James Queally knows the media, cops, and the intersection of law enforcement and reportage as well as anyone. Not surprising given his extensive background as an award-winning reporter, which his widely acclaimed debut novel LINE OF SIGHT. This riveting debut has already received several starred reviews and praise from crime fiction legend (and former reporter) Michael Connelly. James took time to answer 5 questions about LINE OF SIGHT - enjoy!
Q: What were your inspirations for writing LINE OF SIGHT?
James: I wanted to write about Newark, and a lot of Russell’s arc mirrors my own growing up as a cub reporter in the Brick City (well not the job loss/becoming a P.I./getting shot at parts, but you get the idea.) I was raised by a police officer and spent a lot of my childhood at backyard BBQs filled with badges. You tend to see the world a certain way growing up like that, and I think it affected how I functioned as a reporter early on. I was a dutiful chronicler of all things cop land, but I had a hard time believing some of the more critical voices of the Newark PD until I’d been there for a bit, spent some time with activists and looking into use-of-force cases. That broke down the cops and robbers vantage point that had been instilled in me at a young age. I remember going through some of the same struggles Russ does when trying to see past the romanticized ideals of policing he wants to believe in, and the growing pains of getting frozen out or basically blacklisted by the police department for a bit when they’re the focus of your work.
Q: Where did the character of Russell Avery come from? He’s a former reporter in New Jersey and you were previously a reporter in New Jersey – how much of Russell comes from your own experiences?
James: Russ joins a long legacy of Polis’ protagonists that don’t have a great bit of distance from their creator (don’t tell me Ash McKenna and Rob Hart aren’t the Spider-Man pointing at himself gif.) There’s obviously a bit of lionization going on here – Russ isn’t exactly a brawler but he’s certainly thrown hands more frequently than me in the past few years, and I talk smack but I don’t talk THIS much smack. But like I said above, his journalism experience overlaps with mine, and his personality has elements of mine but with the sarcasm turned wayyyy up. I think that might be the biggest difference between us … he uses humor/quipping as a defense mechanism when stressed in a way I probably don’t.
Q: Russell has intimate knowledge of both the cops and the media. How much research did you have to do to understand these worlds?
James: Honestly, very little? I double-checked a few things about the Newark PD’s command structure, since I started writing LINE OF SIGHT a few years after I moved to Los Angeles (for instance, I needed to make sure the MCU at the heart of the story actually investigated the same range of cases Newark PD’s real Major Crimes Division does). But I’ve spent a lot of time covering protests, looking at use-of-force cases, reading the lengthy, dry “decline to prosecute” memos that officer-involved shootings often result in. I’m not an expert in the legal sense by any stretch, but I felt comfortable enough in my own experience around these things that I thought I could at least craft a narrative around one. My 9-to-5 job is really wrist deep in a lot of these issues – I was in Ferguson, Mo. the night St. Louis County prosecutors declined to charge Officer Darren Wilson – so this was more dumping out what I couldn’t use from my notepad over the years than anything else.
Q: Newark in LINE OF SIGHT is very much a racial tinderbox, and you’ve reported on movements such as Black Lives Matter. To what extent did real world movements inspire the storyline for your book?
James: It’s interesting, because I felt that Newark was like this prior to 2014, when the Black Lives Matter movement and the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice really turned this into a national conversation. I left Newark less than six weeks before that all really started, but those issues had been prevalent in the Brick City my entire career. The department had been under federal investigation for discriminatory policing and a doing a terrible job of policing its own officers for years. LINE OF SIGHT, however, is set in present day Newark. So in a way, the national conversation and the proliferation of YouTube and cell phone videos bringing these cases into the American living room sparked the story in my head, but I also remember being in these situations way before I even considered writing this book, before Russell even existed. In 2011 or 2012, I was writing about an Essex County Sheriff’s Department shooting in the West Ward, and I believe the accusation was that the deputy had shot a fleeing suspect in the back. I spent a whole day with the person’s family, walking the scene, trying to make sense of their version of what happened. I remember some demonstrators challenging the Sheriff during a press conference near the scene and a deputy moving to arrest them before I yelled at the Sheriff that what the deputy was doing was clearly illegal (the Sheriff, to his credit, instantly recognized his guy was wrong and called him off.). That stuff happening now would probably make waves, but it was common in Newark then and the world just kind of marched on. So, I guess in a way I wanted to bring Newark into that conversation.
Q: Your love and deep knowledge of music is clearly evident in the book. What are some of the bands or songs you listened to while writing LINE OF SIGHT?
So I was in bands in New York and New Jersey as a kid, and I was definitely a bit of a scene rat/post-hardcore kid into my 20s. (My fiancée and I met at a Saves The Day show, I’m listening to Thursday right now.) But that part of my head went dormant for a while, but when I moved to Los Angeles I wound up part of a social circle that attends a ton of live shows, and it woke the music lover in me. I didn’t listen to a lot of music when writing LINE OF SIGHT, though toward the end that habit changed. I used to only have something on in the background if outlining fiction or working on a news article. But there is a “Russell Avery Mix Tape” playlist on Spotify that’s either a soundtrack for the book or what Russ probably had on while driving, and that playlist includes: At The Drive-In, Arcade Fire, J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Touche Amore, Cloud Nothings, Hot Water Music, TV On The Radio, Thursday and Talib Kweli. If there’s an end credits song to the book, it’s Talib’s “All Of Us.”