Question: You've been in the news business for half a century - why fiction after all this time?
Answer: You could say I was suicidal, because it's very difficult to write fiction. But I had a point to make and I had a lot of stories to tell, and I felt the best way to do it was to fashion it in a murder-mystery scenario . . . . There are . . . moments that make you wonder and make you think, "Can it happen?", and the answer is, "Without question, yes."
Q: What is the it that can happen?
A: I don't want to give away the end, but I do believe that information is very risky business. The sub-line to the title of the book is "Can local TV news kill people?" The answer is absolutely yes. You see an example of this in the suspect case [an incident in the book in which a TV station's failure to follow up on its report of an arrest leads to a tragic consequence]. Who knows how many times it really has happened? Not only that, that could also be a newspaper, too. . . .
Q: How have your peers in the TV business reacted to your book?
A: Some of them have read it, and most of them are not upset, which really surprised me, and here's what also surprised me: the amount of requests I got, here in Philadelphia, and around the nation, to appear on local television news programs about the book, because I think that the business is very interested in self-examination. . . . To me, one of the greatest problems in American local television news is the failure to cover politics. Politics is everything - it's the taxes, it's the speed limits. Everything we do in life is impacted by the people we elect. Local news can find the time in a complex environment to examine the issues.
I think [Death by Deadline] is also a story that highlights the good, the very good, the very bad, and the very ugly in local television news, and the ugliness comes from people either being inexperienced who are running the operations or doing the news, like the woman who asked me who Malcolm the Tenth was [in the book a reporter thinks the X in the name Malcolm X refers to the Roman numeral for 10].
Q: Wait a minute, that actually happened?
A: Yeah. I'm not going to tell you when or how.
Q: Was it somebody who actually worked for a TV station?
Q: Are the characters all drawn from your experience in Philadelphia?
A: They're composites. There's not one person in this book, not one individual who is anybody I ever worked with. . . . The on-air talent, by the way, some of the stranger ones, are drawn from the extremes of human behavior. When the anchor says, "I want somebody killed," killed is an expression that you would normally use for firing someone. In this case, he really wanted somebody killed. You didn't expect that, did you?
Q: One character, Harry Hopkins, seems like a Ted Baxter type, almost, with a much darker side.
A: Hopkins is a character who really knows the business, understands the business, and has no ethics whatsoever, and he's just interested in daily survival. The stuff that happened with him is not far from some real things that have happened. I need Harry Hopkins, I needed some of the other people to provide a little bit of relief.
Q: What inspired you to write fiction? Had you been thinking all along that this was simply a way to construct a cautionary tale about journalism?
A: Yes. I knew I'd have to use fictional exaggeration. I'm not Hemingway, I'm not Faulkner, and I'm not Grisham. I'm not Lisa Scottoline, OK? But I know I have the ability to tell a story, and I was excited that I could tell the story.
Q: How long did you work on the plot? Is this something that came to you easily?
A: I started writing it in 1998, and the first version was bad, and so I rewrote it four times. I used an editor, a very talented editor in Philadelphia, Janet Benton. She worked with me on my first book, Larry Kane's Philadelphia. She was extremely helpful. . . . If there's anything missing, I think I could have done a little more description. . . .
I enjoyed writing it, even though it took me a long time and I view this as less pulp fiction and more gulp fiction.
Q: More gulp?
A: I think that when you look at the book and read it you realize, "Gulp, can this really happen here?". . . And you know something, with the right things in place, it could.
Q: Are you going to write more fiction?
A: I'm not going to do that for a long time. I don't think my schedule [allows] . . . I do think I've learned one thing: I think I've learned how to narrate a story. But I'm not where I want to be. I just came close to it. I also believe the local nature of this book will excite a lot of people because it's all about our community.
Contact books and television editor Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or firstname.lastname@example.org.