Brought to Book: Neely Tucker on why journalism is the best training for a writer
‘Reading The Dead Zone by Stephen King was the first time I thought I could write for a living. I don’t think I ever thought of doing anything else after that’
Neely Tucker: “I don’t mind criticism at all – you get sandblasted at newspapers – as long as the reviewer knows what they’re talking about and has thought of things about the book that I might not have but should have.” Photograph: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post
The Ways of the Dead (Century, £14.99), the electrifying first novel of a new crime series from veteran Washington, DC, reporter Neely Tucker, has been described as True Detective meets House of Cards. The body of the teenage daughter of a powerful federal judge is discovered in a dumpster in a bad neighbourhood of Washington, DC. The three nearest black kids, bad boys from a notorious gang, are arrested, but Sully Carter, a veteran war correspondent, pursues his own line of enquiry.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Lord of the Rings. Well. As a pre-teen. I was so sad when I got to the last 100 pages or so of book three. I didn’t want it to be over.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Haven’t gotten the chance to read much since our twins were born four years ago, so I’m a little out of touch with new stuff. But, off the top of my head, Bel Canto, The Known World, Love in the Time of Cholera, The English Patient, Absalom, Absalom, Atonement, Beloved, The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman ... I could keep going.
What is your favourite quotation?
From Faulkner’s Nobel speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: He will prevail.” I use it all the time at the end of day when leaving my colleagues at the office, in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way: “Endure and prevail, people.”
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera, and Huck Finn.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Print. I’ve tried reading ebooks and while I get through them, it’s just not the same. I have a Kindle but haven’t picked it up in months.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
I have a first edition of The Grapes of Wrath, by Steinbeck. My dad gave it to me as a college graduation gift. It was $300 at the time. It’s now worth somewhere between $4,000 and $8,000. My dad passed away nearly three years ago and every time I see it I remember him giving it to me at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. It’s with other first editions on a top shelf of my bookcase, the one I’ve told the wife and kids, “If I get hit by a bus, don’t put those in the yard sale!”
Where and how do you write?
From travelling so much (I was a foreign correspodent for seven years), I can write anywhere, anytime. Bars are good. Hotel rooms with open balconies are better. Love writing on the train. I’ll play with ideas in a sketch book I have, and that’s my favourite thing to do. I’ll draw maps of places in books I’m doing, or sketch out plot lines, and I’ll put those on 4x6 cards and pin them to a cork board, like storyboarding a film. But the actual writing I do at a computer in our upstairs bedroom, right next to a balcony door, or after hours at my office at the Post. I can’t write longhand because it’s too slow. It has to be on a keyboard. And if there are coworkers around at the office, or the kids at home, I just put on headphones and turn up the music and I’m fine.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
The Dead Zone by Stephen King. I was reading that book during a high school journalism class – I remember this clearly – not paying a bit of attention, which I should have been doing, but I was really into the book. And it dawned on me, in this Zen-like kind of moment, that I could do this. It wasn’t like reading Faulkner, or Garcia Marquez, or even Hemingway or Steinbeck. It was approachable. I knew that he was an English teacher somewhere up in Maine, which was sort of a nowhere place like I lived in Mississippi. That was the first time I thought I could write for a living, and I don’t think I ever thought of doing anything else after that.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Get a job at a newspaper or a website or what have you and learn to write accurately on deadline. Learn to write sentences – clear, crisp, clean – that describe both actions and emotions. Write stories that include several points of view on a complicated topic, to get used to incorporating clash and conflict. Listen to the way people speak and how to replicate it – not in dialect, but in the rhythm and pacing and word choice. And keep an eye out for characters and story lines to use in your later work. Consider it paid research. Do this until you sell your first book or two. There aren’t a lot of shortcuts, not to writing well, anyway, and if you’re going to be doing it for the next 40 or 50 years, you’ll need craftsmanship. Might as well learn it first thing.
What weight do you give reviews?
A lot to the thoughtful ones. I don’t mind criticism at all – you get sandblasted at newspapers – as long as the reviewer knows what they’re talking about and has thought of things about the book that I might not have but should have. That’s helpful. “This books sucks!” is about as helpful as “It’s awesome!” As an author, neither really tells you anything worth knowing.