Jeff Hobbs on Telling the Story of Your Murdered Friend
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi, I’m Will Schwalbe and this is But That’s Another Story. If you invite me over to your house, I have to warn you: I’m a book snoop. You will never find me looking in your medicine cabinet or hunting around in your mail. But if you leave me alone, I’m going to examine your coffee table stack and study your bookshelves. I can’t help myself. I don’t inspect your books with any great purpose. Mostly I’m just curious. But I do enjoy coming across the books you kept from college. There’s often a shelf of these, and you can kind of always tell. They’re a little more battered than the others. There might even be a textbook or two.
What I find interesting about these books is not that you studied them, but that you kept them, year after year, move after move, city to city. Maybe you like to revisit them and remember college, when anything seemed possible. Or maybe it’s just nostalgia and you just can’t bring yourself to get rid of them, no matter how many years pass. They helped shape the person you are, and they remind you of who you were back then. When you come to my house, you’ll easily find your way to my college shelf: Zora Neale Hurston sits next to Lucretius, Rilke next to Emily Dickinson. Say hello to them. They’re old friends of mine. And recently, I got to talking about the deep mark that college friendships can leave on us with today’s guest.
Jeff Hobbs: My name is Jeff Hobbs, and I’m a nonfiction writer.
WS: Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. He went to Yale, lived in New York City, and lives in Los Angeles now, but growing up, he says places like those seemed far, far away.
JH: I grew up in the country, in southeastern Pennsylvania, about 40 miles from Philly. A town called Kennett Square, the mushroom capital of the world. The kind you put in salads. That kind of mushroom.
WS: Were you a big reader as a kid?
JH: Very big. Mostly fantasy, Tolkien, that sort of thing…sitting in trees during my siblings’ baseball and lacrosse games while my dad begged me to come down and play more sports.
WS: Did you play any sports?
JH: Yeah, I did. That was a big thing in our family.
WS: Jeff played football and basketball—not well, he says—and he ran track pretty seriously. But he still spent a lot of time reading and especially remembers the times he stayed up too late and the trouble that he got into.
JH: 3 AM nights, my mom pissed off when I was a very little kid. My daughter likes hearing these stories, and I promised her I would never get mad at her if I caught her reading too late.
WS: How old is your daughter now?
JH: She’s eight now.
WS: Is she a big reader?
JH: She is.
WS: Why do you think fantasy appealed to you as a little kid?
JH: I don’t know. I guess I probably had a pretty sheltered and insular life, in the country and with a pretty tight family.
WS: But soon enough, he found himself heading off to college—to Yale, where his dad and two older siblings had gone as well. The summer before his freshman year, he got his roommate assignment. There were three roommates, but one name in particular stuck out: Robert Peace.
JH: I had sent him a really dorky letter with a lot of exclamation points, and he called back. The first thing I realized was he was black. You could tell by his voice. But he said he played a little water polo and went to a prep school and so heading into Yale, I assumed that he was a pretty typical Yale freshman.
JH: He was probably more confident than me, but we were both a little introverted in a certain way, and both preferred to spend most of our time in the room reading. And just through proximity—you know, these rooms are not very big—you end up just chewing the fat quite a bit.
WS: Jeff and Rob became friends, and Jeff found out that Rob was not the typical Yale freshman he had imagined. He came from East Orange, New Jersey, where his father had been convicted for a double murder when Rob was seven. Rob had started smoking marijuana pretty young, and sold it throughout college. At Yale, he studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry, while Jeff majored in English and after graduation, started writing.
JH: Well, I had always wanted to write books, and I guess partly because of my own privilege I could go to New York City and drink a lot of coffee and I worked in a nonprofit and sort of stayed up late working on my novels and was also fortunate to publish one when I was 27. And I don’t recommend that book to anybody.
WS: And while Jeff was in New York City, he occasionally got together with his old roommate. After graduation, Rob moved back to Newark, where he spent some time working as a teacher at his alma mater.
JH: We saw each other quite a bit the first few years. We would take the PATH train back and forth.
JH: He was a groomsman in my wedding and actually one of the few people when I proposed to this girl. We’ve been married for 13 years now. When I proposed, I had known her for six weeks and I was very young. I was 23 at the time. There was a lot of resistance to that among friends and particularly family. And Rob was one of the few people who said, other people bring their problems to things, and you have to do what you think is right, for better or for worse.
JH: You know, he gave me an envelope with a $50 bill and we hugged and I watched him walk off with his gal at the time, not knowing that would be the last time I would ever see him alive. I moved to California the next day. We spoke on the phone you know, four, fives time a year, the way guys talk. What’s up? It’s all good? Good. Not really digging into things but the conversations were genuine and we made the effort and talked about a reunion. And it seemed like life was long and there would always be time, but there wasn’t, I guess.
JH: 2011, almost exactly nine years after we graduated, my phone dinged while I was brushing my teeth and I learned that he had died. Violently. Over drugs.
WS: Rob was murdered in a basement in Newark in what appeared to be a drug deal gone wrong.
JH: It’s not like he died and I was thinking, oh, I’m going to write a book. It was more like the funeral brought all these people together. There were 400 people from all over the world and it’s a particular kind of grief at a funeral like that. Awful grief. Which I had never experienced before and we did the best we could to celebrate him and tell funny stories and we all came home from that funeral and we kept telling those stories on Facebook and on the phone and in person when we could, and this community formed.
And at a certain point, maybe six months later, I foolishly volunteered to make some kind of compilation of these stories. At the time, I was thinking maybe a thousand-word piece in the Yale Magazine, or his high school newsletter, or the East Orange local paper, something nobody would read but might speak to his life and not just his death.
WS: Jeff Hobbs was a published novelist when his college roommate, Rob Peace, was murdered. Confronted with not just his own grief and memories, but also the stories of Rob’s extended group of family and friends, he set out to write something to memorialize his friend. Something small.
JH: That 1,000-word piece spiraled and everyone I talked to sent me to five more people, and I planned to talk to six or eight of Rob’s friends and then it became 60, then 80. I call it a eulogy that got way out of hand. And that’s how it turned into book form.
WS: But as he began to write about Rob, Jeff realized that the project was unlike anything he had ever attempted before.
JH: I had never written nonfiction before. There’s a feeling, I think, among fiction writers that nonfiction is sort of like you find a quarter on the sidewalk and you sort of put it out there in book form. If you stumble on a story, it’s sort of a lesser art form than fiction. I sort of subscribed to this again having never written it or studied it or really read it, beyond school assignments.
JH: So I asked my agent, who is a really good friend, if there were any seminal books I should read that might be helpful. And he went to his shelf, pulled it out, and sort of solemnly placed it in my hands. And told me how much it meant to him.
WS: That book was There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz.
JH: In the office I took it from him, I thanked him, and went home and opened it. And it’s just one of those books that you open and maybe you come out two or three later, exhausted and illuminated.
WS: The book follows two young boys, brothers, as they grow up in a public housing project in Chicago. Kotlowitz spent years with the boys and their mother, totally immersed in their world. An invisible narrator in the story.
JH: It’s really about the horrors that these boys live with every day. The violence and the death and the starvation and the brown water that comes out of their faucet, couched in the fact that they are boys, and they experience wonders. And they look for snakes by the train tracks, and they play games, and they take care of each other.
WS: Has having a child yourself changed your reading of the book?
JH: I mean, having a child sort of changes your reading of everything. But actually I remember my daughter was probably one when I read this book. Maybe two. And I was also working on Rob Peace at the same time, so she grew up with these books and work that I was doing.
JH: She started preschool, so she must have been three, and there was a toy drive or a supply drive — toothbrushes and things, a big basket we filled up to take down to the LA mission. So I was driving with Lucy and the basket was next to her and there was a yellow toothbrush at the top of it. And yellow at the time was an obsession of hers, so she really wanted this yellow toothbrush. And I said absolutely not. And she’s freaking out. She’s like, there’s all these things here. Who’s going to miss this toothbrush? And I was trying to explain about where we were going and what these things were, what these supplies were for. And she wasn’t quite getting it.
And I talked about this book and particularly the young boy, and the circumstances that they lived in and the fact that he probably didn’t have a toothbrush a lot of the time. At least not a brand new one. And I went on about it and she asked a couple questions, and at least the conversation was enough to get us to the mission without more negotiating. And then when we got there and I dropped it off in the lobby, I guess the toothbrush had fallen out when I was carrying it. She picked up the toothbrush and she said, Dad, this toothbrush fell out. Make sure the people get it.
WS: And while the book had an impact on Jeff’s personal life, it also had a huge effect on the writing of his own book.
JH: Work wise, it just informed me because I was pretty early on, just the sheer amount of work that goes into something as great as his book, which you aspire to, you probably won’t hit it. But as a person, I described growing up in the country in a pretty insular family, but because I ran track pretty seriously, I spent my summers in cramped vans and cheap motels with my teammates who were pretty much black guys and girls.
JH: I learned how to play spades and I listened to Nas and my teammates called me an honorary black man. Which was kind of a benign joke we were all in on. But you know, I thought I was down, at least. Having black roommates in college and black friends and working on the book and being part of this community of his, I thought I was pretty savvy when it came to black people and their culture and their communities. And I read this book and it just exploded.
JH: It’s painful, when you’re my age, to learn how ignorant you were. Even—in the case of reading this book—hours before. It’s painful, and it’s also very valuable.
WS: And the lessons of Kotlowitz’s book have stayed with Jeff as he’s gone around the country speaking about Rob’s story.
JH: Empathy is a word that’s overused. It’s important but it’s kind of vague and gets confused with another word that sounds similar. Especially among young people. And I found that when you start talking about empathy as some sort of equalizer, people tune out. And all there is to be is curious and humble and earnest and wanting to know more and if you know more, then you’re never going to be down, as I thought I was. But you can maybe do more in whatever capacity.
WS: What’s the word that empathy is confused with?
JH: The project grew a little bit out of my hands at a certain point. I struggle with the question of, what’s the point? What positive value could be gotten from a story about a bright guy who was born with a lot of gifts and given a lot of gifts and overcame a lot of challenges and then died because of a few bad decisions? But the other question was, what would Rob think? He was a pretty private guy. I bet he’d be pretty pissed. And he was not the kind of guy you wanted pissed off at you. Trust me, it wasn’t fun.
At this point, having schools from Ivy League to juvenile halls and mostly pretty rough inner city schools where students have read the book or talked about it… there’s something about Rob and his story that maybe compels young people, particularly young men, to share their stories with each other. And I think that’s the point. And that was Rob’s great gift: listening, making you feel safe and unjudged. And I mean, he might kick my ass first, but I think he might be pretty proud of what he’s done.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino and Alex Abnos. Thanks to Jeff Hobbs. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.