This week I have the pleasure of welcoming author Nicholas Griffin to Writebrained. Nicholas has had a spectacular career in writing (you can read his bio above), and he has a wealth of knowledge. His career has spanned across several genres including fiction, non-fiction and journalism. This week, we are talking about Nicholas’ new book, THE YEAR OF DANGEROUS DAYS. So, let’s get started.
Chad Rhoad: This is obviously a project that takes tons of research to do well. What did that process look like for you?
Nicholas Griffin: You never really know how long a book project is going to take. That’s a great thing. If I’d known this would be five years of my life, maybe I wouldn’t have started. My last book on US/China relations took four years and involved a lot of China travel. This time, I actually lived in the city I was writing about. I thought that alone would save me time. No, it just saved me money. I’d drive all across the county tracking down the key players in Miami from 1980; ex-homicides detectives, lawyers, reporters, immigrants, mayors etc. One contact would always lead me to two or three more which is why you should always end your interviews with ‘Can you think of anyone else I should speak to?’. That’s the fun part. The not so fun part was sitting in the public library for over a year reading my way through newspaper materials that still haven’t been digitized. Staring at microfiche for eight hours a day is a special kind of migraine. If you want to take on a big project, like staring at a city, there is no quick fix. You begin by understanding there are thousands who know more than you. Hopefully, by the time you’re done, you should be one of a handful of experts. Just imagine you’re getting a PHD, except no one else gives a shit.
CR: Hahaha. That’s a pretty great attitude to take into it, and thanks for the honesty on the work. One of the first things that struck me while reading this is the amount work it took to get to the final project. A lot of times, I think authors don’t think of that when they start. I think it’s great for others to hear you method, and the note about asking “Who else should I talk to?” is a good one. Along those lines, when you are investigating issues like this, especially with corrupt policemen, what sort of roadblocks did you run into?
NG: You won’t be amazed to learn that every single corrupt policeman I called to talk about their role in Miami in 1980 took less than a minute to hang up on me. Instead, I relied on court papers, the National Archives in Atlanta and those law enforcement officials who helped put the bad cops away. There’s a real danger in listening to the bad guys – the corrupt cops, cocaine dealers, murderers. They’re all selling their own stories and most of the time there is no way to verify those stories. You can go down that road if you want to but you’re betting your reputation on folks who lost theirs years ago.
CR: No real surprise there. But that’s a great note about balancing your sources. It’s not the source’s reputation that’s on the line in the book, it’s the authors. So, that’s fantastic advice to make sure you balance that out and ensure you aren’t going down a dangerous road. What else do you see as an author’s responsibility for a project like this?
NG: As an author, you’re always wading into other people’s waters. When you’re talking about very emotional incidents that are covered in this book, such as murder, riots, arrests, beatings, then people will obviously speak of them with emotion, even after forty years. Your responsibility is to shut up and listen. Luckily, silence is also one of your best friends as an interviewer. It’s amazing that sometimes you elicit some of the best answers by just taking a long pause and letting your interviewee check themselves to make sure they’ve emptied all of their memory of an incident.
CR: I’m really glad to hear you say that. There are so many times when authors try to insert themselves in a project like this, and they do so at their own peril. “Shut up and listen” is the best advice I’ve heard for authors as they are conducting interviews. That advice will also keep an author from the risk of leading the interview in the wrong direction, or at least an inorganic direction, if that makes sense. And, as someone who teaches freshman English, I can attest to silence being a great way to get a little extra out of an interview or question. Following that, how did you balance the social commentary with the historical facts? They all play together, but I wondered how you managed a balance so as not to sound didactic.
NG: Facts come first. I don’t know how much social commentary is in this book but I’m sure you’re right that there’s some. What’s there, I’d like to think that it comes after the facts. Sometimes, forty years later, you have a chance to draw conclusions that either weren’t apparent at the time because no one had the full context, or because emotions have calmed somewhat. I want to tell stories, I don’t want to be didactic. I read the word ‘didactic’ and think the word ‘dry’. I’d hate to do that to a reader. You want dry, pick up a textbook. I think books on any subject can be dynamic. And here I’m dealing with an incredibly dynamic scenario – a city on fire for a year.
CR: I think your first sentence there should be carved in stone for authors of this kind of work. I didn’t see any times when any social commentary dominated, and it seemed implied to me, which is more to your point. If an author sticks to the facts, and writes in a compelling way, the commentary really makes itself. You’re an award-winning journalist with great credentials. How does that help in a process like this? Or does it help at all?
NG: Journalism has become a dirty word in this country and that’s a real problem. To me, I’m very much an author first and journalist second, which helps in some way. I’m seven or eight books into a career where if people want to check me out before they grant me an interview, I’ve got a decent track record for them to look at. One day, I’d love to see real money pour back into local journalism. I’d love to see papers like my local Miami Herald return to their former glory and be able to police the politicians and ne’er do wells. I’d love a local paper with enough money to hire investigative teams to help take down folks on their way to power, not after they’ve already seized it. I know we’ve got a handful of national newspapers in this country but that’s almost irrelevant when compared to having vital small newspapers.
CR: I got my start in journalism with a small-market local paper, and it was probably the most satisfying job I’ve had. I totally agree. The national papers are great, but the local papers are the ones who hold your locals to account. It’s also good for any new authors out there to know that a background in journalism isn’t necessary to this kind of writing. The training certainly helps, but interviewing is an art to itself. When working through the research, were there places where the source material wasn’t what you needed, and how did you go about navigating that?
NG: You may think you’ve handled the gaps in source material but funny things happen when you finally turn your book over to your editor. A good editor starts tapping on ALL the walls of the house. If there’s one that’s not well-built, then down it comes. That often happens because of the unevenness of source material. If you’re building on an unsteady foundation, you’re really just wasting your time. I probably had another sixty pages of material about Operation Greenback, the government’s first attempt to figure out how the brand-new cocaine industry worked. A lot of that was cut by my editor. In this case, it was from the opposite problem. I had too much source material. What I lacked was a single character who made sense to build that particular sub-story around. One of the chiefs Operation Greenback in Miami in 1980 had died just as I started my research. Everyone kept referring to him as an incredibly colorful character but he left behind very few interviews. I just didn’t have enough to draw him into three dimensions. I tried to cobble him together from other people’s interviews but it just wasn’t working smoothly.
CR: I think it’s good for authors to hear the importance of working with a strong and talented editor. We all desperately need that second set of eyes — experienced and talented eyes — to get things where they need to be. Especially with a project such as this where you are knee deep in research, interview and writing for so long. An important question for all writers, I think: How do you balance creating a compelling story with staying true to the facts?
NG: First, you’ve got to be careful. There are so many times when you wish characters had crossed paths, wish they’d said one specific thing, wish they’d been in one specific place – but they weren’t. As tempting as it would be to cheat, you can’t. Well, you could but you’d have to call it fiction. Having said that, the facts of Miami in 1980 were so extraordinary, the story was always going to be compelling no matter who wrote this. You’ve got a spree of cocaine-related murders, a huge race riot, a refugee crisis that includes dumping another country’s prisoners into one American city. And all three crises happen within six weeks of one another. It was absolute chaos during a vicious election year between Carter and Reagan. I mean, come on, who could screw that up?
CR: I think that’s a great way to show the balance there, too. You have to stick to the facts, but it’s also important to make sure the topic you are working on has those compelling elements, or elements you can write in a compelling way while staying true to the facts. What story a writers chooses is vital. What has the response been, so far?
NG: I guess there are three types of response to look for. First, the critical response. That’s been great. We had a rave in the New York Times on publishing day. Having said that, there weren’t enough other reviews in major papers. In the summer of 2020, there were two dominating stories; Trump’s potential reelection and the pandemic. Understandably, it was hard to compete for ink. The second type of response is sales. I think we did very well in Florida, OK elsewhere. That was one of the frustrations. This is a very American story but it got regarded as Floridian. I know Florida gets a bad rap, but let me tell you, race, drugs and immigration are American issues, not Floridian. The third type of response is personal and comes from those you’ve written about. This time, these emails and phone calls were really gratifying. The consensus seems to have been that I didn’t screw anything up too badly.
CR: That last note has to feel pretty good. You can’t really help the things that happen around your release date, and as much as you try to influence it, a book gets framed a certain way. But getting those emails and calls from the people involved must feel great to know you did your project the right way. I know that doesn’t always translate to sales, which is what we’re all after, but at least you know you were true to yourself and the mission you set out on. OK, last question. What advice would you give authors looking to tackle a project like this for the first time?
NG: The biggest gift you can be given or give yourself on a project like this is time. If you tell an editor, I’m sorry, but if I take another year this will be so much better, you’ll get it. Very few authors have the funds to hire researchers. So you’re going to have to trawl through everything alone. It can seem like an outrageous amount of work; especially when you think you’re done and an archivist pulls out another thirty thousand pages of documents. I’m part of that Robert Caro gang who believe that you have to turn every page. You’re digging for diamonds. They’re small but you’ll find them all if you go carefully. I need to end on an up-note. When you’ve done all the heavy-lifting, trust me, the feeling’s wonderful.
CR: That is a common theme I hear from authors who work on projects like this: be patient. That’s great to hear.
Nicholas, I just want to say thank you for joining me. This was a great interview, and there are a lot of gems in here for authors who may be embarking on a similar journey. I really appreciate your honesty and humor. I think a sense of humor will certainly help authors. We definitely need it. But, you’ve given readers a lot of great information.
The link to Nicholas’ book on Amazon is at the top of the page, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. You can also reach out and follow Nicholas on Instagram and Twitter. That info is at the top of the page as well.