Dick Lehr spent years as a member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team and has now used one of its successful investigations—the release of a man who spent 14 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit—as the basis for a new YA novel, Trell. We spoke with him about the challenges of writing a story that focuses on print journalism for the digital generation.
Trell is based on a real story you broke in 2003 in the Globe about Shawn Drumgold, who was wrongly convicted of murdering a girl shot during an exchange of gunfire between rival gang members. Why did you decide to fictionalize the story?
Drumgold was essentially picked up off the street and framed for the murder of a girl named Tiffany Moore, who was 12 at the time. She became the youngest victim of gang violence in Boston and there was a lot of pressure to make an arrest. But one of the things I learned when I was working on his story was that at the time he was arrested he had a daughter himself, who was just a baby. I wondered many times what it must have been like for her to grow up with a parent wrongfully imprisoned. That became the inspiration for this story, with the daughter as the central character.
That’s Trell, who is 14 in your story. Did you worry about the challenges of having to write from the perspective of a teenage black girl?
I knew that was going to be a challenge but I’m a journalist who’s trained to dive deep into something and be able to write about it with authority. The Fence (Harper, 2009) was nonfiction but it was about police brutality and the main characters were black cops in Boston. On the one hand, that was daunting. But on the other, I didn’t want that to stop me from telling that particular story, which was important.
With Trell, I made a conscious decision to tell a plot-driven story as opposed to a deeply introspective, coming-of-age type story, which I couldn’t have done. But even though it’s plot driven, I wanted to create an authentic kid and I kept looking, in terms of feedback, to make sure she seemed real. I got enough positive feedback to keep going. That was key.
You have written nonfiction bestsellers—Black Mass about the Irish mobster Whitey Bulger (co-authored with Gerry O’Neill) and The Birth of a Movement about the civil rights for adult audiences—so why now your first book for younger readers?
Not only my first book for young readers but my first novel. Everything I’ve written to date has been nonfiction—daily journalism, magazine journalism, and nonfiction books—all but one of which is Boston-based, set in the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester. But I’m also a parent and one of my interests in doing this novel is that I have a couple of daughters—one going into seventh grade—and I want kids to know about the important role journalism plays in a democracy. On the Spotlight team, a lot of the things we did were in pursuit of justice. The backstory for Trell was a real case but I’d venture that it was a story that was read almost exclusively by adults.
Does it concern you that a lot of your target audience may not have much familiarity with newspapers or what crusading journalists do?
Hmm, I’m not sure. I still get the Globe and the New York Times and my kids are very comfortable with them. They look at the Red Sox scores in the morning or to find out about concerts. It may be old-fashioned to write about a newspaper but the idea that people can team up to accomplish something, to right a wrong, that to me is the key and that’s journalism. Maybe in the next edition I’ll have them publish the stories online.
Have you gotten any feedback from young readers?
Not young teens but I teach journalism [at Boston University] and my students knew the story somewhat because I have used the Drumgold case as a teaching tool. When I told them I was going to reimagine it as a young adult novel, they were all enthusiastic. And as I said, there were a couple of reasons to write this as a novel for younger people but the big one is my daughters, who love to read and who are entering this age bracket [of readership]. I talked with them a lot about the book. I would write a chapter and then read it aloud to them and that was a cool and fun thing for us to do. They got very interested in Trell and what would happen to her. They also gave me really good feedback.
Was it tough to write without relying on your reporter’s notebook full of facts and quotes? Did it feel almost like you were missing a limb?
It was real mixed. In the beginning, I felt like I was flying without a safety net, but this novel didn’t happen over night. I worked on it for a couple of years and, over time, it became freeing, and fun, to create a whole world. I was able to use this big pile of experience I have of covering this area and these issues to create a plot and my characters. It was like opening a vault and being able to use any or all of what was inside, but it still felt very organic because all of it was based on real events and real people I had written about. It was also a way to stretch myself and my writing. I know I couldn’t have written something like this 20 years ago when I first came to Boston [Lehr is from Connecticut]. I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off as authentic.
Any plans for a sequel? [spoiler alert]
Well there is certainly sequel potential and I’ve thought about where it would go. Paul (Trell’s neighborhood friend) is going to join her at her high school, and Trell’s dad is coming home, which is not an easy adjustment to make. And Clemens, the reporter, seems to be back on track after his own troubles. So we’ll see. I definitely have more material.
Can anything top having set a wrongfully convicted man free?
Journalistically, that experience will never leave me. The judicial system favors finality and [Drumgold’s] case did not involve DNA, which made it tougher. The science has since forced the system to acknowledge a lot more mistakes. But getting someone out of prison who shouldn’t have been there is definitely a “high-five” moment in a journalist’s career.
Trell by Dick Lehr. Candlewick, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-7636-9275-9