Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pistorius Trial Imitating Art?

The other day I was intrigued by a news item about the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, who is currently on trial for the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. A South African journalist published the allegation that Pistorius had secretly received, before his trial began, acting lessons from a close friend. News (and gossip) sites are trying to confirm or bust the story. According to behaviorists who claim to know these things, Pistorius's natural personality would make him react with anger and hostility to stuff going on at the trial, so if he could get himself to appear sad and distraught instead, the judge might go easier on him. If you've looked in on any of the news about the trial, you know that Pistorius wept and retched a fair amount of the time.

I don't know enough about the story to have an opinion, but I'm keeping my eye on it, because my novel The Actress is based on exactly such a premise: Unsympathetic defendant gets secret acting lessons, in hopes of influencing the jury.

I remember when the idea came. I was sitting on the couch with my beloved partner Marcia, watching a true-crime program about a woman who had been on trial (in the U.S.) for the murder of her young son. I don't know whether she did it or not, but she was convicted. Several of the jurors were interviewed later, and they said things like: "I don't know, I just didn't like the way she was. She didn't seem sorry that her son was dead. She just didn't act how you'd expect." None of them said anything about the evidence; it was all about the affect of the accused.

Marcia and I were appalled. Holy crap, was that all it took to get convicted? We started to think about the opposite: Is that all it would take to get off?

Marcia said, "You should write a novel about a murder defendant who gets acting lessons during the trial."

I was like, "Yeah!"

This was years after O.J. Simpson's acquittal for the murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend, which to some people seemed based on either O.J.'s star power or feelings of payback for the Rodney King case rather than the facts. (Here again, I don't know whether he did it or not.)

The point is, I started looking into the fickleness of juries. It's enough to turn your blood into ice tea. One of the theoretical advantages of jury trials is that it's supposed to be harder to bribe, fool, or intimidate 12 people instead of one judge. Maybe, maybe not.

I developed a mystery story based on the secret-acting-lessons idea and wrote the novel. It was good enough to get me representation and a two-book hardcover deal with a major publisher (St. Martin's Minotaur / Macmillan). But when my agent tried to get a British publisher interested in the UK rights, they said things like, "It's a wee bit too high-concept for us." Which is publisher-speak for outlandish, implausible. No, thanks, they said.

And here we are with today's headlines. Different? Outlandish? Implausible? You be the judge.

[Photo of reflection of Los Angeles by ES]

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  1. Interesting premise! Sounds like a terrific story. High concept??Do they read their own tabloids!

    I always enjoy your insights.

    1. Yeah, I was baffled when the Brits came back with that answer... Thanks for looking in, Barret.


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