Author Brad Parks and I are kindred spirits, in that we both care passionately about journalism even though we have both left the profession; we both argue that it IS an ethical and important profession when done right. Additionally, we both like mysteries and share a similar sense of humor — or so I assume based on first reading him and then, recently, meeting him.
It’s appropriate that the book contains a blurb from Michael Connelly, who, like Parks, has made the move from crime reporter to mystery writer since both clearly mined some of their journalism work for some of their fiction. Connelly’s blurb: “This book held me hostage until the last page.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Brad at a book signing at BookPeople in Austin and he’s as cool in person as in the books. He explained how the books – the characters and some of the plots came out of experiences he had as a reporter.
I followed up that conversation with the email interview which follows.
Parks books are about investigative reporter Carter Ross who works for a newspaper in Newark. Parks himself started his journalism career with The Washington Post. He then went to the Newark Star-Ledger in 1998 covering sports. In 2004 he switched to news. His debut novel, Faces of the Gone, won the Shamus Award for best first novel and the Nero Award for best first novel. You can read more information about Parks and his books at http://www.bradparksbooks.com
I wanted to preface the interview with a few examples of how he talks about journalism amid the novel.
From Chapter One:
“I made at least four mistakes that Monday morning, the first of which was going into the office in the first place. There’s an old saying among newspaper reporters that news never breaks in the newsroom. So if you’re not currently working on a story, you ought to be finding one. If you hang around the newsroom with nothing to do, you put yourself at extreme risk of being assigned something to do by an editor. And – ask any writer, anywhere – editors are approximately nighty-eight percent full of stupid ideas.”
That is SOOO true. Ironically, as I told him when we met, one editor’s idea pitched, but that I don’t recall anyone ever filing was similar to something in his two books. The question my editor would ask is who is selling and buying those stickers on cars saying RIP to fallen friends, relatives, etc.? In the book it’s t-shirts vs. car stickers but otherwise the same idea and it’s based on an article Parks really did. A main character in both books makes good business selling these shirts mostly, it seems to gang members and drug dealers paying respect to fallen colleagues.
Some of Parks best stuff deals with journalism and ethics:
“I suppose somewhere there was some tweedy journalism professor who would have said that what Sweet Thang was doing – dropping that wall between reporter and source, allowing herself to connect emotionally with Akilah’s pain – was a Very Bad Thing. But there’s also a reason why those tweedy journalism professors fled to academia in the first place: they were sucky reporters.
“You’ve got to get your source treating you like a fellow member of the species, not an alien with a notepad. Legions of kids come out of J-school each year having been drilled endlessly about objectivity, balance, and other semi useful subjects – much to their detriment. Some of them unlearn it quickly enough. But for others, the inability to get real with sources becomes a crippling affliction they carry through their journalism careers.
“Should we teach kids about balance? Of course. Getting both sides of a story is one of the foundations of what we do. There are many areas – politics, court trials, business disputes and so on – where we’re absolutely obligated to play it down the middle.
“But there are also stories where, frankly, there is no middle. A mother’s pain over losing her children in a fire would be one of those stories. There’s no “other” side to tell. There’s just one woman and her profound tragedy. I believe telling that story in a sensitive, compassionate way makes the news – and all those who read it – a little more human.”
“I took a great deal of pride in getting a story right, or at least trying my damnedest at it. It went straight to the core of perhaps my deepest journalistic value: that the truth exists, and that it’s my job as a reporter to find it.
“I realize that flies in the face of the moral relativism that has become so popular on campuses and in high faluting big-think magazines, where the professors and editors will have you believe there is no such thing as the truth, only stories from different perspectives. They’ll spin that marvelous bit of postmodern logic that says there are no absolutes and therefore we cannot possibly judge anyone else’s beliefs. And they’ll tell you journalists are hopelessly flawed creatures incapable of escaping their own innate biases long enough to ever approach anything resembling impartiality.
“To which I reply: fiddle-faddle.
“I’m not saying it’s simple to find and tell the truth. It takes a great deal of hard work, intellectual honesty, open-mindedness, and a willingness to keep listening to people even when your gut is telling you you’re full of it. Then it involves drilling through the layers of one’s cultural assumptions and prejudgements, all the way down to the mushy middle of all of us, where I believe there’s a basic humanity that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong. If we as writers apply that code – without the anchors of agenda or ideology – we can lift our prose to something that can be called the truth. It’s the very best of what journalism can and should be.”
Amen. And as I told Brad at BookPeople my take as a journalist was that you were being constantly used, but it’s partly a matter of being aware of who is using you and for what purpose.
How has your journalism background helped you as a novelist, both in terms of your writing style as well as topics and discipline?
That’s easy: It’s given me everything. Certainly, the discipline to write in any kind of mood, any sort of setting and any time of day – and the ability to crank out a high volume of clean copy – comes from my days as a journalist, particularly from when I was a sportswriter. Beyond that, being a reporter forced me into close proximity with my primary source material. I was constantly meeting new and fascinating people – sometimes on the very best or very worst days of their lives – and was given license to ask them whatever impertinent question popped into my head. If that’s not good training to be a novelist, I don’t know what is.
So this is the second book featuring ace investigative reporter Carter Ross. I understand you have written the third and fourth books already — can you talk about what happens in those books?
Hands of the Lost, the third one, confronts the struggles of the newspaper industry, including how it has butted up against organized labor (always a fruitful topic in New Jersey). Arms of the Keeper deals with gun-smuggling and what law enforcement folks call “The Iron Pipeline” – Interstate 95, which serves as the conduit from states with lax gun control laws (like Virginia, where I live now), to those with tight ones (hello, New Jersey). Without giving away too much plot to either of them, Carter gets fired, shot, imprisoned, beaten, tear-gassed and… well, let’s just say there’s a lot of trouble out there awaiting him.
Maybe it’s my own journalism background, but some of my favorite and dog-eared passages are those where you discuss journalism ethics, be it in the first book, where you say that you try not to take ethics tips from hookers, and in the second where you explain your objections to TV news reporters. Do you intentionally try to set the record straight in these books regarding what it’s really like to be a newspaper reporter in these days when some think journalists have no ethics?
One of the things I enjoy about Carter is that he does allow you to peak under the skirt of the daily newspaper a little bit. Newspapers often make themselves these dense, gray walls, their decision-making impenetrable to the public. Sure, a few places have an Ombudsman who lowers the wall a little, but that only helps so much. Too often newspapers make a tough call – about whether to run a certain photo or story – and give readers no indication there was even an argument about it. Really, they ought to say, “Yeah, we struggled with this one, but here’s our rationale for what we did.” When I was a journalist, I often thought that if readers understood just how much editors and reporters wrangled over those thorny ethics questions, they’d have more respect for what we did and why. Also, readers would be shocked – and I do mean shocked – by how much reporters know but don’t put in the paper, simply because it’s not responsible to do so. I want folks to understand that.
How closely does Carter resemble what you did and how you operated as a reporter yourself? Did you, like Carter, sometimes get it wrong?
Carter is a much better reporter than I ever was. I got it wrong a lot more often than he does.
Since your books are based in New Jersey and are funny you’re probably getting compared often to Janet Evanovich — what do you think of her books? I’m also curious about what you think of Michael Connelly, who you both mention in one of your books and has a blurb on your book who, like you, went from being a newspaper reporter to a novelist.
I’m certainly not going to complain about being compared to Janet Evanovich (her last print run was announced at, what, 1.4 million?). I have read – and enjoyed – some of the early Stephanie Plum novels (although I must admit I haven’t read past maybe Nos. 9 or 10 in the series). They’re fun, entertaining, and perfectly paced. Her writing is just so smooth. As for Connelly, well, what can I say about him that hasn’t already been said? I think what he’s done with Mickey Haller really speaks to his genius. With Harry Bosch, Connelly had already established himself as one of the best police procedural writers ever. And if all he ever wrote was Harry and a few stand-alones, he’d be one of the all-time greats. But with Mickey Haller, Connelly has established himself as one of the best to ever write legal thrillers, too. That puts him in pretty rarified air.
What’s the best part about the switch from journalism to fiction?
There’s a special intimacy to the reader-writer relationship as an author that doesn’t exist in journalism, or any other form of media. A newspaper article – much like a movie or a news segment or a television show – is the result of multiple people’s visions. The reporter who pitches the story has an idea of what it is, and then the assigning editor gives it his own twist. Then the reporter twists it in another direction. The managing editor may tweak it again. The copy desk has its say, writing the first words of the article that anyone sees – the headline. What appears in the paper has a lot of thumb prints on it. Not so with a novel.
A novel is only one person’s vision. Mine. And I can bring to bear anything I’ve ever experienced in creating it. But – and here’s the best part – the novel only truly comes alive in one place: The reader’s mind. And just as I’ve brought everything to bear in the writing, the reader also brings an entire lifetime of experience when she does her part. And then it becomes this unique creation, shared between the two of us. I love it when readers send me an e-mail telling me some insight about my book or some memory it stirred in them, because that’s when I know they’ve really internalized my work. As a writer, that’s the highest compliment I can get.
Which characters are the most fun to write and why?
Definitely the interns. Every book in the Carter Ross series has an intern who is typically put in the story as much for the comic effect as anything. So, for example, in Eyes of the Innocent, Lauren McMillan – nicknamed “Sweet Thang” because she’s a honey-haired Vanderbilt graduate – is just a blast. In the third book there’s a lumbering former college football player everyone calls “Lunky.” Little do most folks know, he happens to be a closeted Philip Roth scholar getting his Ph.D in English literature at Princeton. I had so much fun “mentoring” (read: tormenting) interns when I worked at a newspaper, it just seemed natural to give Carter the same pleasant diversion.