, Grisham’s debut novel, A Time to Kill, ranks as his favorite among many fans. David Baldacci was also a working lawyer when he wrote his best-seller Absolute Power. Scott Turow, best known for Presumed Innocent, still practices law while continuing to turn his legal experience into the stuff of novels. Lest this become too much of an old boys’ network (though, I’m afraid, it still may be), look to Meg Gardiner, a former California attorney who writes riveting crime thrillers and whose heroine Evan Delaney shares the novelist’s own twin interests in writing and law.
But it doesn’t always take one to know one. Once you’ve given Bailey’s The Professor a read, make your next selection from the list of the “25 Greatest Law Novels Ever,” compiled by the American Bar Association Journal. Some of the most beloved law-based novels of all time have come not from lawyers but from excellent writers—just more evidence of our penchant for legal thrillers, courtroom dramas, and crime-based plots.
(If I’ve missed any of your favorite legal novels or novelists, make sure to tell me below.)