By Toni I took this shot last November (11/03/13) at about 6:30 AM. It’s unusual for me to be on St. Charles that early in the morning, and I’m not used to seeing the avenue without traffic or crowds. It was a bit like stepping back in time.
Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey
10 Ways to be Safe in the French Quarter
By Toni This is a perennial list. As I’m writing this, it’s spring, 2014, and we’re about to run headlong into French Quarter Fest (my favorite festival here), and then Jazz Fest (also awesome). We just came out of Mardi Gras, and there are multiple smaller festivals nearly every weekend. Add in big games (the SAINTS […]
Erin go bragh?
By Toni I haven’t quite gotten the hang of proper nekkid boob etiquette when it comes to crossing Bourbon and seeing a tourist for whom gravity has not been kind, baring her boobs which are, I am not exaggerating, hanging to her belly button, pointing down, painted green for St. Patrick’s Day. I generally manage to ignore […]
Via: Toni McGee Causey
There was a time when I was terrified of the blank page. It had so much potential for mistakes, for making the wrong choices, for derailing into something derivative, and I’d freeze up. Second guess myself. Wonder. And lose time.
There was a time when I’d let what someone said affect how I chose to proceed. How I chose to live. I’d let an insult fester inside and I’d tell myself that they were right, maybe they were right, and I shouldn’t be a writer at all. I tried to do other things, tried to find another passion, because I thought there was nothing worse than wanting something so badly as to write something that would impact people, only to fail at it. Failing was humiliating. The potential of that humiliation, constantly thrumming in the back of my head, stole the joy from me when I did succeed. I’d always think, “Well, for now I’ve done this thing. These people think so. But they could be wrong. What if they’re wrong? And when all is said and done, I’m nothing? I’m insignificant? I should have spent my life doing something else?”
I’d have longer moments when I’d push on in spite of the fear, but it never really left me. I’d just battle it back, write in spite of the terror, and send it out to be read by my friends, or my agent, or, God help me, an editor, with something akin to an anxiety attack. What if I’m not good enough? What if this thing I labored over, loved, birthed… was a joke to everyone else?
As writers, we learn (eventually) to be thick-skinned, if you’re anything like me. We get hammered and beaten up and stomped on, and we know it’s a part of the natural selection process of throwing things out there in the world. There is no one book or movie that is going to capture absolutely everyone’s love. Nor should there be. There is no explanation why some things catch fire and others don’t. Try to figure that out, and that way lies madness. You may figure out what’s marketable, you may figure out one thing that’s a part of the Zeitgeist, but odds are, it’s something just beyond explanation. You may be a bestselling author, and your books snapped up, but will they be remembered? And really… does that matter?
All these things would swim around my head, slowing me down. I thought the blank page was hard. I’d let people who meant well derail me from my own self-confidence. I’d let an agent, who meant well, steer me the wrong direction because she thought she knew what would sell, fast. I’d let a lot of things slip in and make me doubt what was important. I was afraid of the blank page.
I misunderstood what was important.
I should have been more afraid of lost time.
We take time for granted. We all do it, it’s just human nature. We can’t live each and every moment like it’s our last—the world would be chaos if we did. We rely on the normal, the mundane being the mundane, in order to function.
But December 18th, 2012 changed that for me.
I held my brother’s hand while he was dying. Mike McGee is… was… my only sibling. We’d spent the last year-and-a-half together, almost every day, fighting his cancer. He had a rare gamma-delta T-Cell lymphoma. The survival rate was abysmal, and that was with a bone marrow transplant. But… in spite of the odds, he kept getting better. Faster than they had ever seen. He kept fighting off the impossible, and the doctors and nurses were constantly astounded. There was not a soul in that hospital that he came into contact with who didn’t leave him more encouraged in their own life.
They called him Coach. He was a fifth degree black belt, a Master, and had won an international championship in sparring, and a large number of other medals, many first place, and trophies, in international competitions. He had his own school, and had taught over twenty-thousand students, and was stubborn as hell. He was the kind of patient who was like a Pied Piper, going to every other patient’s room and encouraging them and, if they could stand up at all, getting them to walk a few laps with him because the nurses told them that walking helped them handle the chemo better and gave them all a greater chance of winning.
He kept beating the odds. He had a rare allele cell that made matching him almost impossible… and yet, they found a match. He came out of remission but they found the match just-in-time, and so he could have the transplant. He survived that, only to battle graft-vs-host disease, which is horrific. He was winning that, when he was diagnosed with a virus. He beat that, too, and they discovered the cancer was gone.
Gone. 100% gone.
He was going to go home in a couple of days. He walked around the floor, making trips to the exercise bike, where he rode forty miles in five mile increments. I can’t ride forty miles on a damned exercise bike in a day, and I was annoyed with him. Get that. Annoyed.
He woke up the next day with double vision. They were thinking a mild stroke, maybe as a result of the meds, maybe something else. Potentially, it could have been the lymphoma coming back, but it could also have been a fungal infection. They were saying, at this point, that he would go home, still, and would have to have some mild rehabilitation to help strengthen that left side, but he would likely be okay. He might not do spinning jump kicks anymore, but he’d still be able to teach.
They just weren’t quite sure what had caused it.
The next ten days were a blur. He got significantly worse each day. He started losing more of his balance, more of his eyesight, more of his hold on what was going on. He couldn’t stand on his own and I was lifting him out of the bed to get him to the bathroom, and holding him there so he wouldn’t fall. My six-foot-two-inch brother, one of the toughest human beings I have ever known, and I was having to lift him.
And he would say, “This is not going to get me. I am not going out this way.”
I want you to know there are worse things than a blank page. There are things so much worse than what a critic thinks of you, or what a reviewer says. There are things so far beyond that minor pain that when you live through them, if you live through them, you will look back and think, “Why in the hell did I let that matter? What the hell am I waiting for?”
Those last few days, he was in the ICU. He’d fallen, bloodied his head, and there was significant swelling in his brain. They had to do a procedure where they put a shunt in there to continuously drain off the fluid, and even that wasn’t working. They’d done a biopsy of the area of the brain where the lesions were—the things they had thought, at first, were just pools of blood from a burst blood vessel—and we were waiting to see if they were lymphoma or fungal infection. With lymphoma, there was zero hope. With fungal infection, the doctors thought there was a slice of a chance. What I didn’t understand then, but came to understand when one of the specialists took me aside and showed me his MRI, was that a fungal infection isn’t like what we think of when we say “infection”… something that can be cured and made to go away. It is something that’s actually killing the brain cells where it’s living, and as it grows, it kills more of the brain. Getting medicine in the brain in enough quantities without killing other organs from the high dosages is a Russian Roulette, and they had already tripled the dose of anti-fungal meds when he had had the first signs of a “stroke.”
Picture a hurricane, like you see it on the weather channel. Now imagine two interlocking hurricanes, barreling into the brain stem where autonomic reflexes—breathing, swallowing, heart—are controlled. That’s where these two infections were, and they were growing exponentially. They were fungal, and they were far outstripping the speed of the medicine.
The last day, he was on a respirator, blind, unable to move except his fingertips. The day before, he’d been able to move his hands a little, and when one of the doctors talked obliquely about how bad he was doing, and wondered what his wishes were, he grabbed my sweatshirt and tugged, and then waved. I didn’t understand he was waving goodbye, until he pulled his hands together… and it was very difficult for him to do… and clasping his hands in the traditional fist-in-cupped-palm formation, bowed his head.
I asked him if he was bowing out, and he nodded.
He had two more strokes that night.
I talked at length the next day with five different teams of doctors. Every one of them wanted to do just one more thing, but when I asked, “Will this save him, will he have a chance to recover?” they each and every one of them had to admit that no… there was nothing they could do. He was now blind, almost unable to hear, unable to speak, unable to move, and was on a respirator. He’d made me promise that I wouldn’t let him live that way. He’d cried in my arms when the cancer came back. I had held him, remembering all the times we fought as kids, all the good times we shared, the two of us against the world, and he’d made me promise that I wouldn’t let him live like that.
Hardest promise I’ve ever made.
I held his hand when they pulled him off the respirator, and pulled the shunt out of his brain. I made sure they gave him enough morphine so he wouldn’t feel pain, wouldn’t panic, wouldn’t be afraid. I held one hand while my mom, and then my husband, when my mom could no longer watch, held his other hand, and I talked to him. He squeezed my hand three times… I love you… and I asked if he understood what was happening, and he squeezed once for yes. I told him so many things, watching the monitors as they showed him breathing slower and slower, as they showed the oxygen rate dropping. I knew that once it was below 88%, brain damage—permanent–would start, and it was the point of no return. Inside my own head, I was screaming for him to not have to go. I think that part of me will always be screaming. It doesn’t really shut off; you just get used to it.
I talked to him of how much we loved him, and how he’d been a hero to so many people. I told him how proud I was of him—how we all were, mom and dad and his nephews. I told him how much I was going to miss him, and that there was a karate school in heaven with a bunch of new kids for him to teach. He squeezed my hand at that one, but it was a weak squeeze. I told him it was okay for him to come visit me now and then (we both believe in ghost), but not when I was in the shower, because that would just be gross, and he smiled. There were a thousand things I wanted to tell him, and I had so little time, and I knew it, as he slowly changed color and his breathing slowed and slowed and slowed, and I felt the grip of his hand go lax, but I talked to him and talked to him, running out of time, until the doctor pulled me away and told me that he was gone.
5:55. December 18th. I learned that there was nothing else that mattered, other than living the way you want, living boldly, pursuing your dream. That’s what Mike always did. We didn’t always understand it, and he wasn’t always a success. He’d had failures and frustrations, but he had not quit. Not even when everyone told him there was no hope. Every single doctor there cried. The nurses cried.
And I left him there, knowing, strangely, that he’d lived his life fully and boldly and out loud, and he’d died knowing that he’d achieved most of his dream—to teach little kids karate. To teach them how to handle bullies simply by being more self-confident. To prepare them for the real world by encouraging them to get as much education as they could. He had students who’d gone on to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, military, firefighters, etc. Whatever failures he might have had, he gloried in the successes.
I’m telling you now, live boldly. If your dream is to write, then write. Send it out. If it doesn’t work? Learn from it and try again. And again. And again. And however many times you need to try. Quit waiting for life to come along and give you permission. Quit caring what your peers say. Quit listening to reviews or bullies or people with opinions that you don’t respect. Learn from those you do, ignore the rest, and keep trying.
If you don’t love the writing? Do something else you love. Period. Don’t waste your life because you think you ought to be doing something because you told a few people that’s what you were going to do and now you dread it and hate it and it’s like pulling teeth to make the time to write. There’s nothing more glorious about writing than there is teaching or creating art in some other way or science or math or firefighting or being a police officer or being the best damned secretary you can be. Find your place, wherever that is, a place you love and LIVE IT, BOLDLY.
Time is the thing to be afraid of. Time is short. Mike didn’t know, that day that they told him he was going to go home in a couple of days that, in reality, he would die about ten days later. People in car wrecks each day think they’re going to have tomorrow, and then they don’t. People have heart attacks in their shower, or they’re standing and watching a race finish.
I loved my time here at Murderati. I loved getting to meet fans and other writers and learning from both. I loved not feeling alone in the journey, and feeling like what we did, mattered. In some small way, we dented the world around us.
But everything changes, and even though we move on, we keep those we loved with us. We keep those lessons in our hearts. I’ll keep Murderati and all its commenters and fellow conspirators in my heart, just like I keep Mike there. You mattered to us. You mattered.
Now go. Live boldly. Don’t squander this time you have. You matter. Remember that.
Here I am, changing things again. Maybe it’s the spring weather we’re having (down here, in NOLA), or maybe it’s the fact that I went to two funerals in the last couple of weeks – one of a cousin who died (not much older than me) from cancer and another who died terribly young (27) from where a car ran a red-light and hit his motorcycle.
Maybe it’s that I’ve become one of those people who start telling a story and wonder if I’ve told that one already. I don’t want to be that person–I want to be out there, living new stories, finding new things, new ways of being.
When we moved to New Orleans for this job, I knew it would turn everything on its ear, and it pretty much has; I get up in the morning and walk to breakfast, saying hello to more people in a morning than I did all week, back at our house, where we lived out in the suburbs, and even if you got up early in the morning, the most you’d see were cars driving off to work and a few joggers, maybe a mom or two in a stroller, or someone walking a dog. There are layers here, to this place, that I haven’t had the chance to experience, since I’ve never lived in a “city” atmosphere, even though I’ve lived in Baton Rouge all my adult life. (Baton Rouge is a series of neighborhoods, one melting into the other, and it had no real proper “downtown” until just the last few years. It’s a beautiful place to live–just very spread out.)
I’ve had more ideas for stories, having lived here for two months, than I had had in the full two years prior. Stories I’m itching to write. Short. Medium. Long. Different genres.
What I lack is the time to write them.
I weighed that, for the last year or so. Weighed want I want to do (be a writer) against what I was doing more of (blogging). I didn’t want to let go of blogging. I kept thinking, “But… but what if they forget me?” And this little stab of fear would hit my solar plexus and I would think, “must keep blogging” in order to keep my name out there.
But here’s the thing: keeping my name out there means focusing my time on that instead of telling stories. And what the hell good is my name doing being “out there” if there are no new stories?
I kept finding myself using experiences or observations to fill the blog. And then, they were used up, husks, and not suitable for recycling into a story.
So, I’m stepping away from Murderati as a regular, but not without a lot of love for my fellow ‘Rati members, who are truly wonderful and gifted, and not without remorse that I won’t be a part of the group any longer. I’ll be around in the comments on occasion, and I know what will happen — they’ll bring in someone new and exciting and you all will love them, and that fresh perspective will be great for everyone. I can’t even envy that–it’s the way it should be.
Meanwhile, I want to thank so many of you who’ve read me here over the years. Your comments, your encouragement… honestly, you just cannot know how much you mean to me. You got me through some very dark writing times, when I honestly did not know if I could still write, if I was even a writer any more. You’ve made me smile and you’ve made all of the time here absolutely wonderful. You’ve given me courage. I have to act on that.
If you ever doubt that leaving comments means anything to us, please know that it does. It keeps the dark at bay, the doubt, the voice on our shoulder that says no one cares what you have to say, and it reminds us of why we slog all of those months–or years–trying to corral a story into some semblance of order.
Thank you, so very very much.
I hope you will make whomever follows me feel as welcome as you have me. Let him or her know the ‘Rati love. Because you rock.
I’ll still be over on Facebook, occasionally on Twitter, and, randomly, on my own blog. I hope to see you all around.
the hometown boogie
“Where are you from?”
It’s an innocent, easy question, right? Drives me nuts to answer it, and now, it’s just gotten more complicated.
I’m “from” a small town just northeast of Lake Charles, Louisiana (Kinder), if what the questioner wants to know is “where were you born?” But I didn’t live there long. I lived briefly in Lake Charles and then Breau Bridge and then Baton Rouge and then Zachary and then back to Baton Rouge (for a long time) and now, I divide my time between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
I just say, “Louisiana” to make it easy, but someone always ends up asking questions to try to narrow that down (if they’re from here).
Less difficult, up until a couple of months ago, was “what’s your hometown?” and that was pretty easy: Baton Rouge. It’s where I’ve lived for 29 years. It’s the home of the LSU Tigers (not that I’ve ever mentioned that here) and there are tons of good people and great food. I lamented to my oldest son, Luke, that there wasn’t that much to do there and he listed off a couple of dozen things that there were to do, from the symphony to the Little Theater productions (which are, frankly, quite good), so I think my only real problem with Baton Rouge is that it’s much easier for me to be a hermit there and not participate.
The last couple of months, though, we’ve been in New Orleans. The move was supposed to be temporary because it’s work-related, but we do love it here, and after the job is done, who knows? We’re in the Quarter, where it’s almost impossible to be a complete hermit, and that’s even when you’re not into the drinking/night-life. There are several dozen things to do and see all within walking distance, or a very short drive, which is appealing. [Just last Sunday, for example, we had lunch at a local cafe and then wandered down Royal, meandering into art galleries. One of the managers of the galleries showed off some of their very expensive originals that they keep locked in a back room.Carl admired his guitar, and before we knew what was happening, we were seated on a sofa and he was jamming out old Johnny Cash songs, playing for us like we were a room of a thousand: so much energy and enthusiasm, and talent, and when it was over, it felt like an event.]
Most of the locals don’t really hang out at the Quarter, unless they live here (like us), so you get a pretty fun assortment of tourists from all over the world. It’s a fascinating cross-section for a people-watcher/writer, and fun for eavesdropping for ideas. (Oh, the ideas….)
What I like best about the Quarter, though, is not the noise or the food or the architecture – well, it’s all of those things combined – but what I like best are the very early mornings when dawn is cracking open the sky over the old buildings, some which have been here since the early 1800s, and you get to see the real Quarter – the people who work here, prepping for the day ahead. Someone pressure washing a sidewalk, someone else setting up a restaurant, delivery men shouting to each other the news of the day as they pass, a few drunk tourists trying to toddle home, doing that ‘I’m not really drunk’ walk where they stare straight ahead, zombie-like, trying to fool everyone and failing exponentially. Living here is a bit like living out behind the big top of a circus, where you see the equipment piled up, the magicians prepping the show for the night to come, where musicians are winding down and counting their tips and the dancers and bouncers are warily walking to their cars.
It’s an interesting place, for a writer. I’m not sure it’s home, and N’awlins is much more than the Quarter — the locals will be quick to tell you that — but it’s fast becoming another hometown for me. We only half-way joke that we wish we could do this in several other major cities–have a job that would take us there for a year or so. There are a dozen places I’d love to live, love to know it as intimately as one would a home town.
Does a home town define us? Or do we, in some way, define it?
What if it were wiped away? New Orleans almost was, during Katrina. Some of it has come back fine–some will be gone forever. It’s grown again from the mud and the debris and stood proud and even won the SuperBowl… but everywhere I go, there are still scars. Empty storefronts. Rotting houses. Roads that are in desperate need.
And then I look at the images coming in from Japan, and I am rendered speechless. Heartbroken. I cannot look at this, without choking up. Imagine if everything you knew was gone. So much of your own family–your history–your place in this world: wiped out. It is astonishing, the fortitude the Japanese people have shown in the face of this destruction and I am in awe of them. In awe of the firefighters and men who are trying to keep the nuclear power plant cool. The men who you know… you know, despite claims otherwise… are going to have practically committed suicide by going into that plant every day to try to prevent it from melting down. They’re saving lives. And all those other people, digging through the rubble, counting bodies. It’s devastating.
What if my own home town–my sense of place–had been ripped from me? Would I still be me?Would I be the same? What would you miss the most? (besides the amenities)
What do you love about your home town? Do you have more than one to claim? Have you moved around a lot? Enjoyed it? Hated it? And where would you stay put, if you could only choose one place on earth?
Where do you get your ideas?
It’s misleading, really, when we see a final product, especially a book or a film that works because we think, “Of course–that’s the way it had to be.”
But truly, it didn’t. There were a million ways for the idea to go wrong, or to get mixed up with another idea (or a dozen other ideas) and become a delinquent, flaw-riddled ne’er do well of a thought, ruining all the hopes and plans of its parent. This happens more frequently than we writers like to admit; we want to keep the magic in front of the reader, not the seams and the dirty sleight-of-hand that cracks the illusion.
Ideas, you see, really aren’t that big of a deal. They’re constantly piled in heaps around us. Everyone comes across story ideas all day long, every single day. That woman who once walked by with a leaf on her nose? There’s a character. Who does that? Why? What other wonky things would she do? (I saw that woman fifteen-ish years ago, and still have not forgotten her. One day, she’s going to walk into a story and belong there, and then I’ll know why she kept perching on the idea pile.) Ideas clutter our brains like so much junk, jangling around, getting bumped and smothered with other ideas, then jostled again and again until two things become neighbors and we start seeing them differently.
I’d been staring out a window at a flag whipping in the wind for several days, when I had the opportunity to go onto the scrap yard where we’re doing some concrete work. This particular scrap yard goes on for acres and acres, with all sorts of industrial items that have been scrapped and are awaiting the shear or to be loaded into a barge, bound for some foundry somewhere. This particular pile is where the crushed cars are stacked, and when I looked through the lens, I only had the sense that there was a possibility of beauty amongst items that are past their prime, dying or decaying. It’s an odd thought, but I took a few wide-angle shots, just to sort of “see” the items, to start filtering out the surroundings and try to focus.
That’s when I noticed the red in the image, and I walked around the pile until I saw the red car. I loved the way the metal seemed to bend and flow, like a ribbon (flag) in the wind, and I zeroed in on it and grabbed a shot. I was losing the light and we had to go, so it’s a crappy shot with bad exposure, but I knew I could edit it.
And see, that’s really the trick when it comes to art of any kind. It’s not just the idea–it’s the vision. What makes a piece unique and memorable is the artist’s specific vision: what they want to communicate, what story they want to tell. That story doesn’t generally happen in the first draft or without some sort of editing. That editing might occur internally–especially after the artist has some years of experience and knows what they want to look for, how they want to capture it. With practice, they may be able to execute that vision on the first try. Most creations, though, take editing–layers of thoughts, sifting–yes to this, no to that–tweaking here, highlighting there, focusing the emphasis where the artist wants your eye.
Most people will never see the thousand decisions that go into a story, if it works well. It’ll flow, make sense, be captivating, surprising-and-yet-somehow-fated. As artists, we need to also remember that it’s not terribly likely that we’re going to turn out something that is perfect on the first try. It may take layers and layers of editing before we get the story or the image into the shape we want, to tell the story that we want.
I’m in that place now with the new book. The first draft was done about a month or so ago, and I love three-fourths of it. I do not love one aspect of the ending (and I knew this all along), but I hadn’t quite seen through the debris of ideas to find the single way it had to be told. It took time away from it and then stepping around the pile, zooming in and seeing a specific section of the bigger image before I suddenly knew what I had captured, and therefore, what to enhance. Sure, I wish I had been able to turn out a pristine perfect draft out-the-gate and never have to edit, but that’s not the way I process ideas, so it’s never going to happen that way. I’ve made my peace with it, mostly because I love the editing process. (I love painting and photography for the same reason.)
Ironically, what started off as a quickie photo shoot turned into something startling to me, which then informed some of the writing I’m working on in a way I had not ever anticipated, so that was a bonus. Plus, now I am (on the side, as a hobby) working on a series of “ribbon” images like the red car above. I think it’ll help me see with a fresh perspective.
So what are your hobbies, fellow ‘Rati? What do you like to do just for the joy of doing it–because you love the process, not because you’re necessarily any good at it. What is it that you love about it? And if you don’t have a hobby, but have been thinking about one, which one, and why?
[By the way, I’m having a contest right now for a free Kindle or Nook, plus some gift certificates. See my site for the news / newsletter / rules. Today is the last day to enter. I’ll be running more of these contests this summer, so sign up for the newsletter if you want to hear about them sooner.]
An interview with the ever fabulous Simon Wood
by Toni McGee Causey
Many of our ‘Rati know and already love Simon Wood, an alumni of Muderati from ‘back in the day. (See his blogs linked over in the sidebar.) I am absolutely delighted to get the chance to get to know him a little better.
He is, as you will see, pretty damned terrific, and with a (seriously, great) new book out, LOWLIFES, I know you’ll enjoy this one and want to go grab the book as soon as possible.
On with the interview:
TMC: What drew you to writing crime fiction?
SW: Old movies. As a kid, I loved watching the black and white noir movies of the 40’s and 50’s as well as the movie serials such Sherlock Holmes (with Basil Rathbone), Charlie Chan, the Saint, The Falcon, etc. From there, I developed a love of the genre, which led me to reading the books.
TMC: What types of crimes interest you the most? Is there a theme that runs through all of your works? Related themes? If so, what are they, and why do these appeal to you?
SW: Decisions are what interest me most about crime fiction and it’s a theme that runs through all my stories—not intentionally, but it’s a topic I’m drawn to again and again. Decisions are the things that land characters in trouble. Anytime a character thinks they can get away with bending the rules. What series of actions has a villain made to make them the criminal they are? And how similar are the hero and villain and what will these people do to condemn or redeem themselves? It comes down to the decisions they make.
In most of my books, the protagonist usually strays from the straight and narrow and it leads to whole world of trouble.
I think the fascination with decisions with respect to crime comes from some of the people I grew up with. Several of the kids I grew up with ended up as killers or hardened criminals. They were no different than me. In most cases, they grew up in much better environments than I did, but for some reason, they took a path in life that led them down roads they could never work their way back from.
TMC: What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your life?
SW: I would say coming to America. I met my wife, Julie, in Costa Rica in ’96. A relationship developed but she lived in the US and I lived in the UK. We used to meet in different countries every few months. We came to the decision that we wanted to take our relationship to the next level. So I left a good job with good prospects, sold my house and moved to the US with no job, all to see if I could make a relationship work with a girl I didn’t know very well. It didn’t seem like a huge risk at the time, but it seems slightly insane now. J That said, if I hadn’t taken that risk, I would have never gotten into writing. Now wouldn’t that be a shame?
TMC: What five words (alone, or as a sentence), describe you best?
SW: Most likely to start trouble.
TMC: What makes you cry? laugh?
SW: My pets. I rescue animals and my household is filled with four legged critters who possess the capacity to fill me with joy and break my heart.
TMC: What (other than politics or religion) makes you feel outraged, wanting to rant?
SW: Alien abductees—what made them so special?
Cell phone users—put the damn thing down. We can all hear you and you aren’t that interesting.
Parking lot trawlers—people who’ll bring a parking lot to standstill while they wait for a good parking spot that doesn’t exist yet instead of just parking.
People who wear flip-flops—get some proper real shoes.
Nearly sports—cheerleading and competitive eating aren’t sports.
Reality TV—what’s so real about it?
Prius drivers—it doesn’t give you license to push everyone else around on the road.
Dell computers—I swear they’re designed to implode the day after their warranty runs out.
TMC: What is your favorite curse word?
SW: I’m a combinationist. I like to put swear words together to make a super swear word. I don’t have a favorite one. They’re usually tailored to suit the situation.
TMC: What is the most interesting thing you’ve done in the pursuit of research?
SW: Worked for a Private Investigator.
TMC: Are you the person you thought you’d be growing up? How are you different?
SW: Nope. I think I had a clear plan of where life was going to take me. Now, I don’t have a clue. Life’s way too unpredictable. I’m an engineer who writes fiction and lives 5,500 miles from home. That was never in the script.
TMC: What would you change about yourself?
SW: Physically, I wish I were an inch or two shorter. Personality-wise, I wish I saw the bright side instead of expecting the worst.
TMC: What would you keep the same?
SW: My ability to turn a bad situation around.
TMC: On to book questions:
Tell us a little bit about the genesis of your current book.
SW: Lowlifes is my current book and it centers on
Larry Hayes, a San Francisco Police Detective who wakes up in an alley with no memory of the last four hours, but suspects he might have killed his own informant, a homeless man called Noble Jon. What makes this book different from anything else I’ve written is that it’s a multimedia story. Larry Hayes’ point of view is played out through the book, while a short film told from the POV of another character supports the story and another character gives their account through a fictional blog. Filmmaker, Robert Pratten, approached me last year to collaborate with him on the project. He asked me to write the various facets based on his basic outline. The whole thing was written in a way that the book can be read by itself, but if someone goes the extra mile and watches the movie and reads the blog, they’ll get a far more in-depth view of the characters. As something I hadn’t done before, I jumped at the idea. People can go to www.lowlifes.tv to read the book and blog and watch movie.
[toni’s note — I find this utterly fascinating, this integration of media. I would love to see more of this, particularly in the e-book world, where the multi-media could be played out on iPads and their ilk.]
TMC: What else is happening in Simon World?
SW: I secured the rights back to all four of my titles from my print publisher, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper, We All Fall Down and Terminated. I’m happy about this as I can explore options. I’m currently following up on interest in audio books and translation. Sadly, all four titles are hard to find in print form these days, but I’ve just uploaded them as eBooks. I’m looking forward to the second lease of life I can give these books.
TMC: And finally, tell us a little bit about your next book–something we won’t know just by looking at the flap cover or the reviews.
SW: Did Not Finish is my next book and this is the first book in a series based in the world of motor racing. I raced open wheel in the UK a long time ago and for years I’ve wanted to do to motor sport what Dick Francis did for horse racing. I wanted to give the public some insight on my chosen sport (fictionally speaking that is). The sport is teeming with some great fables and events that provide great potential for mystery fiction. I’m going to enjoy blending fact and legend to tell some entertaining crime stories.
You can find Simon at his website, or on Twitter or Facebook.
Okay, question for you fellow ‘Ratis… do you have a road not taken? A “there but by the grace of God go I” moment where your life changed (thankfully)? I’d love to hear it. And meanwhile, all commenters are eligible to be entered for a $25 gift card to an online store of your choice award–(remember the indies).
Winner from two weeks ago: Mit! Congratulations, Mit! Email me at email@example.com and let me know your bookstore of choice and an email address where you’d like to receive the card.
The Fascinating, Edgar-Nominated Bruce DeSilva
Every once-in-a-while, you open a book and the first sentence intrigues, the second sentences lures you in and by the third, you’re captured, kidnapped by a story so well-told by a voice that resonates with the authority to tell that story, that you know you’re about to lose many hours of sleep, because you’re not going to want to put this one down. Such is the case with Edgar-Nominated Bruce DeSilva‘s debut novel, ROGUE ISLAND.
I had the incredible good fortune recently to interview Bruce, thanks to mutual fabulous friend and fellow ‘Rati, our own Alafair. His history in investigative journalism fascinated me, and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. First, though, here’s a quick bio:
Bruce DeSilva worked as a journalist for 40 years before retiring to write crime novels full time. At the Associated Press, he served as the writing coach, training the wire service’s reporters and editors worldwide. Earlier he worked as an investigative reporter and an editor at The Hartford Courant and The Providence Journal. Stories edited by DeSilva have won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award (twice) and the Livingston (twice). He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times book section and continue to be published by The Associated Press. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Patricia Smith, an award-winning poet.
Toni McGee Causey (TMC): You’re drawn to crime fiction, and with the glowing starred reviews from nearly every corner of the earth, including a nomination for an Edgar for best First Novel, you clearly have a knack for it. Tell us about your background.
Bruce DeSilva (BD): I grew up in the tiny mill town of Dighton, Mass., where the mill closed when I was ten. I had an austere childhood bereft of iPods, X-Boxes, and all the other cool stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. In this parochial little town, metaphors and alliteration were also in short supply. I spent my days catching frogs, chasing girls, chasing girls with frogs, rooting for the Red Sox, and playing baseball and hockey. When I left town to study geology in college, my favorite high school teacher told my parents that I would eventually find myself writing from compulsion. He was prescient. I soon abandoned science for writing. My first job after college was covering the little town of Warren, R.I., for the venerable Providence Journal. Over the next 20 years I wrote thousands of newspaper stories, many of them investigative articles or long piece of narrative journalism, for the Journal and The Hartford Courant. Then I spent another 20 years editing such stories for the Courant and The Associated Press, training my fellow journalists, and writing occasional feature articles and book reviews on the side. But in the summer of 2009, after 40 years in journalism, I was ready for something new. It was time for a second act.
TMC: As a reporter, you tried to ferret out corruption. Did you ever feel threatened? What’s the worst of the repercussions that you faced when breaking a big story? What story gave you the most satisfaction?
BD: When I first arrived as a cub reporter in Rhode Island, a New England-wide war between organized crime factions was underway. That was my introduction to journalism. Over the years, I wrote about the Mafia, horrific conditions in state institutions for the mentally ill and the retarded, government corruption including the looting of Medicaid and low-income housing programs, and massive voter fraud. Over the years, an even 100 people (I once added it up) were indicted or fired as a result of my investigative reporting. I was sometimes threatened with libel suits; and now and then I was confronted physically, once cornered in a parking lot by a corrupt union boss and a couple of his thugs. But I find talking about threats against me both ridiculous and embarrassing. Over the years, a dozen of my colleagues were severely injured or killed on the job. One friend survived being shot in the head covering a civil war in Africa; and a few years ago, a close friend was waterboarded for trying to photograph the genocide in Darfur. I never put myself in that kind of peril. The stories that gave me the most satisfaction weren’t the ones I wrote and reported myself, but rather some of the stories I supervised and edited at The Associated Press. One of my favorites, an investigation that exposed the exploitation of child gold miners in West Africa, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
TMC: How did journalism lead you to writing crime fiction?
BD: Back in 1994, when I was working for a Connecticut newspaper, I received a note from a reader praising “a nice little story” I’d written. “It could serve as the outline for a novel,” the note said. “Have you considered this?” I would have tossed the note in the trash except for one thing. It was from Evan Hunter, who wrote literary novels under his own name and the brilliant 87th Precinct police procedurals under the penname Ed McBain. I sealed the note in plastic, taped it to my home computer, and started writing.
At the time, I lived 15 minutes from work, so I got up early every morning and wrote for two hours before going in. I was a mere 20,000 words into the novel when my life turned upside down. I took a very demanding new job; my new commute was 90 minute each way; I got divorced and then remarried to a woman with a young child. In this busy new life, I had no time to finish a novel. Years streaked by. Each time I bought a new computer, I taped that note from Hunter to it, hoping I would get back to the book someday.
Meanwhile, I was reviewing novels on the side for The Associated Press and The New York Times book review section. That gave me entre to the Manhattan’s literary circle. A couple of years ago, I found myself dining with Otto Penzler, the dean of American’s crime fiction editors, and happened to mention that long-ago note from Hunter.
“Evan Hunter was a good friend of mine,” Penzler said. “In all the years I knew him, he never had a good thing to say about anything anyone else wrote. He REALLY sent you that note?”
“He really did,” I said. “I still have it.”
“Well then you’ve got to finish that novel,” Otto said, “and when you do, you have to let me read it.”
So I went home and started writing again. I wrote at night after work and all day every Saturday; and six months later, the book was finished.
[Toni’s note: Hunter knew what he was talking about here. Smart man. And, clearly, Bruce knew a thing or two about getting a book into shape…]
TMC: As a journalist, you edited many award-winning stories, including two Pulitzer finalists and a Pulitzer winner. You’ve obviously applied those same skills to your fiction. When you look at books that could’ve been a contender, so to speak, what do they lack? What are the flaws or mistakes that that keep a book from breaking out?
BD: It’s become fashionable to say that the most important thing in a novel is the characters, and of course they matter. If I start reading a book and don’t care deeply about the people in it after a few chapters, I toss it aside and find something else to read. But, hey, everything matters—the plot, the quality of the prose, and don’t forget the setting. As one of my crime-writer friends, Thomas H. Cook, once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place in a novel, just imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.” For a book to be good, all of these elements must be handled well and fit together seamlessly.
But that doesn’t answer the question. The quality of a book doesn’t seem to have much to do with how it does in the marketplace. Crime novels that become best sellers include wonderful work by writers like Dennis Lehane and Laura Lippman, as well as complete trash. Some brilliant crime novelists, including Cook and Daniel Woodrell, have only small cult followings, and some fine stuff never gets published at all.
When I ask publishers why some books sell and others don’t, they all say the same thing: If you could give us the answer, we could all get rich.
TMC: What is “Rogue Island” about?
BD: On the surface, it’s about an investigative reporter on the trail of a serial arsonist. But it is really about two other things.
First of all, it is very much a novel of place— an evocation of 21st-century life in the smallest state in the union. One of the many quirks of Rhode Island history is that no one can say for sure where the state’s name came from. One theory is that “Rhode Island” is a bastardization of “Rogue Island,” an epithet the God-fearing farmers of colonial Massachusetts bestowed upon the swarm of heretics, pirates, and cutthroats who first settled the shores of Narragansett Bay. The state has a history of corruption that goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, but it also has a history of integrity and decency that goes all the way back to its godly founder, Roger Williams. Those two threads are woven throughout the state’s history and are still present today. The tension between them is one of the things that make it such an interesting place. But that’s not all. Most crime novels are set in big, anonymous cities. There are also some very good ones set in rural areas. But Providence is something different. It’s a claustrophobic little city where everybody on the street knows your name and where it’s very hard to keep a secret. But it’s still big enough to be both cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. I strove to make the city and the state not just the setting for the book but something more akin to a main character. I never considered setting my story anywhere else. One reviewer called my portrayal of the place “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that’s exactly right.
Secondly, the novel is also a lyrical tribute to the dying newspaper business. The main character, a reporter named Mulligan, is never sure how long he’ll have a job; and he’s always in despair about the demise of the business he loves. This gives the book an additional layer of tension. And as the reader watches the character diligently pursue a serial arsonist, it becomes clear just how much is being lost as newspapers fade into history.
TMC: Given the slow strangulation of newspapers nationally, what do you think of the state of journalism today? What do you think the future of journalism in America is?
BD: Newspapers see themselves as victims of the digital age, but they are so full of shit. The internet isn’t killing newspapers; they are committing suicide. In the sequel to “Rogue Island,” tentatively titled “Cliff Walk,” the main character explains it this way:
“When the Internet first got rolling, newspapers were the experts on reporting the news and selling classified advertising. They were ideally positioned to dominate the new medium. Instead, they sat around with their thumbs up their asses while upstarts like Google, the Drudge Report, and ESPN.com lured away their audience and newcomers like Craigslist, eBay, and AutoTrader.com stole their advertising business. By the time newspapers finally figured out what was going on and tried to make a go of it online, it was too late. This all happened because newspapers didn’t understand what business they were in. They thought they were in the newspaper business, but they were really in the news and advertising business. It’s a classic mistake—the same one the railroads made in the 1950s when the interstate highway system was being built. If Penn Central had understood it was in the freight business instead of the railroad business, it would be the biggest trucking company in the country today.” [Toni’s note: brilliant comparison, and so apt.]
Newspapers are circling the drain now. Within the next decade, most of them will be gone. I cannot overstate what a terrible thing this is for the American democracy, because there is nothing on the horizon to replace them. The old broadcast TV networks, undercut by competition from cable, have cut way back on their reporting staffs—and they were never all that good to begin with. Cable TV news has deteriorated into warring propaganda machines. And online news organizations do little original reporting, drawing most of their news from disappearing newspapers.
Reporting is expensive. Investigative reporting is even more expensive. And so far, no one outside of fast-disappearing newspapers has demonstrated willingness or the resources to pay for it.
TMC: Tell us a little about your writing process.
BD: Some writers outline obsessively. Others, like Elmore Leonard, never touch the stuff. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. You do what works for you. Me? I’m with Leonard. I begin with a general idea of what the book will be about. For example, I began “Cliff Walk” (the novel I just finished) with the notion of juxtaposing the two extremes of Rhode Island society – the Newport mansions and the legal (until recently) prostitution business in the state. I just threw those two worlds together, set my characters in motion, and waited to see what would happen. A lot did. I find that when I write myself into a story, I am continually surprised by where it takes me. I think that’s a good thing. If figure that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers won’t either.
TMC: What are you working on now?
BD: “Cliff Walk,” the sequel to “Rogue Island,” will be published about a year from now, and I’ve made a small start on the third book in the series. When that’s done, my poet wife and I are going to write a crime novel together. It will be set in her native Chicago during the 1968 riots and will have alternating narrators—a white Chicago cop and a black hairdresser from the city’s west side.
TMC: How do you deal with writer’s block?
BD: I was a journalist for 40 years. Journalists write every day whether they are in the mood or not. They aren’t allowed to have writer’s block. They think writer’s block is for sissies. [Toni’s note: I’m grinning, since I’ve said this myself. But we may need to duck behind a wall to avoid the rocks heading our way.]
TMC: What do you do for fun? What are your hobbies? Where would you love to travel?
BD: I root for the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox. (I’m heading to spring training in Fort Myers next month.) I love playing with my dog, an enormous Bernese Mountain Dog named Brady. My wife and I collect daguerreotypes and other forms of early American photography. And I’m eager to visit Italy and make a return visit to Paris.
Toldja you all would enjoy Bruce. Here’s the back cover copy from ROUGE ISLAND:
Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying newspaper, is as old school as a newspaper man gets. His beat is Providence, Rhode Island, and he knows every street and alley. He knows the priests and prostitutes, the cops and street thugs. He knows the mobsters and politicians—who are pretty much one and the same. Now, someone is systematically burning down the working-class Providence neighborhood where Mulligan grew up, and people he knows and loves are perishing in the flames. With the police looking for answers in all the wrong places, it’s up to Mulligan to find the hand that strikes the match.
You can find Bruce at his blog, as well as on Facebook.
Now, I’m curious about what you all are thinking this fine Sunday about newspapers, the state of investigative journalism, and stories that have touched home or shocked you into seeing your own corner of the world differently. Are newspapers still needed? Relevant? Is the 24/7 news cycle helping… or hurting… investigative journalism? And for added fun, all commenters will be eligible to be entered in a contest for a $25 gift cerftificate to a bookstore of their choice. (Remember–some of our favorite indies will ship!) Winner will be picked and named in next Sunday’s column, so be sure to check back on Allison’s Sunday to see who won!)