Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Story Behind the Story:
“Eyes of the Innocent,” by Brad Parks

(Editor’s note: This week’s entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Virginia author Brad Parks, whose debut mystery, Faces of the Gone [2009], was the first book ever to win both the Nero Award and Shamus Award, two of crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His second novel, Eyes of the Innocent, is being released today from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books--and is the subject of his essay below. Library Journal gave Eyes a starred review, calling it “as good if not better (than) his acclaimed debut.” You can follow Parks on Twitter or become a fan of Brad Parks Books on Facebook.)

In my mind, I can still see the spot where I was standing when the plot for my new book, Eyes of the Innocent, began forming in some deep fold of my brain.

Thanks to the wonders of the modern Internet, you can get pretty close to it, too. Just do a Google Maps search for “66 Norwood Street, Newark, New Jersey.” Ask for the satellite view and then zoom in. Switch to the street view if you want. Take a good look.

As you can see, 66 Norwood Street is in the midst of the dense urban tangle that is Northern New Jersey. The street view shows a narrow, three-family house with yellow siding and brown trim.

From memory, I can tell you it was a bit more fire-singed than that when I first tripped on it as a reporter for The Newark Star-Ledger in 2008.

I was putting together a series of stories about the wave of mortgage foreclosures then beginning to crash across urban areas. It was being referred to as the subprime mortgage crisis, because so many of the loans that were going into default had been given to subprime borrowers, people with imperfect credit or the kind of financial history banks had historically avoided.

Back then, in those halcyon days when the stock market was above 14,000 and unemployment was below 5 percent, we didn’t understand how the trouble at places like 66 Norwood Street was going to affect all of us, or that the sickness in this one small part of the housing sector would infect the entire global economy.

No, at that point, I thought I was doing reporting on an urban issue. I had zeroed in on this one block--Norwood Street, from South Orange Avenue to Abinger Place--where 11 of the 57 houses had gone into foreclosure during the previous two years. Located midway down that block, 66 Norwood Street was also a poster child for the subprime mortgage scandal. Its story, told in retrospect, is typically heartbreaking--a clinic in real-estate speculation gone wrong.

Part of a ragged working-class neighborhood in the western part of Newark, a place where property values had been in a roughly 50-year slump, the house had been bought for $130,000 in January 2001. During the next five years, as investors discovered there was money to be made in Newark real estate, it changed hands three times.

On July 7, 2006, a woman named Stacey Anderson--who I never did succeed in finding, despite dogged efforts--bought 66 Norwood Street for $325,000, an astonishing sum to people who remembered the days when you couldn’t give houses away on that block. What, if anything, had been done to the property to deserve a near tripling in value over the previous five years remained something of a mystery.

Nevertheless, in the craze of the biggest real-estate boom in American history, it may have actually seemed like a good deal. Real estate was supernova hot, and July 2006 was a heady time for Newark. It had just elected a charismatic young mayor named Cory Booker. And, for all its ills--unemployment, drugs, a stubbornly high murder rate--it was still a short train ride to Manhattan. To Stacey Anderson, it probably seemed like a great time to buy.

Not knowing the bubble was about to burst, she took out a loan from Countrywide, a now-defunct lender that was among the industry leaders in subprime mortgage origination. Her loan for $308,750 was a particularly exotic subprime beast, an “interest only” loan--meaning none of her $2,090.49 monthly payment went toward the principle.

Then again, that soon became something of a moot point. According to court records, Stacey Anderson didn’t make a single payment. The mortgage went into default on August 1, 2006. In December of that year, Countrywide began foreclosure proceedings against her.

Anderson never answered the complaint. The court system had no more luck finding her than I did, despite a series of certified letters and court summonses. The case sailed through uncontested. In July 2007, a judge signed the foreclosure order. In November 2007, the Essex County Sherriff put the property up for sale.

Except, of course, no one wanted it--not with $330,089.62 in debt now attached to it. The property thus reverted to the Federal National Mortgage Association, otherwise known as Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored enterprise that secured the original note and was therefore stuck holding the bag.

In accordance with its policies, Fannie Mae began preparing the property for sale. Part of that meant getting rid of the tenants, Joann and Tanesha Brown, who had been living on the second floor. They were evicted March 5, 2008. I never found them, either.

But it’s not hard to guess what happened next. Empty houses in urban areas are magnets for trouble--for vagrants, drifters, and drug fiends, who quickly move in and begin using them for their own shady purposes. And it sure didn’t take long for 66 Norwood Street to be invaded.

On March 7, two days after the tenants vacated, the house caught fire.

On March 10, it caught fire again.

That last date was a Monday. As I recall, it was three or four days later, either Thursday or Friday of that week, when I first walked inside. It wasn’t hard to gain entry: the front door had been left hanging open, literally swinging in the breeze.

On the first floor, I found the usual detritus of addicted human habitation: crack vials and lighters, old rags and junk-food wrappers, piles of trash and scraps of plastic. The eviction notice was still hanging on the door to the second-floor apartment. I took a picture of it with my cell phone (see that photo on the left--click the image to enlarge it).

The door had been left open by the fire department, so I poked my head inside. The tenants had obviously left in a hurry. Or maybe they had just come home one day to find the door padlocked. There was still furniture in there--the big stuff, like couches and chairs and tables, things that were too cumbersome for any of the squatters to steal.

The third story, where the worst of the fire had hit, was mostly a charred mess, blackened and acrid-smelling. I went up the stairs to have a look but didn’t venture too far, unsure if the floor could support my weight.

Going back outside, I went next door to 68 Norwood Street and talked to the man who lived there, Donald Barrett. He was a nice guy, an amiable 56-year-old with a Caribbean accent. He had owned his house for eight or nine years, and worked two jobs to keep up with the mortgage payments--one as a baggage truck driver at Newark Airport, the other as a driver for a local rehabilitation center. He told me he had watched the chain be put on the front door of No. 66, all the while knowing it wasn’t going to do any good. No one had bothered to secure the back door. He knew it would only be a matter of time until the place burned.

“I’m only hoping they demolish it before it catches fire again,” Barrett told me. “If I had another option, I would have been out long ago. But where else can I go?”

That was the final quote in the story I ended up writing about Norwood Street, “Mortgage Crisis’ Block of Despair.” The piece ran in the Star-Ledger on May 18, 2008, and delved into many of the issues that had fueled the foreclosure problem--greed, speculation, house-flipping, etc.

And obviously it was still kicking around in my thoughts on July 8 of that same year, when my literary agent, Jeanne Forte Dube, called me with two pieces of news: 1) My manuscript featuring investigative reporter Carter Ross, which later became a book called Faces of the Gone, had sold to St. Martin’s Press; and 2) It was a two-book deal, and the next one was due in January 2009.

That didn’t leave me much time for dawdling. So I began writing what was in my head: a book that somehow dealt with the consequences of the subprime mortgage scandal.

It quickly became a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Little of the exhaustive reporting I inventory above--going through real-estate records and court documents and the like--enters the narrative, because frankly that stuff gets a little tedious. But there are seeds of real-life experience that I took and grew into something entirely invented.

The result is Eyes of the Innocent, which is due out in U.S. bookstores today. As I look at it now, remembering Norwood Street, I see so many of the things I bumped across on that block.

There’s a fire. There’s a subprime mortgage. There’s house-flipping. There’s greed. There’s real-estate speculation. There’s a character who works two jobs to make ends meet.

Above all, there’s a newspaper reporter who has to get the story.

* * *

WIN A FREE COPY: To help introduce Eyes of the Innocent to crime-fiction enthusiasts, publisher Minotaur Books has kindly agreed to give four free copies of Brad Parks’ new novel away to Rap Sheet readers. If you would like to be in the running to pick up one of those freebies, all you need do is e-mail your name and snail-mail address (no P.O. boxes) to jpwrites@wordcuts.org. And please be sure to write “Brad Parks Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Monday, February 7. Winners will be chosen at random, and their names will be listed on this page the following day.

READ MORE:10 Things Crime Fiction Writers Can Learn from Taylor Swift,” by Brad Parks (Do Some Damage); “Brad Parks, Guest Blogger” (Lesa’s Book Critiques).

1 comment:

Teena in Toronto said...

I finished it last night ... it's good!