Q&A with R. G. Belsky, Author of It’s News to Me
Award-winning author R. G. Belsky knows more than a thing or two about the worlds his fictional characters inhabit. A veteran journalist, he was a top editor at the New York Post, New York Daily News, Star Magazine, and NBC News before making the decision to write fiction full-time. Unsurprisingly, his vast experiences in the melee of New York City media add authenticity and color to his tales of dogged reporters who stop at nothing to get the story. Belsky’s 20th novel, It’s News to Me, is the fifth to feature intrepid Channel 10 News Director Clare Carlson, whose illustrious, headline-making history often finds her on the streets and in front of the camera despite the behind-the-scenes positioning her job title would suggest.
Belsky recently took time away from pen and paper to discuss his most recent work. Topics include: how the Clare Carlson books stand alone within the series; the reason(s) why Clare’s newest investigation gets under her skin; the ways in which fiction can be used to illuminate real-life social issues; the melding of fact and imagination in scene-setting; and the promise and perils of technology in reporting the news. He also offered a look ahead to what comes next.
John Valeri: It’s News to Me is your fifth novel to feature Clare Carlson. In what ways do her personal and professional entanglements carry over despite each story standing alone?
R. G. Belsky: There are three basic themes that carry over from book to book in the Clare Carlson series: Clare’s romantic life, her interactions with the people in her newsroom, and her unusual relationship with her daughter.
In It’s News to Me, I focus on the romantic and office entanglements in her life. (You can read more about Clare and her daughter in the other books.)
Clare meets a new man in this book, and she begins to imagine a real relationship with him. Could he be the one for her? Although she’s been divorced three times and had numerous failed relationships, Clare is still a romantic at heart. The relationship with the new man is something she pursues along with solving the crime in this book.
There’s also a big change for Clare in the offices of Channel 10 News, where she works as the news director and on-air personality. Her former boss and mentor has been pushed out, replaced by an ambitious, unpleasant woman TV executive who clashes repeatedly with Clare. I tried to make this woman as unlikeable as possible (giving her some of the traits of the worst editors I have worked with in my own journalistic career), and readers have told me how much they hated her. So I guess I succeeded!
Oh, and one more thing that carries over from book to book is Clare’s best friend, Janet, who gives her sane and sage advice when she needs it the most.
Valeri: Clare finds herself surprisingly invested in this book’s central crime, the beating death of college student Riley Hunt. In what ways does she relate to the victim, and how does this motivate her commitment to getting the full story despite being warned off of it?
R. G. Belsky: I think Clare is always invested in the crime—and especially the victim—of every story she covers. She’s motivated to get the complete story because that’s in her DNA as a journalist. But in this case, I guess she particularly relates to the dead college student Riley Hunt because Riley was only 20 and had so much unfulfilled potential. It’s difficult for Clare to accept that Riley lost her life in a random, meaningless crime of violence like the police say. And that motivates Clare to keep digging until she discovers long-buried secrets about Riley Hunt and her life.
Valeri: The man accused of the crime, Donnie Ray Bakely, is a war veteran who came home a different person than when he was deployed. As a veteran yourself, tell us how crafting characters such as his allows you to explore real-life issues that plague our veterans.
R. G. Belsky: Yes, I am a veteran myself (Vietnam), and this is a topic I care deeply about—which is why I wanted to write about it in this book. Donnie Ray Bakely, the man accused of Riley’s murder, has been written off as damaged goods by everyone except his mother and Clare. Clare meets him, talks with him, and sees him as a tragic figure that she is not convinced is the killer of Riley Hunt. Writing Donnie Ray Bakely’s story was especially meaningful for me because of my own background as a veteran and because dealing with returning war veterans is such an important issue in our society.
Valeri: You use New York City as a backdrop but meld real and fictional places (such as Easton College) for the purposes of story. What are the benefits of doing so, and how does setting underscore the book’s thematic elements?
R. G. Belsky: Writing about real places can create a lot of problems (depending on what you say about them)—and it’s a lot easier to use fictional settings instead.
In It’s News to Me, Easton College is totally fictional—even though people who know New York City will recognize its location in the Washington Square Park area being similar to the NYU campus.
The same with Channel 10 News. There is no Channel 10 News in New York City. But there are several local news shows just like it.
And I frequently use fiction to describe other locations—restaurants, hotels, businesses—instead of using the name of the real places in New York.
The benefit of doing that is you can say whatever you want about a fictional place—even if it’s bad stuff (murder corruption, etc.). Hard to do that when talking about a real location or business or person.
But I do still include a lot of real locations in New York—some of my favorite restaurants, neighborhoods, and other hangouts—to give the reader a feeling of the real New York City.
So, in many ways, I guess you could say Clare’s New York is my New York too.
Valeri: As a longtime journalist, how do you endeavor to keep up with the ever-changing machinations of media, and in what ways does technology influence the pacing, perks, and perils of Clare’s job?
R. G. Belsky: It’s tough—almost impossible—to keep up with the ever-changing technology going on these days in the media. Livestreams, Twitter, and all the other social media where people get their news have dramatically changed the way journalism works in recent times.
I try not to become too obsessed with this in the Clare books because I don’t want to slow them down by having them read like technical manuals. Also, technology is changing so fast that most of what I write about it would be outdated by the time the book came out. So I do refer in the Clare books to the changing times of the media—usually in general terms—but try not to go too deep down that rabbit hole.
Valeri: Leave us with a teaser: What comes next for Clare Carlson & Co.?
R. G. Belsky: Clare Carlson #6 will be out in January of 2024. It’s called Broadcast Blues—about the murder of a controversial former female police officer in New York City who had made a lot of enemies during her time on the force. Broadcast Blues includes sex scandals, police corruption, financial fraud, political intrigue, and a devastating new personal trauma for Clare. I put a lot of stuff in this one!
About It’s News to Me by R. G. Belsky:
Dashed dreams: she wanted to run for president one day—now she’s dead at 20.
When Riley Hunt—a beautiful, smart, popular student at Easton College in Manhattan—is brutally murdered, it becomes a big story for TV newswoman Clare Carlson.
After days of intense media coverage, a suspect is caught: a troubled Afghanistan war veteran with a history of violent and unstable behavior. The suspect’s mother, however, comes to Clare with new evidence that might prove her son’s innocence.
As Clare digs deeper into the puzzling case, she learns new information: Riley had complained about being stalked in the days before her murder, she was romantically involved with two different men—the son of a top police official and the son of a prominent underworld boss—and she had posted her picture on an escort service’s website offering paid dates with wealthy men.
Soon, Clare becomes convinced that Riley Hunt’s death is more than just a simple murder case—and that more lives, including her own, are now in danger until she uncovers the true story.