originally published here
Author Brad Parks and I share some things in common. I’ll admit from the start that this may be a conflict-of-interest and why I’ve always look forward to reading his books. However, it doesn’t seem like I’m the only one who feels that way. Brad Parks has won the 2010 Shamus Award, the 2010 Nero Award and the 2013 Lefty Award, becoming the only author to have ever won all three. He and I were both newspaper reporters – he on the East Coast (New Jersey) and me on the West Coast (starting my journalism career in California). We both enjoyed covering corruption. We both like reading mysteries. We both left the profession. From there, our differences emerge – he left because he was writing popular mysteries, I left to work in special education. I kept interviewing authors, especially journalists and mystery writer and sometimes, in the cases of Michael Connelly and Brad Parks, interviews with mystery writers who were former journalists.
Scott Montgomery recently interviewed Parks about Camden N.J., which is where Carter Ross, the reporter who is the protagonist in Parks’ series, lives and works. I focus more on his books and his relationship with journalism. And with that let’s get to the interview:
Scott Butki: How did this story develop?
Brad Parks: I’m almost afraid to answer this one. The fact is, I’ve long had an interest in land use issues and brownfield redevelopment in particular, and I wanted my protagonist, Carter Ross, to be able to explore some of those subjects. But when you say “land use issues” and “brownfield redevelopment,” people’s eyes tend to get this glaze. So I’ve learned to say: I realized I had reached book five in a series set in New Jersey without ever having tackled toxic waste or the mob. This book remedies that egregious oversight.
SB: Some of your earlier books were based on actual events you covered. Was that also the case with this one?
BP: Yes and no. While I did cover the topics of land use issues and brownfield redevel…. uh, I mean, of toxic waste and the mob, and while I draw on that experience heavily in writing this book, there are no actual events that inspired the plot to this story.
SB: Do you run some of your stories/books past current reporters, especially at your NJ employer, to fact check anything?
BP: I keep in touch with other reporters, mostly because they’re my friends and I like them. I wouldn’t say I use them as fact checkers. But I definitely had other sources for this book. One may or may not be inside Newark City Hall. The other may or may not work for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. But since either of those theoretical people were not authorized to talk to a disreputable author such as myself, I could not confirm or deny having ever spoken to them. And I certainly couldn’t list them in my acknowledgements.
SB: You talk about the mob in this book and naturally, thanks to the Sopranos, everyone thinks the Mob practically runs N.J. Can you separate fact from fiction on that front?
BP: If by “the mob,” you’re speaking of organized crime tied to certain groups of Italian ancestry, then yes: the mob is still extant in New Jersey, particularly in certain industries I won’t mention because if I ever move back to the state I’d like my garbage to actually get picked up. Is it the force it used to be? Well, no, of course not. For example, numbers running has virtually disappeared – there’s now a state lottery. Sports betting and other forms of illegal gambling have been eroded by the Internet.
The protection rackets are all but dead. A lot of it, if we’re talking about the Italian mob, is part of an inevitable demographic shift that has happened with other ethnicities throughout America’s history. Part of what drives ethnic groups to become organized criminals in the first place is the lack of economic opportunity attendant with their immigrant status. But as the years go on, those ethnic groups become more assimilated into the mainstream. As economic opportunities improve, there’s less reason to go into crime. That, and the ethnic group becomes more geographically dispersed. What’s happening with Italians in America now happened to the Irish and Jewish mobs at the turn of last century. And… oh, never mind, this has been a long enough, pedantic enough answer already.
SB: Do you miss newspaper work be it reporting, interviewing, etc?
BP: I love what I do now. I could scarcely imagine a better, more fulfilling life – at least one that doesn’t involve me discovering I’m an heir to the Walton fortune. With that as a caveat? Yeah, I miss reporting. I miss the newsroom – such a wonderful, chaotic place filled with so many entertaining characters. I miss the thrill of deadline, chasing the big story. I miss the immediacy, and feeling like the thing I’m writing about is the thing that everyone is talking about. And I miss finding and telling great (true) stories. I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing Carter Ross: he has become the vessel for all of my unrequited journalistic desires.
SB: Do you, like me, sometimes see or read about a news story and wish you could go back to report on that particular story? If so, which story(ies)?
BP: Oh, yeah, all the time. Newark recently had a mayoral election, and I was dying to jump into that fray somehow. Governor Chris Christie’s BridgeGate seemed like it would have been a lot of fun, too. That said, I also like getting to sit out stories now. The Newtown school shooting – and every other school shooting, for that matter – is a good example of that. I’ve got school-aged children myself. I just can’t imagine having to confront that kind of horror, even in the refracted way a reporter does.
SB: I am happy to see you share with me a preference of soda over coffee. In your experience was coffee still the stimulant of choice at your employers?
BP: The coffee-holics still probably win out, but by much less of a margin than they used to. The aspartame army of diet soda drinkers is slowly gaining. On a separate but related topic, I was very pleased that my most recent book tour was sponsored in part by Coke Zero, which I — like Carter Ross – consume in large quantities on a daily basis.
SB: How far out have you planned this series?
BP: I’m just completed a draft of book six and… yeah, that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I wish I was one of those writers who could image an enormous, 17-book story arc for my characters. I’m just not that smart. I take it book by book, scene by scene. I’m constantly asking the characters (who, yes, I have conversations with in my head) what they would do in a certain circumstance or how they would respond to a certain problem. The goal is to make sure they’re remaining true to themselves, not conforming to some predetermined ideas I have for them. It sounds hokey to put it this way – because I know who’s actually doing the typing here – but I really try to let the characters dictate their own arcs.
SB: What’s next? Any plans for any standalone books?
BP: There’s a standalone somewhere in my future. I just haven’t yet figured out when that future is going to begin. As I just alluded to, Carter Ross No. 6 – which doesn’t yet have a title – is done and due for publication sometime in 2015. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten at the moment.
SB: You get a bonus question – pick something you wish you would be asked but aren’t and then you can answer that question.
BP: If you could ban one thing from the reading universe, what would it be?:
The phrase “guilty pleasure.” It pains me when I talk to someone who says, “I can’t wait to read (BOOK BY AUTHOR THEY REALLY LOVE) but first I have to get through (BOOK BY AUTHOR WHOSE NAME HAS BEEN REDACTED DUE TO PROFESSIONAL COURTESY).” Please don’t slog through a book because you feel like you “should” read it, or because someone else has deemed it “important” or because, like a trip to the dentist, you feel like it’s “good” for you. (Unless, of course, you really like going to the dentist—I’m cool with that). If reading something gives you pleasure, don’t feel guilty. Life is too short to go around apologizing for what’s on your nightstand.