For many years, Dave Rasdal worked for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. He was best known for his “Ramblin’ ” column, which featured stories—sometimes funny, sometimes touching, often both—about everyday people in and around Eastern Iowa.
He wrote more than 3,500 of these true stories over the years. But all along, he wanted also to be known as a fiction writer. In 2019, he accomplished that goal when he self-published Night Beat, a thriller grounded in his long career as a journalist. In the novel, two reporters—Mike Rockwell and Dan Goldberg—work the crime beat in a fictionalized version of Cedar Rapids. Rockwell works the night shift; Goldberg the day. It’s safe to say that the two have very different approaches to their shared gig.
Rasdal answered questions about Night Beat and his other writing endeavors via email.
Night Beat had a long gestation! Tell me a little bit about your early attempts to write it—and how it all came together in the end. What was the initial spark for the story, and how did the plot and characters evolve over each of your stabs at writing the novel?
I spent 32 years giving “birth” to Night Beat. Thank goodness, I didn’t carry it around like a baby all that time, but it remained in the back of my mind. Also on my mind was my sophomore high school English teacher’s encouragement that I become a writer after I reviewed Charles Dickins’ David Copperfield with not only a written report, but an oral one where I acted out major parts. I took her words to mean I should write fiction. So . . . 50 years after I began dreaming of becoming a novelist, I self-published Night Beat.
Writing experts say write what you know. . . . Naturally, I decided to write a newspaper novel. And I wanted it to have suspense.
I started Night Beat in February of 1987 with the intent it would be a quick read, an “airport book.” I finished the first draft in two months. Typing “The End” was euphoric, but it was far from the end. Life gets in the way. . . . but I attacked the novel again in 1989, 1991, 1995 . . . finally in 2018 for the seventh draft.
I loved the Night Beat plot, the conflict between two reporters who cover the police beat, each feeling he’s better than the other. Of course, I had to make one good and the other bad, thus the idea of one reporter working days, the other working nights. Thus the title.
Each rewrite added depth to the characters and helped me sharpen the dialogue. Adding the bad character’s connection to real-life bad guy John Wayne Gacy came with the last draft. I feel it adds genuine depth to the story, so maybe waiting 32 years was meant to be.
Were there any particular challenges to crafting a narrative that swaps back and forth between two characters with very different perspectives?
For me, the alternating perspective was a natural. Since Mike Rockwell (the good guy) works nights and Dan Goldberg works days, it allowed me to get into their heads for individual scenes. In shared scenes, I tried to keep one perspective to make it easier for the reader to follow. While editing and rewriting, I often worked on Rockwell’s chapters consecutively for consistency and then did the same with Goldberg’s. In addition, I introduced the character perspective early in each chapter for the reader’s benefit.
You began writing the book in the mid-1980s, and in the end, you decided to leave the story in that time period. What were the advantages of that?
Staying in the fall of 1986 made it easier for me as far as technology is concerned. For instance, I built tension when Mike Rockwell searched for a pay telephone. If he carried a cell phone, it wouldn’t have worked. I had fun with that too. In one scene, I have him wishing for caller ID, which didn’t come along until at least a decade later.
Also in 1986, newspapers were top dog for local news, even breaking news, although radio was a competitor with its immediacy. Today, television and social media dictate a never-ending news cycle. Newspapers have been relegated to in-depth coverage, feature stories, editorials—in other words, content and perspectives other media doesn’t give you.
Readers in and around Cedar Rapids will recognize the lightly fictionalized reimagining of the city and many of its landmarks—including the newspaper at the heart of the story. Any memorable reactions from your former peers?
Cedar City is definitely Cedar Rapids and The Argus is The Gazette. The book opens with Rockwell and Goldberg arguing over beers at the Fox and Hounds, which is no longer on Third Avenue. It’s the IE Tower, not Alliant; the five-in-one bridge crosses the Cedar River near Quaker Oats; McDonald’s Park is modeled after Greene Square, but I moved it several blocks east. That’s the fun you can have with fiction.
Same with characters. While The Gazette newsroom of 1986 was dominated by blue, I embellished the reason [for the color choice]. And while the editors and reporters in Night Beat are fictionalized conglomerations of real people, some traits you just can’t hide from inquisitive newspaper people. Several Gazetteers recognized themselves or others. Thankfully, they were flattered or able to laugh at the similarities. Nobody admitted to being a bad guy.
Are you working on any fiction at the moment?
I’ve written a hundred short stories, none of them published. I’ve started two-dozen novels, abandoning many of them early. I have, however, typed “The End” to the first draft of three other novels. I just wrapped up the sixth draft of a novel I began before my father died in December 2016. He’d been diagnosed with dementia and Parkinson’s disease, so my main character faces the same challenges. That’s the extent of their similarities. I’m now soliciting agents and hope one of them bites and that a traditional publisher picks it up. If not, I may self-publish it or one of the other two novels this winter. Then again, I’ve also started another novel.
Once a writer, always a writer. Like newspaper people say, once the ink is in your blood, it never leaves. I dedicated Night Beat to my late mother, who encouraged me to write until I could no longer write. I’ll write fiction until I die.
If you’d like to know more about Rasdal’s life and career, you may enjoy an interview I conducted with him as part of The History Center’s Oral Histories LIVE! program in May of 2021 Find a recording of that conversation at historycenter.org/rasdal.