Transition

We Interrupt This Broadcast: How a TV Producer Learned to Write Fiction

When TV producer George Lerner turned his hand to novel writing, he needed a totally new skill set—and learned a lot along the way about the many ways stories are told.

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I hid my fiction from fellow television news producers out of fear that crafting stories from thin air would be seen as morally suspect. When at last I announced a deal to publish my debut novel, the most common reaction I heard from colleagues, was, “Wait, you mean it’s fiction?” as if the form itself constituted a betrayal of our journalistic ethos. I was even more wary of raising my novelistic inclinations with interview subjects, based on the concern that the revelation might tar me as a fabulist, unworthy of being entrusted with their stories.

My discomfort stemmed from the inherent gulf between the two disciplines. Television news can be a glorious medium, filled with striking human drama and haunting sorrow. At its finest, the video news package allows subjects to tell their own stories, revealing tiny bites of humanity in a fraying world. What it lacks, however, are some of the novelist’s most powerful tools: doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity. The Voice of God narration that pervades television news is far too blunt an instrument for literary fiction. Sure, there is ambiguity in journalistic sources who lie to the interviewer and even to themselves, but those deceptions tend to outrage rather than enhance. It’s nothing like the way an unreliable narrator can provide texture and depth to fiction, and can make readers question their own presumptions.

Then there is the difference of time and the pace of revelation. A television news piece needs to deliver quickly, sometimes in less than two minutes. The fictional truth I sought in my novel—The Ambassadors, about an arms dealer struggling to reconcile with his family as he comes to regret his involvement in an African civil war—took hundreds of pages to unfurl, and many years to develop. Only at the end, when the novel was complete, did I fully understand what it was all about, what tied it all together.

Over a decade of novel writing, I discovered that my journalistic practice—reporting only what I had seen, or what my sources had told me, with careful attribution—made for awfully constrained fiction. In the novel’s first drafts, my writing clung too tightly to the safety of reporting, fixated on the precise language lifted from my interviews, on scenes that I could confirm. It was only after the writing drifted from the comfortable shores of journalism that it could become convincing as fiction.

Throughout my life, I had listened to my father’s accounts of being stationed as a U.S. soldier in Bavaria after World War II. To become useful to me in a novel, his anecdotes of De-Nazification and despair had to go beyond my dad’s collage of decades-old remembrances, and my father himself could have no place in the narrative.

The same was true of the stirring voices I had encountered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when on assignment shooting a PBS documentary. My sources told me stories of conflict and persecution, and their hopes at the end of a long civil war. What they left me with were a set of questions about the origins of that terrible war, and a sense of confusion that I sought to resolve through fiction: what had driven the fighting, and how the world could have done so little to save the millions who perished. I retained a journalist’s insistence on factual accuracy in describing historical events, but this was still fiction, and would never pass muster with the Standards and Practices department of any television network that had employed me.

The old canard that guides journalism, repeated with heavy sarcasm to anyone stretching the rules—never let the truth get the way of a good story—has some serious limitations in fiction. In the alternate space of fiction, the truth is the good story. Journalism assumes an immutable truth, that a few more calls, a bit more reporting will tease it out of reluctant informants. Fiction has lost faith in such comforts; it is uncertainty itself that enhances the story. The literary characters I have always admired are filled with ambiguity as they carve out their roles in a tumultuous world—Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei, Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, Cormac McCarthy’s Billy Parham, or Peter Matthiessen’s Edgar Watson. We didn’t need to like or admire them as human beings, only to appreciate the insights that stem from their lives, and often their deaths as well.

There is, of course, a grand tradition of newspaper reporters, Hemingway and Garcia Marquez among them, shifting their focus to fiction. The transition from television producer to novelist is a bit more labored, from the frenzy of breaking news, with its hard-knuckle battles over camera shots, satellite windows, and clean audio, to the intense solitude of writing a novel. The camera certainly has practical advantages for the novelist; it allowed me into the homes of strangers who otherwise might never have opened their doors. It gave me license to pore over raw tape, again and again, to absorb the subtle clues of human behavior. But a life in television field production can be overwhelming. The pressing need to make air crushes lofty aspirations. You shoot as much as possible, but never really have enough video, and invariably discover in edit that one more shot could have made the piece come alive. You do your best to cover the story, but you can’t make it up.

Fiction is different; you do make it up, all of it. Revelations can spring out of nothing, at any moment: in the shower, when running, on a crowded subway, with no need to adjust the camera focus, to fret over changing light, or to wait for an airplane to pass overhead. The requirements of fiction lie elsewhere: in having persistence, commitment, and faith to carry the writer through the uncertainty. Therein lies the other reason why I shielded my novel from my television compatriots—the terrible lurking fear that the endless struggle might not lead to anything, that no one would even care. Perhaps I should have been more sympathetic to the writer’s quandary. Doubt, after all, can be a real blessing in fiction. It can give life and soul to the writing, and can make the characters on the page as vivid and vital as any real person who had once walked on earth.

George Lerner completed his debut novel, The Ambassadors, during a varied career as television news producer for CNN, PBS and other networks, covering stories in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Vietnam, and across the United States.