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This past February, we were informed by the prestigious Chautauqua Prize, that out of 165 nominations, thirty-five titles were still in play, Eleanor Lerman’s Radiomen being among them. From this list, five would be chosen as finalists. While her novel was not among the shortlisted final five, this in itself was a remarkable achievement. But on August 18, at Mid-Americon II, part of the international science fiction convention, Worldcon held at the Kansas City Convention Center, Radiomen hit paydirt when she received the coveted 2016 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. However, she was not able to attend the ceremony since two months earlier she was stricken with a mysterious infection that placed her at death’s door, as both lungs were completely infected.
But Eleanor did manage to get through this and sent an acceptance speech taped while still at the hospital and read at the award ceremony. It’s a remarkable journey and a remarkable speech for this sixty-four-year-old writer, which is also the stuff of science fiction, except that it is real. I’m happy to report that she will be discharged on Friday. She told me today she was so detached from her life in the earlier stages that she thought of the person in the bed as “Juanita.” and I joked that Juanita might be the start of her next book. Great science fiction is like that, blurring the lines between reality and fiction and leaving the reader to ponder some of the mysteries of the universe. And Eleanor is surely one of the great ones writing in this genre,
With that, I say welcome back to the living, Eleanor. And here is her speech.
Let me begin by apologizing for not being with you in order to accept this extraordinary, unexpected, and deeply appreciated award. As some of you must know, I am unable to attend because I am recovering (at least, I hope that’s the path I’m on) from a long illness—almost two months now. I would be more specific about this “illness” except that no one seems to know what it was. I have had dozens of doctors peering down at my bedside saying “Well, dear, we know you got hit with a massive infection and have tested you for everything we know but we can’t figure out what it is.” I suggested that they test for alien spores, and you can imagine the reaction: the doctors’ faces sort of move around, trying to settle into some appropriate expression, then they snort a fake laugh and say, “Of course, you’re a sci-fi writer, what a lovely idea!” And then they go away. But we know better, don’t we? That’s the first thing they should have looked for.
Aliens. Not only have they been on my mind during this mystery illness, but of course they were the focus of Radiomen—specifically, the idea that I hope infused the story, which was, and is, that if God exists, the aliens are probably as confused about Him, Her, or It as we are. I know that as I moved through the strange and struggling stages of this illness—which included a stay in the Intensive Care Unit that I don’t remember, though I am told I bit my brother’s finger and my wife’s, and threatened to have everyone arrested—I was sending out my own radio signals to God, in whatever universe such a force or kind, loving consciousness exists, asking for help. I believe I have been helped. I have indeed been blessed by a devoted companion, my wife, Robin, and devoted care. I hope I deserve all this attention, just as I hope to be able to go back to work someday soon and continue to prove myself worthy of the honor you have given me with the John W. Campbell Award.
I want to tell you something else about my idea of radio waves, in all their forms—spiritual, emotional, or real broadcasts from universes up and down the great unknown dimensions of time and space. One night, in the middle of a terrible fever, I had the kind of dream that people have in movies, except this wasn’t a movie, it was my 3 a.m. confrontation with life and death. In my dream, someone, some being from somewhere else, took me to the Annapurna Museum. If you Google the word Annapurna you’ll find it’s part of the Himalayan range, but in the dream, I know it had something to do with my teenage obsession with Herman Hesse and Siddhartha and the concept of eternity. In any case, the Annapurna Museum was a room full of smallish but human-sized statues covered in gold. The statues were of people who were dying: I remember a boy on fire and a woman who had deep gashes on her body. I was told by my alien guide, who was just a voice, that I could become an exhibit in the Annapurna Museum if I wanted. “They,” whoever they were, would pour gold on me and I would be out of pain, I would be no longer ill. Of course, I would be dead, but I would be free from my mystery disease. I actually thought about it for a moment—it seemed like maybe a way to escape all the terrible things that were happening to me—but I finally said no. I said I would keep trying to find my way back to some kind of life again. I would keep trying to send out my radio signals. With this award, you have helped me to understand that was the only decision to make, so if I haven’t said thank you enough, let me say thank you over and over again, now.
Let me add one more thing. In Radiomen, a special dog is an important character. A few months before I got sick, my beloved dog, who had been with me for many years, passed away. I remember looking for her in the Annapurna Museum and was glad she wasn’t there because it meant that she was somewhere else, somewhere kinder and better, and that I would see her again. I do believe that, just as I deeply believe that somewhere in the distant, savage past, some kind of proto-dog walked out of the darkness, sat down next to our ancestors by their fire, and decided to stay. They have stayed with us since. I am sure they will stay with us as the millennia roll by. I have always been touched by a story I read about how some of the oldest fossil footprints ever found were a child’s footsteps and walking right beside that child were the footprints of a dog-like animal. That is where we see the roots of love, of devotion, of our shared longing, human and animal, to be together, to help each other, to walk through the great darkness together and find whatever light there is, for there must be some. There must be. That, I guess, is really what the radio waves are aiming for: the light that will illuminate our lives. The light that is not in the Annapurna Museum but outside in the great beyond, in the stars and the spinning planets and the eternal hope we all have for peace and love and the light in our beloved companions’ eyes.
So thank you again for the Campbell Award, and thank you for understanding why I can’t be there to accept it. I hope these few brief words have conveyed my deep appreciation for your recognition, which could not have come at a more important time to help me feel that I am coming back to myself. So once more, thank you for sending your loving radio waves my way. I hear them. I appreciate them. I will never forget them. They have reached deep into my heart.
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Looking forward to my 82nd birthday in September, I confess to being a newspaper junkie since I was a teenager growing up in Queens, New York. Later, I worked at the New York Times as a night “intern” after I graduated from medical school. Thirty-six years ago my wife and I started The Permanent Press and we’ve published a fair share of award-winning mysteries, and I’m continually absorbed by thrillers by artful writers that deal not only with the dying newspaper industry, but with protagonists who dare to do battle with editors and publishers who want to avoid controversy. Bruce DeSilva is such a writer, and though we’ve not had the privilege of publishing his Liam Mulligan series, we have published Howard Owen’s Willie Black series that features the same types of issues, while the similarity between Bruce and Howard is uncanny. Both have been newspapermen for over forty years. Bruce won the Edgar Award, Howard won the Hammett Prize. In Bruce’s books, Providence, Rhode Island became a “character”; in Howard’s case it’s been Richmond.
But enough of this rhapsodizing and my affinity for both these very artful writers, and with that I turn this blog over to Bruce, his background and his blog:
Bruce DeSilva grew up in a tiny Massachusetts mill town where the mill closed when he was ten. He had an austere childhood bereft of iPods, X-Boxes, and all the other cool stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. In this parochial little town, metaphors and alliteration were also in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press's award-winning noir anthologies, and his book reviews for The Associated Press appear in hundreds of publications. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Pulitzer.
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Six years ago, when I took early retirement from my journalism career to write hard-boiled crime novels, I decided to make my protagonist a newspaper reporter instead of a cop or a private investigator. I had four good reasons.
1) They say you should write what you know, and I’d spent 40 years working as a journalist for The Providence Journal, The Hartford Courant, and the Associated Press, much of it reporting and editing local, national, and international investigative reporting.
2) I love reading private detective novels, but after all those years writing about real life, I couldn’t suspend my own disbelief enough to write one. Real private eyes are nothing like fictional ones. The real ones spend most of their time hunting down child-support delinquents, investigating pilfering from warehouses, checking the validity of insurance claims, delivering summonses in civil cases, and doing background checks on job applicants. Most go their entire careers without ever investigating a major crime.
3) Unlike cops, investigative reporters can’t subpoena records or drag someone into the station house for questioning, so in some respects, that makes their work more challenging. But they also have an advantage. A lot of people who talk to reporters would never spill anything to a cop.
4) While I wanted to write suspenseful novels that would be fun to read, I also wanted them to address a serious social issue in an entertaining way. American newspapers are circling the drain. In recent years, some have shut down, and economic changes brought on by the internet have forced virtually all of them to slash the size of their news staffs. Soon, many more will be gone. This is a slow-motion disaster for American democracy because there is nothing on the horizon to replace newspapers as honest brokers of news and information.
The old broadcast TV Networks, undercut by competition from cable, have cut way back on their reporting staffs too—and they never were all that great begin with. Cable TV news has degenerated into a swamp of celebrity news, shrieking talking heads, and, in the cases of FOX and MSNBC, warring propaganda machines for the right and left.
And the handful of online news organizations that actually strive to do an honest job draw much of their news from TV reports and dying newspapers and do not report anywhere near enough original material to make up for what is being lost.
Sure, a few traditional news organizations like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press continue to do a solid job of covering national and international news, although even they aren’t as comprehensive as they were 20 years ago. But the decline has taken a big toll on both the quantity and quality of investigative reporting. All reporting is expensive, and great investigative reporting, which can tie up a news organization’s best reporters for months—or even a year—is much more so. So far, no one outside of the AP and the fast-disappearing newspapers has demonstrated the willingness or the resources to pay for much of it.
And that’s not all. As local and state-wide newspapers shrivel and die, who is reporting the news from our town halls, police stations and state houses? When I started my career at The Providence Journal in 1968, that then-great metropolitan newspaper had local news bureaus scattered all over the state to cover the political, police, business, and community news in every one of its 39 cities and towns. Today, those local bureaus are long gone, and the only community the paper covers regularly now is Providence. Who is covering the school committee in Warren or the zoning board in Coventry now? Nobody.
For my fictional investigative reporter, Liam Mulligan, being stuck in a dead-end job at the dying Providence Dispatch, offered a wealth of dramatic possibilities. Every day, he had to fight with his editors to carve out time from the daily routine of getting a newspaper out in order to pursue the investigative stories that he lived for. And in each of the first four novels, as layoffs continued to shrink the size of the fictional Dispatch, he felt compelled to do more and more investigative work on his own time.
For the most part, journalists are portrayed as vultures in the popular culture. Why? Because too many writers—especially those who write for the big and small screens—are quick to grab hold of the nearest cliché. The truth is that the vast majority of journalists are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to the difficult task of reporting the truth in a world full of powerful people who lie like you and I breathe.
So it was my hope that as my readers watched the skill and dedication with which Mulligan worked, they would gain a greater appreciation of what is being lost as newspapers fade into history. I strove to make the first four novels in this series both compelling crime stories and a lyrical epitaph for the business that Mulligan and I love.
But as I was completing A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth novel in the series, it became evident that Mulligan’s newspaper career was coming to an end. The Dispatch had been sold off to a predatory conglomerate that had no interest in investigative stories and saw news as nothing more than something to fill the spaces between the ads. And Mulligan’s squabbles with his editors were making life untenable for both of them.
By the time that novel ended, Mulligan had been fired in spectacular fashion, accused of a journalism ethics violation that he had not committed.
So the beginning of The Dread Line, the new novel in the series, finds Mulligan (like so many newspaper journalists who have been fired or laid off in recent years) piecing together a new life for himself. In Mulligan’s case, it’s a life that straddles both sides of the law. He’s getting a little part-time work from his friend McCracken’s private detective agency. He’s picking up beer and cigar money by freelancing for a local news website. And he’s earning some illegal cash looking after his semi-retired mobster friend’s bookmaking business.
And, as usual, he still manages to find trouble. He’s feuding with a feral cat that keeps dropping its kills on his porch. He’s obsessed with a baffling jewelry heist. And he’s enraged that someone in town is torturing animals. All this keeps distracting him from a big case that needs his full attention. The New England Patriots, still shaken by a series of murder charges against one of their star players (true story), hire McCracken and Mulligan (not a true story) to check the background of a college star they are considering drafting. By all accounts, the player is a choir boy, so at first the job seems routine. But as soon as they start asking questions, they get payback. The player, it seems, has something to hide—and someone is willing to kill to make sure it stays secret.
It is worth noting, however, that Mulligan doesn’t think the death of newspapers was inevitable. “Newspapers see themselves as victims of the digital age. They are so full of shit,” he said in an earlier book in the series. “The internet isn’t killing newspapers; they are committing suicide.”
“When the internet first got rolling, newspapers were the experts on reporting the news and selling classified advertising,” he continued. “They were ideally positioned to dominate the new medium. Instead, they sat around with their thumbs up their asses while upstarts like Google, the Drudge Report, and ESPN.com lured away their audience and newcomers like Craigslist, eBay, and AutoTrader.com stole their advertising business. By the time newspapers finally figured out what was going on and tried to make a go of it online, it was too late. This all happened because newspapers didn’t understand what business they were in,” Mulligan said. “They thought they were in the newspaper business, but they were really in the news and advertising business. It’s a classic mistake—the same one the railroads made in the 1950s when the interstate highway system was being built. If Penn Central had understood it was in the freight business instead of the railroad business, it would be the biggest trucking company in the country today.”
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I see things the same way.
* * *
I originally emailed Brue suggesting he call this blog DOWN THE CRAPPER, but he wisely turned down this suggestion for something more specific.
May you feel free to post comments here, and/or email Bruce directly concerning his blog about the dying newspaper business at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, you can reach me at email@example.com.
Stay tuned for another blog before two weeks expire.