STORYTELLER LAYS OUT THE FACTS
This essay appeared in the Los Angeles Times Opinion section (p.3) April 24, 2005
The average citizen is probably tired of journalism scandals. Not me. I remain morbidly fascinated.
Maybe it's because I understand the temptation. I'm a crime novelist now. I get to make things up for a living. But I used to be an L.A. Times reporter. And with the perspective of my new profession, I see how facts can get in the way of a good story.
I'd tell you that I was a scrupulously honest reporter, as were all the ink-stained wretches I knew back in the day, but you'd just roll your eyes. And after the New Republic's Stephen Glass and the New York Times' Jayson Blair fiascos, who could blame you?
Three new journo-scandals erupted this month alone—the Los Angeles Times fired a staff writer just last week—and although I don't know what happened in these recent cases, I think it's time to examine what makes bright, capable reporters commit career suicide.
Most journalists can recall a source saying: "Put it in your own words and make me sound good, you're the writer."
And so it might begin. Drafting a quote. Then tweaking a few facts, an improvement, really. What the person meant to say. And finally, a more compelling story altogether, with fictional characters and scenes.
Once you've gotten away with it, the temptation must grow. And so journalists are seduced into writing fiction. It's not that newspapers don't try to catch this stuff. One of my editors once had to reassure another editor that I hadn't made up a story about wealthy Asian immigrant kids living on their own in big mansions. It was, indeed, real—and eventually I used it as a plotline for my first novel.
Most of my books are inspired by stories I covered, tales so wild and surreal that they read like fiction. But here's the truth about crime novels: Even if you wanted to steal a plot from the headlines, you'd have to add more story lines and characters and red herrings, and play with time and space, and pretty soon the real story you started with would morph into something completely different.
Still, after 15 years in journalism, the idea that I can make things up remains a revelation. As I sit in my walk-in closet office, I'll try to remember exactly how a South Vietnamese immigrant in El Monte phrased his terrifying tale about fleeing in a leaky boat. Then the exquisite realization hits: I don't have to flip through my 1993 notebook. I can make it even more poignant.
I need to do this to write good fiction. Reporters need to steer absolutely clear of it to write good journalism. Some years ago, when I was toggling between fiction and journalism, people would ask me if the lines ever blurred. No, I'd respond, but there is overlap. The best journalists listen with a novelist's ear, describe scenes and people with a novelist's eye and convey the universal in an individual story.
The pitfalls intrigue me, however, because I've stood at the edge of that abyss. I turned to fiction so I'd have a legitimate outlet for all my imaginary characters, dialogue and ideas.
That's also why I created a Jayson Blair-like character in my new novel. Readers don't find out until the bitter end if this smart, young ambitious female reporter is making things up. Is this character my wilder alter ego? I don't know, but it's something I clearly needed to explore in fiction, not journalism.
I'm hoping that some of these disgraced journalists will turn to legit fiction now. How about a noir short story about a transgressing reporter who kills an editor before he can sound the alarm about made-up sources? Now there's a tale ripe for the telling.