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.
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!)