Alabama journalist explores death penalty, local newspapers in new novel ‘Tell it True’

National News

In a new novel, Tim Lockette writes about a high school newspaper editor who covers an Alabama execution (Courtesy of Tim Lockette)

JACKSONVILLE, Ala. (WIAT) — A lot of what Lisa saw around her was fake, but in a new novel by a longtime Alabama journalist, she learned to “tell it true.”

In his new book, “Tell it True,” former Anniston Star reporter Tim Lockette tells the story of Lisa Rives, a high school newspaper editor who fights to cover an execution in person.

The book is set in Beachside, Alabama, a fictional town along a lake formed by the building of an Alabama Power dam.

Lockette calls the novel–his second–a “north Alabama book.”

“There’s a landscape that people here would recognize,” saiid Lockette, who grew up in Jacksonville and lives there today. “I like to give people a clear picture of Alabama. I try to leave out the things that are stereotypical of the state in the book — the things that don’t exist very much.”

In some ways, “Tell It True” is a story that could only happen in Alabama. Its plot reflects the realities of the Yellowhammer State in a way that allows Lockette’s intimate knowledge of Southern life to shine through.

The cover of “Tell It True”
(Courtesy of Tim Lockette)

Lisa is confronted with signs her father having an affair with his staffer. She’s forced to cope with sexual harassment by classmates and unfair, unrealistic beauty standards imposed by her mother. She’s pushed, even in the novel’s first pages, to deal with complicated but critical questions about the ethics of journalism.

The main characters in “Tell It True” are women, something Lockette said comes from his desire to both challenge gender roles and simply reflect the experiences he’s had with women in his own life.

“Somehow, my male characters were always really passive,” he said of his past work. “They were like narrators. And there was always a female friend who would step in and be the active character. There were moms and teachers who always had really smart things to say. And I found that if I write a character, a teacher who is like my mom, or a teacher who is like teachers that I’ve had, I can suddenly say something better.”

The development of women characters provided Lockette an avenue to help, he thinks, tell it true.

“I have these quotes that are way wiser than I could make up myself. Just pretending to be them made me smarter,” he said. “And I wound up when I finally decided I’m just going to eliminate the boy and just have the active girl and have all these wise women around, everything clicked so much better. It was really strange. I realized I don’t want to be stealing somebody’s voice or stealing somebody’s role, but I’ve got to write the characters that work.”

What’s clear throughout the book is Lockette’s genuine and deep-rooted respect for the newspaper as an institution, a respect that Lisa develops through the course of the story.

“I see the newspaper as a place where if you die and you’ve worked at a foundry your whole life, and you never had anybody pin a medal on your chest or you never been awarded an honorary degree or anything like that — you’re just a regular joe — somebody writes a story about you and your life, and you are recognized and honored in the obituary page,” he said.

This type of service, he said, while increasingly rare in today’s media landscape, is one to which we should all be entitled.

“It feels to me like a basic form of dignity that a human being should have, that Americans should have,” he said. “I see the newspaper as a place where the daily lives of average people are lifted up for their peers to see, and a place where the daily life of our democracy is recorded.”

When it comes to the story’s heaviest subject, an execution of a condemned inmate, Lockette’s attention to detail is at its finest.

The story draws on Lockette’s own experience covering five executions, three of which he attended. He said witnessing such a process changes you, something his main character had to learn for herself.

“Lisa, she goes into this thinking, ‘How big of a deal can it be?’ And I think a lot of people do this when they cover something like an execution,” he said. “You underestimate the impact it will have on you. And as you get older, as you develop, perhaps, more respect for life, it weighs on you more.”

The release of “Tell It True” comes when Alabama is set to send a man to his death. Willie B. Smith, a death row inmate with an IQ of around 70, is set to be executed on Oct. 21, barring further court action or a stay from Gov. Kay Ivey. The State of Alabama has limited press access to witness the lethal injection to only one reporter from the Associated Press. Media outlets and organizations have expressed opposition to the restrictions.

Lockette said he, too, opposes the limitation on press access to Smith’s execution.

“Reporters — in the plural — should be there because it is a difficult thing to witness,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to go through. And reporters need more colleagues there with them to help out, in a way.”

Lockette said given that the death penalty is partly, at least in theory, a means of deterring crime, even supporters of the policy should be in favor of openness around executions.

“If you believe in the death penalty, you believe in death penalty transparency, I would think,” he said. “You’d want it to be known how all this is done, he said. So it makes the secrecy that sometimes emerges seem strange to me. I don’t understand the unwillingness to be forthcoming about this.”

Lockette said he’s not yet sure if Lisa will reappear in another novel, but he said he does have some ideas about what she’s up to now.

“I’ve got it like a list of ideas,” said Lockette, who now teaches English at Jacksonville State University. “But I’ve got lots of papers to grade. And so right now, students come first.”

You can read more information about Tim Lockette and his work on his website. “Tell It True” can be bought here.

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