By: Maxmillian Robinson
A blast from the past virtually visited the Adelphi community on April 7 as Scott James ’84, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, author and former Delphian features editor, spoke at the Great Minds, Great Conversations (GMGC) event about his new book “Trial By Fire: A Devastating Tragedy, 100 Lives Lost, and a 15-Year Search for Truth.” He was joined by President Christine M. Riordan and moderator Liza Burby, adjunct professor and faculty advisor to this newspaper, for a spirited discussion about the controversial story behind his book, the writing process and his time as an Adelphi student.
After an introduction, about 40 participants viewed a short film clip about the event that inspired the 384-page book, which recounts the February night in 2003 when about 400 people gathered inside The Station, a nightclub in Providence, Rhode Island, for a Great White concert. A pyrotechnic display ignited into a fire that killed 100 and injured hundreds more. While a federal investigation took place, James said justice wasn’t served for the survivors and the families of those who were killed. The brothers who owned the nightclub, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, who were criminally charged, had never before been interviewed to tell their side of the story. James decided to take matters into his own hands, conducting countless interviews, telling the story from the perspective of people who experienced the tragedy to document what occurred on that fiery night.
The first question Burby asked during the event is what inspired James to write the book. “I grew up in a suburb of Providence,” James said. “I would return there and run a TV news room for many years. Long after, now living in California, I returned home one day to see family, but questions would often arise in the area about the incident and people not receiving justice. That prompted me to go out and search for the answers.”
Covering a story of this magnitude would require countless hours of research while James lived on the opposite side of the country. “The process took about 10 years, going back and forth from California, just to talk with people,” he explained. “One of the things I found out was that three mock trials had occurred for the case, yet no one was convicted for the crime. The public felt that the case was basically over for the accused, but that happened to not be true. I went through thousands of documents, talked to many people and conducted interviews.”
James explained that while the Derderians did not appreciate the way citizens viewed them after the fire or how the media treated them, Jeffrey had once worked for him as a reporter at the news station where he was news director. He approached the brothers to tell their side of the story.
“I figured he [Jeffrey] would be willing to speak to me over anyone else considering the connection we had,” James said. “Due to the disrespect by the press, he refused to talk to me. One defense attorney was also the brothers’ biggest nemesis and he worked for me as well. Luckily, this event was filmed on camera because another reporter in the room was filming for another story when the fire erupted. That person also worked for me and in the end, everyone spoke up to tell their side of the story. The world is a small place.”
He was also asked about his writing process, which included letting the people he interviewed preview his chapters. “Usually, I would first break down a scene or event that would happen in the story and then make that a chapter in itself,” he said. “I also did kitchen table reads, where I’d put the draft on the table and we [the subjects] would read if the story matched how the subject really felt.”
When Burby pointed out that this prepublication review is not the preferred process for journalists, James agreed, but said that since he was writing narrative nonfiction, sitting down with his subjects as they reviewed his notes was transformative. It led to conversations that revealed more information than they had shared with him before, and is one of the reasons he thinks the book reads like a novel. James is also the author of two bestselling novels, “SoMa” and “The Sower,” written under the pen name Kemble Scott.
James, who was a communications major at Adelphi in the 80s, also spoke about where he got his early experience as a journalist. He said though he came to the university to major in filmmaking, it was his journalism classes and working on this newspaper that inspired him to be a journalist.
“I would not have written this book if it weren't for Adelphi,” he said during a pre-event interview. “But I joined The Delphian and then I was smitten with journalism.”
James started writing about films for the paper and then became the features editor. “I was able to do stories, interviewing Lucille Ball, who may have been the most famous woman in the world at the time. Dr. Ruth Westheimer came to Adelphi and gave us interviews about `this new talk show she was experimenting with.’ We were meeting with people before they even became famous.” She went on to be a cultural phenomenon know as sex therapist Dr. Ruth.
As a student James then had a chance to write an investigation for The Delphian about the misuse of student funds. As a result of that article, he was named student journalist of the year for the New York City area. “All of a sudden journalism wasn’t just frivolous and talking to celebrities. It was actually about weighty issues you can do something about,” he said.
James also credited his success to the class size of Adelphi, with professors going out of their way to make sure he was in the best position to succeed. “That individualized attention as a writer, that the professor was actually going to read what I wrote, was important to me to get that feedback, which I think was unique.”
In addition to the fascinating details about “Trial by Fire,” and the challenges of promoting a book during the pandemic, the conversation included a discussion about the book President Riordan is currently writing, “Shift Happens: How to Adapt and Thrive in a Rapidly Changing World of Work,” which she described as a research-based book that teaches people to be their own career and job coach so they learn how to adapt to any change that may come their way at work. “It’s really a self-help business book for people at all stages of their career,” she said.
The two authors also discussed the challenges of writing a book while working full-time jobs. James said he separates the days that he’s writing and researching. “When I’m in a really good writing groove I write fresh material in the afternoon and sleep on it and rewrite in the morning,” he said.
President Riordan said she was spending time writing every morning until the pandemic changed her schedule. Even so, she does make some time every day. “It’s harder when I have to stop and dust off the cobwebs after a few weeks of not writing,” she said.
During the Q&A portion of the event, James answered questions from the audience, including students. One came from Bianca Viana, who currently holds James’ old role at The Delphian. She asked him what he feels is the ultimate goal for this book to accomplish.
“My goal is to raise awareness,” James said. “This is what journalists do. We raise questions and our hope is that we get a response and in this case revisit these inadequate fire codes. There’s no reason that a building in 2021 that has people in it shouldn’t have sprinklers. We need to do a better job of protecting the public.”
This editor asked if he had enjoyed writing before college. He said that even as an eight-year-old he kept a clip file of articles that interested him like the Watergate case. Worried about what her young son was reading, his mom got rid of it, but his grandmother bought him a red child’s typewriter that he started writing on at 10 years old.
During a subsequent interview with The Delphian, James said that journalists are essential workers.
“Without news, people aren’t informed,” James said. “As a journalist, our job is to cover a story, no matter the circumstances. Going to a crime scene, dangerous neighborhoods and other places no average person would have access to. Our lives are at stake, especially in countries where governments don’t allow freedom of speech.”
Also in that interview, James touched on the adversity he faced upon the release of his book. While there were many good reviews, the opposing views left a lasting impact.
“I receive hundreds of positive reviews, but when I get two [critical] reviews, I never forget them.”
He also shared some writing advice for college writers who would like to pursue a career. “Drop your ego, become a good reader and never be afraid of rejection,” he advised.
Dr. Riordan said of the event: “It was a fascinating conversation we had with Scott. As a fellow writer, I enjoyed hearing about his process from the perspective of an investigative journalist and a storyteller. I’m thrilled about Scott’s success. `Trial by Fire’ was a great read; each chapter was emotional, compelling and powerful.”
This event, Great Minds, Great Conversations, was the sixth in the series begun November 5, 2020 to showcase alumni industry leaders, original thinkers, artists, authors and athletes. Topics center on the economy, politics, the arts, ethics and even our own mortality.