Follow the Turnpike: A Conversation with James Queally




IT’S BEEN MORE than a decade since I first met James Queally, when he started as a cub reporter at the Staten Island Advance, where I was covering cops, fire, and general assignment news on the night shift.

I didn’t stick with journalism for very long after that; I moved on to politics, and then publishing. But James kept at it. And he quickly distinguished himself, climbing the ranks from the Advance to the Newark Star-Ledger, and now the Los Angeles Times. During his career he’s covered hundreds of homicides, as well as national use-of-force controversies and the Black Lives Matter movement.

It was always clear the kid had talent. He may downplay it, but it was apparent as soon as he walked in the door — he had all the qualities of a good newshound: a sharp eye, a way with words, and a natural curiosity.

Despite our different paths, we stayed friends because we had a lot in common — the biggest being we both had the fiction bug. And over the years he racked up some nice accolades, including stories in Thuglit, Crime Syndicate Magazine, and Shotgun Honey.

Here we are with his debut novel, Line of Sight. He asked me to read an early copy, and I knew right off the bat someone would pick it up. Smart, tight, and relevant as hell, it was underpinned by a real-world authority he found as a reporter, and it was everything I knew he was capable of. The starred trade reviews speak for themselves; Publishers Weekly was exactly right when they said: “This scalding exposé of human failures, in which friendships go tragically sour, powerfully updates Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. Queally is definitely a writer to watch.”

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ROB HART: First off, I knew this book was good when I read it, before it even got picked up. But now that you’ve gotten two trade review stars and a blurb from Michael Connelly, I guess my first question is — how is there going to be any living with you?

JAMES QUEALLY: Like I’m not on to you, Hart? You tell me you like the book, then you get famous, meaning you’ve got inside hookups at Publishers Weekly. You probably snuck up to L.A. to bribe Connelly while you were in California for San Diego Comic-Con last year, didn’t you? Living with me will go just fine, because I’m going to stay extremely humble because I know this is all an elaborate prank and the rug pull is coming.

We both had somewhat similar trajectories — starting in journalism and moving on to fiction (though you stuck with the former). So I’m curious to know, off the bat, did you get into journalism with the intent to write fiction one day, or is it something that cropped up later on?

Honestly, the plan was always to use journalism to help me break into fiction. I just assumed having my name appear regularly in newspapers would make me more attractive to publishers (I came up with this plan in high school, I didn’t know what an agent was yet). But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a passion or interest in reporting either. I grew up in New York as a tabloid kid, clawing at the Daily News back pages from a really young age. The funny thing is I’d always hoped to be a sportswriter, or a music critic, rather than a news reporter. (I’ve done both and was at best passable at one.) The dream job was to cover the Knicks for them.

As I got older, I got more intrigued by crime fiction due to my father being an NYPD detective and my obsession with Daredevil being published around then in the mid-2000s, and I started writing. I kind of fell ass-backward into crime reporting itself, but that beat switch obviously had a huge influence on my fiction while making me take my responsibilities as a reporter more seriously at the same time. I definitely picked up a notepad hoping to get a book deal and getting the chance to share Line of Sight with the world has been life-affirming, but journalism overtook fiction as my priority at some point and seems to have first place locked up for the moment. I’d like to think my reporting has helped some people and will continue to do so. That’s as good a reason to get up in the morning as any.

How did your days following me around as a cub reporter inspire you?

I know you’re just being a clown, but there’s a little bit of you in Russ. You tend to forget you were one of the cool kids at the Staten Island Advance. You had some swagger and seemed like you didn’t take any shit from anyone while I was still wearing eighth-grade school-picture khakis to work and terrified of interviewing anyone.

Okay, seriously though, how did your days at the Star Ledger inform this story in particular?

The five years I spent at the Ledger probably informed the characters more than the plot for Line of Sight. There’s obviously not a ton of distance between Russ and me, and a lot of his arc mirrors my own in Newark. Like I said, I was raised by a cop and that tends to give you a very “us versus them” view of the world. When I started covering law enforcement I was a superhero-obsessed kid with a police dad — I wanted everyone I met with a badge to be Batman. There’s a line somewhere in the book about covering officer-involved shootings and how Russell more or less pre-wrote the stories in his head, while just waiting to confirm what kind of weapon the suspect was wielding, because that’s the only way he could possibly see the world. The shooting would always be justified … why else would the officer shoot?

I shared that tunnel vision for at least my first year or so on the night crime shift. It took a lot of hours in Newark and time spent with the people who lived there, worked there, had interactions with the cops that were less than heroic, for me to understand that there was more than one way of looking at the world. I don’t think I swung too far the other way either. I still have a deep, deep respect for law enforcement. But I am inherently aware of how fallible and human and, at times, screwed up they can be, and am less susceptible to being spoon-fed the official version than I once was. Russ is on the same journey.

This book feels very uniquely about Newark — it’s not just a city where the book takes place, it’s a character in the story. Given your affinity for East Coast cities, why did you betray us and move to California?

In part, because the East Coast betrayed me. While I am endlessly appreciative of the Ledger and all the people there that taught me how to be a reporter and writer, there was a business model change in 2014 that would have seen a percentage of my pay become dependent on clicks. I was a crime reporter in city that averaged close to triple-digit homicides every year, so I knew what that meant: more murder and gore and “look at this crime!” coverage and less investigative work and watchdog reporting on the police. Hard pass.

Around the same time, I’d been contacted by a former Ledger reporter at the Los Angeles Times who knew of an opening on a breaking news desk. I’d never been to California before, but they made an offer, and how many chances do you get to work at a paper with that size and legacy? Ironically, the first job I took at the Times was 10 times the clickbait catastrophe than what I was in for at the Ledger and I almost moved back east on more than one occasion. Thankfully, I got through that and moved back into a criminal justice reporting role. Currently I cover the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office and get to work with a ton of talented reporters and editors. In the process, I was lucky enough to meet my life-long tag-team partner (I guess the technical term is fiancée), and she likes SoCal even more than she likes me. So, I think I’ll be out west for a while.

The plot — which revolves around a video of police killing an unarmed black man — is incredibly relevant, and given we’re both from Staten Island the immediate reference point when it comes to excessive use of force is Eric Garner. What drew you to wanting to write about that?

I don’t think there was any particular shooting that inspired Line of Sight. It was more the totality of the culture around them, the fact that they happened so frequently that it felt like we stopped remembering each one as involving a person but rather a round in a debate. Garner was emblematic, sure. I have a lot of friends and family in the NYPD. You have no idea how many times the debate collapsed to, “Was it a carotid artery hold or a choke?” not, “Why did it take that much force to arrest a man for a nonviolent nuisance crime?”

I was in Ferguson in November 2014, after prosecutors there decided not to charge Darren Wilson, and I can’t pretend that some of what I saw there didn’t motivate me to write this, but the story didn’t really start spilling out of me until a little over a year later. After debates over these kinds of shootings became a national flashpoint and it became readily apparent that these issues weren’t at all new, but that the visceral realities of them had simply gotten in front of more eyes than ever before due to cell phone cameras and YouTube. It changed how a lot of people saw the universe, and it certainly altered my own view. I wanted to write about it, but I also didn’t want to hijack someone else’s experience (other than getting hit with tear gas covering protests, my contacts with police force have been as an observer, not a recipient). So, I created Russ as something of a viewpoint character, maybe more of a representation of how bystanders to the use-of-force/police violence debate see and interpret the realities of it, and how or why some of their preconceived notions are wrong.

Were you ever worried about tackling the subject? And if so, how did you navigate that, or get past it?

I’m still worried about it. I don’t know if there’s a right way to do this, or if I did it right. The American Dirt controversy is not doing anything to calm my anxiety (I haven’t read the book). But authenticity in crime fiction was something I always sought out, as a reader and a writer. I was in Newark on an almost daily basis for five years, and most of the characters who inhabit my version of the city have their roots in people I met somewhere near the streets they first show up on in the book. I think I got the city and its people and its general vibe right.

Of course, nothing can change the fact that I’m a white guy writing a work of fiction about a real-life situation that often ends in the deaths of people who don’t look like me. As much as I know about the complexities of these situations, about the pain and the stress and the panic and the outrage that they cause and prompt, I’ve never personally experienced it. I tried to be as sensitive to that fact as possible. I even made it part of Russ’s character. He often struggles with the fact that his worldview is shaped by his own privilege on these issues, that maybe he isn’t the right person to tell this story. Russ is the protagonist of the book, but he’s not necessarily the hero, if that makes sense? I’m not sure I’ll be fully past the concerns about how it will be received until the book is out in the world, but I think I did as much as I could to make it accurate and fair.

I’m a little disappointed to say that I can’t think of a lot of good Jersey-based crime novels. At least off the top of my head. It seems like crime writers tend to skew toward New York City. What’s unique about Jersey as a setting, and who else is writing in that region that we should be reading?

New York City is obviously an amazing place to tell a crime or noir story, and when they’re told by someone who really has the five boroughs’ DNA etched into their characters, it can still work masterfully. When a novel, your debut for example, really understands and belongs in New York, it’s an almost unbeatable setting. But I think you’d agree, like Los Angeles, it’s also been done to death as the big city with the big crime thing. I obviously picked Newark because I grew up there as a reporter, but in a broader sense, I think Jersey just shapeshifts better.

Follow the Turnpike or the Parkway for a few exits and you might bounce from an urban center to a row of manicured lawns to a college town to a small township with one school and a few hundred people. A little more effort gets you to a rural area or a resort town. It just lets you play with more, and something about Jersey’s endless little brother syndrome to New York (says the New York native) makes it a more compelling home for an underdog story to me. As much as Russ acts confident, he’s got half an idea what he’s doing at best. As for Jersey-based crime novels — my fellow Ledger alumni Brad Parks comes to mind. The first book in his Carter Ross series, Faces of the Gone, is a roller-coaster based off the Newark schoolyard slayings.

Line of Sight was not the first novel you tried to write — we went back and forth on another, but it didn’t seem to gel the way this one did. Which is not a knock — I think for a lot of novelists you need to get one (or a few) out of your system before you hit your stride. But, can you tell us a little about that, and if it’s something you’ll ever go back to?

I definitely believe in the “get the bad one out” theory. I’m glad I did it, but it’s painful. I hadn’t even published a short story at that time, yet I was trying to write some grandiose crime novel weaving in way too many characters and ideas, and I honestly had no clue what I was doing. But it’s that learn to ride a bike by falling off thing. I created one or two characters who weren’t awful and lived on in Line of Sight through that process, and I stopped doing crazy shit like deciding the Yakuza might try and take over a major Northeastern American city (I read comic books, I read a lot of comic books…) and started outlining more, coming up with character profiles that included little notes to give them more of an inner life (it’s why Russ has specific musical tastes or, say, one of the cops likes a particular sports team). I guess mostly I learned that writing is hard and it takes time and if you’re going to do something worth it, you’re gonna screw up a lot to get there. But also, your first book isn’t your first book until it gets published, so in a way I felt less pressure writing Line of Sight because I’d written my “first novel” already. Now I just needed to write my first good one. 

What’s next? Is this a series? If so, any plans to mix in some stand-alone novels?

Russell Avery will return for at least one more novel, provided the publishing industry allows it — I’m a few scenes and half an outline into his next one. Between Line of Sight’s various queries and revisions, I also got to working on a sci-fi/tech thriller … thing? It would probably share a drink with The Warehouse as far as what happens when we cede too much power to a company, though its less business-fueled dystopia than it is the consequences of choosing our own chains as a society. Most importantly, it’s a collaboration with one of my best friends and the only writing partner I’ve ever been able to team with and not challenge to a knife fight. If nothing else, I’d like to get it published because I’d like to see our names on a book together.

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Rob Hart is the author of The Warehouse, which was published by Crown in August 2019 and sold in more than 20 languages.

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Banner image: “newark-from-the-air-at-night” by Dan DeLuca is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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