Sold on a Monday
A Conversation with the Author
Truth in journalism has certainly become a hot topic amid current events. Was this one of the major reasons you chose to write Sold on a Monday?
It was never my main purpose for writing the book, though I did realize early on that it was going to pertain to that subject area. There's obviously a poor decision made by Ellis, being a desperate but well-meaning reporter. And from there, the chief—along with thousands of readers throughout the country—formed their own view of what was captured in Ellis's photo. Specifically, the mother turning away from the camera was seen as evidence of her shame, and Sylvia even interpreted the picture as a sign from her late daughter.
I think it's really important to remember in today's world of viral posts and images and sound bites that we all bring our own perceptions to the table. And that inevitably these are skewed by our past experiences or even an unconscious desire to see what we want to see. More than ever, quick judgments based on those snippets, and certainly pushing the moral line in reporting, can too often have devastating consequences to others—as Ellis learned the hard way.
When envisioning a "newspaperman" from the 1930s, most people probably picture a suited reporter hovering outside of a courtroom with a notepad or an oversized camera in hand. Early in the story, why did you choose to make Ellis a more unconventional writer assigned to the Society page?
I admit, it wasn't the first job I had in mind for him. (Sorry, Ellis!) To make his actions involving the second photo more understandable, though, there had to be a strong reason behind his desperation to hold on to his big break—something that went beyond paying the rent or achieving a promotion. I decided that him being stuck as a so-called "sob sister" would have provided that motivation. In that era, almost invariably the "women's pages" were written by women, supposedly in no small part because men were so averse to the job. So, it would have been a humiliating assignment for Ellis not only among the staff at the paper, but also with his father.
Interestingly enough, while researching for the book, I happened to learn about Clifford Wallace, the first male editor of the woman's page at the Toronto Star and hence nicknamed "Nellie" (as in, yes, Nellie Bly). Apparently, after much begging, he was relieved of the job, which was then given to Gordon Sinclair, who did nearly everything he could to be fired or reassigned. This included limiting his work hours to only three hours a day and even clipping the majority of his material from other newspapers. Before a proofer discovered the latter, Sinclair actually managed to retain his job for more than a year!
Aside from the true accounts you've already mentioned, what are some of your other favorite pieces of history that are woven into the book?
The actual newspaper articles strewn throughout the story definitely intrigued me the most. A headline about a runaway bride reuniting with her groom made me smile, above all because it appeared as a prominent headline in a major paper. The same went for the piece about the couples caught with thousands of counterfeit banknotes stuffed in their mattresses. On the grimmer side, the slaying of Mickey Duffy, known as "Prohibition's Mr. Big," is primarily fascinating for the fact that his notoriety managed to draw thousands of curious onlookers to his funeral.
As for my top favorite articles...I probably have two. One was the story about a séance held by a rumrunner's widow hoping to identify her husband's murderer, and the second was about the mythical floating nightclub known as the Flying Dutchman. (In my story, I renamed it the Lucky Seagull.) During Prohibition, Sanford Jarrell, a reporter at the Herald Tribune wrote a copyrighted lead story detailing his visit to the elusive speakeasy, complete with a map of its location and a menu of prices. The article and his follow-up pieces quickly became quite the sensation, so much so that authorities went on a determined hunt for the ship. But soon after, many of his claims began to fall apart, and when pressured with questions, Jarrell resigned with a note confessing that the whole story was a hoax. In a painful front-page admission, the paper ended up publishing an acknowledgment of the truth, admitting it had been deceived.
When it comes to bustling newsrooms, New York City quickly comes to mind, especially for a story that involves supper clubs, gambling halls, and mobsters. Was there a reason you chose Philadelphia as another setting over a city like, say, Chicago?
I actually used to live near Chicago and absolutely love that city. Since I'd already featured it in some of my other novels, though, I thought it would be fun to go with another setting. Years ago, I also lived near Philadelphia for a time, so I was already familiar with the area and its rich history. Plus, Pennsylvania's diversity of landscapes and livelihoods made it ideal for the story. Within a relatively short driving distance from all the activity of a big city, there are sprawling fields and farms, mining towns, and textile factories. And, of course, the presence there of major mobsters during the '30s added even more appeal.
What were some of the most helpful resources for your research?
Personal experience from growing up around a newsroom was probably the most helpful. As a kid, I was fortunate enough to host a children's weekly television show for an ABC-affiliate station. We would shoot in the studio every Wednesday night, squeezed in between the two evening news programs. While waiting around during editing, I would hang out with the anchors, reporters, and sportscasters. But my favorite person was the meteorologist who let me move the clouds around on the weather map. (Hey, back then, this was very high-tech.) Later, while in college and exploring different career paths, I even had a summer internship in that same newsroom.
Of course, to gather more insight for the story, I relied on a combination of journalist friends, documentaries, and a stack of wonderful nonfiction books. Those that I found the most valuable include: Skyline by Gene Fowler, City Editor by Stanley Walker, Nearly Everybody Read It: Snapshots of the Philadelphia Bulletin edited by Peter Binzen, and The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune by Richard Kluger.