Monday, May 28, 2018

Interview with mystery author R.G. Belsky

Author R.G. Belsky joins me today and we’re talking about his new mystery, Yesterday’s News.

R.G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His newest mystery, Yesterday's News, was published in May 2018 by Oceanview. It is the first in a series featuring Clare Carlson, the news director for a New York City TV station. He previously wrote the Gil Malloy series for Atria about a tabloid newspaper reporter. Belsky himself has been a top editor at the New York Post (where he helped create the famous “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline), the New York Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News. Two earlier Belsky thrillers that came out in the ‘90s – Loverboy and Playing Dead – were re-released by Harper Collins recently in ebook form for the first time.

Please tell us about your current release.
Yesterday's News is about a legendary missing child cold case - and a journalist obsessed with finding out the answers to it. Fifteen years ago, 11-year-old Lucy Devlin disappeared on her way to school in New York City - and no one ever found out what happened to her.

Clare Carlson, a young newspaper reporter at the time, became a media star by writing front page stories about the search for little Lucy - even winning a Pulitzer Prize for her extraordinary coverage of the case. Today Clare is a TV news executive at Channel 10 in New York. But now, on the 15th anniversary of Lucy's disappearance, the case explodes into the headlines all over again.

Clare has to plunge back into the sensational story all over again, a story she thought she had put long behind her in her past. Suddenly there is new evidence, new victims and new suspects. Everyone from members of a New York motorcycle gang to a prominent politician running for a U.S. Senate seat seem to have secrets they're hiding about what might have happened to Lucy Devlin.

But Clare has her own secrets too. And, in order to untangle the truth about Lucy Devlin, she must finally confront her own tortuous past.

What inspired you to write this book?
Missing persons cases – especially missing children – are perhaps even more tragic than murders. Writer Edna Buchanan once wrote: “One misfortune is worse than murder. It is to lose someone you love, without ever knowing that person’s fate.” As a young journalist in New York City, I loved the most famous missing child case ever – the disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz on his way to school. For years afterward, there were false hopes and false leads that he might still be alive. But then a man was finally convicted of his murder, which at least gave the family some closure. I decided to write a story about a different kind of missing child case – in which there was no closure and no answers about what really happened. The result was Yesterday’s News.

Excerpt from Yesterday’s News:
I always tell the same story to the new reporters on their first day.
It goes like this: Two guys are sitting in a bar bragging about their sexual exploits. As they get drunker and drunker, the conversation becomes more outrageous about how far they’d be willing to go. Would you ever have sex with an animal, one of them asks? Of course not, the other guy replies angrily. What if someone paid you $50 to do it with a dog? That’s ridiculous, he says. How about $500? Same answer. Okay, the first guy says to him, would you have sex with a dog for $5,000? The other guy thinks about that for a while, then asks: “What breed?”
The point here is that once you ask the question “what breed?” you’ve already crossed over a very important line and can never go back.
It’s based, I suppose, on the famous old Winston Churchill story. They say Churchill was seated at a dinner party next to a very elegant and beautiful lady. During the meal, he turned to her and asked if she’d be willing to have sex with him if he gave her $1,000,000. The woman laughed and said sure. Then he asked if she’d have sex with him for $25. “Of course not, what do you think I am?” the indignant woman replied. To which Churchill told her, “Madame, we’ve already established what you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”
This is a crucial concept in the news business where I work. Because there is no gray area for a journalist when it comes to honesty and integrity and moral standards. You can’t be just a little bit immoral or a little bit dishonest or a little bit corrupt. There is no compromise possible here.
Sometimes I tell a variation of the dog story.
I call it the Woodstein Maneuver.
The idea is to come up with a new scenario for the Watergate scandal. To speculate on what might have happened if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (“Woodstein!” in the Robert Redford–Dustin Hoffman movie) had not written their stories that led to Richard Nixon’s ouster, but instead gotten hush money to cover up the scandal. What if Nixon had paid them to make it all go away?
I ask a new reporter to put themselves in Woodward and Bernstein’s place and think about what they would do if offered such a bribe.
Most of them immediately say they would never take money under any circumstances to compromise a story. I’m not sure if they say it because they really mean it or simply because they believe it’s the answer I want to hear. A few laughingly say they’d go for the money, but I’m not sure I believe them either. I figure they’re just trying to be outrageous or different.
Only a few reporters ask the key question.
The “what breed?” question.
“How much money?” they want to know.
Those are the ones I worry about the most.

What exciting story are you working on next?
The second Clare Carlson mystery, The Cinderella Murders, which will be out in the spring of 2019. It's about the seemingly insignificant murder of a homeless woman who calls herself Cinderella - which leads Clare into a tangled web of long-buried secrets and murder involving some of the most powerful and prominent people in New York.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Always. I've been a working journalist all my life. I was metropolitan editor of the New York Post; managing editor of the New York Daily News; news editor at Star magazine; and a managing editor at NBC News. I started writing fiction many years ago (after I discovered Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's, The Big Sleep). Yesterday's News is the 11th mystery novel I've had published.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Most of my books were written while I was still working full time as an editor in newsrooms. I would simply get up an hour or two early every day to write before going to work - that was my writing routine. People used to ask how I could work long hours as a journalist in the office and still want to write besides that. My answer was simple: As an editor, the most important thing I had to do was make sure a story was accurate. To check and re-check the facts. That could be very stressful and time consuming. When I write mystery novels, I get to make everything up. Now that's fun!

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I write all my mystery novels out long-hand. Not on a computer (or typewriter before that.). When I wrote stories in a newsroom, of course, I always used the computer. But I just feel more comfortable and creative doing fiction long-hand - before putting it into the computer. I once read that Ernest Hemingway wrote a lot of his books in long-hand too (using a typewriter only for the dialogue). It worked out pretty well for him!

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A newspaper reporter. Never any doubt. Never considered anything else. I don't know why, but that was the goal since I was a young child. Maybe watching a lot of Clark Kent/Superman shows or something. But - unlike a lot of my friends as we went through high school and then college - I was completely certain the whole time what I wanted to do with my life.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Well, I’ve been a journalist for many years and covered a lot of big stories – Son of Sam, O.J., political scandals and much more. But the thing I’m probably most know for is my involvement with the most famous tabloid headline of all time: HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR. I didn’t even write that headline. But I was the city editor when the story broke (about a holdup man who killed someone in a topless bar, then cut off the head and took it with him.) So I had to confirm all the facts, including that it was indeed a topless bar. There have many articles written about this in the years since, including my role in the creation of that headline. Hey, its good to be famous for something!


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