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An Interview with Nora McFarland, Author of Hot, Shot, and Bothered

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I interviewed Nora for her first novel  and enjoyed it — A Bad Day’s Work was fun to read. It was not the most serious project in the world but that’s okay — it was not intended to be. I confessed then and do so here as well that I am biased in my interest in that she came out of the same business I did — the news media — although she was a TV camerawoman whereas I was a newspaper reporter.

Hot, Shot, and Bothered is more serious than the first but she makes it work. She manages both to have her protagonist explore her past while dealing with common problems in news media and breaking news.

This book is worth checking out

Let’s reintroduce the main character. How would you describe the book’s protagonist? And you’re probably tired of this question but how closely do you resemble Lilly in personality?

Lilly Hawkins is a TV news photographer — nicknamed a shooter in the industry — n her hometown of Bakersfield, California. At the start of Hot, Shot, and Bothered she’s transitioning from being a lone wolf to having a group of friends and family she can count on. She’s tough and smart, but frequently confused by the business of living.

My thinking about how much I resemble Lilly has changed over time. The truth is probably that Lilly is all my best and worst qualities exaggerated to extremes. I hope I’m brave and loyal, but unlike Lilly I’m not very eager to prove it. I can also be my own worst enemy, as Lilly frequently is, but not to the degree that I’ve damaged important relationships.

What’s this one about? How did this story develop?

Lilly is covering a wildfire and the resulting evacuation in the mountains above Bakersfield. It’s a huge story and she’s one of the only journalists able to get in ahead of road closures. When a body is discovered in the local lake, and the victim turns out to be someone Lilly knew back in her misspent youth, she has to juggle covering the fire with investigating what she increasingly thinks is a murder. She feels a responsibility to speak up for the dead woman and push for answers. She also just plain old smells a story. People are lying about the dead woman and it doesn’t add up.

Having lived in Southern California I experienced my share of wildfires. Every natural disaster is horrific, but for me there’s something about fire that frightens me on a really primal level. I was also intrigued by the small city that springs up to support the sometimes thousands of men and women fighting a wildfire. All those people need places to sleep, food, shower and laundry facilities, and even entertainment for their off-hours. The command headquarters is a unique environment and I wanted to explore that.

I’m going to ask you something I recently asked Brad Parks, yet another reporter-turned-novelist (interviewed him here ). Are you using material garnered from your media work for your books and do you have any concerns that, since you left the profession, you might at one point run out of material?
Or are you still doing some media work (not including book publicity:)

The details, the atmosphere — the nuts and bolts of what it’s like to be a shooter—are all things I experienced on the job. I absolutely do worry that I’ll fall behind now that I’ve moved on. Luckily, my husband still works in TV news, so I’m able to keep up with changes in the profession that way. It’s almost better because I can observe from a distance and get a less-biased view. I don’t like change and have an almost knee-jerk negative reaction to it. This way I can see things for what they really are, instead of getting angry because someone moved my cheese.

You – as in you the protagonist – did something shocking on page 38 namely helping out the competition on a developing story. Have you ever done that? It’s one of those things that viewers probably don’t realize – how competitive reporters and others in the news industry can be but may seem like no big deal to the average viewer and reader.

The situation you’re referring to is one in which Lilly knows there’s going to be an important briefing on the fire, but doesn’t have the technology to broadcast it live from the mountains. An L.A. shooter, with a much more powerful and expensive satellite truck, can do it, but he’s planning to leave. Lilly gives him a tip to stick around.

You’re right that TV news is a very competitive industry, and sometimes it’s not even rational competition. Does it matter to the viewers if one station gets their live shot up at five-ten and another at five-twenty? Not really, but it matters a lot to each of those stations and to the people who work there.

It’s true that every good journalist wants to get the story first, but they also know that their job is to work in the public interest. If Lilly herself could have broadcast live, she never would have helped the L.A. shooter — she would have guarded her scoop like Golem with the one-true ring — but she couldn’t do it, and so she got the story out the only way she could.

Also from a character standpoint, it shows that Lilly isn’t as tough as her sometimes gruff exterior would lead one to believe. She complains about the L.A. shooter and calls him a lazy slug, but when push comes to shove, she’s going to help him.

I thought you might appreciate this piece I wrote about my years covering, among other things, fires in Southern California. Did you, covering fires, ever feel like I did that it was counter-intuitive to drive toward fires when others were driving away? But of course you, like me, did it anyway, right?

There must be something wrong with a person who goes toward trouble instead of away, but for a journalist, the lure of a really good story is everything. This is how Lilly is. The L.A. shooter we were just talking about is a good example of someone who’s not like that. He’s there to do a job. He’s competent, but not excited. He’d go towards the flames if instructed to, but in the meantime Lilly is already running there as fast as she can. She’s a newshound and he’s someone who learned a trade that happened to be in the news business.

I realized while reading this the growing number of people I’ve interviewed who used to work for the news media but are now authors of novels about people in the profession. Do you think there’s a trend there or is it just a natural progression or both? Related question: Do you think there is just a natural interest in the profession from the general public since they are exposed to newspapers and television?

Reporters have always been great protagonists for mysteries. Other than law enforcement, criminal lawyers, and private detectives, there’s no other profession where it’s your job to investigate crime. Reporters must ask questions and search for the truth, but they’re not bound by the same constraints as law enforcement, so they can have a lot more fun along the way.

Why there might be a boom in reporter detectives at the moment, I can’t say for sure. It may be that publishers are buying more of them, as everything tends to be cyclical. It could also be that the decline of print newspapers over the last ten years, and more recently the bad economy, has pushed journalists to look for other careers. It’s natural if you’ve made your living writing to think about other ways you can use that skill.

I think because, as you said, the public is exposed to newspapers and TV, the reader is primed to accept the premise of a mystery centered on a reporter. There is a romantic image of the dogged journalist in pursuit of a story that’s a part of our culture.

Follow-up question: What reporters-turned-novelists do you like and why?

I love Bryan Gruley and Hank Phillippi Ryan. Gruley writes the Starvation Lake Mysteries about a print journalist in a small town in Michigan. Hank writes the Charlotte McNally series about a television reporter in Boston. They have different styles, but are both terrific writers.

Also, and I’m sure this goes without saying, I love Laura Lippman. Her Tess Monaghan series is about an out-of-work print reporter in Baltimore who transitions into being a PI. Lippman worked for the Balitmore Sun when she began writing mysteries and it really shows in both Tess’s former profession and also Lippman’s knowledge of Baltimore.

I also highly recommend Night of the Jabberwock by Fredric Brown. I read it recently because several people compared it to my first book. The main character in Jabberwock is the editor of a small weekly paper. He desperately wants something exciting to happen in his little town so he’ll finally have a good story to cover. Over the course of one night he gets several exciting things — including, but not limited to, an escaped maniac, bank robbers fleeing the law, a payroll robbery, and multiple deaths.

On page 68 – and again later in the book – you allude to the move some newspapers and TV stations are moving toward namely one person units where one person does both the camera work and the reporting. We talked about this in our last interview too but I’m out of the industry now so you may have a better feel for whether that trend if taking off and how well it’s working out.

It’s the standard now in smaller markets. It’s gaining popularity in medium markets and even some large markets. One-man-bands are definitely here to stay. Bigger cities, where there’s more money for payroll, will retain some shooters to work on high profile stories, but otherwise reporters will all need to work a camera too. It’s already being taught in journalism schools.

What was it like to get this praise from Lisa Scottoline: “Welcome to Nora McFarland and her unforgettable heroine, Lilly, who’s as lovably dysfunctional as any character you’ll ever read! She’s funny, smart, and honest, albeit occasionally tactless – in short, fully human. Packed full of adrenaline and attitude, A Bad Day’s Work is a roller-coaster ride of a mystery. Don’t miss it!”

I used to handsell Scottoline’s books when I worked at a Barnes & Noble. To go from telling customers what a fantastic writer she is, to actually getting an endorsement from her for my own books, it was indescribable. A once in a lifetime honor.

It also meant a lot to me because I felt like she connected with Lilly’s character and you could tell from the blurb.

What’s next for you both in terms of the next book in this series and any other work you are doing?

I’m finishing the third book in the series right now. Someone close to Lilly is shot and she begins digging into their past trying to discover what led to the attack. She also has to make some decisions about her career and life as several things, including the switch to one-man-bands, reach a crisis point.

My contract with Touchstone only runs through book three, so the future after that is up in the air. I’d love to write more of Lilly’s adventures, but I’d also like to start a new series set in Georgia.

This question comes from Spencer Quinn, who I’ve interviewed before and who I noticed had a blurb on this book. Spencer asks “Nora, it’s obvious you have a great sense of humor. Does it run in your family, or is it just you?”

For me, if something is truly funny I feel compelled to read it out loud to whomever is nearest. There’s no author that moves me to do this more than Spencer Quinn. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read aloud from his books because a section was so hysterical I just had to share it with someone.

Naturally, getting a blurb from him was a great honor. I’m also doing a happy dance right now because he says I’m funny in the question. This is akin to Chet the Jet complimenting my ability to grab a perp by the pant leg.

But I digress! In my family, my father has a very dry sense of humor. My mother is more gregarious and fun. I hope I’m a happy combination of the two.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Scott Butki

    In her third book in the series Nora McFarland shows once again how good a writer she is. She tackles some darker topics and, as a rssult, the book is overall less fun and funny than the first two. But that’s not neccesarily a bad thing as it results in providing more depth to the characters especially the hero/narrator/protagonist Lilly Hawkins. The book has some exciting developments regarding relationships between the characters but I can’t say much more about that without revealing spoilers which I don’t and won’t do.

    Compared to the other two books this book is less about work as a tv news photographer, something McFarland herself has done professionally as we talk about in the interviews for her first two books, and more about Lilly learning dark secrets about her own family. As the book begins she learns her Uncle Bud has been shot at her house. She’s not sure what he was doing there
    or who shot him but she’s not the kind of person who is going to wait around for the police to figure it out… she tries to figure it out herself and this leads to some surprising results.

    McFarland’s definitely growing as a writer and as author Peter Abahams wrote in endorsing the series the books are “Fun, funny, tautly suspenseful, and very smart.” Abraham writes under the pen name Spencer Quinn, and as such I’ve interviewed him several times about his own fun series from the perspective of Chet The Dog.

    If you liked the first two books I guarantee you will also like the third. If you haven’t read any of the three then go check them out – you can thank me later.