Meg Sullivan, a fresh-faced journalism school graduate, has just arrived at her first job in the business – crime reporter for a small-town daily in the imagined town of West Wicklow, Rhode Island.
The year is 1977. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are playing reporters on the silver screen. Journalists are seen as heroes post-Watergate, willing to risk it all to expose wrongdoing.
Though Meg may doubt she’s cut out for hard-hitting stuff so early in her career, West Wicklow will provide her with a surprising opportunity to prove her mettle.
“The mills. They’re burning,” Meg is told by a handsome stranger in a diner.
The tip will quickly lead the dogged reporter into a web of small-town corruption and cover-ups. This is the plot to Lu Anne Stewart’s debut novel, “Digging,” a story that’s part detective noir and part exploration of what it means to be a journalist determined to get the truth while butting up against the people who hold all the cards in a tight-knit community.
Though the central plot and characters are invented, Stewart writes with authority on the journalistic world of 1970s Rhode Island. In fact, she was an active participant.
After moving from Pennsylvania to work in Rhode Island as a young reporter, Stewart wrote first for what was then called the Pawtuxet Valley Daily Times in West Warwick. She later worked at the Warwick Beacon from 1982 to 1985.
Stewart, now living in Florida, took early retirement from her journalism career in 2018, giving her time to focus on a different craft.
Fiction a challenge for a reporter
“I’d always wanted to write fiction, but early on it was really a struggle, I think in part because I was trained as a journalist and my writing was always all about getting the facts and stating the facts clearly and all that, and fiction is so different,” she said.
Stewart faced her new challenge diligently, attending workshops and courses about writing and publishing fiction, as well as participating in a writers’ group where she could give and receive feedback. She had a few published short stories under her belt, but “Digging,” which she first began writing in 2014, was where she knew she wanted to put her energy.
“I was really drawn to the novel form,” she said.
Local readers will recognize the book’s quirky Rhode Island setting, West Wicklow, as a metaphorical exploration of West Warwick. The mystery at the heart of Meg’s heroic journey involves suspicious fires burning in the town’s abandoned mills, and the fraud and corruption that allow the dangerous incidents to go unchecked.
“When I first moved to West Warwick, I was so fascinated just by the architecture of the mills and what an imposing presence they were, and there were so many of them throughout the town,” Stewart said.
Covering fires as a reporter, Stewart said, also left her with vivid memories of intense stories about community.
“Depending on what the building was, there would be people out on the sidewalk and nearby that had been driven out of their homes and ... you’re in the midst of this whole scene and people do want to talk to you,” she said.
Though Meg’s path as an out-of-stater trying to report in Rhode Island is semi-autobiographical, Stewart says she and her main character are distinct in many ways.
“I’m sure there are parts of me in her, but she is much more brave than I was certainly at that part of my life,” Stewart said.
Meg draws strength from her colleagues in the small-town newsroom. Maddie, a younger West Wicklow native, looks up to her as a mentor in an era of third-wave feminism. Ned, a former hotshot reporter with personal demons, encourages her to dig in and chase her story.
In a time when public trust is failing in the news media, Stewart said she hoped to represent the kinds of people she has worked with in the news industry.
“Everyone was very much focused on the truth and getting to the truth, and I kind of felt it would be nice to get that across,” she said. “I don’t know if it would change people’s minds today, how they feel about the media and journalism, but I wanted to contribute to that conversation, and maybe show the work of a reporter from a different perspective.”
The particular scandals of Stewart’s novel, she said, are fictional, but there is one standout experience from her days as editor of the Beacon that made it into the book.
“There is a scene in which the managing editor tells the reporters about a call he received from a reader thanking him for the good work the newspaper was doing in holding the local public officials accountable,” Stewart said. “I actually got a call like that from a Beacon subscriber after our great team of reporters had broken several hard-hitting investigative stories. That call always stuck in my mind as one of those moments when you realize the impact local newspapers can have on a community.”
Celebrating RI culture
While “Digging” is a serious story with dark twists and turns, local readers can find joy in its pages as it celebrates the culture of central Rhode Island.
The Portuguese community’s Festa do Espirito Santa is an evocative setting for one of Meg’s early showdowns with a public official. Catholicism as a theme is threaded throughout the novel, inspired by Rhode Island’s heavily Catholic population and Stewart’s own background.
Meg’s colleagues also introduce her to delicacies such as the local dive bar’s microwaved stuffies (with plenty of hot sauce, of course). The names of characters will sound familiar, too; the cast list includes Bouchards, Doucharmes, Pelletiers and more. Stewart didn’t use anyone’s real name, but she said she did combine some different first and last names from her memory, as well as drawing from research on Portuguese and French surnames.
Though Stewart’s next novel will be something completely different from “Digging,” her years of work as a reporter will continue to inspire her fiction.
“In some ways, it’s similar because you’re telling people’s stories one way or the other,” she said. “I’m drawn to fiction as a reader. I enjoy reading novels and I like that aspect of maybe having a theme or idea that you’re trying to get across and then building out characters and a story that help get that theme across.”
Lu Anne Stewart’s “Digging” is published by Fat Dog Books. It can be found online through Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and ordered wherever books are sold. Copies are available at the Warwick Beacon, 1944 Warwick Ave., Warwick, for $16.95.