Any reporter worth his or her salt knows the value of a strong quote. The flavor of a source’s voice, expressed accurately and with nuance, can be the key that makes a story come alive. In the colorful KWLS conversation “Once We Were Journalists: Truth & Fiction,” John Katzenbach, Laura Lippman, and John Sandford came together on Saturday afternoon to reflect on the career path that led to their current work as novelists.
John Katzenbach, once a reporter for the Miami News and the Miami Herald, has written twelve novels, along with First Born, a nonfiction true crime book. Laura Lippman, the author of eighteen novels, wrote her first seven in a series about Tess Monaghan, a Baltimore reporter-turned-private eye, while working full-time as a Baltimore Sun reporter. “John Sandford,” a pseudonym for John Roswell Camp, who won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1986, is the author of more than thirty books, including the detective novels Prey and Virgil Flowers.
Here are excerpts from their talk, in their own words. If they prompt you to analyze, to criticize, to comment—to engage you to the extent that you form your own opinion—then their work here as journalists is done.
“I wasn’t meant to be a reporter…My journalistic instincts were mediocre at best. I had been raised by Southern parents who taught me, ‘Don’t ask people how old they are. Don’t ask people how much money they make.’…I just wanted to be off by myself writing my own stories. But as a result, no one has more respect for journalism than someone like myself, who knows what it takes to be good at it.”
“Journalism is such a great background because it makes you a professional. You meet deadlines. You don’t take yourself too seriously. I’ve never met a journalist who says, ‘I’m not inspired. My muse didn’t show up today.’ You get up, and you write. It’s a job. Some days it’s a paragraph. Some days it’s five pages. But you do it.”
“I lost interest [in working as an editor at the Miami Herald] because I was a street guy. That’s where you pick up a lot of the language, background, and information that winds up in your novels.”
“Journalism provides you with a wonderful store of scenes, incidents, and personalities that you can then work into fiction. As a journalist, you get to see how all the systems work. In the court system, you see what lawyers look like, what judges sound like. In researching a book, I spent several months in a hospital talking to surgeons and people who had been terribly burned. In a state penitentiary, I talked with murderers. All that stuff feeds in [to novels]. And in getting to know how newspapers and the media work, I became increasingly cynical, even about the facts.”
“I did journalism as recently as five years ago when I went to Iraq and flew with a helicopter squadron there. I really love it [journalism], but my work as a reporter has left a streak of cynicism in my heart that comes out in my novels.”
“If you approach journalism the way I did, you’re in the front row of a theatrical production every day. It became an education in how the world works and how to form that into words…It’s a wonderful way to channel yourself into becoming a writer, because you learn so damn much so damn quickly, and that’s what I loved about it. I doubt there’s a page I’ve written that wasn’t informed by my work as a journalist.”
“Writing fiction, it’s much easier to get at the truth, because you know it from the start. As a journalist, you don’t.”
“Truth is a slippery thing. When you work in a newspaper, you see people sliding all around.”
“I don’t regret one moment of one day I spent at any newspaper. You just learn so much…There’s no better education for writing novels than working at a newspaper.”