Brad Parks wrote “Faces of the Gone,” a mystery whose investigative hero is a journalist, while he was still a news writer at the Newark Star Ledger. By mid-2008, two years after finishing the manuscript, he had a two-book contract with Minotaur Books and decided to make the leap into a new career as a lone-wolf writer. Conveniently the Star Ledger had made him an offer he could not refuse. “I quit working the moment they offered me a buyout,” he says.
Parks was concerned that the paper might not be around by the time his children — a two-and-a-half-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter — were starting to think about college. So he decided it was a good time to begin a new, or at least modified, career. “If I was going to reinvent myself as a writer, I thought I may as well do it now,” he says. His last byline in the paper was on August 25, 2009.
Parks’ specialty on the reporting side was sports, which he covered at the Star Ledger for six years, between 1998 and 2004. Not long after he turned 30, he was covering the New Jersey Nets, an assignment requiring him to spend 100 nights a year in a hotel. He was also married and thinking about having kids, and he had no interest in being an occasional dad. So when a job opened on the news desk, he took it. His first assignment was a quadruple homicide in Newark.
A New York Times article by Robert McFadden and Damien Cave on November 27, 2004, that described the murder scene inspired the haunting image of his first published book: “The bodies of three men and a woman, all apparently shot and left side by side with large dark coats drawn over their heads, were found yesterday in a weed-strewn vacant lot in a Newark neighborhood where, residents say, gunshots, drugs, robbery, and burglary are part of the fabric of life. At least three residents whose homes overlook the lot were awakened by the shots in the night, five hours before the bodies were discovered. But they said the sounds were so common they did not even bother to look out their windows.”
The murder never went to trial. The police theorized that one of victims had witnessed a homicide and the other three were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not until a year after the slaying did the police figure out who the murderer was — and even then they did not have enough evidence to prosecute — but by then Parks had completed a manuscript treating a completely fictionalized version of the quadruple homicide. Only the murder scene made its way from reality to fantasy.
Parks quickly discovered that covering a murder was nothing like being a sports writer. “Sports is always right in front of you. You know the final score, you get the post game stats, there’s a hero, and there’s a goal,” he says. “The story has a very defined arc to it.” But the murders had no easy solution. “Here was this quadruple homicide where I didn’t know the final result,” he says.
Coincidentally Parks had also covered a story about New Jersey having the purest heroin in the country — information that also figures into his mystery.
Parks, who appears on Thursday, January 28, at Princeton Public Library, started writing when his wife, who was then in graduate school in psychology, would go to Barnes & Noble to study. He tagged along and wrote. “I started tapping on the keyboard and out comes Carter Ross,” he says.
This was not Parks’ first attempt at fiction. He had already completed a slightly more literary, coming-of-age tale about a high school football player and was looking for another story to tell.
The biggest challenge in writing the mystery, for Parks, was developing its plot. “When I started the book, I really didn’t know how it ended,” he says, explaining that he did not outline his story, but rather tried to create characters who were realistic, characters he could see and hear in his head. “They may be based on people I know or create, but they are people I feel like I know intimately,” he says. “I throw them in a sticky situation and let them work their way out.”
This method is effective, he says, as long as the each segment follows plausibly from the preceding one (surprise solutions, like help from a landing spaceship, don’t work, he adds). “You just keep going,” he says. “It helps having experienced this world myself. A lot of what Carter sees and does are things I saw and did. Carter’s world is one very familiar to me.”
Parks’s characters are sometimes straight up based on one person and sometimes a composite. Tee, Ross’s informant whose tee-shirt business creates memorial shirts for dead gang members, is exactly like a man Parks knows. Ross’s sidekick, Tommy Hernandez, is a composite of an intern he worked with at the Star Ledger and one he roomed with while working at the Boston Globe. Tina Thompson, the novel’s love interest and the city editor of the imaginary paper, the Newark Eagle-Examiner, is a total fabrication, a product of his imagination. “There’s no such thing as a hot city editor,” he says. “My last city editor was definitely not a leggy brunette.”
Comparing the book’s main character, Ross, to himself, Parks says, “Carter is much better looking and a much better journalist.” When Parks was a reporter, he says he was known more for his writing than his reporting. “Features guys are known as guys with heavy fingers,” he says. “When it comes time to get to the bottom of story or a nitty-gritty investigating thing, you want somebody else doing the work.”
Not only is Ross a much more hard-nosed journalist, continues Parks, but he is more uncompromising in his journalistic ideas. “I no longer work for a newspaper and Carter Ross still does,” says Parks. “Carter really believes in the role of journalism in a free and democratic society and believes that as a newspaper reporter he is serving a higher cause.”
Parks grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut. His father, a retired IBMer and former card-carrying Republican turned environmentalist, was a natural story teller. “I think I learned lot from listening to him,” says his son. “He is a guy who has a joke for any situation,” says Parks, who is also a storyteller but claims not to have his father’s oral gift. “I always found that I was better telling a story when I got to write it down,” he says, “and that’s still the case.”
His writing career began early — he wrote his first story in second grade. “It was a major thriller,” he recalls, “a story about a bear (spelled “beer”) wandering through the woods with his friends.”
At 14 he turned professional and started covering high school girls’ basketball for the local weekly, the Ridgefield Press. He was paid a buck an inch, which was a lot more than babysitting, and of course the job offered an additional perk for a self-proclaimed short, fat freshman boy with braces. “I had unfettered access to the girls basketball team,” says Parks.
Writing for the weekly, he says, was a tremendous experience, because his editors let him write as much as he wanted. “They were more than happy to run 40-inch stories about girls’ basketball because the parents were subscribers and loved to see their daughters’ names in the newspaper,” he says.
Although looking back he describes his copy as “tripe” and “cringe-worthy bad,” he also remembers how much he enjoyed the writing. “What I found was that people were really reading the stuff I wrote,” he says. “People love high-school sports, and after my attempt to klunkily turn some phrase, at the next game, the parents in the bleachers would mention the phrase I had turned, and I would think, ‘My, I have a readership.’”
At Dartmouth College Parks managed to build his own journalism curriculum while he was studying geography. “My journalism education is that I wrote for any paper who had me,” he says. After a Dartmouth game, for example, he would submit a 150-word piece for the New York Times 15 minutes after the game; then do a piece for a local paper, either the Manchester Union Leader or the Valley News; and then produce an article for his own sports newspaper, which came out on Monday mornings.
He started the paper, “The Sports Weekly” (Parks claims he isn’t good at titles), because he felt that the school paper was not doing a good job covering sports. He distributed the paper to students and the Dartmouth community in dining halls, libraries, and in town, and he offered mail subscriptions to parents and alums. Parks and his staff of about 10 ran the paper from his dorm room, starting when he was a junior. “It was a wonderful way to learn about newspapers,” he says. “I was editor, publisher, ad salesman, and distribution manager.”
Once he decided that journalism was his metier, Parks arranged sports-writing internships for himself, at the Boston Globe after junior year and the Washington Post after senior year.
Parks is glad that Dartmouth had no journalism major. With tongue in cheek, he characterizes the college’s approach to education: “We eschew anything pre-professional that might actually be useful and pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”
In newsrooms, says Parks, he has seen about a 50-50 split between journalism and non-journalism majors, but he feels like what he absorbed naturally in the newsroom made up for any journalism major.
After Parks graduated in 1996, the Washington Post was expanding coverage with an experiment in hyper-local journalism, called the extras, and hired him to cover sports in Prince William County. “It was like simultaneously working for a huge newspaper and a tiny newspaper, from a bureau in Manassas, Virginia, where my entire world was the 11 high schools I covered,” he says. In the summer this would expand to some minor league baseball, and occasionally the mother ship would throw in a Redskins or Orioles game to keep him awake.
After two years at the Washington Post, he moved to the Newark Star Ledger to do a much bigger job for a slightly smaller newspaper. He was the sports enterprise guy, which meant he was responsible for features, projects, and any investigative pieces related to sports. He was covering the World Series in his first week and later did the Olympics, the Masters tournament, and the Super Bowl, and he investigated doping in harness racing.
Parks has already completed two more Carter Ross mysteries. The second in the series, “Eyes of the Innocent,” involves sub-prime mortgages, foreclosure, and corruption. “Because this is New Jersey, everything gets into political corruption,” he says. The third book is about labor unions and the financial struggles of Carter’s newspaper.
Parks has also written a couple of pieces for the Wall Street Journal, which he hopes to do more of, and he has just started a young adult series.
Parks and his family moved to Virginia when his wife accepted a position as a school psychologist.
If plotting is a challenge for Parks, finding ideas is not. When people ask him where he gets his ideas, he asks, “Where do I not get my ideas from? They’re everywhere. I feel I can pick up newspapers every day of the year, and there is a novel buried in them.” His problem is that there is too much to write about. “I need a blinder like they put on horses,” he says. “I think, ‘Oh, I could write that, I could write that, or I could write that.’ Ideas are all over the place — the question is picking one of them and running with it.”
Author Event, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Thursday, January 28, 7:30 p.m. Brad Parks, author of “Faces of the Gone,” talks about Carter Ross, the hero of his new book. Parks, a former journalist, was a sportswriter and news feature writer with the Washington Post and the Star Ledger. 609-924-9529.