BELOW THE FOLD by R.G. Belsky
R.G. Belsky is a longtime journalist and an author of crime fiction.
His newest mystery BELOW THE FOLD (Oceanview, May 7) is the second in a series featuring Clare Carlson, the news director for a New York City TV station. The first Clare Carlson book YESTERDAY’S NEWS was published last year.
Belsky writes about the media from an extensive background in newspapers, magazines and TV/digital news. He was a top editor at the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Star magazine and, most recently, served as managing editor for news at NBCNews.com
He talks to us here about working in the real world of journalism – and writing about fictional newsrooms.
Question: What’s your new book about?
Answer R.G.: “Below the fold” is a journalistic term for a news story that’s not important enough to make the headlines. It seems to fit the murder of a homeless woman on the streets of New York City – until TV newswoman Clare Carlson links the woman’s death to long-buried secrets involving powerful public and political figures.
Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: Most murders are pretty much ignored by the media. We focus only on the ones that involve sexy, rich or otherwise sensational victims or perpetrators. O.J., Jon Benet, Casey Anthony and all the rest. I’ve been as guilty as anyone in doing this over my journalistic career. So I decided it would be interesting to write a fictional story about a murder absolutely no one cared anything about at first, but which a dogged journalist suddenly turned into a huge news story. That’s what happens in BELOW THE FOLD.
Q: Is the Clare Carlson character based on any journalist you worked with in the media?
A: Yes. And no. Clare is a terrific journalist, a dogged investigator and a popular, charismatic leader in the newsroom. But her personal life is pretty much of a train wreck, with three failed marriages and a decision about having children she made more than 20 years ago in college that haunts her to this day. I’ve worked with many journalists over the years – both female and male – whose personal lives have suffered like this because of their total commitment to breaking the big story. So I drew on all this background from a lot of different people from different newsrooms in order to create my fictional character. Let’s just say I’ve known a lot of Clare Carlsons in my life.
Q: What’s the most notable crimes news story you ever covered?
A: Well, I covered pretty much all the big crime stories over the past few decades. Son of Sam. O.J. etc. But the one that probably got me the most notoriety was my involvement in the infamous New York Post headline Headless Body in Topless Bar. I was part of the team in the Post newsroom that helped create that headline after a robber cut off the head of one of his victims inside a strip club in New York City. It became a cult legend, the “Night of the Living Dead” of tabloid newspaper headlines. And, if you Google me now, you’ll find more references to me and that headline than anything else I’ve ever done. Go figure.
Q: Did you meet many celebrities as a journalist?
A: I covered a lot of celebrities, mostly doing bad things – so our encounters generally weren’t pleasant. I’ve been cursed out by Sylvester Stallone, sued by Tom Cruise and I once made Julia Roberts cry. But maybe my most memorable celebrity encounter was with Mick Jagger in the men’s room of a music club in New York City. I was stunned to somehow find myself standing next to Mick at one of the urinals. He put his arm around me, laughed and started talking like he knew me. Then, obviously realizing his mistake, he said: “Sorry, mate, I thought you were Keith.” I was never sure whether being mistaken for Keith Richards was a good thing or not.
Q: How do you write your books – do you plan them out and outline extensively beforehand?
A: Absolutely not. When it comes to being a plotter or a pantser (someone who writes “by the seat of their pants,” I’m definitely a pantser. I generally start out with an idea of what the beginning of a book will be and have some concept of an ending, but no idea how I will get there. The story develops for me as I write, and – when I’m writing well – it takes me in exciting directions that I had never envisioned. I read recently that Lee Child writes his Jack Reacher books the same way. Hey, if you’re an author, you can’t go wrong doing what Lee Child does!
Q: What’s the biggest difference you’ve found between being a real life journalist and a writer of crime fiction?
A: As a journalist, I deal with facts all day. It’s crucial for me to make sure everything that goes into the paper or on a website or over the air is accurate and fair and totally backed up with painstaking research. That’s important, but it’s a lot of work too. As a fiction writer, I get to make all the facts up. Now that’s fun!
Q: Can you give us a few lines from BELOW THE FOLD – and your Clare Carlson character – that capture the tone of what you’re trying to say in the book?
A: “Every human life is supposed to be important, everyone should matter. But its not true. Not in the real world. And certainly not in the world of TV news where I work. Murder is a numbers game for me. My goal is to find a murder with a sexy young woman victim to put on the air. That translates into big ratings. Those are the only murder stories worth doing…Now let me tell you something else. Everything I just said there is a lie.”
Q: What’s your advice to anyone else who says they want to write a mystery novel?
A: One word of advice: Write. I’ve met a lot people over the years, journalists and others, who talk about how they want to write a mystery novel. But that’s all they do. They just talk. The only way to write a book is to sit down and write it. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike you, don’t wait until you feel like doing it, don’t promise yourself you’ll start the next day or the next week. Just write the damn book. You might surprise yourself with what comes out of you. I know I sure did.