(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?
What prompted you to write about Rhode Island’s seedier side?
Was Rogue Island’s plot based on stories you‘ve covered as a journalist?
Briefly tell us about your writing background.
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.