This reading group guide for A Bad Day’s Work includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nora McFarland. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
News camerawoman, Lilly Hawkins, gets the scoop on all her competitors when she is first to film the crime scene of a gruesome murder. She hurriedly returns to the office to screen her footage, only to discover that the tape is blank. When Lilly returns home, two dirty cops attack her, demanding that she produce the tape of her footage or suffer additional attacks. Working against the clock, Lilly must clear her name and solve the murder before she becomes the next victim. Along the way, Lilly receives help from a surprising source who challenges her to rethink the way she’s always seen the world and herself.
1. At the start of the novel, what does McFarland establish about Lilly Hawkin’s status at KJAY? What has happened to her? What are her challenges? Why is it important to Lilly that she acquire good footage of the Valley Farm’s murder scene?
2. What do we learn about the nature of Lilly’s work as a shooter? According to Lilly, there are key “Gets” to shoot in every news story. Identify some of Lilly’s shooting assignments, her intended “Gets,” and her success rate. How would you rate Lilly’s skills as a shooter?
3. How would you characterize Lilly? What are her strengths and her weaknesses? How are your perceptions of these altered throughout the story? Do you like Lilly? Why or why not?
4. Describe Lilly’s relationships with her two potential suitors, “Handsome” and Rod Strong. What are Lilly’s perceptions of each? Whom did you find most appealing? Why?
5. By the time Skinny and Belly attack Lilly in her apartment, what does Lilly believe or know about the Valley Farms murder? How does the attack impact the direction or focus of her investigation? What does she learn about the particulars of the case in her efforts to meet her attackers’ 2 p.m. deadline?
6. As the novel progresses, Lilly’s taped recording of the murder scene becomes extremely valuable to a number of key characters. Identify these characters and the value of the tape to each. By the story’s end, what meaning does the tape provide to any or all of them?
7. Why does Lilly seek out her uncle Bud? How does his presence aid Lilly? What are they able to discover together?
8. Explore the nature of Lilly’s relationship with her uncle Bud. What do they believe about each other? How do the actions of the story support or challenge their conceptions of each other?
9. Lilly gains a surprising ally in Rod Strong, who sheds light on the nature of her relationships with her colleagues at work. What does Rod reveal about Lilly’s views of her colleagues? How is Lilly able to use the knowledge she gains from their interaction to assist in clearing her name? What larger lesson does she extract from the situation?
10. As Lilly progresses deeper into her investigation, a more complicated portrait of the victim, Val Boyle, emerges that contradicts the views of the police. What are the conflicting perspectives on Val? How are these conflicting perspectives highlighted in the discovery of the real murderer? How does the resolution of these conflicting portraits impact Lilly?
11. Which seemingly inconsequential events or individuals provided clues to help Lilly solve the crime?
12. Leland Warner threatens to reveal a family secret to keep her from revealing evidence that could hurt his daughter. What is the nature of his claims about Lilly’s past? Is Lilly able to substantiate his claims? What does Lilly’s confrontation with Leland reveal about her? Do you agree with Lilly’s stance? Why or why not?
13. By the story’s end, Lilly repeats a line she heard from Rod: “People aren’t just one thing. You don’t always know what they are going to do.” What does Lilly mean to suggest with this line? What is Rod suggesting when he first says the line to Lilly? What does her repetition of this line illuminate about her character? Do you agree with her contention? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Explore the role of TV shooters aiming to shoot the best “Gets” for their respective television station. Watch a news broadcaston your local station, and try to think like the shooter. Whatwere the “Gets” for each story? Was the shooter effective? Howdid you evaluate the effectiveness of a particular “Get”? Was thereanything you would have done differently?
2. Review Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of A Single Story at http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg. In this talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie discusses the dangers of presenting one perspective on an issue, a country, or a group of people, much like Reverend Phillips suggests to Lilly Hawkins at the victim’s house. Based on Adichie’s talk and Reverend Phillips’s comments to Lilly, what single stories do you detect in the media today? What do you believe is the root of these single stories? What do you believe is the effect of these single stories? How might you or others challenge single stories in the future?
3. Appearance vs. reality in A Bad Day’s Work. Lilly struggles to have an accurate perception of those with whom she works as well as some of the individuals she encounters on the job. Her Uncle Bud suggests she may be incapable of reading people well. Talk about a situation where you read someone inaccurately. What cues did you use to come to your conclusion about the individual? Once you were able to determine that you were wrong, were you able to reevaluate your initial cues? Why do you believe you had such a mistaken impression? Have you been able to transfer the lessons you learned into a future situation? If yes, how? If no, why not?
A Conversation with Nora McFarland
This is your first novel. What was the inspiration for A Bad Day’s Work?
I was working as a shooter in Bakersfield and realized it would be a great set-up for a mystery, but didn’t make the attempt until later when I took a job at Barnes & Noble. Meeting the authors who visited the store and working around so many books inspired me. At first I tried to write like Ross MacDonald or Sue Grafton, both of whom I’ve always loved, but it’s just not my voice. When I try to be hardboiled it comes out pretentious. As soon as I allowed myself to be funny everything began to click.
Why did you choose to work within the mystery/suspense genre? What are its benefits and drawbacks?
Long before I attempted to write in the mystery genre I was a fan. I think it goes back to my parents showing me the film version of Death on the Nile when I was five. I can’t imagine writing straight fiction. I’d have no idea what to do with my characters.
You have worked for a television news network. What can you tell us about the demands of putting together a compelling news story for the public?
A news story must have human elements that the audience relates to and it needs to support journalism’s core mission of giving people the information that they need to be well informed taxpayers and members of the community. It also has to have great pictures because it’s fundamentally a visual medium. Plus, anything about Anna Nicole Smith. I’m only half kidding. You need to balance what people want and what they need. Unfortunately, there’s always an element of making sausage. You’re working on deadline and probably trying to do too much with too few resources.
At the start of the novel, you note that Lilly Hawkins is a rarity, a female shooter. Is that true to life? What appeals to you about the world of a shooter?
I was the only female shooter in Bakersfield and there were many other television markets without any women photographers. It’s gotten better since then, but shooting is still a male-dominated profession. It’s a physically demanding job that you simply must be aggressive to be successful at. Those are traits associated more with men, but it doesn’t mean women can’t be great shooters or even the best.
One of the factors changing the landscape is the proliferation of One-Man-Bands. That’s when a reporter shoots their own video. In smaller television markets the economic pressures are forcing stations to eliminate photographers. One or two shooters remain on the payroll to handle live shots and maintain the equipment, but most of the photography is done by reporters. Since many of the reporters are women, this has changed the dynamic. It’s also something Lilly will eventually have to deal with at KJAY.
Shooting really is a double edged sword. The very thing that makes it so attractive, the excitement and adrenaline rush of chasing a story, is what wears you down. I eventually burnt out and took a job that didn’t require me to visit crime scenes in the middle of the night. Many of my fellow shooters also left the business or transitioned into different positions. It’s difficult to keep that kind of pace up.
Did Lilly turn out as you originally envisioned? What do you hope readers take to heart with Lilly?
Lilly absolutely did not turn out like I originally envisioned. I had planned for her character to be someone who begins the novel with low self esteem and, because of everything she goes through, changes into someone with high self esteem. But as I wrote, I felt myself pulled in another direction. I kept creating subplots where it turned out Lilly was her own worst enemy and had fundamentally misjudged other characters and situations. Also, I felt like I’d betrayed the character by portraying her as wimpy. I did a second draft with major changes and abandoned the self-esteem idea completely. That’s when Lilly came into her own.
What challenges did you encounter with writing your first novel?
The biggest challenge was not being very good at it. I was trying to run a marathon, but didn’t know how to walk. I learned to write slowly over many drafts and many hours at my laptop.
A Bad Day’s Work features a wonderful cast of characters that feel like an extended family. Was that important for you to establish this sense of community in the novel? Were there any real life inspirations for any of these characters?
I’ve always loved television shows with coworkers who behave more like a family. I watched a lot of The Mary Tyler MooreShow, Bob Newhart, and Barney Miller when I was a little kid. I also love the films of Wes Andersen. Each one ends with a group of conflicting personalities coming together. That sense of family and community is very satisfying for me as a reader/viewer and it’s probably natural that I’d incorporate it into my writing.
Leanore Drucker is the only character with real life inspirations, even though the particulars of her situation are made-up. She’s based on a well known Bakersfield historian named Vivian Tucker. She was a very special lady who passed away several years ago. I took some of her mannerisms and added some from my friend Leanore Motley and then filled in the rest of the character from my imagination. But every other character and the things that happen to them are complete fiction.
You play quite a bit with the appearance of things versus their reality. Was that a natural avenue for you to explore since the work of a shooter is so visual or is this an important theme for you as a writer?
I decided it was a great way to tie together a lot of different ideas I had floating around my first draft. The video Lilly records when doing a story is incomplete without context, just like her views of people are shallow without her actually making an effort to know them. I also tried to tie that into the love story by making one of Lilly’s suitors have a cynical view of people based on stereotypes and another have an optimistic, but ultimately more nuanced view.
How does your background in cinema and television impact your work as a novelist?
Something that was hammered into us in film school is that characters need to change. They need to have an arc that you can trace and is satisfying to the viewer/reader. Almost every one of my characters ends the story in a different place from where they started. The only character that doesn’t change turns out to be a big jerk.
If your work was to be translated for television, who would you like to see cast as Lilly Hawkins, Rod Strong, and Uncle Bud?
Lilly is hard for me. Michelle Williams or Reese Witherspoon would both be fantastic. Kristen Bell is one of my favorite actresses, but I love her so much as Veronica Mars that it’s hard for me to see her as another character—especially one I created.
Ryan Reynolds would be fantastic for Rod, but I also like Jason O’Mara from the American version of Life on Mars. He has an inherent likeability that’s perfect for Rod.
Ian McKellan is my dream Bud. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, because he’s such an amazing and distinguished actor, but it would be so much fun to watch him bring Bud to life.
This is the first of a planned trilogy. What can we expect from the next book in the series?
Lilly and Rod are covering a deadly wildfire in the mountains above Bakersfield. Residents are evacuating and thousands of firefighters are pouring in. A body is found in the local lake and authorities, already overwhelmed by the natural disaster, are quick to declare it an accidental drowning. The victim turns out to be someone Lilly has a personal connection to and she begins investigating the death as the fire escalates.