I’m the author of The Lilly Hawkins Mysteries and am on the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America. I’ve worked in national news at CNN as well as local news in Bakersfield, Calif.—where my books are set! I love movies and television almost as much as books and have an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. I live in Savannah, Georgia.
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This interview is reprinted from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
An Interview With Nora McFarland, Author of A Bad Day’s Work: A Novel
By SCOTT BUTKI, BLOGCRITICS.ORG
This book had several things going for it before I had even cracked it open:
1) It name checked Lisa Lutz, one of my favorite writers, in the publicity materials.
2) It is about the news media, from someone who has been there (I’m a former journalist myself).
3) It asks a great question: What’s it like to be a female television camerawoman in a career dominated by men?
4) And it has a premise that reminds me of something out of a Donald Westlake comic thriller novel, namely what happens if a camerawoman — the main character, Lilly — returns from getting footage of a murder crime scene only to find that her tape is blank. Is she that inept?
Meanwhile, bad people who are trying to hurt her think she is trying to blackmail them because surely she had the footage elsewhere.
With all of that going for it this book would have to be awful to not provide me much mirth and joy and this did not disappoint.
The author will probably get compared to Janet Evanovich because of the mix of crime, and dealing with guys and such, but I’m not a big fan of Evanovich myself. That said, if you like Evanovich or Lutz or Westlake you will, I think, like this book.
I’ll save further commentary for the interview itself.
What was your goal with this, your first book? This is the first book in a trilogy?
On a practical level, it was about trying to learn and be a better writer. I’d written a couple of mediocre screenplays, but had never produced more than a few pages of a book. I wanted to finish, and I wanted to improve.
In terms of my goals for the story and my main character, I always knew that I wanted to show Lilly change over the course of her adventure. Everything else is in service to that. Hopefully by the end of the third book, readers will feel a tremendous sense of payoff.
What was it like being the only female news camerawoman (shooter) in Bakersfield? Did you ever get in trouble — there or in other places — for the kind of klutz moves Lilly makes? Let me mention that I share here my most klutzy moves, and here my biggest typos — so your turn. What was your worst mistake as a camera person?
It was always interview subjects who seemed most interested in my status as the only female shooter in town. They tended to be politicians or cops who had previous contact with the media, but had never seen a woman in that job. At work, nobody ever brought it up. Although, the entire time I was there, they never once assigned me a sports story.
I don’t consider Lilly a klutz, but that’s probably because a lot of her mistakes are my mistakes. In particular, the scene where Lilly throws a baseball at a little blind girl is my very own klutz move. The situation and people involved are nothing like I portrayed in the books — all my characters are completely made up — but I did once throw a baseball at child who turned out to be blind. That’s my most cringe-inducing memory.
Are you still working in news or are you a full-time writer? I’m curious how TV news camera work is being changed by the push toward the one-man bands (where the reporter is also the camera person).
I’m out of the business now, but my husband still works in local news.
When I first heard the concept of the one-man-band, I thought it was a terrible idea and completely rejected it. There may have been some Who Moved My Cheese? going on there. Just like my main character, I don’t like change.
But surprisingly, one-man-bands work very well in small to medium markets. The video quality suffers, but not very much and there are many benefits. In addition to the obvious cost savings, the reporter has more control over their story. They’re able to shoot very precise video that elevates the overall quality of the piece. It also saves time. Rather than sitting down and looking at all the footage, the reporter is already familiar with everything that’s been shot. They can craft their piece in their head while still in the field.
It’s a much less collaborative art, and it probably means that those young reporters won’t develop the ability to communicate with a shooter about their video needs, but it also allows them more personal expression and control.
Your promotional material mentions Lisa Lutz (whom I love) and Janet Evanovich (who I think is overrated), and I bet reviews and reviewers will mention those two as well. So what do you think of those two writers?
I’d be overjoyed to have either of their talent. Lisa Lutz’s books are hysterical, and I love the entire Spellman clan. The world she created is truly unique, and Izzy Spellman’s voice is so fresh and different.
I think Janet Evanovich is a stronger mystery writer, and I’m in awe of the way she’s managed to keep that series going and still be dependably good. It’s rare that a character can have sixteen adventures and not be running on empty.
Personally I thought of two other series as I was reading this, especially during the second half of it, the Fletch book series by Greg Mcdonald and maybe a little bit of Get Smart and Donald Westlake. Are you a fan of those late writers?
Oddly, I’ve never read the Fletch books. I was twelve when the movie version came out, and I went to see it in the theater three times. I was in love with that movie, but wasn’t old enough for the book. I was just starting to read adult mysteries, and my taste went more toward Agatha Christie. Later on, when I branched out from cozies, I somehow missed it. But you’ve inspired me, and I’m putting it on my nightstand.
Donald Westlake I have read and love. It’s a great honor to be compared to him. There’s nothing better than a caper. It’s not a popular genre at the moment, but there’s something incredibly fun about getting a group of likeable criminals together and then seeing how many things can go wrong with their plan.
What are your favorite movies and books (non-fiction and fiction) about journalism?
All the President’s Men is probably the best movie ever made about journalism. It’s so amazingly entertaining, even though most of it is white guys in dress shirts, sitting around offices, talking. The director, Alan J. Pakula, was at his peak — just coming off Klute and The Parallax View — and the movie is perfect.
But my favorite movie about journalism — and there is a difference between the best and my personal favorite — is His Girl Friday. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are so good. I love that the romance is all tied up in their journalistic fervor. Cary Grant wants her back because he loves her, but he needs her back because she’s his best reporter.
Recently, I loved the book Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley. It’s a mystery about a reporter who returns to his home town. There are wonderful details about small town newspapers because the author is a journalist himself.
What have been your high points and low points in journalism?
I used to do live audio in the control room at CNN. That was a high point because, even though I didn’t like the actual work, I felt like I was part of something meaningful. There was a real sense that we were working in the public interest and providing a service. At that point cable news wasn’t so ratings driven, and there weren’t so many opinion shows like there are now.
I’m happy to say there weren’t any low points. I quit because it just wasn’t where my heart was. The real world is never as much fun as make believe.
Lastly, in what ways are you similar to Lilly and in what ways are you different?
As I alluded to earlier, neither of us likes change, even when it’s positive and beneficial. I also have a temper and react without thinking sometimes. On the positive side, I think we’re both very determined. Once Lilly gets hold of a story, she doesn’t let go and I think I’m like that too.
In terms of differences, I hope I have a much better understanding of people and am more engaged with the world around me in an optimistic, open way (pause for thoughtful reflection) and if I punched someone, I wouldn’t break my thumb.