I will long remember the day that inspired my latest novel, The Girl Next Door.
It was July 30, 2008, and all the employees of the newspaper where I was working at that time, the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger, had been summoned to the first floor for a special meeting with the publisher.
We all knew this was likely grim news--it wasn’t exactly a secret that our paper, like every large daily across America, had been hit with a tsunami of bad financial circumstances. But even under those soggy circumstances, the message our publisher delivered that morning was shocking: our newspaper, then the 11th largest in the country, was on life support, and it would be shut down by the end of the year unless several conditions were met.
Among them were that three of our unions, including the Teamsters, needed to renegotiate their contracts; and that 150 newsroom employees had to take voluntary buyouts.
I remember this day clearly not only because it was the start of this book, but also because it was the end of my career in newspapers. I gave my notice later that morning. Under the terms of the buyout I eventually worked out, I would continue working until Thanksgiving. Then I was gone.
I was 34 years old. Newspapering was all I had ever done.
And it was more than just my job. It was really my identity, this thing--my vocation, my avocation, my passion--that had come to define who I was and how I thought about the world.
My first newspaper gig had come when I was 14 years old and I conned my hometown weekly into letting me cover the local girls’ basketball team. I kept writing sports all through high school.
Then I went to Dartmouth College and did the same. I’d file stories on the same college football game for three newspapers (they all had different deadlines). When I got frustrated by how the student paper covered sports, I started my own, running it out of my dorm room. I was the publisher, editor-in-chief, ad salesman, writer, designer, layout artist, paste-up guy, even paperboy--after getting it printed on Monday mornings, I would dash back to school and spread copies all around campus before running off to class.
My summers? I spent them writing for newspapers. I won internships with The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.
My first real job? That was when I got hired by the Post full-time. Two years later I jumped to The Star-Ledger. I basically grew up in the newsroom, this wonderful place full of irascible, irreverent, fascinating, passionate people, most of whom were unapologetically ink-stained. And I soon became ink-stained, too. I loved working for newspapers. The thought of leaving the industry terrified me.
But it was clearly time. The Star-Ledger wasn’t the only newspaper on life support. They pretty much all were. Even if I tried jumping to a different paper--not that any of them were hiring at the salary I was making--I’d just be hopping from the last flight of the Hindenburg to the first voyage of the Titanic. I knew I had to leave, or I would just be the guy still hanging around 10 years later when they finally turned off the lights. As much as I loved newspapers, I didn’t want to be that guy.
Besides, I wasn’t exactly making the leap without a back-up plan.
I had long thought that writing mysteries would make a great semi-retirement career, something I’d do in my late 50s and 60s, when the kids were finally out of college, when the mortgage was paid off, and when the grind of working for a daily newspaper finally became too much for me. So I had started dabbling with writing fiction in my mid-20s.
I completed my first manuscript when I was 30 (no, you’ll never see it). By that point, I was in the groove of writing during evenings and weekends. So I started another novel.
My career had taken me over to the news side at The Star-Ledger by that point and I was really diving into the urban world of Newark, writing about all the issues and events that shaped the city. I was covering crime. I was understanding poverty in ways I never had before. I was becoming immersed in Newark’s attempts to reinvent itself and in all the barriers that kept getting in the way.
So it seemed natural to write about an investigative reporter who was doing the same thing. (Besides, being as I had a very demanding job, I didn’t have time to do extensive research. “Write what you know” was sort of a necessity for me.) I named my protagonist Carter Ross, because it was the whitest, WASPiest-sounding name I could think of. And I sent him plunging into Newark’s neighborhoods and let him bumble his way through them, just like I was doing.
The first Carter Ross manuscript--which you now know as Faces of the Gone--sold to St. Martin’s Press on July 8, 2008. And 22 days later, there I was, listening to the Star-Ledger’s publisher utter his dire message about our future, realizing full well where it was going to lead me.
(Left) The front page of today’s Newark Star-Ledger.
Under the contract I had just signed with St. Martin’s, the second Carter Ross book--you now know it as Eyes of the Innocent--was due in January. So I had to jam it out pretty quickly, while I was still working full-time.
By the time I started work on book number three, The Girl Next Door, a lot in my life had changed. My family and I had moved to Virginia, where my wife had gotten a job. I was no longer making daily trips into the newsroom. I no longer identified myself as a journalist when I met people. I was now a full-time novelist.
But my brain was still stuck on July 30, 2008, that day when everything started to become so different. And I think maybe I was still trying to process all that had changed--to the point where maybe I couldn’t have written anything else but a book in which one of the central characters was a newspaper in trouble.
So I started with the idea of a contentious negotiation between that newspaper and one of its labor unions. (I invented the union in question, calling it the IFIW--International Federation of Information Workers--because I was afraid that if I used the Teamsters and they didn’t like what I wrote, there could be repercussions. Jimmy Hoffa has been dead a long, long time, but if living in New Jersey for 10 years taught me nothing else, it’s that you still don’t want to mess with the Teamsters).
Then I asked myself: who might get caught in the middle of such a negotiation? Someone who was involved but, basically, an innocent? Someone whose death might catch Carter Ross’ interest?
I came up with the idea of a paper deliverer, figuring Carter would likely have a soft spot for someone like that; and, because you can’t support yourself delivering newspapers alone, I made her a waitress, too. She was hard-working, conscientious, devoted to her family and her church. She was pretty, but not too pretty.
She was basically the girl next door.
The story takes on a life of its own at that point. And, no, Carter doesn’t end up taking a buyout at the end. He’s still got a long career ahead of him, writing all the stories I never quite got around to doing myself. I could never let him leave the newsroom we’ve created together.
I’d miss it too much.
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READ MORE: “Dumb Answers to Stupid Questions: Brad Parks Edition,” by Gar Anthony Haywood (Murderati).