Tuesday, March 06, 2012

“Storytelling Was Meant to Be My Life”

In case you haven’t spotted it yet, my column today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site is devoted to an interview with Brad Parks, whose three novels featuring New Jersey investigative reporter Carter Ross--including his new The Girl Next Door--have brought him some prestigious commendations. Not to mention the loyalty of readers who appreciate his storytelling mix of homicide and humor.

Over the course of our exchange, the 30-something Parks talks about his interest in writing The Girl Next Door, protagonist Ross’ value as a story narrator, and his own journalism background. Especially entertaining, I think, is Parks’ explanation of how he started out working for newspapers:
I always say I got into newspapers for the money and the sex. It’s actually true: I was 14 years old and saw an ad in my hometown weekly, The Ridgefield (Conn.) Press, saying “sportswriters needed.” The job paid 50 cents a column inch, which is more than I could make babysitting. That was the money. The sex? The assignment involved covering the Ridgefield High School girls’ basketball team. I was, at the time, short and fat and awkward. They were all tall and blond and gorgeous. But I figured if I was the guy who could get their names in the paper, they’d at least have to talk to me. Alas, the sex part never worked out. But, slowly, I came to realize that storytelling was meant to be my life.
You will find that complete interview here.

* * *

As has frequently been the case with author conversations I’ve conducted on Kirkus’ behalf, I wound up with quite a bit more material than I could fit into my twice-monthly column. So I am offering the remainder of my Parks interview below.

J. Kingston Pierce: So tell me, what were the best and worst experiences you had with newspapers?

Brad Parks: I started writing for a newspaper when I was 14. I quit when I was 34. Over those 20 years, I packed in a full career of memorable stories. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say it was a four-part series I did about the [1967] Newark riots a few years ago. What it taught me was that if a reporter works hard enough--tossing away all his preconceived notions and as much of his cultural baggage as is possible--he can really figure out the truth about something, even a hotly contested historical event like the riots. Not merely a balanced account. But the truth. And finding the truth is the best of what journalism ought to be.

As for the worst? Well, there was this flag football game I covered at a nudist colony this one time ... (Shudder.)

JKP: There’s much said nowadays about the death of American newspapers. But where do you see the industry headed? What will be the future role of newspapers?

BP: There are two questions. Let me answer them in order: 1) Who knows?; and 2) I just hope there is one. I think it’s pretty clear the industry’s business model is badly broken and that it will slowly--or, perhaps, not so slowly--fade into oblivion if it doesn’t figure out how to better monetize its digital content.

Now that the economy has stabilized, the industry’s freefall has halted, at least for the moment. But unless something changes dramatically, we’re probably about a decade away from a major wave of extinction that will eliminate daily newspapers from many large American cities. The irony is that many newspapers now have more readership than ever before, if you combine their print and online numbers. So it’s clear the functions they serve--government watchdog, voice to the voiceless, town crier, and so on--are still highly valued. It’s just not supported by the free market in the same way it once was.

In the end, your local newspaper may end up having a business model more like that of National Public Radio, where its advertising revenue is heavily supplemented by grants from the nonprofit sector.

JKP: Is there anything you miss about writing for newspapers?

BP: Oh, lots. But I miss the newsroom most of all. Or at least I miss what the newsroom used to be. Once upon a time, your typical American newsroom was a place full of smart, funny, irreverent, malcontented people--of all ages, ideological persuasions, and backgrounds--who somehow managed to perform the daily miracle that is putting out a newspaper without strangling each other. Within its walls were literally thousands of years of institutional knowledge and wisdom on hundreds of different subjects. And if you knew who to ask, you could learn just about anything.

JKP: How many years before you actually left the reporting field were you hoping to transition into writing novels?

BP: I first started writing a novel in 2000 (you will likely never read this novel, for good reason). So when I left journalism in 2008, it wasn’t exactly a whim. I had been laying the foundation for a while.

JKP: Lots of people who write for newspapers, magazines, or Web sites think they can move on to novel-writing. But few actually do. What convinced you that you had the capacity to create book-length fiction?

BP: As I said, my first job in newspapers paid me by the column inch. It encouraged a certain volubility that I never lost. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was a sports features guy, which meant I often was writing three- or four-thousand-word pieces--and having to cut furiously to make them fit. Then I became a news features guy who hated cutting his pieces even more. All those lost words! All those great turns of phrase lopped!

So writing a novel, for me, meant seldom having to cut the good stuff. Reaching 90,000 words was never a problem.

JKP: Over the decades, many reporters (or reporters turned private investigators) have served as the protagonists in mysteries. Why do newsies make such great detectives?

BP: It’s not a coincidence that reporters are often written by ... ex-reporters. And, of course, newspaper reporters make their living finding and telling interesting stories. So there’s obviously something to that skill set that translates rather nicely into novel-writing. Beyond that, I think a reporter often assembles his narrative piece by piece, with each interview hopefully adding more to his understanding of an event, issue, or circumstance. That steady, relentless unraveling of the facts tends to make for a well-paced novel.

JKP: You now live with your wife and two children in Virginia. But before that, you were a resident of New Jersey, just like your star newshound, Carter Ross. How long did you live in the Garden State? And why do you still find it such fertile and interesting ground in which to nurture a crime-fiction series?

BP: I was actually born in New Jersey, moved out when I was 3, then returned for 10 good years while I worked for the Newark Star-Ledger. I always say New Jersey really loads a writer’s toolbox with possibilities. It’s one of the richest states in the Union by per-capita income, but it also has two of the poorest cities, in Newark and Camden. It’s one of the most diverse states, with just about every ethnicity represented (and therefore every ethnic mob). Yet it’s also got the highest population density, which means all those very different types of people--from all different economic strata--can’t help but bump into each other. Those intersections are often where you find great stories.

JKP: We covered a number of points about your new novel, The Girl Next Door, in Kirkus Reviews. But let me ask you a couple more things here. First, despite Ross’ customary self-acknowledgement that he isn’t a “lady killer,” he manages in this book to enjoy some pulse-quickening encounters with his editor, the slightly older but still “easy to look at” Tina Thompson. Do you see their relationship evolving, or will it remain more teasing than tempestuous?

BP: Egads, the last thing I want for Tina and Carter is to have one of those will-they-or-won’t-they relationships that stretches endlessly into the future with no growth or resolution. Having already written books four and five in the series, I can guarantee that things are definitely going to evolve. As to how? Well, I guess that’s an area where the author has to become a bit of a tease.

JKP: I have to admit, I knew “whodunit” about halfway through The Girl Next Door. Maybe that’s because I have spent so many years reading books in this genre, or maybe it’s because you tried a wee bit too hard to point the finger at anybody other than the real murderer. How difficult is it to conceal the identities of the malefactors in your books, to keep readers in the dark till the last minute?

BP: I think as a reader, I have always been god-awful at figuring out the whodunit part--to the point where I didn’t even try. So I think through the first three books, I made it a little too easy. Having now heard that criticism several times, I’ve made it a lot harder in books four and five. (I guess you’ll have to read them in 2013 and 2014 to see if I succeed!)

JKP: What’s something readers don’t yet know about Carter Ross, but that would change their perceptions of him if they did?

BP: He actually owns a pair of flat-front pants. He hasn’t ever worn them. But, who knows, maybe one of these days ...

JKP: You often come across in interviews as supremely self-confident. But what’s something you’re not yet very good at as a novelist?

BP: Stumping readers, apparently. I think plotting, in general, is the thing I’ve had to work the hardest at improving. My first couple of books have been a little too straightforward. I’m learning to put more kinks into the plots as I go--hopefully, without making them too convoluted. You have to remember, newspaper readers value clarity. I was never trained to mislead people. Yet that’s what mystery readers expect, to a certain extent. It’s given me some things to unlearn as a writer. And that’s taken some time.

JKP: How much did it help your writing career (or your self-esteem) to win both the Nero Award and the Shamus Award for your first novel, Faces of the Gone?

BP: There’s no question it’s been a tremendous boon. The book-publishing world is a crowded place and the mystery genre is certainly no exception. Winning those two awards has helped me stand out and given me instant credibility within the business, whether it’s with librarians or bookstore owners or even within my own publishing house. I think it also makes readers feel justified in liking your work. Because if they reach the end and they’re satisfied, they’re like, “Well, of course I’m supposed to like it. It’s won two awards!”

JKP: Finally, which crime/mystery/thriller novel that doesn’t already have your name on it would you most like to have written?

BP: That’s easy: And Then There Were None by our dear patron saint, Agatha Christie. In addition to being a great book, it is estimated to have sold 100 million copies. Just once I’d like to see a royalty statement like that.

READ MORE:Brad Parks on the Couch,” by Brad Parks
(Poe’s Deadly Daughters).

1 comment:

Barbara said...

As a former journalist, I enjoyed this segment of the interview tremendously. I too fear the end of newspapers not just in cities but in rural areas where I already live in a news "dead zone." No reporter really covers my county. It's sad.