I received exactly one job offer when I graduated from New York University’s Dramatic Writing Program in 1988—one. It was for a trainee position with an upstart television network’s new weekly news magazine program. The job paid four dollars an hour—pretax—and would require copious amounts of overtime.
Low wages and long hours. Great.
Looking back, I didn’t have much of a choice. I had just spent four very expensive years in college studying playwriting and screenwriting, and had loans to pay and aspirations of moving out of my parents’ den, so I went with what was offered to me. My future boss said she couldn’t do anything about the pay, but assured me that the job would be “interesting.” To someone who dreamed of being a writer, “interesting” sounded pretty good.
I discovered very quickly that she wasn’t kidding about the interesting part—two hours into my first day to be exact—when I found myself pressed into a small elevator as a reporter threw a crying, screaming hissy fit, then sucker-punched her producer. Minutes later the three of us trekked out to New Jersey to interview one of the world’s foremost legal experts. Right there, on day one, I knew that this job was going to be an endless source of great material. That’s also how TV reporter Abigail Gardner, the protagonist of my first novel, Blood Relations, was born. Naturally, Abby and I share a lot of the same loves and hates about the job.
I spent over a decade in television, working my way up from trainee to production assistant and all the way to producer. During that time I met Ringo (yes, that Ringo), corresponded with a serial killer, and attended President Clinton’s nomination. I traveled a lot, and wound up spending more time in jails than anyone neither employed nor incarcerated there ever should. I interviewed detectives, prosecutors, defense attorneys, arson investigators, medical examiners, judges, and personal injury lawyers. I visited crime scenes, crime labs, and reviewed evidence. I went on stakeouts and even conducted undercover surveillance with a microphone hooked to my bra. With each assignment I grew a new mini-niche of expertise—polygamy, silicone breast implants, DNA evidence, Elvis—it ran a long, strange gamut. Best of all was getting to meet ordinary people who did extraordinary things—the Holocaust survivor who helped identify Nazi war criminals that had made their way to the US, or the sexual assault victim who gave public testimony of her terrible ordeal in hope of making it easier for other victims.
Work wasn’t always pleasant. I witnessed up-close the infamous media circus—the press feeding frenzy that festers around a sensational and often tragic event. You know the type—OJ or Michael Jackson—where anyone and everything is fair game as countless reporters and producers trip all over each other trying to get their piece of flesh.
I was able to use such experience in the media free-for-all in Blood Relations. Early on in the book there is a sensational crime—the daughter of a famous American political family is murdered—but this time Abby isn’t part of the group chasing the story. This time she is the story. The dead woman was her brother’s girlfriend and now Abby and her family get to feel for themselves what it’s like to be on the other side of that prying lens.
During my 12 years in television the pay may have gotten better, but the hours got worse and I had a family. Corporate downsizing and relentless travel soured what love I had left for the job. It was time to take all of these experiences—both good and bad—and put them to use. The result became Blood Relations, my first published novel.
Blood Relations, Lisa M. Tillman, Hilliard & Harris, June 2005, $28.95 / Tr. pb. $16.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #91.