By Tamar Abrams
October 27, 2020
The debut novelist talks lawyering, trilogies, and the inspiration that comes — or doesn’t come — from living near DC.
By day, Jim Irving is a sixty-something, buttoned-up attorney, a partner in a prestigious Northern Virginia law firm. By night, he is a writer tapping into his past experiences as a private eye and criminal lawyer. In his debut novel, Friends Like These: A Joth Proctor Fixer Mystery, the first in a planned trilogy, Irving draws heavily on his Arlington environs in crafting the adventures of his protagonist, Joth Proctor.
What do you and Joth have in common?
Joth and I share a superficial background: We are both from Massachusetts, both went to UVA, both played lacrosse, both live in Arlington, and both are lawyers. These similarities inform Joth’s personality and helped me develop this fictional character, but Joth’s personal and professional life [are] very different from mine, as are his goals and motivations. I have been fortunate where Joth was not. I’m a business lawyer working in a relatively large and well-established firm, and my family life is equally stable. Joth deals with personal and professional challenges I’ve been able to avoid.
As we learn in the novel, Joth seemed to have been on the fast track after law school: an associate in a large national firm based in Tyson’s Corner and dating a dynamic and vivacious assistant commonwealth’s attorney. Neither of these relationships worked out for him. He is generally resigned to the realities of a bare-bones criminal defense practice that attracts odd but not lucrative cases, but he has never overcome a romantic disappointment that his daily interaction with the commonwealth attorney’s office condemns him to relive on a regular basis. He’s conscious of the disappointing way his life has developed, and although he battles the tendency toward cynicism, he is conscious of it.
You wrote the book during the Trump presidency. Did that influence any of the characters or plotlines?
Not consciously. Joth is an apolitical character, and his cynicism does not arise from his experience with government. However, moral questions and ethical choices are at the heart of the series. While the books are not consciously informed by current events, I watch the news like everybody else, so who knows?
As a full-time lawyer, how and when did you find the time to write? And what were your inspirations?
Writing is a priority and always has been. I write because it’s one of my favorite ways to spend my time. I also have an understanding and accommodating wife. I was blessed with great teachers in school, but this has largely been an insular process. I read a lot of fiction and history and I’m always on the lookout for insights I can translate into plot, character, or theme refinements. I was a private detective before law school and handled criminal cases in my early years as a lawyer. In both chapters of my life, I was exposed to interesting people and events which could be nurtured, reimagined, and combined with other experiences real or imagined to create the stories. The plot and characters arose together, and the development of one aspect fed the other. Like spaghetti sauce, I’ve cooked it at low heat for a long time.
Friends Like These is the first book of a trilogy. How did you determine there would be three books?
A three-legged structure is always the most stable. This trilogy presents a decent and talented man who nonetheless has failed to achieve the traditional measures of success and whose personal standards are challenged as a result. As he wrestles with his demons, Joth faces elemental decisions that have consequences in his own life and that ripple into his community. Like much that happens in life, these choices germinate over time and reach fruition through the three stories that track Joth’s voyage into increasingly deeper water.
Would this particular story have been possible to write if you didn’t live in the Washington, DC, area?
Not so long ago, Arlington, Virginia, was a sleepy bedroom community for federal workers and a location suffused with a degree of Southern charm. It is now a vibrant business hub with an energetic, youthful population responding to an evolving set of personal standards and fresh opportunities. The stories reflect the tensions between the old and the new, where those who adapt move ahead and those who fail to respond are at risk of being left behind. Although the cover of the book suggests otherwise, the geographical proximity to the nation’s capital plays no role in the books. The energies and tensions arising from place are wholly Arlington-centric.
Tamar Abrams retired this year after a long career in global development and now is trying to find a good balance between freelance writing/editing and reading lots of really good books.