If there is one thing longtime New York City journalist and suspense master R.G. “Dick” Belsky knows, it’s how to produce a real page turner. Many of those have starred intrepid reporter Gil Malloy, a hard driving newspaper guy with a penchant for breaking the biggest stories…and a lot of the rules along the way. In his brand new book, “Yesterday’s News,” Belsky introduces a new reporter/hero, Clare Carlson. I caught up with him recently to talk about the new series, the challenges of moving from daily news to the book world and the lasting mystery of the Kennedy assassination.
Open Mic: Your new book, “Yesterday’s News” just came out. Tell me a bit about it.
Belsky: The book is called “Yesterday’s News.” It’s the first in a series that will feature a TV journalist named Clare Carlson. who starts out life as a newspaper reporter but is now the news editor of a New York City TV station. She achieved media fame 15 years earlier as a young newspaper reporter when she began writing about a little girl in New York City who disappeared on her way to school and no one ever found out what happened to her. She wrote article after article about the case, won a Pulitzer Prize and became a media star. Now it’s 15 years later and her station is doing a 15th anniversary special when suddenly the whole story explodes again with new evidence and new questions and new developments about this little girl. As the book goes along you find out that Clare knows things from the past that not everybody knows, and she’s got secrets of her own going on here. There are murders, but it’s not a classic murder mystery. It’s more of a story about a missing child. I start the book with a great quote from Edna Buchanan, who used to be a big crime reporter in Miami and is now a mystery author: “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 covered the legendary case of Etan Patz, the little six year old boy who disappeared here in 1979. For years afterwards there were reports he had been seen and was still alive. There was finally some closure in this case a few years ago when a suspect was charged and convicted of murdering him.
Open Mic: You’ve had great success with the Gil Malloy series. What inspired you to create a new character and series? Was it the pull of telling this specific story or did you just want to try something new?
Belsky: It was the story. It couldn’t be written for Gil Malloy because Clare Carlson is very involved in the story personally, and as the story goes on you see that her involvement is even more than you believed at the beginning. So I wanted to write this particular story, and I never thought of it being a series. To be honest, Clare Carlson was actually the third character that I wound up writing about. I started it originally with one character, and then switched to another female journalist who worked for a TMZ-like site. But then I started writing it with this character, and I felt like it worked. I always thought of it as being a stand-alone book because she is so personally involved in this particular story. But then Oceanview asked me to do a series with this character and of course my answer was yes. But it was tricky on a few fronts. Because it was supposed to be a one-off, I made Clare the news director of the station rather than a reporter. The only reason she’s doing this one is because her original story won the Pulitzer. But you can’t have a series of her doing budget reports, so you’ve got to get her out on stories. I was thinking of examples like McMillan and Wife, where he was the police commissioner and he would still go out with his wife and solve projects. I think I’ve managed to pull it off, and the second in the series is done and will come out in 2019.
Open Mic: This is your 12th novel. Do you still get the same thrill when a new book comes out?
Belsky: It’s always exciting when the book comes out, but it’s also stressful. When I’m writing I never stop and think, ‘This is going to be out there as a book.’ When I’m writing it, I’m just putting stuff in there. I’ve had cases where somebody will say a character is based on them, but I never think of it that way because you get so lost in the process. And I love that part of it – where you’re just actually writing. The payoff is that you get a book, and hopefully more people say nice things about it than don’t.
Open Mic: You’ve been a journalist for a long time. You’ve also been writing novels now for a long time. What was the biggest challenge for you moving from what you do as a reporter to what it takes to become a successful author?
Belsky: To be clear, we all start out as reporters but for most of my career I was an editor. I was the guy running the news room, telling the reporters what to write and dealing with 40 stories a day instead of one. But to your question, not only was I a journalist, I was a tabloid journalist. A tabloid journalist gets to the point fast. It was quick grasps in the lead, boom, boom, boom. You don’t mess around, you’re in, you’re out. That was the hardest transformation I had to make, because that doesn’t work when you’re writing a mystery novel. I was moving too quick sometimes. People will often say ‘I turned in 200,000 words and they want it cut in half.’ Well, I’m the exact opposite. I’m keeping it real tight. The editor was asking me to go back and put more of this or that in and to elaborate a bit. I’m trained to tell the reader everything in the lead – the five W’s of who, what, where, when and why. If you do that in a mystery you just give away the whole thing, so I had to learn how to turn it on its head and parcel the information out. That said, people always say my books are a fast read, which I think that comes from my tabloid journalism background. I’ve read books by other journalists who felt the same way. We don’t try and overwhelm the reader with a lot of detail and facts, we just try and tell the story in a way that we find is entertaining and as quick-moving as possible.
Open Mic: I love the Gil Malloy series. You do a masterful job of keeping the twists coming without it ever become too much to take in. Do you have a formula you follow or do you go by the seat of the pants?
Belsky: I’m seat of the pants. This is discussed at every mystery conference: are you a plotter or a pants-er? And its always 50/50. There are definitely people who spend three months outlining the book before they do it and who know everything before they start. I’m the exact opposite. I start off with an idea of how I want it to begin, and I generally have an idea of how it will end, although that can change. I have absolutely no idea how it will get from the beginning to the end, so I just keep writing chapters. I find pretty much in all my books that as I go along it changes. Whatever I think is going to happen, I often ask myself, ‘what if I did this instead?’ Characters change, too.
Open Mic: What is more difficult for you – developing plot or developing characters?
Belsky: Probably character. I’ve thought a lot about which is more important, the story or the character. You want both elements in your book, but I’ve realized I can read a book that’s a good story, but if I don’t like the characters I have trouble getting through it. I can much more easily read a mystery that doesn’t have much of a plot because I love the characters.
Open Mic: What do consider the biggest mistake you made as a new writer? What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring writers making today?
Belsky: The one thing I learned early on is to focus on writing rather than talking about writing. It’s pretty simple, but a lot of people like talking about writing rather than actually writing. They analyze it, they talk about it, they think about it. I started writing way back in the 70’s, and I told myself from the beginning that I was just going to keep writing, and if it sells, it sells. If it doesn’t sell, I’m going to just keep writing. I have friends who stress out and say, “I’ve been thinking about this book and I’ve been working at it for a year but I haven’t started it yet.” The best thing I ever did was just sit and write and not worry about it.
Open Mic: Your book Blonde Ice deals with the rarest kind of murderer, a female serial killer. What inspired that?
Belsky: As a young journalist in the 70’s I was also very involved in the Son of Sam story. There’s been a lot of male serial killers: Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, the Boston Strangler, the Zodiac, but serial killers have basically always been men. The closest to being that kind of serial killer was Aileen Wuornos, who started out killing because she was attacked by somebody and she killed in self-defense. She killed several people after that, but it wasn’t exactly the same. I asked myself why has there never been a female Son of Sam who kills because she just gets a thrill out of killing others? So I came up this idea of a very attractive and brilliant women who lures men to their death. The title “Blond Ice” refers to the name the media gives her. I really focus on this too because these people become famous through the media. If you go back and look at the story, Son of Sam wasn’t always Son of Sam. They originally called him the “.44 Caliber Killer.” He became Son of Sam when he started writing notes about being Sam and Son of Sam. I have a whole scene in Blonde Ice where they’re sitting in a news meeting throwing out names until they come up with Blonde Ice, because naming the serial killer is a big part of the story.
Open Mic: You first Gil Malloy book – The Kennedy Connection – has a thread revolving around President John F. Kennedy’s infamous murder. You’ve said you are fascinated by that event. Do you think we’ll ever know the truth of what happened that awful day in Dallas in 1963?
Belsky: No. I was a freshman in college when it happened, so I remember John F. Kennedy in the White House and felt the impact of his death. It’s always been something I cared about a lot. I’ve read about it a lot over the years and come to the conclusion that everything in the Warren Commission is ridiculous. Whatever Lee Harvey Oswald did or didn’t do, there’s no way he did all of this on his own. I absolutely believe that. The problem now is that so much time has passed and virtually everyone involved is dead, so I think it will always remain this giant mystery.
Open Mic: The newsroom is an obvious source of great story ideas. David Simon, for one, has turned many of his experiences as a Baltimore reporter into TV shows like “The Wire.” But he also has said there are some things he would never use because people just wouldn’t believe it, even though it is true. Have you encountered situations or events that you thought were just too much for readers to buy?
Belsky: One thing I’ve learned is that no matter how crazy something seems, it could still be true. And I didn’t just work in a newsroom like David Simon did, I worked at the New York Post of Rupert Murdoch in the 1980’s. We were the most edgy tabloid in the world, with all these great headlines. And so I played a role in probably the most famous tabloid headline of all time, which was “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” If you Google me now, that’s going to show up above anything else. Just follow this for a second. A guy walks into a bar, which turns out to be a topless bar, robs the cashier and then shoots and murders the guy. Then for some bizarre reason he decides to cut the guy’s head off and take it with him so nobody can find the bullet. I always say that if I tried to write that story as fiction, I would be told like that it was absolutely ridiculous. But it’s true.
Open Mic: What do you think has changed more over the last 20 years – the news industry or publishing?
Belsky: I’m more familiar with the news industry, so I would say the news industry. People don’t read papers anymore, so the news business has changed dramatically for the worse. I know there’s a lot of concern and hand wringing about the publishing industry, but to me the news industry has been more in crisis. With a few exceptions, the idea of writing a long story for a newspaper just doesn’t exist anymore. Everything is website and blogs posts. Everything is quick hitting. That’s good in the sense that you can get your news out immediately, but it’s not so good in terms of quality journalism.
Open Mic: A lot of folks look down on reporters these days. Does that give you any concern about having a reporter as your main protagonist?
Belsky: No. I have thought about that a lot, and I make a point that no matter how much the industry changes and the technology changes, both of my main series characters – Gil Malloy and Clare Carlson – maintain their basic integrity. You don’t become a journalist to get rich. You don’t even really do it to get famous. You do it because you believe strongly that it’s a noble profession, and that’s how my characters all feel. One thing I deal with in the Gil Malloy books is the state of the industry and technology. In the “Kennedy Connection,” Gil is still very much a traditional reporter. He files stories and they appear in the newspaper. By “Blonde Ice” he’s very much involved with tweeting stuff from the scene, doing live streams, doing social media, all the things that reporters do now. He can’t wait until the next day to put it in the paper. He puts it immediately on the website. And at one point I have a battle between two of his editors over the importance of the website versus the print version, all of which is of course based on real life stuff.
Open Mic: I like to close by offering you what I hope is a fun question. If I had the power to put you together for dinner and drinks and a great conversation with any one of the following people, who would you choose and why? You choices are: Edward R. Murrow, General William Westmoreland or Greta Garbo.
Belsky: I’m going to pick the one you would probably think would be my last choice. Edward R. Murrow would be really cool, but I’m going to take General Westmoreland. I was a part of the draft in the 60’s. I spent a year in Vietnam and I’ve been a student of it ever since. It’s one of those thing you look back on now, even as people like [former U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara have done, and you realize all the horrible mistakes that were made and all the terrible casualties and lives that were changed that didn’t have to be. I sort of understand the motivation at the time because of the concern about communism, but looking back on it now I think how the hell did we do this? Watching the entire Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam raised all sorts of other questions for me about that time. Since General Westmoreland was the architect of much of our Vietnam policy when we escalated to 500,000 troops, I would just love to say ‘I was one of these guys, so please tell me exactly what you were thinking and why did it all go wrong?’ So that would be my pick.