“Swapping Sides”
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, novelist

"Reporters are the unsung heroes of the literary world."

When I was 15 years old, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be a novelist.

I already knew at that age I was a writer. Not that I wanted to be a writer, but that I was born with a need to write and a love for the process of writing.

I stumbled into a career as a newspaper reporter because it was one of the few where you could get paid to write.

I enjoyed it, overall. But there were times when I realized I was different from many reporters around me.

Such as?

Sitting outside the house of a woman whose husband had just driven a city bus into the Charles River and killed himself.

I was sobbing at the emotional intensity and tragedy of the event, everyone else seemed impatient, annoyed that she didn't want to talk.

I didn't feel like my colleagues saw this new widow as a human being, but as a subject. They were more concerned with scooping each other and landing on page one than they were about her as a person.

It repulsed me to be in a pack of vultures like that.

But I learned some valuable skills as a reporter, that have served me well as a novelist.

First, that there's no such thing as writer's block; it's an excuse. When you're looking at a deadline and the paper must come out, you write. That's all there is to it. The most disciplined writers I know are newspaper reporters.

One in particular stands out.

Karen Avenoso, a brilliant, beautiful young reporter at the “Boston Globe”, was dying of cancer. She was undergoing chemotherapy.

And yet there she was, in the newsroom, typing away on deadline two desks away from me. She got up now and then, pale and haggard, to stretch, and at one point got down on her back, flat on the floor, because the pain was so intense.

After a while, she was up again, typing. She turned her story in, and then a month or so later, she died.

When I meet self-important authors in the literary world (and there is no shortage, trust me) who complain that it took ten years for the muse to bite their limited asses, I think of Karen.

And I have little patience for the "artists" who require adoration, rituals or alcohol, or whatever the hell they need, in order to write.

Reporters never have that luxury, and they don't complain. Reporters are the unsung heroes of the literary world.

I also learned fearlessness as a news writer. I covered horrible plane crashes, murders, rapes, hate crimes - all manner of bloody, toxic things no normal person would want to be around.

I interviewed human monsters who'd shaken babies to death, and looked into their eyes.

I learned to ask questions I dreaded asking, of people I feared and loathed, and I learned to distill from complex realities a truth simple enough for someone
with a fifth-grade education to understand.

I am mystified by literary writers - and critics - who think good writing means complicated, almost unintelligible writing.

As a newspaper writer, I realized the goal of all writers should be communication, clean and clear.

Before newspapers, I might have written in a showy, needy prose, so people noticed me, the writer, and my genius or something.

Now I can step aside, leave the curly writing to someone else, and simply write to communicate, my heart to the reader's heart, with as little clutter between us as possible. It is harder by far to write clearly than it is to write congestedly.

Another quality I think good journalists develop is a powerful sense of empathy. And empathy is a necessary quality in good fiction.

A good journalist learns to listen, hard. And to understand. Not judge. A good novelist should try to do the same.

Without empathy or the ability to listen well to people, a reporter doesn't get a story.

Without empathy and the ability to listen well, novelist has shallow characters and fake-sounding dialogue. I absolutely believe newspapers are the best training ground for writers, of any kind.

Journalism was limiting to me, however, in terms of truth-telling.

I feel more able to tell the truth, or at least my truth regarding race and ethnicity, in fiction than I ever did in newspapers.

Newspapers did not share my worldview, and they were arrogant in their own and unyielding. As institutions, newspapers did not listen well, either to their reporters -- particularly women and minorities -- or to their readers.

As a reporter, I did not believe in the status quo, did not enjoy the way the media stereotyped so-called minorities blindly and shamelessly.

I detested the way my editors defended this practice as if it were necessary, and the stupidity that permeated every aspect of the coverage of race and
ethnicity in America in the newspapers I worked for made my sick to my stomach.

That's why I left newspapers: There was too much lying going on in their pages, and I could not, in good conscience, perpetuate the myths my editors so passionately believed were true.

As a novelist, I am finally free, and I love it.

BIO: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a former journalist-turned-novelist. She was a staff reporter for the “LA Times”. She plays tenor sax. Her mother is a poet. Alisa’s favorite writers aren’t novelists – they’re journalists.

Valdes-Rodriquez was named one of “Entertainment Weekly’s” breakout literary stars of 2003. She quit her job to finish first novel. St. Martin’s Press bought it, and the book spent three months on the “New York Times” hardcover bestseller list. Jennifer Lopez and “Spiderman” producer Laura Ziskin optioned her first novel for Columbia Pictures. Valdes-Rodriguez is the author of "The Dirty Girls Social Club."
Her new book, "Playing With Boys" (St. Martin's Press) will be releases in October 2004.

Official site: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Read blog: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Find more books/writers content, in the February 2004 issue of "Arte Six".