By Brett King
Carter Ross is back. Brimming with street smarts and charisma, the investigative reporter charmed readers in Brad Parks’ award-winning debut novel, FACES OF THE GONE. Like his protagonist, Parks was a journalist during a twenty-year career that included stops at The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger. Beginning as a sportswriter before switching to news, he reported on everything from the Super Bowl to the Masters, from small-town pizza wars to Hurricane Katrina. As in his debut, Parks draws upon keen observation skills and a piercing wit to tell his second novel, EYES OF THE INNOCENT.
Coming off a BBI (Boring But Important) article for the Newark Eagle-Examiner, Carter Ross is assigned to write a follow-up story about a house fire that claimed the lives of two boys, ages four and six. Teaming with the paper’s newest intern, Lauren “Sweet Thang” McMillan, Ross is drawn into the shadowy world of urban house-flipping and political corruption. EYES OF THE INNOCENT has generated critical acclaim including praise from Booklist: “The novel reads like a bit of investigative journalism: told in reporter’s prose, with dollops of humor, suspense, and violence. Like his creator, Ross is aware of the pain in the things he writes about. He’s also aware that makes for darned good reporting.” Michael Connelly added that, “Eyes of the Innocent is the complete package. With wonderful prose, witty observations and a relentless drive, this book held me hostage until the last page.”
Parks lives with his wife and two small children in Virginia. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about the influences that went into the creation of his new book, his thoughts about writing, and the battle between “Bretts” versus “Brads.”
Your coverage of a quadruple homicide in Newark inspired your debut novel. Did another real-world event give rise to the house fire and/or political corruption that you describe in EYES OF THE INNOCENT?
The house fire that kills two boys—whose innocent eyes inspire the title—is an invention. The political corruption is…well, this is New Jersey, so what do you think? Put it this way: The last time a mayor of Newark, New Jersey left office without being indicted was 1962. (Everyone has high hopes for the current mayor, Cory Booker, breaking that trend, but we’ll see). So while EYES OF THE INNOCENT doesn’t borrow as strictly from real-life as my first one did, there are still plenty of details I plundered from my days as a reporter.
Your books are populated with an ensemble of memorable and lucid characters. What advice would you offer to aspiring writers on creating vivid characters?
Advice? Sure: Before you start writing fiction, put yourself in a position to meet lots of memorable and lucid people (being a newspaper reporter is fabulous for that sort of thing, but so is volunteering at a soup kitchen, being an EMT, or engaging in countless other activities that take you outside your usual circle). Then figure out what makes the people you meet memorable and lucid, so you can recreate those kinds of traits when it comes time to write fiction. I think it also helps if you find people to be generally fascinating, and I certainly do. With all due respect to aardvarks—which are pretty damn weird—human beings really are the strangest of God’s creatures.
Charming and clever, your protagonist is an investigative reporter at a Newark newspaper. The parallels with your own career are striking. How did your experiences play into the creation of Carter Ross?
I intentionally eschewed the stereotype of the bitter, hard-drinking protagonist with the haunted past. But beyond that, I don’t think I spent more than about three seconds “creating” Carter Ross. I wanted the story I was telling to matter more than the storyteller, so I tried to make the narrator as boring as possible. Hence, I made him a lot like me. Yeah, maybe that’s little lazy—I’m sure those Iowa Writer’s Workshop folks would dock me points. But it gives me a character I can write with a great deal of authority.
On a related note, how much of your personality can be found in Deadline the Cat? Let me be explicit: I’m talking about the chronic sleeping and pooping habits.
Deadline lives the life to which I aspire.
What challenges have you faced in writing series fiction? What do you do to overcome them?
EYES OF THE INNOCENT is only the second in the series. And while the third and the fourth in the series are already done, that’s still in the puppy stage (as compared the ‘V is for Vivisection’ or ‘Simmering Sixty-Two Thousand,’ or other long-running series). I don’t think I’ve come close to feeling like I’ve hit the wall. I’m fortunate in that I have a character who doesn’t need to invent an excuse to be around crime (he’s a newspaper reporter who covers it all the time), and that I have a setting where malfeasance is quite common (hello, Newark). Beyond that, I try to be mindful that while there are some story arcs—like the relationships between certain characters—that progress throughout the series, there are other arcs that exist only within one book. I feel like allowing those book-only plot lines to die helps from getting the series too encumbered by back-story. The way I often think of it, I write stand-alones that just happen to have the same characters.
Mickey Spillane famously wrote that, “Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle…The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” What do you do to captivate readers in the opening and concluding pages of your novels?
I apologize if this gets a little gross, but when I was a sportswriter, I kept a miniature toilet on my desk at work. It was my reminder that a lot of guys take the sports section to the crapper with them, and that if I didn’t capture their attention with the first 200 words of my story—the part that appeared on the cover—there was no way I was going to get them to go through the trouble of turning to the inside page to finish the article. I think book readers have a little more of an attention span than that, but not much. So I don’t waste time trying to grab them. I give myself maybe 2,000 words instead of 200, but the concept is the same—they have to know quickly what crime is being investigated and have some reason to care that it gets solved. As for the ending, it’s absolutely crucial in this genre to give readers a satisfying conclusion. That’s where I rely most on first readers and editors. I ask them more about the last chapter than I do about any other part of the book.
You were the first author to win the coveted Shamus Award and the Nero Award for the same book. This feat is all the more impressive given that it was your debut novel. Tell me that your victory celebration did justice to such a phenomenal accomplishment.
I pretty much levitated throughout the months of October, November and December. It was a lot of fun, and it sure saved wear and tear on my shoes.
Library Journal called your first book the “most hilariously funny and deadly serious mystery debut since Janet Evanovich’s ONE FOR THE MONEY.” Do you find it challenging to balance humor and suspense in your novels?
I’d probably have a hard time doing it any other way. Call it a character flaw, but I’m incapable of being serious about anything for too long. It’s resulted in the occasional one-star Amazon or Goodreads review from someone who just doesn’t want a gritty crime novel cut with humor (or just didn’t think I was all that funny). But I’ve found most readers have complex enough personalities—and sophisticated enough senses of humor—that they can comfortably handle both.
You and I are both married to psychologists. How convenient for us, right? What is something that Melissa knows about you that is unknown to the rest of the world?
That fear of failure motivates me more than enjoyment of success. Yeah, it’s true. Beneath the award-winning author bravado I’m just another writer who worries all his books will be remaindered, nothing will ever come of his career and he’ll end up selling pencils on the corner because he has no other marketable skills. As a matter of fact, I’m glad you asked, Dr. King, because I’ve been wanting to get something off my chest—hey, is this couch taken? thanks—and, as I was saying…wait, what do you mean my 50 minutes is up?? I’m just getting started!
Name a favorite book that you wish that you had written.
That’s easy. Quotations from Chairman Mao. It sold something like 900 million copies. Just once, I’d like to see that royalty statement.
At the 2010 ThrillerFest debut author breakfast, you serenaded author Brad Meltzer with a zany show-stopping performance. I was seated next to Brad and his facial expression at that moment defied my best ability as a writer and a psychologist to capture it. He adored it, of course, as did everyone in attendance. Did you spend a great deal of time writing the song or did it all come together in a few minutes inside your hotel room?
I live in the southern part of Virginia, so I had about a six-hour drive up to New York. I think the idea hit me somewhere in Maryland and the final words came together on the New Jersey Turnpike. I’ve always found the Turnpike inspiring.
At the time, Brad was filming the early episodes of his History Channel series, “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded.” Were you hoping your T-Fest performance would lead to an audition? Maybe you saw a chance to pop up on the Lincoln Assassination episode as a singing John Wilkes Booth?
Naw, man, I was just trying to get a blurb for my third book. Strangely, he hasn’t been returning my calls lately…
Well, let me say I can totally see you lurking around Ford’s Theater like an escapee from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, wearing a fake moustache and Victorian garb, waving a pistol with an operatic flourish as you sing, “Tonight, I shall kill the bearded tyrant.”
You have a vivid imagination. Do you write fiction by any chance?
Finally, is it true that all “Brads” secretly wish that they were named “Brett”? I heard this rumor back in middle school and I’d love to have verification (full disclosure: my source was a Brett).
Yeah, you definitely write fiction. Brad is such a better name. I mean, look it, we’ve got Brad Meltzer AND Brad Thor. Who can you counter with? Brett Battles? Puh-leaze. Besides, everyone in publishing knows Brad is the superior name: It fits better on a book cover.