To celebrate the publication of Tell It True by Tim Lockette, we're proud to share a short Q/A with Lockette about the book, which Lindsey Klingele, author of The Truth Lies Here, calls "a compelling look at what it means to seek the truth, no matter where it will lead."
A story of journalistic freedom, press transparency, and the ethics of the death penalty, Tim Lockette's latest novel for young adults, Tell It True, follows a teenage reporter who fights to cover for her school paper the upcoming execution of a man imprisoned on death row. As she navigates the dilemmas, challenges, and unintended consequences of journalism, she finds her life—and her convictions—changing in ways she couldn't have imagined.
The publication of Tell It True unexpectedly coincides with the imminent execution of Willie B. Smith, an Alabaman man imprisoned on death row whose contentious upcoming execution gained national attention when Alabama limited press access to the execution to only one reporter.
Our Tell It True Discussion Guide is available to download here.
Why do you write so often in the voice of girls and young women?
I’ve been trying to write children’s and YA books for some time now, and I’ve always been interested in challenging gender stereotypes in my work. I spent a long time writing male characters who in one way or another resist some of the male roles that are presented to them. That work never seemed to appeal to anybody, perhaps because I was too close to the material. I noticed that moms and girls and female teachers were increasingly emerging in my books as the most active, likable characters. At some point, I decided to just go with that. I don’t know how long I’ll continue or why it seems to work, for now.
The death penalty plays a big role in the book. What’s your experience with that topic?
Many years ago, I moved to Gainesville, Fla. to cover the University of Florida for the local newspaper. The state prison near Starke isn’t far from Gainesville, and it’s where Florida houses its death row. I started covering events related to executions there, largely to fill in for our prison reporter when she wasn’t available. This was 20 years ago, and machismo was perhaps a bigger part of the newsroom at the time. It seemed like a difficult assignment, and I wanted to take it precisely because of that. My editors were careful to offer time off afterward and all that, but generally I didn’t feel traumatized by this in the way they expected. For me, it’s more of a time-release thing.
More than a decade later, I was living in Montgomery, Ala., covering the state legislature. Going back to the execution chamber was the last thing on my mind. I had a habit of sitting in on legislative committee meetings, even when I wasn’t writing about them, just to find out what was going on. I was in an early-morning meeting one day when officials from the state prison system came forward with a bill that would keep the state from releasing the names of companies that supply drugs to the state for executions by lethal injection. Those prison officials said there was nothing in current state law that prevented them from releasing that information if someone requested it.
Of course, I requested the information. And they refused to give it to me, even though no bill had been passed. That led to a couple of years of digging through the public records that were available, to try and figure out why there was such a concern about secrecy.
What was the big secret?
I’m still not sure who the drug supplier is. But I know that for ethical reasons, drug companies tend to frown on the use of their drugs to kill people. A lot of our drugs come from companies in Europe, where there’s much more opposition to the death penalty. I did find a few times when state officials would drop the names of drug companies in court documents, though it wasn’t always clear whether the companies that were named were the source of the state’s drugs. Typically when companies find out they’re linked in some way to executions, they’ll respond by releasing a statement or policy that this isn’t an approved use of their product.
What are you trying to say, in “Tell It True,” about the death penalty?
For me, the biggest take-home is that capital punishment isn’t what many people think it is. The most vociferous supporters of the death penalty seem to see it as an eye-for-an-eye punishment, something that has a satisfying sort of symmetry. In reality it takes a long time to execute someone, largely because it’s important to review the case and make sure you’re not killing an innocent person. The process itself is strange and medicalized and emotionally traumatic for just about everyone involved.
I think it’s worthwhile to look at the death penalty, as it is, and ask ourselves if this is worth doing. A number of American states and most of our peer countries don’t execute people. The alternative to death isn’t to let people go, it’s to put them in prison for life. What do we get out of the death penalty, and is it worth the effort we put into it?
Is Lisa based on a particular person?
If anybody in the book is based on an actual person, it’s Blanderson. I didn’t intend to base her on one of my own teachers, but when I finished the manuscript and began editing, I saw how much of her advice mirrored things that were said to me by Jerry Chandler, an instructor in the communications department at my alma mater, Jacksonville State University.
I guess that means that to a certain extent I’m Lisa, particularly where Lisa’s shown in conflict with Blanderson. But the real story is that Lisa is an amalgam of a number of young reporters I’ve worked with — the best of whom have a bit of wildness in them that has to be channeled toward a good use. She’s entitled and cocky sometimes, but she’s smart and sensitive enough to learn when people tell her something she didn’t know, something she never considered.
What advice do you have for young writers?
First, you have to actually write. You can’t just sit around dreaming about the novel you’re going to write one day. Sit down and write, every day, even if you don’t feel inspired.
That’s the only thing you must do. Personally, I find that it’s good to have a routine, writing at the same time of day in the same place. And here’s something that works for me and might work for you: when you finish a scene or a section, leave yourself a note about what you expect to happen in the next scene, or leave yourself a section of dialogue you expect to happen in that scene. Getting started every day is hard, so if you leave yourself a note you’ll have an idea to work with or to push back on.
An unlikely high school newspaper editor fights to cover a local murder case and learns what is most important in friendship, in journalism, and in life.
Lisa Rives had higher expectations for sophomore year. Her beauty queen mom wonders why she can't be more like other 15-year-old girls in their small Alabama town. Lisa's Dad, well, she suspects he's having an affair with a colleague at his top-secret job. Her friend Preethy seems to be drifting away, and Lisa spends her schooldays dodging creepy boys and waiting to graduate. Then she finds herself in charge of her high school newspaper, which is the last thing she wanted—school newspapers are for popular kids and club-joiners, not outcasts like her, and besides, the stories are never about anything you actually want to know. But after accidentally tipping the scales in the school election, then deciding to cover a "real" story—the upcoming execution of a local man charged with murder—and becoming a surprise news story herself, Lisa learns some hard lessons about friendship and truth-telling. As Lisa navigates the dilemmas, challenges, and unintended consequences of journalism, she finds her life—and her convictions—changing in ways she couldn't have imagined. Tell It True is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes devastating, always relatable coming-of-age story about the importance of speaking the truth in a world of denial and fake news.
“Through the act of bearing witness, Lisa evolves from a reluctant student editor to a budding journalist. She leaves the death chamber observation room changed, and readers are likely to turn the final page of her story with new perspectives as well.”
—Kate Messner, The New York Times Book Review
“Setting up and then deftly tweaking expectations the way he did in his debut, Atty at Law, Lockette pitches self-styled “brainy rebel” Lisa Rives into a whirl of hard choices and gut checks after she takes over editorship of her school’s paper... Wry, engrossing, even occasionally funny—right up to a gut-wrenching capper.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“Tell it True is a compelling look at what it means to seek the truth, no matter where it will lead. Its bold, clear-eyed heroine goes on a journey from cynical high school outsider to ‘real’ journalist, and her hard-won wisdom will stay with you.”
—Lindsey Klingele, author of The Truth Lies Here
“Like the best journalism, Tim Lockette’s novel, Tell it True pulls no punches. It refuses to sugar coat the realities of being a teenager—family struggles, friendship, the feeling that you don’t belong—while also challenging readers to think about what it means to have integrity in a world that often rewards looking the other way. Laugh-out-loud funny and painfully real, Tell it True asks you to see the world differently—to give a damn.”
—Bryan Bliss, National Book Award Long-Listed Author of We’ll Fly Away