Fiction in Journalism
For years, Rick Mofina filed newspaper stories that sounded as if they'd been torn out of paperback thrillers at the grocery store. But as of 2003 Mofina no longer has a job in journalism. It begs the question: are Canadian newspapers ready for fiction techniques or is it just a few writers' and editors' fantasy?
Rick Mofina arrived within minutes. He got out of his blue Jetta, grabbed a notepad and headed toward a police inspector who was waiting for the medical examiner.
Mofina’s tired eyes betrayed the effects of the night shift. The 1988 Olympics had ended in a whirlwind and the Herald was tightening its budget. He had just been taken off the prairies beat and reassigned to night cops. What the hell was night cops? Mofina asked himself. Give me politics. Give me the labour beat. Why am I covering God damned car accidents at 2 a.m.?
EMS voices echoed over the radios. Mofina fixed his glasses and peered at the ditch, catching a flash of denim. The victim was still in the car; slouched over in the driver’s seat.
“You wanna take a look?” the investigator asked the young reporter.
Mofina raised an eyebrow, “Uh…sure.”
There were still “pieces of life” in the car when Mofina stared down at his first dead body. A hockey bag. A Coke in the cup holder.
The victim wasn’t much older than him.
As he gazed at two voids where eyes should have been, visions of Mofina’s own life flashed in his head. His adolescence in Belleville, Ont. His first jobs picking fruit and washing dishes. Journalism school at Carleton University. His wedding to Barbara in ’79.
With the stench of death in the air and police lights burning holes in his eyes, a philosophical air swept over Mofina and he realized he was meant to be a crime writer.
• • •
Mofina hurried back to the Herald and wrote a note on the accident for the day crew. After that, his desire to write a novel crystallized – it would be a thriller about a reporter chasing crime stories.
Almost 20 years later, he’s published seven paperbacks with A Perfect Grave set to hit Canadian stands in May 2007.
As a journalist, he spent a summer at the Toronto Star, more than a decade at the Herald and three years at CanWest’s Ottawa bureau. In 2003, he left journalism – or rather, was forced out – when CanWest downsized. The move, says his former boss Peter Robb, “was strictly economics.”
“Unfortunately, others had been there longer,” says Robb, now an editor at the Ottawa Citizen. “It’s corporate stuff.”
Mofina doesn’t pack any grudges. Working in the nation’s capital as a communications advisor, he wakes up at 4:15 a.m. most mornings, before the kids are up, and writes. He’s produced a book each year since the 2000 release of If Angels Fall, his fictional tale of “a grizzled homicide detective” and “a superb news reporter whose life is coming apart.”
To be a published novelist was a childhood dream, says Mofina, but it wouldn’t have happened without his newsroom experience. “I live the journalistic world now in a fictional sense,” says the 49-year-old. “I create fictional newsrooms and fictional challenges.”
Journalism made him the thriller writer he is today. And, if Mofina’s colleagues are right, fiction like his is making reporters better storytellers. True crime thrillers are appearing in newspapers like The Hamilton Spectator and the Toronto Star with gritty narrations and nail-biting endings. The line between suspense novel and news story has blurred since Mofina started.
• • •
Shooting the breeze one night in Calgary, Mofina noticed a cop carrying something in his hands. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the copy of Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques – a whale of a textbook for police training.
“Standard reading when you make detective,” the man answered. He passed it to Mofina, who wrote down the title.
A few weeks later, Mofina’s copy arrived. He’d had to special order it from a college library (his wife would later buy it for him as a gift). Soon, he’d read it cover to cover. He learned how to speak like a detective and, in turn, started asking better questions.
Getting into the mind of a detective, says Mofina, helped him become a better reporter. Mofina took the same principle home, where he quietly wrote his fiction – he began thinking like a cop, then like a lawyer; a psychologist; a kidnapping victim; and even a criminal. When he’d go back to write at the Herald he found himself empathizing more deeply with his sources. In form, Mofina’s journalism started looking more like fiction.
While editors at some papers rein in such creativity, others have begun to thrive on it. In contrast to most newsroom attempts to condense stories, The Hamilton Spectator regularly publishes serialized non-fiction pieces that run into the tens of thousands of words — written in a style so gripping that many have become paperbacks.
• • •
Jon Wells had been at the Spectator for a couple years when editor-in-chief Dana Robbins called him into his office. The Spectator was covering the trial of Sukhwinder Singh Dhillon, who poisoned his wife in 1995 and would soon go to jail for it. Robbins wanted a feature. “I want you to write something big,” he told Wells. “Take as much time as you need.”
Months later, Wells gave his editor four chapters of what eventually became “Poison: A True Crime Story.” He hadn’t shown anyone his work yet. It wasn’t like anything he regularly saw in the paper – written in thriller-style chapters as opposed to a bunch of related features. What if Robbins hates it? thought Wells.
Robbins loved it. But he was nervous readers wouldn’t. Stuff like this might sell on paperback shelves, but were newspaper readers ready? On January 24, the night before the 31-chapter series launched, Robbins went to bed with “a rock in [his] stomach the size of [his] fist.” It was counter to everything he’d been told about the newspaper industry – it wasn’t short, it wasn’t quick, and it spent 10 times as much space detailing characters and settings as a regular news feature.
The next day, the Spectator sold an extra 500 copies on newsstands. It was an incredible success for its entire 31-day span. “It became a seminal moment for us,” says Robbins, now the publisher of The Record in Kitchener, Ont. “One of the things we learned from this is that readers have a much higher acceptance of change than perhaps newspapers do.”
“Poison” later won a National Newspaper Award, which led to other acclaimed serialized narratives at theSpectator.
• • •
Today, years after he left the paper, it wouldn’t be surprising to still find one or two of Mofina’s paperbacks on desks at the Herald. “People still talk about him,” says civic affairs reporter Tony Seskus. “Rick’s a legend.”
By the time Seskus joined the Herald in ’97, Mofina was already an established crime reporter known for powerful characters and scene-setting ambiance. “He could tell a story in a very compelling fashion,” says Seskus. “He was always able to express a lot of empathy for the people, no matter who they were.”
In 1989, Mofina became captivated by serial killer Charles Ng. The man had fled California in the late ’80s after the sex murders of 11 people and was arrested while hiding in a Calgary park not far from Mofina’s home. After writing a few stories about Ng, Mofina decided to write to the killer, who’d never granted a press interview.
“I am a reporter with the Calgary Herald,” Mofina began. The media is presenting you as a monster, Mofina told him, I want to tell your side of the story.
On December 28, 1990, a letter arrived on Mofina’s desk from “C. Ng.” Ecstatic, the reporter ran to his editor reading the letter aloud. “The prison officials here will not allow me to call you,” wrote Ng in scratchy handwriting. Instead, he told him how to get on the visitor list.
Mofina was never able to sit down with Ng due to a battle with the convict’s lawyer, but they continued corresponding through mail. Ng revealed frustration from his jail cell, saying it was inhumane for the state to condemn him without telling him when or where he would die. He quoted Camus’ “Reflections on the Guillotine.” His writing was eloquent, bordering on intellectual, at times.
In 1998, Mofina covered the trial in California, lacing his stories with lines like, “revulsion and horror were written in the eyes of jurors,” and “the victims came to life on large colour monitors in the courtroom.” Colleagues say it was some of Mofina’s best work.
“He didn’t try to paint Charlie Ng as this evil monster,” says Seskus. “He wanted to understand how this guy came into being.”
The Star’s Quebec bureau chief Sean Gordon says his former colleague “would twist himself in knots to find the right atmosphere.” Gordon says it was “classic Mofina.”
• • •
In his fourth-floor suite at the King Edward Hotel, Mofina was busy getting ready for the Crime Writers of Canada awards banquet when he saw there was a message on his phone.
On June 4, 2003 his boss at CanWest told Mofina that he no longer had a job. The company was downsizing.
It was almost time to leave for the awards. Mofina was dressed in a dark blue suit and soon his sales rep from Pinnacle Books would be waiting in the lobby. His heart racing, Mofina called his wife in a panic.
“What do I do, Barb?” he asked.
A little shaken up, he went to the awards as she suggested. As he sat in a high wingback chair in the Ontario Club on King Street West, his mind flooded with thoughts of the future. Then he heard his name. He’d won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel.
He walked on stage and accepted the prize from Canadian author Peter Robinson and The Globe and Mailcolumnist Margaret Cannon.
“I really needed this award tonight,” Mofina told the crowd.
It poured that night; the thunderclaps almost audible from inside the Ontario Club’s dark ballroom. Mofina got back to the King Edward around midnight, a little dizzy from champagne and celebration.
Maybe editors like Robbins were right: newsroom dinosaurs weren’t ready to print thrillers. They were about cutting words, staff and budgets. If Mofina was going to write the stories he wanted, he’d have to stick with fiction.
He entered his room as lightning flashed outside. This is like a bad film noir, he thought throwing off his tie. Mofina flipped on the news. Once again, he was pondering his life. But now, journalism didn’t seem to have a place for him.
Chris Richardson was the Visuals Editor for the Summer 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.