Journalist, Novelist and Writing Coach John DeDakis is a former Senior Copy Editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” DeDakis (pronounced deh-DAY-kiss) is the author of four mystery-suspense novels, Fast Track, Bluff, Troubled Water, and Bullet in the Chamber. During his award-winning 45-year career in journalism (25 years at CNN), DeDakis has been a White House Correspondent and interviewed such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. DeDakis is a writing coach, manuscript editor, writing workshop leader, and has taught journalism at the University of Maryland – College Park, and American University in Washington, D.C. Visit him at www.johndedakis.com.
Book description: It’s her first day on the job as the newest White House correspondent for the Associated Press and Lark Chadwick feels she’s in way over her head. Unfortunately for Lark, it’s an opinion shared by her immediate supervisor – and nemesis – Rochelle Grigsby.
But Grigsby’s been overruled by the higher-ups at A.P., so she’s decided to prove them wrong by tripping up Lark at every turn. Grigsby assigns Lark to the highly-coveted and prestigious front-row center seat in the briefing room, knowing full well it will provoke a confrontation between Lark and the A.P.s long-time and legendary White House correspondent Stallings Ridgeway.
Grigsby’s plan works better than expected. The confrontation between Lark and Ridgeway plays out on live television just as newly-elected President Will Gannon enters the briefing room to announce his administration’s policy on the commercialization of drones. An embarrassed Lark scuttles in shame to the back of the briefing room.
Suddenly Secret Service agents swarm into the room, whisk the president away, and order everyone out of the building and off the White House grounds. Lark’s formidable on-deadline reporting skills kick in.
As Lark and her boyfriend, A.P. White House photographer Doug Mitchell, are herded out of the briefing room, Lark calls the national desk at A.P. headquarters in New York to report the evacuation. She’s thrust onto the air and is doing live, breaking-news commentary for A.P. Radio when a deafening explosion destroys the briefing room.
The president is missing. The first lady’s life is in danger. Lark’s boyfriend Doug Mitchell disappears. And, during the next few tense days, it’s Lark’s job to sort it all out.
In Bullet in the Chamber, author, former White House correspondent, and long-time CNN editor John DeDakis takes readers behind the scenes of a reporter’s deadline-a-minute life with a taut and twisty thriller about drones, drugs, and journalism.
Please begin by telling us a little about your writing background. It goes way back to about 1958 when I was a kid and God was an adolescent. I used by mom’s Royal typewriter to hunt-and-peck a couple “books.” My Ph.D.-in-Creative-Writing daughter Emily came across one of them not too long ago and exclaimed, “Oh, Dad! This is terrible!” Fortunately, her appearance on the scene came when I was already embarked on a successful career in just-the-facts-ma’am journalism and had developed a thick enough skin that enabled me to withstand Emily’s brutal – but oh-so-accurate – criticism.
The long-dormant desire to write a book resurfaced in the mid-1990s when I began researching a biography I planned to write about a friend of mine who was murdered in 1975. But the project became too time-consuming and expensive, plus I was digging up information that caused his family great consternation, so I shelved the project and folded some of my research into what became my first novel, Fast Track, published in 2010.
What inspired you to write your latest novel, Bullet in the Chamber? I got the initial idea for the story when my 22-year-old son Stephen went missing in the summer of 2011. I’d only known for a month that he’d been using heroin, but when he failed to show up for work, I immediately suspected heroin might be the reason. After a desperate, week-long search, his body was found slumped at the wheel of my car. The coroner ruled the cause of death as “heroin intoxication.”
I got the idea for the title and cover illustration – a bullet in a syringe – while Steve was still missing. The image has a double meaning: the Russian-roulette risk of using heroin even once, but also my belief that pushers linked to a fatal overdose should be charged with second-degree murder because it’s like selling a pistol with one bullet in the chamber to a person they know will play Russian roulette.
The novel uses my experience to explore the heroin addiction issue, but it’s not entirely about that because not everyone cares about my personal story. Many of my readers have come to care about my protagonist, Lark Chadwick. Consequently, I felt I needed to create something satisfying for them, too: a budding romance, a demanding new job as a White House correspondent, and a bit of politics surrounding the commercialization of drones.
What was your goal when writing this book? I hope people come away from Bullet in the Chamber with a better understanding of the pain heroin addiction causes for the people who love the addict. Addiction in all of its manifestations is a scourge in this country. I hope that in some small way, Bullet in the Chamber will help to destigmatize addiction so that more resources – public, private, and personal – will be brought to bear to help prevent and treat addiction.
I also hope people will come away with a better understanding about how hard journalists work behind the scenes to get a story and to make sure it’s accurate and fair. Lately, it feels to me like a lot of criticism directed at “The Media” comes from people who’ve never set foot in a newsroom yet are convinced that all journalists are blatantly biased. To be sure, there are many examples of journalistic short-comings, but I hope readers of Bullet in the Chamber will come away with a better understanding of what it means to be a White House correspondent in the digital age.
How would you describe your creative process while writing Bullet in the Chamber? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline? I prefer using an outline, yet still want the creative freedom to take detours. But Bullet in the Chamber presented a new challenge: even though I knew where the story needed to go, I didn’t know how Lark, my protagonist, would be able to get there. Consequently, when I got to the mid-point of the novel, I would begin writing a chapter without knowing how it would end. That was both agonizing and exhilarating. I’m now more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty when I sit down and face a blank screen.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
I remember having a difficult time with writer’s block when I was working at a radio station in Madison, Wisconsin after I got out of the Army in 1974. I was responsible for writing and anchoring news-on-the-hour broadcasts. I agonized over writing these short, 5-minute news bursts. The station was in the middle of a cornfield, so one night I went outside, got on my knees and prayed, “Lord, help me to write well and fast.” Obviously, my prayer needed some editing because when you see it in on paper, it looks like I was giving The Almighty a deadline. No matter. I got up off my knees, went back inside and the copy flowed easily – and has ever since.
Lesson # 1: Prayer works.
Lesson # 2: I’ve found that when I feel like I’ve hit the wall and don’t know what to write, I simply sit back and ask myself, “what am I trying to say?” Then, the words come.
I think the key to overcoming writer’s block is to take off the straightjacket. The writing doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. The best writing is REwriting.
Do you have another job besides writing? For twenty of the twenty-five years I was at CNN, I struggled to balance my writing with my family and my career. Retiring from CNN in 2013 was one of the best decisions I ever made. Now every day is Saturday. In addition to writing, people hire me to edit their book-length manuscripts, plus I lead writing workshops around the country – and sometimes abroad. I’ve never been busier – or happier.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? Don’t give up.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?