by Michele Leone
As the windy two-lane road rises past the brick wall fortifications obscuring celebrity mansions, Jeff Hobbs’ nostrils fill with the hint of crisp mountain air. His mind wanders. He imagines meandering through shady oak and sycamore trees, and arriving at the summit — the sprawling city of Los Angeles below, the sun glinting off the Pacific Ocean, and the solitude, mainly the solitude.
“Are we there yet?” squeaks Lucy, his 5-year-old.
His intense green eyes widen and focus on the road as it steepens, twists and narrows to one lane.
“Where should we park if we are taking the hike?” he asks, hints of an East Coast accent creeping into his deep voice.
“Daddy, are we there yet? Daddy? Daddy?”
Jeff and crew are on their way to the Santa Monica Mountains for a midday trek. It’s just another day for the T-shirt-and-jeans-clad 35-year-old father of two. Typically, he amuses the children in their toy-littered living room until noon, when he begins to go stir crazy. Then, he drags them out the door on some sort of expedition. When daughter Lucy asks, “Why?” he spouts the benefits of exercise and fresh air, but he knows it’s really about him — and his sanity.
He glances over his shoulder, admiring his ability to optimize the limited real estate of his silver Ford Fusion. Lucy is strapped into her car seat by a five-point harness. Her shimmery princess dress billows over the plastic armrests. Green flip-flops dangle from her feet, and her face is slick with a pasty coating of Banana Boat sunscreen. She is inches from her 1-year-old brother, Whitman, who is inches from Noah, the family dog — an elderly brown and white shepherd mix.
“Wahhhh! Wahhhh!” Whitman wails uncontrollably. Jeff takes his hand off the steering wheel, reaches behind his back and fumbles blindly for anything to quell the outburst — a baby bottle, a biscuit, a Metallica CD. Seconds later Whitman is quietly sucking a pacifier. It’s a 20-minute drive to the mountains from their home in West Hollywood. Eleven minutes to go.
“Are we there yet, Daddy?” re-pleads Lucy, almost on cue.
Jeff is the quintessential stay-at-home Dad — if there is such a thing. He packs lunches, changes diapers, arranges play dates, manages babysitters, repeatedly watches Pocahontas movies and writes best-sellers — two to be exact; one fiction, one nonfiction. He celebrated success early when his first novel, The Tourists, was published in 2007, five years after his graduation from Yale.
On May 18, 2011, a single devastating event sent his life on a different trajectory. Soon, the self-proclaimed introvert found himself drawn into the extroverted world of narrative nonfiction. For three years, he immersed himself in reporting the story of Robert Peace, his college roommate at Yale who was found murdered in the basement of a home outside of Newark, New Jersey.
The reporting left him with a profound respect for the process of narrative nonfiction — and another best-seller, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. For his efforts, he received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest, and made the PEN Literary Awards short list for biography. Success, however, has left him feeling conflicted and guilty, as though he mined his best friend’s tainted memory for his own literary achievement, profit and desire to be a “writer who mattered.”
Jeff began to resolve that conflict as his book became something of a catalyst for racial dialogue, with readers debating the conundrum of Robert’s life story. How could an intelligent, charming black man who rose above the impoverished circumstances of his birth return home after graduating from an Ivy League school, only to fall victim to the trappings of his past? That conversation encouraged the otherwise reserved author to spread the book’s message of empathy to college campuses, community centers, high schools and juvenile detention halls in an attempt to help others learn from his roommate’s life.
In the gender-bending role that marks the contours of Jeff’s life, he must negotiate the quiet from the crazed, the computer from the kids, stealing precious moments for writing in his garage where his mind can focus without close encounters of the preschooler kind. Despite the push-pull of his two selves, he seems to master competence at whatever activity defines him: runner, hiker, surfer, thinker, seeker, author, husband and dad.
His days are long and challenging, beginning at 4 a.m. where the only available writing time is in his cluttered garage. After 7 a.m., he is bombarded with phone calls, text messages and failed attempts to keep up with a toddler, who makes sport out of pulling books off the living room shelf. While craving adult conversation, Jeff would like nothing better than to retreat to his writer’s cave; yet, he embraces kid chaos easier than he does literary limelight.
Today’s expedition has the three of them high above L.A. for a hike, a snack, a ride on Daddy’s shoulders and a relentless barrage of questions. “Daddy, can I climb out of the car?” Lucy asks from her backseat perch.
“You mean right now?” questions Jeff. “100 percent not.”
“When I’m getting out, can I climb out of the window?”
“No,” he says.
He resorts to reason. “It gets your dress dirty and mom gets mad …nobody wins.”
She resorts to begging. “Pretty please?”
“No,” he repeats flatly.
“Pretty, pretty please?”
But she remains undeterred. “Pretty, pretty, pretty, please?”
It was close to midnight when Jeff’s cellphone vibrated. He wedged the foamy toothbrush in his mouth and tapped the screen. The blue and white Facebook logo glowed. He scanned the message: “Rob Peace”... “Regret to inform you …” He stiffened like he was on the receiving end of a bucket of ice water. “He passed away.” Immobilized, Jeff read the message over and over and over.
Jeff had not seen Rob since Jeff’s wedding six years earlier. He felt badly about losing touch, and even worse when another Facebook post said that Rob died violently — shot in what was likely a drug-related turf war. But in May 2011, amid the endless mountains of laundry, piles of dirty dishes and fossilized mashed potatoes embedded in his daughter’s blonde hair, Jeff was settling into his new role as a father. His wife, Rebecca, felt guilty about spending time away from Lucy, but her work for a TV director kept them financially afloat, enabling Jeff to keep writing and the family to move from a one-bedroom apartment to a small house. Suddenly, they were surrounded by seven-figure homes, six-figure cars and the likelihood of expensive private school tuition. Jeff was feeling the financial weight of parenting and the possibility of being a failed writer.
It’s not like he hadn’t known literary success. He’d been writing since he could remember, growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, the quietest of four children; not liking social gatherings or parties, he preferred books. His father, a surgeon, found 10-year-old Jeff’s first foray into fiction — a short detective story — a bit inappropriate and objected to its steamy scenes. He encouraged Jeff to take up sports, and, much like his father, Jeff ran track for the private prep school he attended, resonating with the individualism of the sport as well as its simplicity. “You run your run and whoever gets there first, wins. It’s a pretty pure thing.”
During summers, Jeff ran hurdles for the Wilmington Track Club and hung out with black sprinters who attended public school and adopted Jeff as one of their own. On weekends they would pile into vans driven by volunteer coaches, Salt-N-Pepa blaring on the radio, and hit the road for regional competitions. They schooled him in their lingo and bestowed upon him the title of “honorary black man.”
In the fall of 1998, Jeff followed another family tradition and set off for Yale University with plans to major in English and run track. Moving into his assigned room on the fourth floor of Lanman Wright Hall, he met his new roommate, Robert Peace, an accomplished water polo player who also graduated from a challenging private school. Rob had grown up in East Orange, New Jersey, a densely populated, deteriorating black neighborhood nicknamed, “Illtown.” His father, an inmate serving a life sentence for murdering two women, had been absent from Rob’s life since his son was 7.
College roommates for four years, they grew to be best friends, and Jeff found solace in Rob’s good counsel, his ability to “tell it like it is” and his judgment-free world. That Rob was stoned every day or sold pot out of their dorm room seemed almost incidental to their friendship. More important was that Jeff could share his highs and lows from track competitions, his heartbreaks with women and his dream of being a writer of substance.
That dream was realized sooner than anticipated. After graduating from Yale in 2002, Jeff wedged himself into a 200-square-foot flat in Manhattan, working as a grant writer by day and a fiction writer by night. The idea for what would become his first novel came from his brother, who had just broken up with a girlfriend who was trying to change him. His characters, though fictional, are loosely based on composites of his Yale classmates, and they find themselves living in Manhattan seven years after graduation. With his sister in banking and his brother in fashion, Jeff tagged along with them and observed their worlds. “Sexy and hip isn’t my personality, but it was a time and place where I paid a lot of attention to that.”
He also paid attention to a green-eyed woman from Brooklyn named Rebecca, whom he met at a party and proposed to six weeks later. A few weeks before their wedding in 2005, he sold to Simon & Shuster what would become The Tourists and a national best-seller. The Boston Globe called the work “an impressive debut in which keen insights are often strewn amid the narrative like shiny pennies on a dirty sidewalk.”
The day after their wedding, Jeff and Rebecca moved to Los Angeles for Rebecca’s job. Jeff, thinking about a second novel, knew he didn’t want to be cast as the second coming of Jay McInerney, writing only about young, urban angst. Instead, he spent three years writing a long family novel loosely based on the lives of Rebecca’s mother and her four aunts that he titled The Five Sisters. It got a good reception from one publishing house, but the marketing department rejected the deal: How were they supposed to sell a story about five middle-aged women written by a 27-year-old man? “It’s probably not something I should have been spending my time on,” he says.
There were other writing jobs that helped pay the bills: editing self-help books, writing ad copy on social media. But nothing with the kind of pop expected from being a best-selling author. He did make some money adapting The Tourists into a screenplay but no movie has been made yet. And living in Hollywood, where everyone has a screenplay, he was encouraged to write another, but collaboration just wasn’t in him. “That work is so social, and there are so many cooks in the kitchen, and I just love my garage so much.”
Rejection left him sad, not bitter, and he began to question his worth as a writer — that is, until he received the cellphone message that would compel him to investigate the story of a good friend who had been murdered.
Certain things about Rob’s funeral in Newark remain fixed in Jeff’s mind: the embalmed body of his best friend lying peacefully in an open casket; a view of Rob’s mom, Jackie Peace, the strong, stoic single mom, who had borrowed books from the local library to read to her small son; a high-pitched wail that cracked the silence in St Mary’s Church before the priest’s fiery sermon; an open mic encouraging Jeff to say a few words, though he can’t remember exactly what; shocked friends going to a bar and spending the rest of the day drinking and trying to understand the why and how of what happened.
It wasn’t as though Jeff came away from the funeral with any idea of writing a book; instead he returned to his garage and began writing essays about his memories of Rob — six months’ worth of personal essays. “I carry so much guilt thinking back to so many dorm room conversations. If I had just been less distracted by English papers or track or girls,” he says. “If I had asked a more nuanced question or a harder question that was safer to avoid asking. I don’t think I could have changed anything, but, at least, I could have been aware.” And if enough people had been more aware, he adds, maybe Rob would still be alive today.
After some prodding from Rebecca, he called Jackie and asked for her support to tell Rob’s life story. Her son had influenced so many people in his old neighborhood, at Yale, at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, his old high school where he taught for a few years. He wanted Jackie to have a record of her son, even if it was written on loose-leaf paper, even if it was just something she kept in the attic. He doubted anything that tragic would ever be published, but if it was, he promised to dedicate some of the royalties to fund a scholarship at St. Benedict’s. She said, “OK.”
For someone with no history of interviewing sources and turning them into realized characters, who for his last birthday present from his wife received “a month of no social gatherings,” who hated leaving his comfort zone, much less his garage, a first foray into nonfiction seemed a daunting task. Added to these obstacles was the realization that along the way, he would encounter hostility from those who felt it presumptuous that a white man from Jeff’s background would dare try to tell the story of a black man from Rob’s background.
Facebook made matters easier for those who were eager to be interviewed: Rob’s friends from Yale and his first cousins from New Jersey. From these contacts, Jeff broadened his search, returning to New Jersey time and again to interview Rob’s childhood friends, his drug connections — those he had bought from and sold to. Many of his friends seemed overly possessive of their memories of Rob, as if only they owned the truth. Jeff learned that if he could keep his interviews less formal, more conversational, people would be more likely to open up. And if he could meet with them in small groups, over dinner or in someone’s home, it brought out the storyteller in people who shared their memories more vividly. And if their stories sounded far-fetched or exaggerated, others in the group were more likely to “call bullshit.”
Navigating between the unfamiliar and the dangerous, Jeff once walked up to a bungalow, knocked, but no one answered. He called his contact, who asked if he was in front of an apartment building. He said, “No,” and he was told, “Get back in your car, stay on the phone with me and lock your doors.” He started his car and four guys pulled up next to him, looking him over. As he drove off, he thought to himself, I would rather be in my garage talking to my dog.
He asked his sources many of the same questions he’d been asking himself: Why didn’t they do something, intervene, get in Rob’s face and tell him that he was about to lose everything he had worked for? “His Yale friends felt they couldn’t give him advice because he was this hard guy from New Jersey,” recalls Jeff. “And his people back home felt like they couldn’t give him advice because he was this intellect that had gone to Yale.”
Over the next year and a half, Jeff learned how Rob touched many lives — Yale professors, Newark drug dealers, St. Benedict’s clergy — and how he devoted significant time to visiting his father in prison and attempted to overturn his murder conviction.
Eighteen months and 1,000 pages of interviews later, Jeff wrote a 150-page book proposal and submitted it to 25 publishing houses. All but three turned him down, saying the story was “too dark” or that “no one would read it.” Of the three houses that wanted the work, Jeff chose Scribner because he felt its editor, Colin Harrison, would make him go deeper with his research, even at the expense of Jeff feeling awkward or uncomfortable. Harrison insisted, among other things, that Jeff visit Trenton State Prison where Rob’s father had been housed before his death. Among the lifeless eyes of its inmates, the smell of disinfectant and the sound of steel doors clanking shut, Jeff would learn about Rob’s relationship with his dad. “There was a need to dig diligently to learn things he didn’t already know, information that was absolutely essential to the book,” says Harrison. “And he got it.”
Although Jeff found the interview process therapeutic, helping him assuage lingering guilt over not being there for Rob, a piece of him still felt as though he was exploiting his best friend for money and recognition. “I wish it could simply be sadness in missing a friend, but, once you bring in the business stuff, it all gets twisted around.” These conflicted feelings bubbled to the surface at awkward moments: at a New York book expo celebrating him as an undiscovered author, during a congratulatory lunch at an upscale New York restaurant with his publisher and editor, and while signing hardcover books with a $27 price tag.
When Jeff read the review of his book in the The New York Times in mid-September 2014, he was offended, not with what the reviewer said about him — “a solid writer with considerable empathy and gifts for narrative” — but with the way she wrote about Rob’s neighborhood. “There are places in America where life is so cheap and fate so brutal that, if they belonged to another country, America might bomb that country to liberate them.”
If Jeff was upset, Jackie was livid, phoning Jeff about the harsh way the reviewer had characterized her son. Rob would have never wanted this and she never would have agreed to it. Never. Jeff apologized repeatedly, saying he couldn’t control the review, which had oversimplified what he had written.
In his fiction, this would have never happened, but the world rendered in nonfiction exists beyond the margins of its pages, and there were messy, real-life consequences to what he wrote. Jackie was one of those consequences. “It was probably one of the worst days I had ever had in my life — thinking that I had caused her more pain.” She seemed inconsolable, even after he told her he still hoped something good would come out of the book.
That uneasiness remained when they met with the headmaster at St. Benedict’s in late September to discuss setting up a scholarship in Rob’s name. Jackie expressed reservations about donating money to a religious school from royalties earned from her son’s death. But Father Ed would hear none of it. “Whether it’s $500 or $50,000 isn’t what’s important,” he told her. “That book is going to save lives.” Jackie nodded and smiled, even began to loosen up. She later drove Jeff to the train station, where he told her that her story of being a single mom, who worked as kitchen help to ensure her son had the education that she never had, made her the real hero of the book.
Others felt the same as Father Ed, as invitations to speak about the book came rolling in. Jeff, the introvert, resisted at first, grumbling to Rebecca about being a writer, not a public speaker. But she encouraged him to accept and consider it a privilege to connect Rob with more people. Jeff would rehearse in the alley behind his garage, “orating to the ether” about empathy and perception — about how we experience each moment in our own unique way.
Two months later, Jeff agreed to a speaking engagement, his first of many. It was held in the basement of a public library only four blocks from Jackie’s house in East Orange. But she refused to come, said she couldn’t handle it. Jeff was nervous, his palms sweaty, and it didn’t help that the largely African-American crowd seemed hostile. Jeff thought they didn’t want some white guy coming into their neighborhood and talking about something he knew nothing about. One woman stood up — and appeared angry, insulted, claiming that Jeff must have somehow enabled Rob to use drugs. She wouldn’t ease up — not until another man jumped to Jeff’s defense. The man was Reggie Miller, a former college basketball player and community activist who had grown up in the neighborhood. “I know this is about our community,” he told the crowd. “But it’s for the kid in Ohio and the kid in Texas. Read this book and save their lives that way.” The crowd quieted and a more civil conversation ensued. Jackie was there; she had decided to attend after all. At the end of the evening, she stood up as the audience applauded her. She told the group, her eyes reddened and tearful, that she was pleased that her son still had a strong impact on the lives of so many. It was the kind of evening Jeff had hoped for, and its message would be repeated time and again.
It’s not much of a writer’s cave, really: a small windowless garage just off the living room, its interior cluttered with floor-to-ceiling industrial shelves, cardboard boxes, a metal file cabinet and a baby stroller. But for Jeff Hobbs, it’s downright palatial, the place where he prefers to write.
He sits behind a desk wedged against the wall, among more shelves and a piece of exercise equipment. Lucy opens the door, Disney’s Pocahontas blaring from the living room, a bread and butter sandwich in her hand.
“Daddy, can I have a drink of water?”
He gets it for her, then looks toward the back alley, which not only serves as Jeff’s open-air venue to rehearse his speeches, but also as the ballpark to a homeless man who mimes all nine innings of an imaginary baseball game.
Jeff’s been frustrated of late by his writing. After the success of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, he searched for another nonfiction project and thought he had found one in the story of two former University of Michigan football players — good friends who had reached the pinnacle of their success in college but were unable to make it in the pros. How they handle that failure was the theme of the story, one using it to mentor other college players about life after football, the other committing suicide. Jeff spent eight months interviewing the mentor, before the man stopped returning his calls without explanation. Jeff figured he had gotten “the jitters,” opening up to a total stranger, sharing his innermost thoughts with the outside world — it came easier to some than others.
Never suffering from a paucity of ideas, Jeff has turned his attention to another nonfiction narrative: it’s the story of two girls who attend different schools, one public and underfunded with passionate teachers; the other private, preparatory and “grotesquely expensive.” He got the idea when Rebecca insisted they tour a private school for Lucy. “After seeing that, “ he says. “Everything else makes it seem like if you don’t send your kid there, you don’t love them.”
He is only ankle deep into the research, hopes to do more over the summer when school isn’t in session, but wonders if he will ever find a story that is as significant to him as Robert Peace. And yet he knows he is fortunate to have the situation he does: a supportive, loving wife, the solitude of nearby mountains, a secluded room in which to write — though life does have its moments.
“And maybe next time you do bread and butter, Daddy, maybe you should only put one chunk of butter,” lectures Lucy. “I don’t want to ask you this again.”