An interview with John Darnton, whose latest novel, Black & White and Dead All Over will be published by Knopf.
PW: Your murder mystery is set at the New York Globe. Are you concerned that people will think it’s the New York Times, or do you hope they’ll think that?
JD: I have to say I employed some clever disguises. For example, everyone knows that the New York Times in its old building was on West 43rd St. between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. The New York Globe, however, is on West 45th St. between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. So you see there’s no connection whatsoever. I thought anyone looking at the book jacket would realize that, unimaginatively, I’ve spent my whole life with the same singular institution, the Times, so there’s no way I could write a book that wouldn’t somehow refer back to the Times. And in a way the Times is perfect for the kind of vehicle I wanted to do, because it is, in my estimation, kind of a perfect setting to describe both what’s happening to the newspaper business today and to recall the glories of what it was like when I first began, in 1966. But if you’re referring to libel, I’m not worried. The characters are—well, some might be, in a certain sense, identifiable, but most are composites of types that are familiar to any newsroom around the country.
PW: Is the New York Globe building climbable?
JD: It’s funny you say that, even though my book, of course, is about the old building—but just last week at the [new] Times building, I noticed they had covered some of the mounts with plywood, and had guards walking around with nightsticks, looking ferocious, to discourage climbers. Of course, people have been climbing the walls for years there, but on the inside; so this is entirely new and it’s kind of thrown us. We keep wondering what Renzo Piano, the designer of the [new] building, will think if he comes by and sees the plywood façade—not exactly what he had in mind.
PW: Your book’s catalogue copy notes that the Globe’s “readership, advertising and circulation are plummeting.” Did you intend this to reflect circumstances at many papers around the country?
JD: Oh, most definitely. One of my pet peeves is the Internet. While of course while I use it and need it and rely on it—like anyone else—I dread what it’s doing to newspapers, and even probably at some juncture to publishing. I think the Internet is very valuable for certain tasks, for delivering information—things like aggregation or linkage or documentation—but not at delivering what I would call quality news. For that I think you need a newspaper. If you look at the most important stories of the past two or three years, they’ve all been broken by newspapers, and usually there’s a direct correlation between the length of time one works on a story and the quality of the story. Only a newspaper has resources to allow the luxury of a reporter having six or eight months working only on one story because it’s judged to be of such paramount importance. Web sites can’t and won’t do that; it’s not in their nature. So this is very much a look back at the golden age of newspapers. And the thought that that era may be drawing to a close, I think spells real danger for an informed citizenry and even to a democracy. Also, there’s a lot of lore that builds up over the years—the wonderful kind of institutional memory that’s handed down generation after generation. And that may even be one unhappy side effect of all these [newspaper] layoffs and buyouts—the institutional memory is being destroyed, because a whole generation is being wiped out before it has a chance to inculcate the younger ones with values, and even the stories, because the stories are often instructive.
PW: You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction. Which of the two genres attracts you more?
JD: After so many years of “just the facts, ma’am,” and searching through notebooks to try and get the exact wording of the quote and worrying so much about each and every fact and assembling it in what I thought to be the correct order, I found it just a wonderful relief to sort of cross over the divide and let my imagination take over. With fiction, you can make the quotes up; you don’t have to check them. Some writer said it used to be that the longest undefended border in the world was between Canada and the U.S., and now it’s between fact and fiction. The spillover on all sides, in both directions, is obviously considerable.