Friday, September 23, 2011

A Car Bombing That Created An Author

When the St. Paul Pioneer Press refused to pay for her little redP1010074 convertible which was fire bombed while she covered a riot, Judith Yates Borger decided it was time to get a new gig. She began writing fiction and hasn't looked back.

Judith is the author of two books in the Skeeter Hughes Mystery series, WHERE’S BILLIE? and WHOSE HAND? She joins us today to explain, “How I took up writing fiction after my car was firebombed while I covered a riot.”

It was a hot August night in 2002 when I was a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press dispatched to Minneapolis because it looked like a riot was erupting. Police had tried to issue a warrant on a drug house when someone unleashed a pit bull on the officers. They shot at the dog, the bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk and hit a youngster in the arm. Word went out in the neighborhood that cops had shot a kid.

I normally covered the Minneapolis mayor’s office and city council. I’d never worked a police beat in my life and didn’t have a clue how to handle a simple burglary, let alone an explosive situation. Nonetheless, the paper wanted all west-of-the-Mississippi reporters on the scene. I got lost on the way, and by the time I arrived, the cops had pulled out, leaving a TV van with a damaged antenna dangling like a broken arm, some torn down yellow police tape and a lot of broken glass. People stood around in groups talking in low murmurs.
Where's Billie 
I pulled my red Honda Civic del Sol — a gem of a two-seater convertible — into the parking of a convenience store, which was lit up like a surgical suite. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and my 15-year-old Birkenstock sandals, I got out of my car, locking my purse in the trunk. Several people standing around eyed me — the only white person in sight — with curiosity. I looked like a lost soccer mom, except for my reporter’s notebook, pen and cell phone. I seldom worked nights and my first thought was to wonder what time was deadline. Clearly I wasn’t going to have time to write a story, so I called the newsroom and started to dictate what I saw. I was in reporter mode and it didn’t occur to me to be frightened. 

I saw someone run away from a car and moments later a fire kindled inside. The crowd saw it too, and began to gather around while the fire grew. Soon the car was fully engulfed and I was afraid the branches of a huge maple tree the tree would catch fire, and then the house behind it. People watched like it was the Fourth of July as the car exploded. Fortunately, the fire burned out without touching the tree.

As I stood in the parking lot the manager of the convenience store walked up to me and asked, “Who are you?” Then he told me he had dragged a man who had been beaten into the store. Mohamed Somebody, the manager, had called 911 a couple of times to say the man needed medical attention, but no one was coming. We were standing under the bright lights of the parking lot when we heard gunshots. Bang, bang, bang. It sounded like they were feet away. That’s when I realized I was in danger. I looked at Mohamed, he looked at me, and we both hustled into the store, careful to stand away from the windows. I envisioned spending the night surrounded by Blue Bunny Ice Cream. 

Inside the store, I met, a Star Tribune reporter, a competitor who had taken a brick in the back of his head. He was incoherent, asking me over and over again, “Who are you?” He asked where he was, and how he had gotten there. I answered his questions and then he’d start them all over again.

After what seemed like a very long time, three or four police cars pulledwhose hand up in front of the store, blue and red lights flashing. Officers with shotguns and a big dog poured out like the cavalry coming to the rescue. One came to the door of convenience store, talked to the manager, looked at incoherent reporter, then asked me, “Who are you?” I was beginning to get used to the question.

She escorted the two of us to the back seat of the patrol car and shut the door. I looked out the window and saw my car parked next to the convenience store. I’d already seen one car firebombed that night and knew mine was next. When I knocked on the window to get the officer’s attention — you can’t get out of the back seat of a patrol car — she told me to forget about my car for the night. 

“Get it in the morning,” she said. I’ll just bet, I thought. 

The next morning, I got another reporter to drive me to the lot outside the convenience store to pick up my car. When I got there, the bricks on the side of the store were scorched, and a man with one tooth was outside with a broom and dustpan. I learned later that the fire department had already hauled away the husk of my car, including the charred remains of my purse, which had held $200 cash, a spare cell phone and all my credit cards.

“That was my car,” I said to the man who was sweeping up the last bits of metal.

He reached into the pile, pulled out the “H” hood ornament, wiped it off on his pants and offered it to me. 

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Knight Ridder, which then owned the Pioneer Press,  refused to replace my car, saying it paid reporters 36.5 cents a mile to cover gas and my insurance. Besides, I was told, if it paid for my car it would have to pay for every car that got firebombed. I wonder where else that happens. Miami?

The Pioneer Press paid for my deductible on my car and homeowners insurance – for the cash, cell phone and other stuff toasted in my purse  – and an airline ticket to Chicago, where I bought another cute little convertible identical to the one that was torched. Because the cause on the claim on my homeowners’ insurance was fire, I got a letter from our company telling me to be sure to check my home’s furnace.

Ten months later I resigned the paper, not because my car was firebombed, but because it was clear management did not have my back.

Like the fiction I write these days, this story has a satisfying conclusion. My protagonist is  … wait for it … a newspaper reporter whose car is firebombed. Superb detail in that passage, if I do say so myself. She has lots of adventures while juggling career, family and her passions for both. I love making this stuff up.

WHERE’S BILLIE? and WHOSE HAND?, both Skeeter Hughes Mysteries, are doing very well in trade paperback and ebooks, available at all bookstores, Kindle and Nook. I’m working on the third mystery right now, title to be determined. 

I’m deliriously happy and feeling safe in my work. Life is good. 

Judith, thanks so much for guest blogging today. You definitely had a most unusual and eye opening day on the police beat. Wishing you much success with the Skeeter Hughes series. Always love to see a female reporter as the protagonist.

Now, more about Judith. She draws on her 30 years experience as a journalist to chronicle the escapades of her protagonist Skeeter Hughes - wife, mom and reporter. In real life, Judith is passionate about her work, her children, her grandchildren, and her marriage. In her reporting days she would never have taken the risks that come naturally to protagonist Skeeter. She lives with her husband, John, and her dog, Honey, in downtown Minneapolis on the Mississippi River, where she rows crew with the Minneapolis Rowing Club. For more on Judith and her writing, visit her website at or find her on Facebook at

Here’s a brief synopsis and Publishers Weekly Review for WHERE’S BILLIE? -- Borger, a former reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, successfully taps into a parent's constant concern—how to protect children in an increasingly dangerous world—in her compelling debut, the first in a series to feature Marguerite Skeeter Hughes, a Minneapolis Citizen reporter. While researching a story on a missing 18-year-old girl, Billie Berry, Skeeter soon senses something complex developing, especially after Billie's sleazy ex-boyfriend tells her he's heard Billie might be turning tricks and doin' meth. Further research takes Skeeter to the Mall of America, where she spies a handsome middle-aged man buying Abercrombie & Fitch clothes for a cute teen he's just met. Skeeter is horrified after she discovers the wolf is a middle-school principal. More snooping leads to threats to Skeeter's life as well as her marriage to a fellow reporter. Readers will want to hear more of Skeeter's punchy, first-person voice.
Here’s a brief synopsis and Publishers Weekly Review for WHOSE HAND? -- In Borger's diverting second mystery featuring Minneapolis Citizen reporter Marguerite "Skeeter" Hughes (after 2009's Where's Billie?), editor Thom Savage successfully pitches for a missing persons beat, and Skeeter gets the assignment. When 70-year-old BJ Jones, an ice fisherman, tells Skeeter that he caught, then lost, a human hand in Lake Harriet the previous fall, Skeeter winnows the possible victims to three people: Amber Thomas, a young black woman who lived with her grandmother; Yuri Yudeshenka, an elderly furrier who emigrated from the former U.S.S.R.; and Pace Palmer, a research coordinator for a medical device company. While Skeeter chases leads that connect to exotic animal trafficking and whistleblowing, husband Michael Marks, a reporter for the rival St. Paul Post, walks out on her and their two daughters. Skeeter's dogged reporting sparks more than one violent response in a regional mystery with appeal to readers beyond the Twin Cities. 

If you’re a writer, have you ever given your protagonist some of your own experiences? If you’re a reader, do you enjoy protagonist that encounter situations you’ve had?


  1. Judith, thanks again for blogging today. It was fun learning how you went from reporter to writer. Best of luck.

  2. What an interesting story! Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.

  3. Mason - Thanks for hosting Judith.

    Judith - What a story! You are lucky you yourself weren't hurt. And after that, I don't blame you for looking elsewhere for your career. I wish you much luck with your mystery series.

  4. Real life gives us the best story material! I'm glad you made it through that ordeal okay, Judith, and that your writing ultimately rose from the ashes ;)

  5. Crap, that's one real life experience I'd rather avoid! That's why I don't like my wife going out alone at night.

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone.
    @Alex: My problem was not that I was covering a riot. My problem was that the owners of newspaper didn't have my back. If I had it to do over again, I would still go, but I would take my husband's crappy Saturn instead of my cute little convertible.

    Although I didn't appreciate it at the time, it turned into a life-changing experience for the better. As they say, that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger, or something like that.

  7. What a fascinating tale! And like Joanne said, real life does indeed give us our best material.

    Thanks, Mason for a great interview. And all the best with your novel, Judith.

  8. I love writing and reading stories like yours. Don't think I'd like to be there first-hand, though.

    Happy Weekend!


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