Saturday, October 31, 2015

Award-Winning Crime Novelist Bruce DeSilva Revisited

A journalist for more than 40 years, Bruce DeSilva retired to write crime novels. He served as the writing coach at the Associated Press and was responsible for training the wire service's reporters and editors worldwide. He also 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 that he edited have won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award, the Livingston, ASNE, and the Batten Medal. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner.

(The following interview was excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Bruce DeSilva's article, "A Writer's Unique Voice." Interviews and advice from 59 other mystery/crime novelists are also included.)

Bruce, Rogue Island has received rave reviews, including Publishers Weekly’s listing as one of the ten best debut novels of 2010. How long did the project take from concept to release?

The reviews were something of a surprise, not so much because they were all raves, but because there were so many of them – The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, The Associated Press, Library Journal, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Booklist, and a whole bunch more. The Dallas Morning News review was perhaps the most extravagant, saying the novel “raised the bar for all books of its kind.” It’s usually hard for a first-time novelist to get noticed, so I’m very grateful. Reviews help sell books, of course, but they have also given me confidence as I work on Cliff Walk, the second book in the series.

Writing Rogue Island took six months or fifteen years, depending on how you count. Way back in 1994, when I was working for a newspaper in New England, I got a note from a reader praising “a nice little story” I’d written and suggesting that it could be “the outline for a novel.” The note was from literary novelist Evan Hunter, who also wrote great crime novels under the pen name Ed McBain. I taped the note to my home computer and started writing; but I was only a few chapters into the book when life intervened in the form of a demanding new job, a new marriage, and a child. In this busy new life, there was no time for novel writing; but each time I replaced my computer, I peeled the note from Hunter off the old one and taped it to the new one, hoping I’d return to the book someday. A couple of years ago, I finally did. Writing nights after work and on weekends, I finished the novel in six months. It was published about a year later.

What prompted you to write about Rhode Island’s seedier side?

I began my writing career as a reporter for The Providence Journal. I arrived in the middle of a New England-wide war between organized crime factions, the most powerful of them run out of a little vending machine office on Federal Hill in Providence, so I knew right away that this would be an interesting place to cover. Rhode Island, as one of my colleagues there liked to say, was “a theme park for investigative reporters.” I ended up staying for 13 years before moving on to bigger things, but journalism was never quite as much fun anywhere else. One reviewer called my portrayal of the state “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that’s exactly right. Rhode Island 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 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, where most of the action in Rogue Island takes place, 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.

Was Rogue Island’s plot based on stories you‘ve covered as a journalist?

Some of the minor incidents in the book are based on fact. For example, during the mayoralty of colorful and notorious Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., city highway department employees really did steal manhole covers and sell them for scrap for a few dollars apiece. But the central plot of the book, the investigation of an arson spree that burned down much of the city’s Mount Hope neighborhood, is entirely made up.

Briefly tell us about your writing background.

I spent 13 years writing for The Providence Journal, where I specialized in investigative reporting, and 13 years working at The Hartford Courant, most of them as the writing coach. Then I moved on to The Associated Press’s national headquarters in New York. There, I ran the news service’s elite team of national enterprise writers for eleven years and served as the writing coach for another three. I retired from journalism in 2009 to write crime novels, and I also continue to review them for the AP.

What’s the most important ingredient in a crime novel?

If I must pick one thing, it’s the characters. 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 read something else. Rogue Island is definitely a character-driven novel. 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.

Whose work influenced your own? Your most read novelist?

I discovered crime fiction by reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in my teens, and they remain major influences. I reread their work every year or two. As for current crime novelists, I’m a great admirer of Daniel Woodrell and Thomas H. Cook, two brilliant writers who succeed at everything except making the best-seller lists. I find Dennis Lehane’s best work astounding. Laura Lippman, James Lee Burke, Kate Atkinson, and Ken Bruen often take my breath away. I love Ace Atkins’ remarkable historical crime novels and James Ellroy’s staccato, high-on-amphetamines prose. To name a few. But the fact is, I’m influenced by everything I read including the bad stuff that teaches me what NOT to do. That said, the opening passage of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is my favorite in all of English.

How difficult was it to acquire an agent, and how did you find the right one?

It’s not easy for a first-time novelist to find an agent, but I was lucky. Otto Penzler, the dean of America’s crime fiction editors and the proprietor of Manhattan’s famous Mysterious Bookshop is a friend of mine. He read my manuscript, loved it, and recommended me to LJK Literary Management. There, Susanna Einstein, one of the top agents in the business, agreed to represent me. Otto calls himself “the godfather” of my first book.

For whom do you write?

It’s perilous for a writer to think too much about trends in public taste because it can be so fleeting. Right now, someone out there is working on a vampire novel that will be completed just as teenage girls everywhere lose interest in the subject. So I write for myself, telling the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them. The late Robert B. Parker, one of the most successful crime novelists of our time, once told me this: “You write what you can.”

How important is humor in crime/noir novels?

Some crime novelists, such as James Ellroy, write great books that are unrelentingly grim. Others, such as Tim Dorsey, write slapstick-noir novels that keep you laughing from beginning to end. Most crime writers, including me, fall somewhere in between, tempering dark stories with flashes of humor. Some writers try to accomplish this with a wise-cracking protagonist, but a smart mouth is not enough. Humor shouldn’t be tacked on. It should serve the story. Parker’s Spenser has a smart mouth, but his put-downs reveal character, showing us his attitudes toward pretentiousness, authority, and women. In Rogue Island, I tried something different. Each line of humor in this dark story is there to reveal the character’s world view. But a writer must beware of anything that falls flat. The trouble with humor is that it has to be funny.

Advice to aspiring crime writers?

A. Don’t quit your day job. For every best-selling author like Harlan Coben or Chelsea Cain, there are hundreds of writers whose books sell only a few thousand copies—or don’t get published at all. I know, I know. I said I quit MY job to write crime novels; but I worked in journalism long enough to have a decent pension; and my wife, an award-winning poet and college professor, makes more than enough to support our family.

B. Don’t even think about trying to write a crime novel without first reading at least a thousand of them. Each time you find something you admire, study it to figure out what the writer did. Read books the way teenage boys of my generation tinkered with cars, taking them apart and putting them back together again to see how they worked.

C. Don’t procrastinate. Put your butt in the chair and write. Ignore your e-mail, stay off Facebook and Twitter, forget that your favorite sports team is on TV, and don’t ever use writer’s block as an excuse. I spent 40 years working as a journalist. Journalists aren’t allowed to have writer’s block. They get paid to write every day, whether they feel like it or not. They know that writer’s block is for sissies.

D. Don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire book. It's not nearly as a momentous a task as you might think. If you write just 800 good words a day, which is damned little, you can finish an 80,000-word crime novel in as little as 100 days.

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