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11.23.09

Al Roker's Mysterious Side

The Today show’s weatherman speaks to Sarah Weinman about realizing his dream to write a mystery novel and why the man with the famous smile is interested in the darker side of things.

Al Roker is a marvel of time management. He has to be, to keep up the rising-before-dawn regimen he’s maintained for more years than he can possibly count, the last 13 as the Today show’s weatherman and feature reporter. Since July, he’s had to roll back the wakeup call even earlier to co-host Wake Up with Al on The Weather Channel, starting at 6 a.m. Once his smiling face signs off NBC and its many affiliates by 10, there’s another few hours to put in at the office of his eponymous production company, responsible for a range of programming, from edible delicacies to murder and meth addiction. And that’s not factoring in last-minute travel plans, speaking engagements, or hosting gigs, like the two years he emceed the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards.

“Sometimes we look at the lighter side of things, and other times the dark side of humanity.”

Now Roker has added another project to his already jam-packed schedule. The Morning Show Murders, written with award-winning crime writer Dick Lochte, is Roker’s first foray into fiction, and as the title suggests, it’s a mystery, and a pretty good one at that. Roker’s been reading the genre since he was 7 years old, he told The Daily Beast in a telephone conversation late last week. “The Hardy Boys, Edgar Allan Poe, the Nero Wolfe books in high school,” he said. “I’ve always loved the genre. My mother was an avid mystery reader, too. For years I told myself, ‘I’d love to write a mystery,’ but I never really thought I’d do it. Then in the last couple of years I figured it was as good a time as any to try.”

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The Morning Show Murders: A Novel. By Al Roker and Dick Lochte. 320 pages. Delacorte Press. $26. ()

It should surprise few people that the novel’s protagonist, Billy Blessing, could stand in for Roker—the main difference: Blessing’s a chef, not a weatherman, a case of “wish fulfillment” for Roker, who has published two cookbooks and has produced specials for the Food Network. When he’s not interviewing the curator for an exhibition on dead superheroes for Wake Up, America! Blessing owns a pricey Midtown bistro where his co-workers often dine. The restaurant becomes a crime scene after the network’s head man ingests a fatal dose of poisoned veal, putting Blessing in a hot seat that only sleuthing out the real killer can help him escape.

The Morning Show Murders does defy expectation of a sunny read, though. The plot, mixing together behind-the-scenes network intrigue, Mossad agents prepared to reveal intelligence secrets on-air, and a ruthless assassin known as “The Cat,” prone to leaving cartoon illustrations as a calling card near a chosen victim, is quite dark. We’re clued in right away, when Blessing declares that “[people] always assume that because our producer...has instructed me to keep a smile on my face whenever I’m on camera, that I’m always cheery. I’m not.”

That line comes straight out of Roker’s playbook, as he gets that question a lot. “Am I always this happy?” he asked. “No. There’d be something wrong if I was.” I pressed him a bit on the book’s tone, and how important it was to strike the right balance. “There are so many great mystery authors doing serious, very dark books. And Janet Evanovich is a master of the light comic novel. I wanted to find more of a middle ground. It’s kind of like the Today show,” Roker emphasized. “Sometimes we look at the lighter side of things, and other times the dark side of humanity.”

To make sure The Morning Show Murders sounded like Al Roker wrote it, he had to enlist the right collaborator. Roker interviewed five prospective candidates before choosing Lochte. (“They were all terrific, but he and I clicked the best,” Roker said.) Over the course of about nine months—one lengthy phone conversation and four back-and-forth email exchanges—the two men produced a working draft. “It was pretty simple,” said Roker. “I knew what tone I wanted for the book, and it was a matter first of coming up with an outline, getting the characters, the ending, and then figuring out how to get from one point to the next.” As the outline Lochte concocted fleshed out into prose, Lochte also took on more of a hands-on editorial role. “I’d send [a chapter] to him,” Roker said. “He’d come back with some notes. If there was something I felt strongly enough about, then we’d talk about it to see if it would work. The book had to sound like I wrote it.” After the book was done, Roker’s early doubts evaporated when his wife, 20/20 reporter Deborah Roberts, read the manuscript: “She turned to me after and said, ‘Yeah, this is you!’”

Roker and Lochte are working on the second Billy Blessing book now, and I wondered whether his newfound experience as a fiction writer would alter how he interviews authors on Today. “I’m not sure anything will change,” Roker said. “I don’t necessarily think I have more insight when I talk with people in media or performers versus nonperformers.” Creative types have always held Roker’s awe, but none more than “the people who create words and make fiction out of whole cloth.”

Unlike full-time writers, Roker’s mystery-writing turn will remain one of many simultaneous pursuits. “The Today show is the font from which everything springs,” he said, referring to what he views as his day job. He wrote The Morning Show Murders in hotel rooms, on airplanes, in Beijing, and while his kids had sleepovers; how could others follow his time-managing example? “You have to prioritize,” Roker answered. “The things that are most important rise to the top, but it’s just as important to let stuff go. You can’t do everything well at once. Otherwise you’re going to drive yourself crazy. And one thing having three kids taught me is that I can’t always be in control.”

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Sarah Weinman contributes to the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post and many other print and online publications, and blogs about books and the publishing industry at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.