Q: When did you first know you wanted to write a novel?
A: I’ve been writing my entire life, hundreds of scripts for television newsmagazine and documentary productions. I’ve also been a voracious reader of all kinds of fiction. About ten years ago, I began wondering whether I could write a novel about my experiences as a producer and a reporter—which is very different from crafting a television script—and when I retired from ABC News a couple of years ago and had all this time to fill, I decided to give it a whirl. That's when the inspiration really hit, and I sat down and began to write the Ethan Benson series.
Q: Do you follow any particular practices when you’re writing?
A: I definitely follow a very set routine. I’m an early riser and like to begin work first thing each day. I’m usually sitting at my desk by eight o’clock and spend four to five hours writing before my brain goes to mush, rarely getting out of my chair except to fetch a cup of coffee or to stretch my legs. My office looks out over a thick forest and majestic rolling hills, so it’s the perfect place to dream up new storylines and plot twists. But, unlike Ethan, who, at times, is scattered and disorganized, I’m a neat freak. Everything in my office is ordered and has its place—except for my golden retriever, Bailey, who’s incorrigible and makes herself comfortable wherever she wants.
Q: Are your plots developed to the end, or do your novels unfold in terms of plot as you write?
A: This is a great question. I think all writers approach their stories in different ways. I think about the plotlines for quite some time before I sit down and start writing, but I never outline my books and don't have a game plan for the stories. What I do have is a beginning and an end. They are fixed in my mind right from the start, even though the last chapter where Ethan confronts Rufus Wellington changed several times before I got it just right. The rest of Live to Tape evolved as I was writing, flowing out of my head, changing over and over as I polished the prose and moved around clues to add drama and suspense to the narrative.
Q: Which scenes did you find the most difficult to write?
A: I found the MCI-Cedar Junction prison scenes the most difficult to write, even though I spent a lot of time in and out of lockups during my career. I never visited MCI-Cedar Junction for any of my television projects, so it took a lot of reading and telephone work to come up with a mental picture of the location to use in my book. Most of what I wrote was based on this research, and when I couldn’t answer a question about the physical layout of the prison, I borrowed from what I’d seen at other penal institutions and used my imagination for the rest. I think writers call this “creative license.”
Q: From early on in the book, it seems that your knowledge of the TV production business is extensive. Is this a business you know well?
A: I spent almost forty years working for ABC News, NBC News, FOX News, and Martha Stewart Living Television. I was a writer and producer and experienced many of the big changes that revolutionized TV production during my long career. It’s been my life’s work, and I love every aspect of the business.
Q: Did you base any of the characters in Live to Tape on your real-life experiences?
A: Everybody who’s read Live to Tape asks me this question, and let’s just say that during my career, I produced dozens of high-profile crime stories, where I met gang members, rapists, killers, and serial murderers, and I worked with some of the most famous prosecutors, defense lawyers, detectives, and private investigators in law enforcement. I’ve also collaborated extensively with news correspondents and anchors, production teams, and TV news executives. Yes, all my characters are based on real-life experiences and are a product of the many people who helped me report and produce my stories.
Q: Can you tell us more about the character of Ethan and why he is so unhappy with the general state of journalism?
A: Ethan’s unhappiness is something I certainly felt during the last few years of my career. As audiences grew smaller and ratings collapsed, television news began looking for ways to streamline production and save money. For Ethan, serious reporting was the bread and butter of his career, but in his new reality at The Weekly Reporter, with its shorter deadlines, fewer shooting days, and tighter budgets, there was no room for in-depth reporting. Now, don’t get me wrong—I believe strongly that there’s a place in television news for crime stories. I produced many and hope to build a new career based on my experiences, but for Ethan, who sees himself as a hard-nosed journalist, the transition from investigative reporting to crime reporting was difficult to swallow and is an underlying storyline throughout the book.
Q: Ethan does not want to do crime stories and makes it clear in the novel. Is there a particular reason for this aversion?
A: Ethan’s sentiments mirror those of many producers who work in television today—especially those who remember an era when newsmagazines like The Weekly Reporter concentrated on hard news and investigative reporting. I found it quite difficult making this transition myself but gradually realized that crime stories serve a unique purpose in the programming of a news broadcast.
Q: Does GBS reflect any place you have previously worked?
A: GBS is definitely a synthesis of all the news divisions where I worked. There are scenes in the novel drawn from ABC News, NBC News, Fox News, and many television shows—such as 20/20, Dateline NBC, World News Tonight, and even Martha Stewart Living. In writing Live to Tape, I tried to craft the television scenes as authentically as possible from the types of cameras used in the field to the staffing required to build a set for an interview—and in order to accomplish this and make it seem real, I needed to draw on a treasure trove of experiences from all the networks where I was lucky enough to hang my hat.
Q: There's great detail in the book describing the building of a set for an interview. Does it always take so many people and so much time?
A: Building a set is a complex process, especially when an anchor is involved in an interview. It usually requires a huge production crew—cameramen, soundmen, lighting directors, electricians, and grips, to name a few. Shooting in a prison like MCI-Cedar Junction engenders its own set of problems. There's heavy security each step of the way. So there's less equipment involved, fewer people, and much more preplanning with prison personnel. Nonetheless, it takes a tremendous level of coordination from each member of the team. My personal experience in constructing sets like the ones in Live to Tape comes from producing dozens of interviews with Barbara Walters at 20/20. Each and every one required a staff of at least fifteen people and a full production day before we were ready to roll cameras.
Q: Ethan’s instinct seems to be a great and powerful driver in this story. Can you comment on this and how it relates to your own life or career?
A: Well, this is difficult to answer. As a producer, my stories were always grounded in the research and based on the sources who fed me information. And like Ethan’s, my stories were built around the facts. But there were always moments during production when I knew I was missing something important and knew that if I just did a little more digging, I’d learn a critical piece of information that would affect my storyline. That’s why I made instinct such a big part of what drives Ethan as a producer. It’s what makes him special and gives him an edge.
Q: Do you identify with Ethan? Who was your favorite character to write?
A: This is another great question. Many fictional characters are based on an author’s life experiences. How else can a novelist create a living, breathing hero like Ethan Benson? There are definitely elements of my personality in this character, but having said that, I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to figure out which ones they are. The private investigator, Lloyd Howard, has a special place in my heart. His investigative skills are based on a PI I worked with on a story at 20/20 who introduced me to the world of crime fighting and taught me just how difficult it is for the police to build a case and make an arrest that will stick in the courts. That's why Ethan relies so heavily on Lloyd Howard to help him unravel the story. Howard can get access to crime data from his police sources that's impossible for Ethan to pull together as a television producer.
Q: Your first novel, Live to Air, was set in New York City. Why did you choose the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts as the prime location in Live to Tape?
A: As a producer working for a network news magazine, I traveled all around the world covering stories—even though I was based at ABC News in New York City. So I wanted to select a location for my second book where I could explore all the nuances that go into producing a story that requires traveling a full production crew with all the additional planning and pitfalls. I selected the Quabbin because I love to fish the reservoir with my brother and have spent many days there. Thus, when I dreamed up the story, it seemed like the perfect location to site Rufus Wellington's killing field. Really, it was as simple as that. I knew the area well, and it had all the peculiar elements I needed to tell my story.
Q: Rufus Wellington is a diabolical killer in every sense of the term. How did you create his character and all the psychological components that make up his unique brand of evil?
A: As a serial murderer, Rufus Wellington is based almost entirely on a killer I interviewed at 20/20 named Henry Lee Lucas. He was a drifter who was accused of butchering over a hundred women and convicted of at least ten of those murders. I spent a weekend filming Lucas with a production crew in a small jail in Texas as he was awaiting one of his trials. He exhibited many of the deviant behaviors that make up Rufus Wellington's character. He was a psychopath, violent and unpredictable, who would explode into fits of rage whenever his inner demons drove him to kill. Of course, I borrowed parts of Rufus Wellington's personality from other serial killers in American history, but the core of my character is based on the unique insanity of Henry Lee Lucas.
Q: Will you write more Ethan Benson thrillers?
A: I intend to continue writing new books in the Ethan Benson series. The third novel, Live to the Network, is already finished, and I'm researching the fourth manuscript—tentatively titled All Cameras Live—which I will begin writing in the not-too-distant future.
Jeff's novel makes a wonderful selection for a book club and will engender lively debate about television news and its role in storytelling and crime fighting. A brief discussion guide and an interview with the author is available for Live to Tape.