Julia Dahl’s first novel, “Invisible City,” is about a tabloid reporter in New York City covering the murder of a Hasidic woman. The novel, which came out in May, is fiction, but Dahl, a reporter for CBSNews.com, had some similar experiences of her own to tap. She spoke with Poynter about the book, writing for tabloids and covering closed communities.
So just to start with, tell me about your book and what inspired you to write a novel?
I’ve worked in journalism since graduating from college but I’ve always written fiction, as well. I wrote a novel in my 20s, but it was pretty bad and never got published. I started writing “Invisible City” right after getting a job as a freelance reporter at the New York Post in 2007. I wanted to explore how fraught tabloid reporting can be, especially for a young, relatively untrained journalist. I also realized that the books I really enjoyed were murder mysteries, so I thought I should try to write one.
Right about the same time, my husband and I moved into a new apartment – and the broker told us that the previous tenant had committed suicide there. I did a little digging (I’m a reporter, after all!) and found out that he was ultra-Orthodox, from Borough Park, and had been shunned because he was gay. I started collecting – but not opening – his mail, and began a kind of imaginary relationship with him.
Soon after that, the Post sent me to Borough Park to cover the suicide of a young groom who killed himself just after his wedding. I am Jewish, but Reform, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about this world of Jews living so differently from how I lived. So I started to write!
I’m assuming some of “Invisible City” is based on what you’ve learned or seen as a reporter. Is that correct?
The plot – the murder and its aftermath – are 100 percent fiction. But yes, my experiences as a reporter, especially at the Post, definitely informed the creation of the narrator, Rebekah Roberts.
What are the journalism lessons (that sounds weird, but you know what I mean) in the book?
I think the book poses hard questions about how tabloids work: the fact “runners” go gather facts and “re-write” people in the office write the stories; that “sexy” stories about celebrities take precedent over “ordinary” injustices. The narrator, Rebekah, makes a lot of mistakes trying to please her editors and sources. As the book progresses, she goes from having no sense of ownership over the stories she covers, to taking responsibility for how she does her job and the very real consequences for the people she writes about.
This book is about an ultra-Orthodox community. Have you covered other communities that tend to be insular?
I’ve done a few stories about police and the military, and those communities tend to be as closed as the ultra-Orthodox. There are different rules and a sense that outsiders don’t understand why they do what they do.
Best tips for getting inside as a reporter?
Start outside and work your way in. Talk to people who have left the fold, so to speak, and learn what you can from them. Then, once you’ve established trust, ask to be introduced to people inside the community.