I’m honoured and delighted to welcome Edgar and Macavity Award-winning author Bruce DeSilva to Murderati for today’s Wildcard.
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, responsible for training the news service’s reporters and editors worldwide. Previously, he directed an elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects. Earlier in his career, 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), the Livingston (twice), the ASNE, and the Batten Medal. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. His crime fiction has won the prestigious Edgar and Macavity Awards and has been a finalist for the Shamus, Barry, and Anthony Awards.
He has worked as a consultant on writing and editing at more than 50 newspapers including The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News, and he has been a sought-after speaker at professional gatherings including the National Writers Workshops, the Nieman Foundation, Thrillerfest, and Bouchercon. His reviews of crime novels have appeared in The New York Times book review section and continue to be published occasionally by The Associated Press.
He is currently a masters’ thesis adviser at The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Bruce and his wife Patricia Smith, an award-winning poet, live in Howell, NJ, with their granddaughter Mikaila and two enormous canines, a Bernese Mountain Dog named Brady and a mutt named Rondo.
Zoë Sharp: Bruce, welcome to Murderati! You won the Edgar and the Macavity Award for ROGUE ISLAND, your first crime novel about old-school investigative journalist, Liam Mulligan. Did you fear a sophomore slump—‘Jaws 2’ after ‘Jaws’, or ‘Scarlett’ after ‘Gone With The Wind’? Just how daunting was it to write the sequel, CLIFF WALK, with that kind of expectation hanging over you?
Bruce DeSilva: When my first novel was published, I had no expectations one way or another about how it would be received. Then the professional reviews poured in, and they were all raves. I was gratified that so many people who know the crime fiction genre loved the book, but some of the reviews were so over the top that they were a bit embarrassing. The Dallas Morning News, for example, declared that “ROGUE ISLAND raises the bar for all books of its kind.” Hey, I thought it was pretty good too, but I didn’t think I’d done THAT. If I had, Dennis Lehane might never forgive me.
I’d already finished writing CLIFF WALK by the time the ROGUE ISLAND reviews appeared, and the awards weren’t announced until months later; so the acclaim for the first book had no affect on me as I wrote the second. But with many reviewers calling CLIFF WALK even better than ROGUE ISLAND, I feel a touch of pressure these days as I work on the final revisions for the third Mulligan novel, PROVIDENCE RAG. I’ve got some loyal readers now, and they’ll take me to task if I let them down.
Still, there’s nothing like being married to a woman who writes better than you to keep things in perspective. My wife, Patricia Smith, is one of our finest living poets. I won the Edgar and the Macavity? SHE’s won two Pushcart Prizes, the Paterson Poetry Prize, Rattle Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. I was a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony and Barry Awards? SHE was a finalist for the National Book Award, which is a much bigger deal. I get invited to speak at Thrillerfest? SHE gets invited to read at the Sorbonne. And now she’s even invaded my turf, editing the forthcoming STATEN ISLAND NOIR for Akashic Press.
Lucky for me, my genius-in-residence edits every line that I write. Having her at my side keeps the pressure at bay.
ZS: In his review of CLIFF WALK, prominent writing coach Don Fry said, “One of the reasons to write a novel is to attack all the things that drive you crazy. … He attacks child molesters, pornographers, sex peddlers, corrupt politicians, drug dealers, prostitution, and the stupid owners of newspapers who are destroying journalism.” Did you set out with an agenda before you wrote this book?
BD: Fry also said that another reason to write a novel is “to celebrate the things you love”―and I did that in CLIFF WALK, too. I don’t want people thinking that it’s just an angry book.
I began CLIFF WALK with two notions in mind. The story would contrast and compare the extremes of Rhode Island’s culture—its thriving sex trade and Newport high society. And Mulligan would try to figure out why Rhode Island politicians kept screeching about the shame of the state’s prostitution business while doing nothing to close the loophole that made brothels legal. (As I wrote the book, prostitution had, in fact, been legal in the state for more than a decade.) With nothing more than that in mind, I set my characters in motion to see what would happen. A lot did.
However, I believe that the best crime novels are always about more than a detective pounding the pavement in search of clues. Writers such as James Lee Burke, Laura Lippman and George Pelecanos, to name a few, use the popular vehicle of the crime novel to examine the social and moral issues that keep us up at night. Pelecanos’s novels, for example, are great crime stories; but they’re also serious explorations of the urban landscape, and they deal unflinchingly with the volatile issues of race and ethnicity.
To make this kind of thing work, the writer mustn’t preach; a crime novel’s serious intent should go down so easily that the reader barely notices—until he finds himself pondering the weight of it all after closing the book.
I want my novels to be a blast to read, but I also want them to be ABOUT something. In ROGUE ISLAND, Mulligan tracked down a serial arsonist who was torching the working class neighborhood where he grew up. But the novel also took a hard look at the high price the American democracy is paying for the decline of its great metropolitan newspapers. As readers saw the skill and determination with which Mulligan pursued his investigation, I hope that they acquired a greater appreciation for what we are losing as newspapers fade into history.
In CLIFF WALK, Mulligan journeys through the underbelly of the state’s sex trade. What he finds there takes a toll on him, challenging his whatever-gets-you-through-the-night attitude about sexual morality and shattering his already tenuous religious faith. The novel is both a riveting slice of hardboiled fiction and a sober exploration of sex and religion in a society in which pornography is ubiquitous and anyone can log on to a website, punch in a Visa number, and order up an underage hooker.
(Lawrence Block stunned by CLIFF WALK)
ZS: Aren’t you worried you’re going to run out of things that really piss you off?
BD: Not gonna happen. There’s no shortage of things that gnaw at my innards. I’m angry about the know-nothing strain in American culture that devalues science and education. I’m angry about the persistence of racism in our society. I’m angry at the way cable news networks have deteriorated into lying propaganda tools of the left and right. At the moment, I’m also angry about a loophole in Rhode Island law that could force the state to release a convicted serial killer—a fact at the heart of the next Mulligan novel, PROVIDENCE RAG. I’ve also worked up a serious dislike for the arrogant Miami Heat, who just knocked the noble Boston Celtics out of the NBA playoffs. I hope the Oklahoma City Thunder rips their hearts out.
Of course, I’m not going to run out of things that I love, either.
ZS: You were a journalist for many years before turning to fiction—something I believe is a great training ground for the novelist as it teaches you to write to topic, to length, deadline, and forces you not to be too precious about your work as the subs are likely to hack it to pieces anyway.
BD: I’m not as sanguine as you are about the value of journalism as a training ground for novelists. Daily journalism is peopled by stick figures instead of flesh-and-blood characters. It is filled with quotes (words sources say to journalists) instead of dialogue (words people say to each other.) Too often, it uses street addresses in lieu of creating a sense of place. And it is filled with turgid “articles” and “reports” instead of stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Only the rarest of journalists rise above that, writing real stories that bring people, places, and action to life on the page.
The main thing journalism does teach a future journalist is that writing is a job―something you do every day whether you feel like it or not. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You are not allowed to have writer’s block. Journalists know that writer’s block is for sissies. You put your butt in the chair and write.
ZS: Had you always wanted to write novels? What prompted the career change?
BD: For most of my journalism career, writing a novel never occurred to me. I did start playing around with one in the 1990s, but soon abandoned it―a story I’ll expand on later in response to another of your questions. But by 2009, after 40 years in journalism, I’d grown disillusioned with the profession I’d always loved. Newspapers were circling the drain. The quality of local and national TV news was in sharp decline. And online news organizations were doing little original reporting of their own, getting most of their news from dying newspapers. I deplored the trivialization of news and the way it had become more of a commodity than a public trust. Even my venerable employer, the Associated Press, was devoting more resources to entertainment news than to investigative reporting.
The way I feel about it now is that I wasn’t leaving journalism; journalism was leaving me. It was time for a second act.
ZS: CLIFF WALK is a wonderfully intertwined and complex story. How did you go about constructing it?
BD: I don’t outline. I begin with a general idea of what a book will be about and then turn my characters loose to see what they will do and say. I enjoy discovering the story as I write. And I believe that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. Half-way through CLIFF WALK, I wrote Mulligan into a corner and had a heck of a time figuring out how to get him out of it. So I got up from the keyboard and spent a couple of weeks thinking about it before the answer came to me. Thinking about who my characters are and what they will do next is the essence of my writing process.
ZS: Mulligan and his supporting cast of characters, from neurotic ex-wife Dorcas, to the newspaper owner’s son who bears the terrific nickname of ‘Thanks-Dad’, and even Mulligan’s (t)rusty old Bronco ‘Secretariat’, are beautifully observed. I was kind of rooting for the thing with Yolanda to work out, but somehow I knew it wasn’t going to. Is Mulligan ever going to catch a break?
BD: Thanks for the compliment. I do love my supporting characters, including Mulligan’s mobbed-up bookie, Domenic “Woosh” Zerilli; Fire Chief Rosella Morelli, the real hero of ROGUE ISLAND; and Rhode Island Attorney General Fiona McNerney, a.k.a. Attilla the Nun, who plays a pivotal role in CLIFF WALK. I spend a lot of time getting to know them, and it pained me deeply when I had to kill one of them off. You’re quite right that Mulligan gets his heart broken in the first two books. As the next one, PROVIDENCE RAG, begins, he’s contemplating getting a dog—a big one that would jump all over him when he comes home from work, curl up beside him when he roots for the Red Sox on TV, and snore contentedly every night at the foot of his bed. As the novel puts it: “After several recent disappointments, he’d come to believe that the love of a dog was preferable to the love of a woman. Dogs were unwaveringly faithful, and not a one had ever lied to him.” Will he ever find a soul mate? I don’t know. Will the soul mate have fur and fleas? That’s something he and I will have to discover as we continue on our journey together.
ZS: What’s next for you—and Mulligan? Do you plan to write more in the series next, or try a standalone?
(Newark Mayor Corey Booker engrossed by Bruce’s prose)
BD: PROVIDENCE RAG, the third Mulligan novel, will be published sometime next year. This summer, I’m helping my wife with her next project, a biography of Harriet Tubman. When that’s done, we hope write a crime novel together. It will be based in her native Chicago around the time of the 1968 riots and will have two alternating narrators, a white Chicago cop and a black hairdresser from the city’s tough West Side. After that, Mulligan will be back again.
ZS: I’m a sucker for a good opening line or good opening paragraph. CLIFF WALK’s is a doozy:
‘Cosmo Scalici hollered over the grunts and squeals of three thousand hogs rooting in his muddy outdoor pens. “Right here’s where I found it, poking outta this pile of garbage. Gave me the creeps, the way the fingers curled like it wanted me to come closer.”
(I mean, how can you not read on after that?) For me finding the right entry-point in the story is one of the hardest parts of writing. What are your own personal Room 101 elements of writing?
BD: Whenever I pick up a crime novel by an author I’ve never read before, I give it the first paragraph test. If I don’t see something that grabs me, I toss it and try another author.
The first time I picked up a book by Andrew Vachss, for example, I found this opening line:
“The sun dropped on the far side of the Hudson River like it knew what was coming.”
I knew immediately that this was a writer I wanted to read.
So, yeah, I pay a lot of attention to opening lines when I write. When I started CLIFF WALK, the first words that spilled from my keyboard were these:
“Attilla the Nun thunked her can of Bud on the cracked Formica tabletop, stuck a Marlboro in her mouth, sucked in a lungful, and said: “Fuck this shit.”
I knew immediately that I would be able to write this novel. As it happened, those lines became the opening for Chapter 5, but writing them first established the hardboiled tone I was looking for.
ZS: I’ve been researching recently about the rejection letters famous writers received for what would go on to become their best work. How was your own path to publication?
BD: First of all, let me urge aspiring authors not to take rejections personally. The great James Lee Burke’s first novel, THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE, was rejected 111 times before it was finally published—and then went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Rejections have more to do with whether agents and publishers think a book will sell than about whether they think it is good. You don’t really think anyone believed that Snooki from Jersey Shore could write, do you?
As for me, the path to publication was greased by good luck and connections. Here’s what happened:
Way 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?” The note 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. I was only a couple of chapters into the novel when my life turned upside down. In my busy new life as a husband, father, and senior Associated Press editor, there was no time to finish a novel.
Years streaked by. Each time I bought a new computer, I taped that note from Hunter to it, telling myself I would get back to the book someday. But I didn’t. Finally, a few 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, ROGUE ISLAND was finished. Otto read the novel and loved it.
“Do you have an agent?” he asked.
No, I told him. I didn’t even know any.
“Then let me make a call for you,” he said.
The next thing I knew, I was represented by Susanna Einstein, one of the best in the business. As she pitched the book to publishers, I was befriended by Jon Land, a crime novelist who lives in Rhode Island, where my books are set. Jon urged his editor at Forge to dig ROGUE ISLAND out of the big stack of submissions on his desk. He did, and promptly bought it.
ZS: And finally, do you have anything to say in your own defense?
BD: I adore my dogs, I’m a long-suffering Red Sox fan, I smoke cigars, and my wife says I clean up pretty well. What’s not to love?
CLIFF WALK, the sequel to the award-winning ROGUE ISLAND, once again revolves around the tumultuous life of Liam Mulligan, a wise-cracking investigative reporter for a dying Providence, RI newspaper. As the tale opens, prostitution is legal in the state (which it really was until two years ago). Politicians are making a lot of speeches about the shame of it, but they aren’t doing anything about it. Mulligan suspects somebody is being paid off.
As he investigates, a child’s severed arm is discovered in a pile of garbage at a local pig farm. Then the body of an internet pornographer turns up at the bottom of the famous Cliff Walk in nearby Newport. At first the killings seem random, but as Mulligan keeps digging, strange connections begin to emerge.
Promised free sex with hookers if he minds his own business—and a savage beating if he doesn’t—Mulligan enlists the help of Thanks-Dad, the newspaper publisher’s son, and Attila the Nun, the state’s colourful attorney general, in his quest for the truth. What he learns will lead him to question his long-held beliefs about sexual morality, shake his tenuous religious faith, and leave him wondering who his real friends are. CLIFF WALK is at once a hardboiled mystery and a serious exploration of sex and religion in the age of pornography.
Publishers Weekly gave it a coveted starred review, saying, “Look for this one to garner more award nominations.” Booklist also gave it a starred review, calling the plot “exquisite” and saying it is “terrific on every level.”
So, ‘Rati, now’s your chance to ask questions of Bruce. Treat him kindly―or at least buy him a cigar. He likes El Ray Del Mundo maduro’s 🙂
This week’s Word of the Week is vibrissa, meaning a tactile bristle, such as a cat’s whisker; a vaneless rictal feather, or a hair as in the nostril.