Sergio De La Pava was a public defender in the Manhattan courts when, in 1998, he began writing the story of an attorney not unlike himself who begins to unravel as he questions the justice dispensed in the criminal system. Over Cuban food during his lunch break near the courthouse, De La Pava explains how he worked for six years on his story, scrawling paragraphs in a marble composition book he kept in his briefcase. Some of his 260,000-word, 678-page novel was written as he sat on the worn wooden benches inside the “F” (for “Felony”) courtroom at 100 Centre Street while he waited for his clients to be called before the judge. He sent the finished manuscript to agents. After 88 rejections, he pressed his wife—also a public defender, but in Brooklyn—into representing him. They decided to self-publish.
Somehow, almost despite itself, the book he wrote, A Naked Singularity, found an audience. First, a critic at The Quarterly Conversation, Scott Bryan Wilson, read the book and declared it “one of the best novels of the decade.” Then, the journal’s poetry editor, Levi Stahl, who is also the publicity manager of University of Chicago Press, persuaded the publishing house to buy the book. This summer, the novel won the PEN award for debut fiction, and in September, the University of Chicago released his more experimental second novel, Personae, which centers on a homicide detective and the mysterious corpse of a writer and includes an 80-page interlude of a play by the newly dead that reads like No Exit as revised by Beckett.
All the while, De La Pava has continued working as an attorney. “I like the tangibility of this work, the reality,” he says. “I’m not going to say writing isn’t important, but if I lose a case, someone is going to spend three and a half years in state prison.” De La Pava tells his students at Seton Hall, where he teaches a trial course at night, “A lawyer is in essence a writer.” And for a lover of language, which he believes anyone must be to make it through law school, nothing beats immersion in the language of people who commit crimes.
Until quite recently, most of his colleagues didn’t even know what De La Pava was doing with his marble composition books, and most of his clients still don’t have any idea that the Times of London has called him “New York’s Dostoevsky.” No one wants to think that the guy who represents your only hope for bail might be mentally crafting his latest novel.
Time to head back to work. “Make sure you discard all weapons you might have before you get to the metal detector,” he says. “You don’t know how many times I’ve said that and the guy I’m with gets caught with a knife or a bag of weed.” Then he grabs his briefcase, with his composition book, criminal files, and a copy of As I Lay Dying, and joins the procession of suits marching toward the fortresses of Centre Street.