Before I was a novelist, I was a journalist, specifically a newspaper reporter. The two are obviously linked as they both involve writing, albeit from very different angles: fact-based versus imagination-based. But frankly, I cannot think of a better foundation for writing novels than writing news stories, at least for the type of fictional stories I want to tell. That’s probably the way journalism has most influenced my fiction, my short stories as well as novels.
I’m drawn to writing stories set in the real world, as opposed to, say, science fiction or fantasy. My novels also gravitate toward exploring social issues, which I consider one of the primary missions of journalism, and which I wrote about a lot as a reporter.
Much as I did as a journalist, as a novelist I want to make a point by exposing readers to experiences they may not have lived, or cultures and places that they have not been exposed to. For me, this is vital role of fiction and one of the key reasons I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life. You can learn, as well as be entertained, through novels by vicariously experiencing other worlds–and character’s bad choices!–without having to live them.
My YA novel “Girl on the Brink” is about dating violence in a middle class New Jersey suburb, while “Skin of Tattoos” is about gang violence in a gritty immigrant neighbourhood of Los Angeles. For both I relied on firsthand experience, research through memoirs and other nonfiction books, and interviews, all skills that are an integral part of a reporter’s job, as well as the essential tool of a novelist: empathic imagination.
News events and feature stories I wrote as a journalist are also a source of things to write about as a novelist. The novel I’m currently working on is also rooted in real-life circumstance. “The Revolutionaries” is a political thriller set in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2002 during the coup attempt against then-President Hugo Chavez. I was living there at the time and reported on the coup for various media outlets.
Having interviewed people from all walks of life also helps me with developing characters. Reporters interview scores of people over the course of their careers, but there’s always a couple interviews that stay with you.
“Skin of Tattoos” grew out of interviews I did for a magazine story about former L.A. gang members who were deported to El Salvador. Several years later, I still vividly remembered being out of the streets of San Salvador with those guys. I sat down and banged out a ten-page outline for a novel about gang members, although the actual novel turned out quite differently than that early outline.
Coverage of specific news events and stories and covering beats like cops, courts and business gave me a wealth of knowledge about how the world works, whether it’s the legal system, police procedure, or corporate regulations. That always comes in handy in different ways, though I often have to complement the generalist’s thin layer of knowledge with research to acquire the level of detail required by a novel.
So while I certainly admire writers of fantasy and science fiction, you won’t likely catch me writing those genres. My focus in fiction was honed by my three decades as a journalist and at this point is pretty engrained in me, but that’s what makes fiction so valuable, everybody contributes their own life experiences.