Continuing our “Meet the Authors” series, let me introduce you to bestselling independent author, Karl Jacobs….
Michael: Karl, you were a writer and editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and have written for papers like the New York Times and Washington Post. How does writing fiction differ from newspaper writing?
Karl: Well, I suspect a lot of people think there isn’t much difference because most of what they find in the paper is fiction. And in some cases they may be right. I would put it this way. Novelists are free to write about anything they want. They can write in any manner they want and can go on for as long as they want. And they can make things up as much they want. No journalist is allowed to do that, although of course there are some who seem to keep trying.
Actually, some of our finest novelists have come from the ranks of journalists. In fact, it was Ernest Hemingway’s journalistic experience that led him to pioneer a whole new literary style. Writing in exceedingly simple, spare language. You can’t write for the news media without learning how important that is. And nothing teaches you the importance of getting things right like a dumb mistake on the front page of a newspaper. So journalism is great preparation for a literary career. You see a different aspect of life every day.
Michael: Which type of writing is more challenging? Journalism or fiction?
Karl: Well, as a newsman, one day I would find myself grilling the British ambassador to the United States, the next day I would be interviewing comedian Joey Bishop in his hotel room, and the next day a homicide detective would be taking me to meet the prime suspect in the murder of an 11-year-old girl. So you have to be able to switch gears and absorb a lot of information quickly and get it right. But in many respects the complete freedom to write what you please as a novelist is more challenging than the rules and limits that restrict journalists. In a novel, the quality of the writing is everything. How you choose to tell a story. From which points of view and in what types of language. And so on.
Frankly, I don’t like the term “fiction.” When it comes to the very best novels, I think that term is demeaning. What I like most about writing fiction is the opportunity to tell the truth in a way that nonfiction cannot. In a novel I can describe someone — say, a neighbor or a business executive –- more honestly than a journalist can. The journalist is usually dependent on what people tell him and what his eyes and ears tell him. But he has personal relationships to consider. Libel lawyers to worry about. And usually only very limited experience with the subject. Not so the novelist. All he has to do is give a person a different name and a different face and he can tell you exactly what kind of guy the person really is. He can even presume to know what the person thinks and how he feels. So John Steinbeck, for example, was able to give us a truer, more moving picture of the impact of the Great Depression on a lot of people than any journalist was able to do. In my youth, I covered the civil rights movement, the protest march into Mississippi led by Martin Luther King, and three big-city race riots. But Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mockingbird, captured far better than I or any newspaper or TV reporter could what that great struggle was all about back then. To label novels like these fiction seems to me to be terribly misleading.
Michael: Both of those novels were made into great movies.
Karl: Yes, and the trouble with too many movies is that screenwriters don’t write from their own life experience. They know the techniques used in every big movie ever made but often not very much about life outside Hollywood. How many thriller films have you seen that end with a chase on an escalator? If I recall correctly, one of those overworked scenes was even slipped into the climax of the movie version of Grisham’s The Firm. This is where I think many novels have it all over the typical movie or TV drama. The best and most original novels spring from the writers’ real-life experience, not something he saw in a movie or read in another novel.
Michael: Is that what you do?
Karl: As much as I can. I don’t mean all good novels are autobiographical. As much as possible, though, serious writers write about people and things they know and have witnessed or they’ve heard about from people in a position to know. My novel, The President’s Killers, springs in part from my newspaper experience. In my earliest days, I once had the opportunity to chat with Jack Kennedy and Jackie. And later, after JFK’s assassination, I spent some time with a brother of James Earl Ray, who was convicted of killing Martin Luther King. Both assassinations were traumatic for the entire country. And millions have wondered ever since if James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or were part of a larger conspiracy.
I had had lots of experience working in police headquarters in St. Louis, where Ray once lived.
There are countless conspiracy theories about both of those assassinations, but I was never an advocate for any of them. I simply asked, “What if the claims of someone like Oswald or Ray were true? What if someone really was framed in the assassination of one of the country’s most prominent public figures? How could someone engineer that and get away with it? Who might want to do that and would be in a position to do it?”
And I did what any journalist would do. I did a tremendous amount of research on the Secret Service, the FBI, and the constantly evolving surveillance methods used by law-enforcement agencies. I also found a real-life model, now dead, for my chief villain. A highly educated and trusted person in an extremely sensitive type of work for the Government who committed a crime as heinous as an assassination.
Michael: Which writers have influenced you the most?
Karl: A lot of them. Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, John LeCarre, Mary Higgins Clark, Robert B. Parker, and so on. In fact, I never fancied myself a thriller or suspense writer. But I was amazed a few years ago at how absorbed my daughter was with Grisham’s The Firm. So I read it and was hooked. I had been working on a literary novel inspired by what I saw and heard in Congress and in the corporate world, but I put that aside and went to work researching and writing The President’s Killers. Both Julie and my wife Kay read novels almost every day. They feel novels are always handy, always available whenever you’ve got a spare moment, and usually more absorbing than most movies and TV fare. Because novels can take you inside the minds of characters in a way that movies and TV dramas can’t. They’re much more intimate.
Michael: If you could chat over a drink or two with a literary great, past or present, who would it be?
Karl: Probably Shakespeare. Because I have a question I’d like to ask him and a tip I’d like to offer him: First, tell me, Will, did you write all those amazing works yourself, or did you have a stable of writers in a basement somewhere like James Patterson? And secondly, I admire all your stuff, Will. You have a wonderful way with words. But take another look at the dialogue in your plays. People don’t talk that way, Billy. Hang out a little more at the local pub and listen to the folks around you. And take a look at Elmore Leonard. That’s the way people really talk.