Friday, May 25, 2018

The Whole Truth?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: You know, when you get writers together, there are certain things we always talk about. Writing, for one. (No surprise.) Books, and point of view, the industry, funny stories about bookstore signings, and how you can get on the bestseller lists, and on and on.  You’ve heard it. You’ve loved it. You’ve joined in, right? It’s part of our world.
One of the fun things about being a journalist—there’s the same kind of camaraderie and shared experiences.  That’s why it’s dangerous to put me in the same room with the amazing Dick Belsky. He’s a veteran journalist, and has SO many wonderful stories! And he’s taken all those experiences and translated them into riveting and realistic fiction. 
It IS fiction, right?

         The most important thing a journalist has is their integrity.

            That was the first line of a mystery novel I wrote about being a reporter a few years ago. I believed it then, and I believe it now. I speak about the issue of journalistic integrity with considerable experience, having worked in the media for many years at NBC News, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. A real-life journalist can break a lot of rules chasing after a big story, but there is one rule he or she can never violate. A real-life journalist always has to tell the reader the truth.
      Not so much for a fictional journalist.

  Clare Carlson, the TV newswoman in my new mystery YESTERDAY'S NEWS, is what has become known in writing circles these days as the "unreliable narrator."

     The "unreliable narrator" phrase became popular most recently, of course, from two blockbuster mystery novels - Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – where the characters telling the story turn out not to be what they seemed when we first met them.

     But the concept has been around for a long time. The ultimate unreliable narrator book goes all the way back to 1926 when Agatha Christie wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (No spoiler alert really needed here to tell you that the narrator is shockingly revealed as the killer at the end. Hey, if you haven't read this book since 1926, you're probably never going to read it!)

   Now I didn't start out to write my own narrator this way. The Clare Carlson character is the news director of a New York City TV station who actually cares passionately about truth and integrity and trustworthiness when it comes to journalism. She teaches these rules to all the reporters who work for her, and she follows them herself in covering any news story. Her integrity is at the core of the story in YESTERDAY'S NEWS.

      But, in using Clare's voice to tell that story, I soon realized that the phrase "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" didn't always apply here.

Look, everyone lies. There are all sorts of lies. Big lies. Little lies. The lies that people tell casually every day with little thought or remorse: Fibbing about sticking to a diet, calling in sick for work to go to a ballgame or fudging a few numbers on an income tax return. The bigger lies that politicians and real estate brokers and used car salesman tell to get us to buy whatever they’re selling. And then there are the lies so breathtaking in their scope and audaciousness that most of us could never fathom resorting to them no matter how desperate we were. A journalist’s job is to catch people in these lies and expose their lies to the world. Even if it’s the journalist herself who’s not telling the truth.

Which is what happens in YESTERDAY’S NEWS.

The story is about a legendary missing child case in New York City. Fifteen years ago, little 11-year-old Lucy Devlin disappeared on her way to school. Clare Carlson, then a young newspaper reporter, became a media star writing about the story – even winning a Pulitzer Prize for her extraordinary coverage. But now, on the 15th anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance, the story is back in the news with new questions, new leads and new suspects that ultimately force Clare to face long-buried, hard truths about herself.

I think one of the reasons some mystery authors turn to the unreliable narrator approach is because of the difficulties writing a mystery in the first person. A book that has multiple viewpoints or is done in the third person allows the author to more easily conceal key information from the reader. But, in the first person, the reader presumably knows everything that the character does from the very beginning. Which makes it tough to keep the mystery going until the end.

Hence, the narrator like Clare who tells you what she wants you to know and when she wants you to know it – while omitting some of the other crucial information until much later.

Clare herself maybe sums up this approach to learning the truth best when she talks about one of the basic rules she follows when interviewing people as a journalist. “Sometimes the important thing is not to listen to what they tell you,” she instructs a young reporter, “but to listen to what they’re NOT telling you. More often than not, that’s where the real story is.”

By the end of the book though, I think you’ll find Clare – despite her flaws – to be a pretty trustworthy character.

A person of integrity.

An honest journalist.

And that’s the truth!

HANK: Suuuure!  SO—since we try to avoid knock-down-drag-outs around her, instead of talking about reporters, let’s talk about unreliable narrators. Or—your favorite books with unreliable narrators.

I’ve got to say, I remember, clearly, reading Roger Ackroyd, and just…gasping. And I LET YOU GO. Totally got me. And Gone Girl, think what you will, that twist was awesome. How about The Usual Suspects? Sixth Sense? Got to LOVE those, right?

Are you put off when you’re warned there’s a twist? Are you weary of unreliable narrators? Let us know!

R.G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His newest mystery, YESTERDAY'S NEWS, was published in May 2018 by Oceanview.  It is the first in a series featuring Clare Carlson, the news director for a New York City TV station. He previously wrote the Gil Malloy series for Atria about a tabloid newspaper reporter.  Belsky himself has been a top editor at the New York Post (where he helped create the famous “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline), the New York Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News. Two earlier Belsky thrillers that came out in the ‘90s – LOVERBOY and PLAYING DEAD – were re-released by Harper Collins recently in ebook form for the first   

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Another Side of--Scott Fitzgerald?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Get a cup of tea or your favorite coffee. Pull up a chair, and carve out five minutes.
Do you remember your first F. Scott Fitzgerald? How you realized there was something more to literature, a voice, a time, a glamor? And then you heard about Zelda, and the Jazz Age, and Gatsby, and the beautiful shirts?  And thought about why Nick Carraway was named that, and what Scott’s life was really like, and whether it would have been amazing or tragic?
Sally Koslow explored, absorbed, researched and recreated—and brings us—lucky us—a wonderful narrative biography into one part of Scott Fitzgerald’s life.  The part about--well, let her introduce it. 
In 1937 Hollywood, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham’s star is on the rise, while literary wonder boy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s career is slowly drowning in booze. 
But the once-famous author, desperate to make money penning scripts for the silver screen, is charismatic enough to attract the gorgeous Miss Graham, a woman who exposes the secrets of others while carefully guarding her own. Like Fitzgerald’s hero Jay Gatsby, Graham has meticulously constructed a life far removed from the poverty of her childhood in London’s slums. 
And like Gatsby, the onetime guttersnipe learned early how to use her charms to become a hardworking success; she is feted and feared by both the movie studios and their luminaries.
A notorious drunk famously married to the doomed Zelda, Fitzgerald fell hard for his “Shielah” (he never learned to spell her name), a shrewd yet softhearted woman—both a fool for love and nobody’s fool—who would stay with him and help revive his career until his tragic death three years later. 

Working from Sheilah’s memoirs, interviews, and letters, Sally Koslow revisits their scandalous love affair and Graham’s dramatic transformation in London, bringing Graham and Fitzgerald gloriously to life with the color, glitter, magic, and passion of 1930s Hollywood.

Ready to hear more? Of course you are. And she’s giving away a copy of  ANOTHER SIDE OF PARADISE  to one lucky commenter!

HANK: Is there anyone more famously romantic and literary and doomed than F. Scott Fitzgerald? How did you choose him for your book--and this aspect of his life in particular?  

SALLY KOSLOW: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s certainly tops the short list for lush writing, and in his private life, he was a true romantic, as well. The man had the ability to intensely focus on a woman. I chose to look at the final chapter of his life because it’s far less familiar than the fizzy, pink champagne, riding-on-the-top-of-taxis Jazz Age he shared with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald. 

I found these later years with Sheilah Graham to be tender and touching, though this in no way suggests that he had stopped loving Zelda. Still, he adored and admired Sheilah.

HANK: Do you think Sheilah Graham has faded from memory? What do you think about that?  Is this his book, or her book, or their book?

SALLY KOSLOW: Another Side of Paradise is more a novel about the woman who reinvented herself as “Sheilah Graham” than another F. Scott Fitzgerald rehash. Her tumultuous romance with Fitzgerald is central to her story, but there’s far more to it. Sheilah overcame poverty and hardship in England to succeed first as a performer, than a Fleet Street writer and later, one of the first Hollywood gossip reporters.

Though she’s not as familiar to today’s readers as her rivals, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, that may be because Hopper was a notorious meanie who ruined reputations during the McCarthy period and Louella had the Hearst newspaper empire behind. For better or worse, Sheilah was an independent who stopped short of being cruel in her reporting.

HANK:  Let me quote from an article about you and the book: 
“Like Fitzgerald’s hero Jay Gatsby, Graham has meticulously constructed a life far removed from the poverty of her childhood in London’s slums. And like Gatsby, the onetime guttersnipe learned early how to use her charms to become a hardworking success; she is feted and feared by both the movie studios and their luminaries.”
Wow. Tell us more!

SALLY KOSLOW:  Without spoiling the drama of the novel, let me simply say that while born into poverty and isolated in a Dickensian orphanage for ten years, Sheilah found the grit to reinvent herself, travel freely in high society and eventually become a legendary and powerful gossip columnist starting in Hollywood’s Golden Age and sticking with it for decades. She was far more than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s girlfriend.

HANK: What do you think she would have been like today? How do you think their relationship would have been handled today?

SALLY KOSLOW: During her lifetime, Sheilah moved from writing a widely syndicated newspaper column to radio to television, where she starred in her own celebrity talk show, paving the way for Barbara Walters, Oprah and many other television reporters. Today, I could imagine Sheilah doing a similar celebrity-oriented show on television along with embracing the Internet as a reporter or popular blogger. She was a hard-working, resilient professional who knew how to evolve.

With respect to Sheilah and Scott’s relationship, now they would have been able to live openly together as a devoted couple. In the 1930s that wasn’t possible because the powerhouse film studios laid down the law, and forced couples to adhere to ridiculously Puritanical standards.

HANK:  Yes, it seems positively tame now! How and when did you first find her?  You did such meticulous research--what was the letter, document, diary entry that first gave you chills? Do you remember?

SALLY KOSLOW:  As an English major, I’d seen passing references to “Sheilah Graham” in biographies and articles about F. Scott Fitzgerald but never paid attention to her. What got me digging was actually another author’s biographical novel about Fitzgerald’s later Hollywood years that was reviewed in the New Yorker, told from Scott’s point of view. I got curious about Sheilah, began researching and knew there was a book to be written.

HANK: So--this book is a departure for you. Was it intimidating?  

SALLY KOSLOW:  I’ve never believed that a writer is required to stay in her lane. It was fun to switch genres. My debut novel in 2007, Little Pink Slips, was a romp through the magazine industry, where I worked for years, and was inspired by being displaced by Rosie O’Donnell. Three more contemporary novels followed and I loved that their reviews included the adjective “witty.”

I’ve also written a work of non-fiction called Slouching Toward Adulthood, about 20- and 30-somethings who take a while to land.

When I discovered Sheilah’s story, however, I got the bug to write a biographical novel. A biographical novel requires a deep research because you want to build it on a factual skeleton so yes, it was intimidating, but also interesting.


SALLY KOSLOW: Like the rest of the world, I adore Oprah Winfrey and value her judgment. So when recently recommended Another Side of Paradise as a novel to enjoy over Memorial Day Weekend, who am I to argue. I especially like the opening description of the book: “dishy with a side of wry.”
I could happily steal that phrase for my tombstone, and would like to think it applies to every book I’ve written!

HANK:  SO wonderful! And congratulations on your wild success. And Reds and readers, don’t you love this? What comes to mind when you think of Scott Fitzgerald? What was his first book you read?  What did you think?
And remember, a copy of Another Side of Paradise to one lucky commenter!  

Before writing books, Sally Koslow was the editor-in- chief of several magazines, including McCall's and Lifetime, which she launched, as well as an editor at Mademoiselle and Woman's Day. Sally has also taught creative writing at the Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College and various Manhattan venues. Her essays and articles have been published in many publications including The New York Times, the Boston Globe, other newspapers; dozens of magazines including O: The Oprah Magazine and More, and numerous websites and blogs.

Her novels include The Widow Waltz, With Friends Like These, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, a European bestseller, and Little Pink Slips. She has also written a non-fiction book, Slouching Toward Adulthood. Sally was born in Fargo, North Dakota. She holds a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Please find her at www.,
Instagram: spkoslow,
Twitter: @sallykoslow and

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Cat Self-Help?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Do you have a cat? Yeah, when I met Jonathan, I had my dear cat Lola. Lola, who I got at the shelter in maybe...1987? Maybe? Hated everyone in the world except for me. I cannot begin to describe the depths of her disdain for everyone in the world. Except for me.

When Jonathan arrived, she would not leave him alone. Everywhere he went, she went. She followed him, trailed him, teased him, sat on his lap, purring.

Was it because she knew, with her cat superpowers, that he was the one for me? Oh, dear, no. You know cats.

Jonathan is allergic to cats. And she totally knew it. I could just see her smiling with the anticipation of the sneezing.

She was fabulous, though. And I still dream about her. 

Anyway, the brilliant and hilarious Alice Loweecey has some thoughts about cats. And, um, chihuahuas. 

And I bet you do, too.

ALICE LOWEECEY: Hi. My name is Alice and I read cat porn.

Don’t look so shocked! You’ve seen those cute book covers. The ones with bright crowded flower shops or libraries or bakeries or craft stores or picnics or, or, or…

Yay Lucy! And cats.
They’re everywhere. And they’re staring out at the reader with a coy expression. Or an “I know more than you do” expression. Or a “Worship me, human, as your distant ancestors did” expression.

They’re usually fluffy and always cuddly looking. They make you want to reach into the book cover and pick them up and stroke their soft fur and lay your head against their warm bellies and feel them purr…Like Lucy's new book.

See what I mean?

I have my own feline balls of fluffiness. They object to my lack of worship and only allow me to cuddle them when they feel like it, which is approximately 35 seconds every second Tuesday. Unless it’s past 6:30 am on a weekend, at which time they climb up my legs like I’m a miniature Mount Everest and PLOP all 13-15 pounds of their weight on my back until I rouse myself to feed them.

Alice's actual cats

My friend and fellow writer/cat owner Barbara Early introduced me to the “cat porn” aspect of cozy mysteries.So I thought, I’m obviously missing a crucial aspect in my cozy mysteries. Enter the Cat!

That was the plan, at any rate. First, a character gave my sleuth a chameleon. There is nothing cuddly about a miniature dinosaur. The whole color-changing thing doesn’t count. I did learn a lot about chameleons for that book, though.

When I sat down to outline Nun afterthe Other, I was bound and determined to get a cat in there somehow. You know what I got? A Chihuahua who fakes a limp when he meets people so he gets extra TLC and sympathy. There’s no Chihuahua porn in cozies.

My brain hates me sometimes.

So is this a fail as a cozy writer or do I get props for bending the cat rules? (The Chihuahua is a Rescue; that should count for something.)

Now that I’ve cursed everyone reading this to think “Cat Porn!” when they browse the cosy section of the bookstore, help a writer out? Is a cat on a book cover a guaranteed sale? What about dogs? What about ghost cats and dogs? I’m truly curious.

I have another question for the writers which has nothing to do with cats: What’s the most memorable way a character has derailed your story? Up until Steve the Chihuahua, mine was when a character turned around and revealed to me—the writer—he wore a yarmulke. I finished the chapter and started another research angle. Because what else could I do?

HANK: Now, truly, this is the burning question of the day. Cats on the cover? Does it sway your book-buying judgement?  And who is your very favorite cat?

Nuns and murder and ghosts, oh my! Here comes Giulia Driscoll again, and boy, is she in for it this time. 

It all starts when a frenzied Chihuahua leads Giulia and Frank Driscoll to the body of a nun in the street near a convent. The nuns fear they’re being harassed by the biggest developer in town and quickly embrace Giulia as their savior. Of course, the former nun who exposed the drug ring run by a priest and nun will save their home and discover the murderer. And of course, Giulia not only takes this job, but also all the other jobs clamoring for her attention. The result: Driscoll Investigations is pushed to its limit. 

Then Giulia’s brother falls into a coma and she brings his kids to her house. Talk about a crash course in parenting for pregnant Giulia! Did we mention the convent ghost? She loves the house, hates the nuns, and chain-smokes. Why couldn’t Giulia’s first honest-to-goodness ghost be shy and sweet? More important, does the ghost hate the nuns—or the developer—enough to indulge in a bit of murder to liven up the afterlife?