A Conversation with Nora McFarland, Author of A Bad Day's Work
This is your first novel. What was the inspiration for A Bad Day’s Work?
I was working as a shooter in Bakersfield and realized it would be a great set-up for a mystery, but didn’t make the attempt until later when I took a job at Barnes & Noble. Meeting the authors who visited the store and working around so many books inspired me. At first I tried to write like Ross MacDonald or Sue Grafton, both of whom I’ve always loved, but it’s just not my voice. When I try to be hardboiled it comes out pretentious. As soon as I allowed myself to be funny everything began to click.
Why did you choose to work within the mystery/suspense genre? What are its benefits and drawbacks?
Long before I attempted to write in the mystery genre I was a fan. I think it goes back to my parents showing me the film version of Death on the Nile when I was five. I can’t imagine writing straight fiction. I’d have no idea what to do with my characters.
You have worked for a television news network. What can you tell us about the demands of putting together a compelling news story for the public?
A news story must have human elements that the audience relates to and it needs to support journalism’s core mission of giving people the information that they need to be well informed taxpayers and members of the community. It also has to have great pictures because it’s fundamentally a visual medium. Plus, anything about Anna Nicole Smith. I’m only half kidding. You need to balance what people want and what they need. Unfortunately, there’s always an element of making sausage. You’re working on deadline and probably trying to do too much with too few resources.
At the start of the novel, you note that Lilly Hawkins is a rarity, a female shooter. Is that true to life? What appeals to you about the world of a shooter?
I was the only female shooter in Bakersfield and there were many other television markets without any women photographers. It’s gotten better since then, but shooting is still a male-dominated profession. It’s a physically demanding job that you simply must be aggressive to be successful at. Those are traits associated more with men, but it doesn’t mean women can’t be great shooters or even the best.
One of the factors changing the landscape is the proliferation of One-Man-Bands. That’s when a reporter shoots their own video. In smaller television markets the economic pressures are forcing stations to eliminate photographers. One or two shooters remain on the payroll to handle live shots and maintain the equipment, but most of the photography is done by reporters. Since many of the reporters are women, this has changed the dynamic. It’s also something Lilly will eventually have to deal with at KJAY.
Shooting really is a double edged sword. The very thing that makes it so attractive, the excitement and adrenaline rush of chasing a story, is what wears you down. I eventually burnt out and took a job that didn’t require me to visit crime scenes in the middle of the night. Many of my fellow shooters also left the business or transitioned into different positions. It’s difficult to keep that kind of pace up.
Did Lilly turn out as you originally envisioned? What do you hope readers take to heart with Lilly?
Lilly absolutely did not turn out like I originally envisioned. I had planned for her character to be someone who begins the novel with low self esteem and, because of everything she goes through, changes into someone with high self esteem. But as I wrote, I felt myself pulled in another direction. I kept creating subplots where it turned out Lilly was her own worst enemy and had fundamentally misjudged other characters and situations. Also, I felt like I’d betrayed the character by portraying her as wimpy. I did a second draft with major changes and abandoned the self-esteem idea completely. That’s when Lilly came into her own.
What challenges did you encounter with writing your first novel?
The biggest challenge was not being very good at it. I was trying to run a marathon, but didn’t know how to walk. I learned to write slowly over many drafts and many hours at my laptop.
A Bad Day’s Work features a wonderful cast of characters that feel like an extended family. Was that important for you to establish this sense of community in the novel? Were there any real life inspirations for any of these characters?
I’ve always loved television shows with coworkers who behave more like a family. I watched a lot of The Mary Tyler MooreShow, Bob Newhart, and Barney Miller when I was a little kid. I also love the films of Wes Andersen. Each one ends with a group of conflicting personalities coming together. That sense of family and community is very satisfying for me as a reader/viewer and it’s probably natural that I’d incorporate it into my writing.
Leanore Drucker is the only character with real life inspirations, even though the particulars of her situation are made-up. She’s based on a well known Bakersfield historian named Vivian Tucker. She was a very special lady who passed away several years ago. I took some of her mannerisms and added some from my friend Leanore Motley and then filled in the rest of the character from my imagination. But every other character and the things that happen to them are complete fiction.
You play quite a bit with the appearance of things versus their reality. Was that a natural avenue for you to explore since the work of a shooter is so visual or is this an important theme for you as a writer?
I decided it was a great way to tie together a lot of different ideas I had floating around my first draft. The video Lilly records when doing a story is incomplete without context, just like her views of people are shallow without her actually making an effort to know them. I also tried to tie that into the love story by making one of Lilly’s suitors have a cynical view of people based on stereotypes and another have an optimistic, but ultimately more nuanced view.
How does your background in cinema and television impact your work as a novelist?
Something that was hammered into us in film school is that characters need to change. They need to have an arc that you can trace and is satisfying to the viewer/reader. Almost every one of my characters ends the story in a different place from where they started. The only character that doesn’t change turns out to be a big jerk.
If your work was to be translated for television, who would you like to see cast as Lilly Hawkins, Rod Strong, and Uncle Bud?
Lilly is hard for me. Michelle Williams or Reese Witherspoon would both be fantastic. Kristen Bell is one of my favorite actresses, but I love her so much as Veronica Mars that it’s hard for me to see her as another character—especially one I created.
Ryan Reynolds would be fantastic for Rod, but I also like Jason O’Mara from the American version of Life on Mars. He has an inherent likeability that’s perfect for Rod.
Ian McKellan is my dream Bud. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, because he’s such an amazing and distinguished actor, but it would be so much fun to watch him bring Bud to life.
This is the first of a planned trilogy. What can we expect from the next book in the series?
Lilly and Rod are covering a deadly wildfire in the mountains above Bakersfield. Residents are evacuating and thousands of firefighters are pouring in. A body is found in the local lake and authorities, already overwhelmed by the natural disaster, are quick to declare it an accidental drowning. The victim turns out to be someone Lilly has a personal connection to and she begins investigating the death as the fire escalates.