Like most TV journalists with a combined 99 years of experience in the news racket, retired WSB-TV Action News anchors Don Farmer and Chris Curle have a few war stories to trot out at cocktail parties. The Marco Island, Florida residents have now sprinkled those entertaining anecdotes into Farmer’s debut novel, Deadly News.
The mystery opens in the not-too-distant future as (god forbid) Atlanta prepares to host the Summer Olympics for a second time. Toss in a CNN-like, Atlanta-based cable news network, Global News Service, a Rupert Murdoch-esque oily British media mogul with a few sexual kinks, Atlanta philanthropists and Olympics VIPs who could have been inspired by John and Jan Portman and a plot that opens with a has-been movie star taking a header off a luxe 46th floor Park Place-like Buckhead balcony and shish-kabobbing himself onto a TV News satellite truck and you’ve got quite the page turner.
The couple will introduce the novel to friends and fans Saturday morning on the Emerging Writers stage at the AJC Decatur Book Festival at 10:50 a.m. This week, Farner and Curle took time out from visiting old colleagues and family in town (Farmer is the father of current Action News anchor Justin Farmer) to discuss Deadly News with Atlanta magazine.
Q: Tell us about your return visit so far and the book launch here you had with Justin and your former WSB-TV and CNN co-workers?
Farmer: That was fun. It was thrown by Gail Evans, who we kind of helped bring to CNN back at the start of CNN. She went on to become the highest ranking female [executive vice president] of the network. We had a party at her house here and got to see a bunch of folks, some of whom we hadn’t seen in 16 years.
Q: Deadly News has a double byline on the cover. Who actually came up with the idea for the book?
Curle: Don did. He actually wrote the book. You’ll notice it says Don Farmer in great big letters and “with Chris Curle” is in tiny letters. I’m just the back up singer who helped along the way. I contributed some plot ideas and collaborations here and there. Between us, we have 99 years of experience in our news careers. And we would always sit around and tell stories with other people in the news business. At one point, a lot of these stories are so funny and these people are so amusing, we thought why not put it all in a book?
Farmer: About two years ago, we pulled it out of a drawer, dusted it off, changed the name of it and changed the ending and we started sending it out to publishers. That was an adventure. One of the seven rejection letters I received stated: “We really like the characters, Mr. Farmer, but the plot is kind of thin.” The same day I opened another letter from another publisher who informed me, “The characters are weak but I love the plot.” So I tore up both of the letters and started over.
Q: I once interviewed President Carter and the first lady about their work styles while working together on a book. Mrs. Carter told me, “One book was enough for us. If there had been a second, there would have been a divorce!” So Deadly News was a smoother endeavor?
Farmer (laughs): Oh, sure, there were stress points along the way. Believe me, there is nothing worse than Chris saying to me, “That character would never say anything like that!” And then we’d tussle over that for a while. But I couldn’t have done this without her. It’s my first novel and it’s a strange new world.
Curle: We’re both used to having a deadline. In TV news, you’ve got to be on the set and ready to go. But when you’re writing fiction, you’re never done. Nothing’s right, nothing’s wrong. There’s no deadline. It’s fun and invigorating but it’s also kind of daunting to have that much freedom.
Q: Chris, what was your editorial feedback on some of these female characters Don has pulled out of his brain and put into this book? They run the gamut from sexy, intelligent, idiotic and slightly deranged. Did you have to rein him in a few times?
Curle: I can tell you this: Don started writing parts of this book back when he was doing the 11 o’clock and I was doing the noon and the 5 o’clock at Channel 2. So I’d be asleep when he got home and he’d sit down at the computer and begin writing. He’s print it out and leave it for me to look at the next morning when I got up to go to work. I have to admit when he got to the chapter about the woman in London who the bad guy forces to kind of transform herself to look Asian…
Farmer: The villain makes her tape her eyes back, you see…
Curle: I just remember saying to him, “That’s really funny and bizarre. But where did that come from?!”
Farmer: I’m not sure she believed me but it just came from my warped, 11 o’clock news brain!
Q: We need to discuss Sheila Belle, the brain dead entertainment reporter in the book. We’ve all worked with this person, haven’t we?
Curle (laughs): She’s out there, probably at every TV station in the world!
Q: At one point, you have her fumbling her way through a live shot on air at a crime scene and she tells viewers, “This is a tragedy of tragic proportions.” Is that based on a real quote?
Farmer: Oh, yes. I heard it on television several years ago and I knew I had to use it. It’s such a symbol of what’s wrong with this business.
Curle: There’s also a producer in the book who at one point says, “It’s just a tease. It doesn’t have to be true.” You know, those “Coming up next…” things we do? That actually happened in one of the newsrooms where we worked. There was a lot to draw from our careers.
Farmer: It’s a satire and it’s funny, I hope. That was the goal at least. A lot of readers want to assume that the Bren Forrest character, the head of Global News Service, is a woman patterned on Ted Turner and that Ian Phelps, the British media mogul is Rupert Murdoch. Neither is true although the idea of a global TV news channel based in Atlanta is not a new idea, let’s just say.
Q: When your old Action News anchor desk mate Monica Pearson thumbs through this book, will she find traces of herself in Deadly News?
Farmer: Well, we held the book party before she got a chance to do that! (laughs). No, I’m kidding. People will no doubt see themselves and they’ll see us in the book as well. There are lots of composites and also lots of positive traits of colleagues we’ve worked with as well. That’s why we dedicated the book to all the hard-working journalists out there.
Curle: It’s also why the technical people behind the scenes are featured so prominently in the book. Their work so often goes unappreciated in the business but it’s so important in getting the news on the air each night. The characters in the remote truck, the control room and the directors are based on talented people we worked with. They’re the people who have to put up with the people who are the so-called “talent.”
Q: Don, did you derive any pleasure from impaling a has-been movie actor on the pole of a TV news satellite truck?
Farmer: Oh, sure. It’s a great example of a “what if?” you can do when you’re writing fiction. You can create any freak situation you want.
Q: I have to congratulate you both for exposing the nonsense that is cliched standby, the TV news Satellite News Center. You rightfully poke fun of it in this book when it’s really just a room in the station when you don’t have the time or the man power to do a location shot, right?
Farmer: That was constantly annoying to a lot of people in our business.
Curle: You were literally four feet from everybody else in the news room! It’s just something we laugh at whenever we’re watching local news anywhere in the country.
Farmer: This was a labor of love. We now consider ourselves recovering journalists. It was a good life but it was one filled with many silly moments. Hopefully, the folks who work in the business and the people who watch the news will get a laugh out of it. That’s the intent anyway!