Monday, July 21, 2008

Let's Meet Joe Nowlan!

Joe gives us a rundown on how Media Blitz came to be...and a few insights into his writing processes...

In my mystery novel, “Media Blitz,” someone has reached the point where a real angry letter to the editor doesn’t work anymore—and instead is going around killing media figures in Boston. Reaction from Bostonians ranges from shock and horror to a little bit of “why hasn’t someone done this before?” from the media’s harsher critics.

Why is the Athens of America turning into Shootout at the Faneuil Hall?

Hopefully, that sort of plot and setting will help sell a copy or three. But actually, “Media Blitz” started out, many drafts ago, as a satire of the media in America today. However, an early problem developed: Just what is the definition of “the media” today? If you’re among those who still read newspapers and magazines (print or online), does “the media” mean The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Guns & Ammo and Hustler magazine—not necessarily in that order? (Well, OK, more or less in that order). How to satirize a concept that takes in such disparate personalities and images as Bill O’Reilly; Matt Drudge; Keith Olbermann; Katie Couric and the Posts (NY and Washington)?

Then there are the various entertainment-focused magazines and programs where the state of Britney’s on-again/off-again underwear is of paramount importance? And of course, lest we forget, the myriad talk radio hosts and hostesses nationwide and their sycophantic callers? It might be a bit like trying to satirize professional wrestling. How can you top the real thing? Oh, if only Paddy Chayefsky was still alive to write a sequel to “Network.” How would he approach TV news of today; the land of snow white teeth, perfect hair and gravity defying boob jobs?

By the same token, I also remembered the words of playwright, George S. Kaufman: “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” George never lived long enough to read some of Christopher Buckley’s witty books, but I can see his point. Still the notion of writing a novel involving “the media” gnawed at me. I thought the general topic had some potential as a book—one that, if nothing else, would potentially hold readers’ interest based on the notion that, like restaurants and architecture, everyone’s a critic on this. We are a nation of media bashers, eh? Then I realized one day the phrase “media bashing” had become as clich├ęd a conversational banality as “There you go!” or “Have a nice day.” What would happen if the media bashing progressed, if that’s the word, to something worse? The answer, it occurred to me, was to forget satirizing the media. And never mind mere bashing. Let’s kill ‘em! Solely for literary and entertainment purposes, of course.

Be candid: who hasn’t thought about at least the vague, philosophical concept of committing mayhem on some right wing talking head with the IQ of a Fig Newton who wants anyone whose name ends in a vowel, or features “Abdul” in their name, to be deported first thing today? Or how about throttling some bow-tie wearing, Hillary-hugging, Streisand-smoking liberal pundit who wants to build a maximum security prison in your backyard? (I guess that covers the gamut here, more or less?) So from there, the book became much less of an attempt at satire and more of a murder mystery. That, in a wordy nutshell, is “Media Blitz.”

In my day job, I write for a business magazine. But writing fiction is obviously different than interviewing the CEO of John Smith Inc. about his company’s fiscal year. There, somebody is answering questions and providing information I can shape into a reasonably coherent article. With fiction, I have a blank piece of paper, a cheap Bic pen and ... me. Yeah, OK, once you get going you have a character or two that “talks” to you. But that takes a while. So then there’s dreaded M word—motivation. How do you get going?

Well, I don’t know what works for you, but a little hostility helps me, in a sort of counter-cultural, going-against-the-grain way. For instance, how many people talk about writing a book, but never do? So saying I’ll be the one to at least try—that helped some days. I’ve also heard it said that if you don’t try to be a writer, you’re the only one who’ll ever know that you never tried. Does that make any sense? Well, it got me going on a few rainy mornings. What can I tell you? I do know that whenever I sat down and, in the case of “Media Blitz,” added to it or, sometimes more importantly, subtracted from it—I felt better about myself and the book.

Another occasional motivation was—and I broach this as nicely as possible here—bad books. I will name names only under waterboarding-levels of torture. But sometimes I’d derive a twisted form of “inspiration” from reading mystery novels that were just not particularly good. The realization that “Cripes, if this thing finds a publisher, I’ve got a shot someday” did come over me now and then. I’m sure I’m not alone here and it’s not a drum I want to pound too much, ladies and gents. No authors names, please. My least favorite might be your very favorite, if you will. And besides, I’m not the national exemplar of taste, so if you’re happy with a particular author, then go back to your reading and I’ll leave quietly. (God forbid, but for all I know, my book will serve as reverse inspiration for some neophyte writer someday, throwing it against the wall and sprinting to their notebook/computer with that same sort of “Cripes, if this thing….” Gulp!)

And so we have “Media Blitz,” a murder mystery where the dead bodies include a yappy talk radio host, a TV sports anchor and … well, maybe I’ll leave it at that, for now. But my brethren in the print sector don’t come off entirely unscathed either. I hope people will A) buy it and, B) enjoy it. Beyond that, I recall the words of a dear departed Englishman, John Winston Lennon. Lennon used to write some short stories in his spare time (Anyone out there have a copy of “John Lennon: In His Own Write”?) They once asked him about his next volume of musings and writings and he replied, as only someone from Liverpool could, “Well, folks, it’ll be the usual rubbish, but it won’t cost much.” Like me and most first-time novelists, Lennon had a day job to fall back on. I understand he was rather good at it, too. And one that was more lucrative than mine—something I hope many of you will keep in mind the next time you go book shopping.

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