- Interview by Scott Butki
With Gil Malloy, author and journalist R.G. Belsky has created one of my favorite new characters. Malloy is a journalist who, as Belsky used to do, worked as a journalist for the famous New York Daily News. Malloy has gone from being the star reporter to being mocked and embarrassed for making bad choices.
In The Kennedy Connection, the first book in the series, Malloy gets an unusual opportunity and angle to reopen the JFK assassination and, well, mayhem ensues. It’s quite well done both as a debut novel and for its reexamination of whether Oswald could really have acted alone. Belsky’s excellent new novel, Shooting For The Stars, is the second appearance for Malloy. As the book starts Malloy is placed in an awkward situation I, as a fellow former journalist, can relate to: He’s asked to write a story about a TV program with a controversial take on some recent news without actually know what said news is… thus making writing the story a bit difficult.
He’s given a bit of information about how the television program will delve into the death of a famous young film star; think a female version of James Dean. Then, the reporter for the program is killed, and Malloy finds himself driven to find out what’s really going on. What new answers had the reporter discovered, and was the reporter’s investigation responsible for their untimely demise?
I’m biased when it comes to novels with journalists – done right, I quite like them. But even if you’re one of the many frustrated with today’s media, Belsky’s series drives the action forward with satisfying plots and intriguing characters. Belsky has also written an e-book novella about Malloy, The Midnight Hour, for those who can’t get enough of the character.
I interviewed Belsky by email. Thanks to him and his publicist.
Scott Butki: Which came first – the plot of The Kennedy Connection or the character of Gil Malloy?
R.G. Belsky: Oh, definitely the plot! I’ve long been fascinated by all the unanswered questions about the JFK assassination. I think of it as the ultimate unsolved cold case murder of our time. (Like most Americans, I’m obviously not a proponent of the Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.) So I came up with the idea of a secret Oswald son with new evidence and a tie between the events 50 years ago in Dallas and a series of present day murders. My character started out as a cop, then he became a newspaper reporter named Joe Malloy – but I didn’t really love either one of them. So I changed the character’s name to Gil Malloy (Gil was my father’s name and it always exuded a kind of strength and integrity to me) – and the Gil Malloy series was born.
SB: How is the character of Malloy similar and different from you?
RGB: I am certainly not Gil Malloy. But I have worked with a lot of Gil Malloys during my years in newspapers and media. Gil is a combination of the best (and sometimes the flawed) characteristics of many men and women in a big city newsroom. Smart, talented, ambitious, willing to do almost anything to get a big story – even at the expense of their own personal lives in many cases. Gil doesn’t always follow the rules of journalism or anything else, but – in the end – I think he’s a pretty good guy who usually winds up doing the right thing. I tried to make him similar to the type of characters I‘ve always liked to read about or see in mysteries – Philip Marlowe, Harry Bosch, Spenser or Kinsey Milhone in books, Jim Rockford or Colombo from TV. It’s not just about the mystery for me, I want readers to care about the Gil Malloy character as much as I do.
SB: Were you interested in Oswald (for the first book) and Charlie Manson (for the second) and/or did you decide to delve into them when doing research for these books?
RGB: As I said, I’ve been reading about the JFK assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald for many years, so I did not need to do a great deal of research. I started with the basic facts of the assassination and then did a “what if” by bringing in a secret Oswald son and other new fictional elements to the story. I did find it particularly rewarding (and emotional) though to finally go to Dallas and see the site of the assassination and walk the same route Lee Harvey Oswald did that day before his capture at the Texas Theater. It made me more convinced than ever that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t have killed President Kennedy on his own. The Manson murder case is another story that I have both been appalled and fascinated by for much of my life. Like the JFK assassination, I thought it was the perfect real life historical crime to use in part as a basis for my present day mystery, Shooting for the Stars. In this book, I kept the facts of the real life murders of Sharon Tate and the other Manson victims the same, but created a fictional Manson-like family that may or may not have been trying to follow in his mass murder footsteps.
SB: Do you want readers to start with Kennedy Connection or Shooting For The Stars? Where does the novella fit in? How far have you planned out this series?
RGB: I think it helps to start with The Kennedy Connection because it explains a lot of who Gil Malloy is and where he is in his career and his life. But several reviewers have read one of the later books first and say they didn’t have a problem with that either. I think each one of the books works pretty well as a stand-alone. The novella too (which was great fun to write because you have to move the plot along so much quicker, which I love as a tabloid newspaper guy). My hope, of course, is that whichever one you read first, you’ll like Gil Malloy enough to go back and read the others. As for planning, I don’t really even plan the books out very far advance while I’m writing them, much less plan future books in the series. I prefer to just let Gil follow the story and see where it takes him. Sometimes even I’m surprised. It’s a lot more fun that way –for me and, I hope, for the reader.
SB: Are you still working as a journalist or are you a full-time novelist? Which is more difficult?
RGB: I wrote The Kennedy Connection and The Midnight Hour novella while I was still working full time as a managing editor at NBC News. I’m now a full time novelist. The good part of that is it obviously gives me more time to both write and promote the books. The bad part is I miss being in the newsroom – which is a great place to get story ideas and also to capture the feel of the everyday conversations that go on between journalists. Fortunately, I spent so much time in colorful newsrooms during my career that I have lots of material to write many more Gil Malloy books!
SB: How did your background as a journalist help and/or hinder writing fiction? Do you think it became easier because of your choice to have a protagonist who is not only a reporter but worked for the same newspaper that you did? Is that why you made that choice – you know, write what you know?
RGB: I’ve always written about what I know. I set my books in New York City where I’ve lived most of my adult life. My characters even live and work in the same places in New York that I have. And when I do have Gil travel to another part of the country in my books, it’s always some place I have visited in real life. So setting my books in a newsroom just seemed to be a no-brainer. The decision to have Gil work at the New York Daily News – where I once worked – was never particularly thought out by me. It just worked out that way. I spent five years at the Daily News as Metro Editor and National Editor, and 19 years before that at the New York Post as City Editor and Metro Editor. Most authors set their mysteries at fictional places and I did think about creating a newspaper (the New York Chronicle or whatever). But, in the end, I decided I wanted Gil to work at a real paper to give the books a bit more authenticity. Many people have asked why I picked the News over the Post (including some unhappy former co-workers of mine at the Post!). I’m really not sure. I think the most likely answer is the Daily News was the New York City tabloid where I worked most recently, so it was a bit fresher in my mind. Needless to say, everything else I write about the News in my books – the characters, the events, etc – is all fiction.
SB: What kind of fiction were you writing before you came up with the Malloy series?
RGB: I’ve written mystery fiction for a number of years, even while I was working full time journalism jobs. I was the author of a couple of thriller novels featuring newspaper characters in the late 90s and a series involving a TV reporter before that. I guess I just like writing about what I read myself. And, when I read fiction, I usually read mysteries. I think a lot of mystery writers are like that, very devoted to the genre. I heard Sue Grafton talking about this at a conference not long ago. She said she finds sometimes when she reads a novel that’s not a mystery, she keeps “waiting for something to happen.” I like to read and write books where a lot happens. Which is what a good mystery is all about.
SB: How cool is it to have a blurb from the one and only Jimmy Breslin? Is he someone you already know?
RGB: I was very excited to get the Jimmy Breslin blurb for The Kennedy Connection. Breslin is someone I grew up reading as a kid and when I first came to New York to start a newspaper career. He is also so identifiable as a New York Daily News columnist (not to mention all the great books and novels he’s written) that he was someone I really hoped to get an author quote from. I do not know Breslin personally but a friend at NBC – Richard Esposito, the senior investigative editor – does and got a copy of the book in his hands. Definitely so cool to get that blurb. Especially the part where he says: “Belsky has the newsman’s gift. He tells his story well.” Praise from Jimmy Breslin is about as good as it gets for a tabloid newspaper guy like me.
SB: What are you working on next?
RGB: I’m working on the next Gil Malloy mystery. It’s called Blonde Ice, and it’s about a sexy, deadly female serial killer who’s murdering men in New York City. It’s sort of like Son of Sam all over again, only this time men are the victims instead of women. Blonde Ice will be published by Atria in December, 2016.
You can find copies of Shooting For The Stars on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.