Meet Bruce DeSilva

October 10th, 2011

Bruce fires up.

Bruce DeSilva is the kind of writer other writers would hate if he weren’t such a good guy.

I mean, come on.  Forty years of journalism experience, much of it spent in the dizzying heights of the Associated Press, editing stories that won everything from a Pulitzer on down. Decides to write a book.  Wins absolutely everything in sight, including the Edgar and the Macavity.  Hangs around with me prior to the awards presentation so that my not winning has a special sting, that feeling that the thunderbolt just missed. Except that ROGUE ISLAND is a really wonderful book and deserves everything it gets.

I asked Bruce to come aboard and talk about it all, and he said yes.  So here he is.

What did you bring to ROGUE ISLAND from your years in print journalism?

Hundreds of things, really, but I’ll limit my answer to this: Journalism taught me how vital reporting – especially investigative reporting – is to the health of the American democracy. Investigative reporting is time-consuming and expensive; and as newspapers continue to shrivel, no other institution (certainly not TV or news Websites) has demonstrated the will, the ethics and the financial commitment required to do it consistently, honestly, and well. The hero of ROGUE ISLAND is an investigative reporter at a dying newspaper. I hope that as readers see the dedication and skill with which he works, they will better appreciate what is being lost as great local and metropolitan newspapers pass into history. I tried to make the novel both a compelling crime story and a lyrical epitaph for the business that I love.

There’s a long and often unfortunate tradition of punning mystery titles, probably most often in cozy and comic mysteries — Murder in the Roux Morgue for a cooking mystery, for example.  (I made that up, so don’t go scouring Amazon for it.)  ROGUE ISLAND is a punning title, and I’d like you to explain what it means and why you made the choice to pun in the title.

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 it got the name because it resembles the Isle of Rhodes. The problem with that one is that it doesn’t. It isn’t even an island. There are several other competing theories, but my favorite is this one: “Rhode Island” is a bastardization of “Rogue Island,” an epithet the God-fearing farmers of colonial Massachusetts bestowed upon the swarm of heretics, smugglers, slavers, and pirates who first settled the shores of Narragansett Bay. Real-life rogues still swarm there, and a lot of fictional ones appear in my novel; so the title was an obvious choice. Everyone seemed to like it except, initially, my publisher’s marketing department, which objected that readers might think the book is about pirates. I suggested they could solve that problem by not putting a one-legged sea captain and a parrot on the cover.

There’s a school of mystery writing that says setting is (or should be) intrinsic to the story.  How do you feel about that, and why did you make Rhode Island the setting for your novel?

The most memorable crime novels transport you to interesting places and let you hear, see and smell them. I can’t imagine Daniel Woodrell’s brilliant work set anywhere but in his native the Ozarks—or your fine novels, Tim, set anywhere but in your adopted home of Thailand. Read James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels and you have been to New Iberia, LA, even if you’ve never left your house. As my friend Thomas H. Cook once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place, imagine ‘Heart of Darkness’ without the river.” One of the places I know best is Providence, RI., and it is unlike anywhere else I have ever been. Most American crime novels are set in big, anonymous cities, and there is also a tradition of fine rural crime novels. But Providence, R.I is something different. It’s so small that it’s claustrophobic. Almost everybody you see on the street knows your name, and it’s almost impossible to keep a secret. Yet it’s big enough to be both cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. It 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 decency that goes all the way back to its Godly founder, Roger Williams. Both of those threads are wound throughout the state’s history, and the tension between them is still present today.

My main character, Liam Mulligan, was born in Providence. He is not just from but OF this place. So, as he works to expose criminals and corrupt officials, he sees nothing remotely wrong with placing a bet with his bookie or paying a small bribe to get an inspection sticker for his rusting Ford Bronco. I sought to make both the city and the state not just the setting but something akin to major characters in ROGUE ISLAND. One reviewer called my portrayal of the place “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that’s exactly right.

In what ways does a career in journalism prepare you to write novels?

Journalism taught me hundreds of things: the value of brevity, the importance of small but telling details, the skill of listening carefully not only to what people say but to how they say it . . . The most important lesson, however, is that writing is a job. A journalist does not wait for his muse. He is not allowed to have writer’s block. He knows that writer’s block is for sissies. A journalist writes every day, whether he feels like it or not.

You’ve had the enviable experience of publishing a first mystery and essentially clearing the board in the awards sweepstakes.  We all (or most of us) go, during the writing of a book, from thinking it’s great at times to thinking it’s crap at others.  Which aspects of the book gave you the most trouble, and how did you work through them?  Were there ever times you were tempted to quit, and, if so, how did you deal with it?

ROGUE ISLAND was remarkably easy to write. The only thing that gave me trouble was the book’s handful of love scenes. When trying to imagine how Mulligan’s girlfriend would respond to his fumbling advances, I was utterly lost. My wife Patricia found that hilarious. “You HAVE made love before,” she said. “I know that for a fact.” Thankfully, she talked me though those parts. So, as I began my second Mulligan novel, I thought it was going to be easy. I was wrong. “Of course,” said my crime novelist friend, D.P. Lyle. “You spent years thinking about the first novel, and now you’re trying to write the second one in six months.” By the time I got two thirds of the way through the second book, I hated it. The pacing was all wrong and the plot wasn’t coming together. I spent three weeks staring at the computer screen before I realized the problem was that events were unfolding in the wrong order. I reshuffling the sequence of the scenes, and suddenly everything fell together.

How would you place ROGUE ISLAND in the various mystery “traditions,” and which writers in that tradition most influenced you, and how?  (You can cite writers in other traditions, too, if it’s applicable.)

ROGUE ISLAND, and the forthcoming books in the Mulligan series, are hardboiled crime novels in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom I reread every couple of years. The challenge is to write a novel that remains true to this tradition but that also feels fresh and contemporary. This is not a new problem. In the early 1970s, many of us who revere Chandler and Hammett wondered if a great contemporary hardboiled novel was still possible. The knight-errant with a pistol in his shoulder holster had become an implausible figure—an anachronism in post-sixties America. “Back then, most people looked at it as a museum piece,” says my writer pal, Ace Atkins. Then Robert B. Parker came along and reinvigorated the genre. He turned the traditional detective, who had always been a loner, into a modern man who had friends and a lover. He set that detective loose on contemporary horrors such as child abuse and schoolyard bullying. Most importantly, he faced the problem of the anachronistic knight-errant head on, turning his books into an examination of the limits of heroism in the modern world. My Mulligan novels are certainly hardboiled, the mean streets as dangerous as anything in Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” But my protagonist is very much a 21st century man struggling with 21st century problems, both personal and societal. Does it work? New York Times best-selling thriller writer Joseph Finder says: “With ROGUE ISLAND, Bruce DeSilva accomplishes something remarkable: he takes everything we love about the classic hardboiled detective novel and turns it into a story that’s fresh, contemporary, yet timeless.” I’d like to think so, because that’s what I’m trying to do. That said, I’m influenced by everything I read. I’ve learned a lot about character and story structure from the likes of Laura Lippman and Robert Crais. Most of what I know about writing dialogue came from reading George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard. From Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, I’ve learned how crime novels can address significant social issues—that they can be about more than just solving a murder. From James Lee Burke and Daniel Woodrell, I’ve learned how to add a touch of lyricism to hardboiled stories. Still, the opening page of John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” remains my favorite passage in all of English.

There is a lot of humor in your hardboiled novel. What’s up with that?

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 great private-detective hero, Spenser, for example, is given to making wisecracks; but his put-downs reveal character, showing us his attitudes toward pretentiousness, authority, and women. In ROGUE ISLAND, each line of humor in my 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.

To what extent is Liam Mulligan, the hero of the book, like you?  How is he different?

Mulligan IS me—except that he’s 24 years younger, six inches taller, and quicker with a quip. He’s an investigative reporter; I used to be. He doesn’t do well with authority; I do worse. He’s got a smart mouth; I get a lot of complaints about the same thing. He and I both have a strong but shifting sense of justice that tempts us to cut corners and work with bad people to bring worse people down.

Please recommend to the blog’s readers three other tremendous books in any genre that are based on journalism, and let us know what you loved about each.

With “King of Hearts,” which chronicles the struggles and triumphs of the pioneers of early open heart surgery, Providence Journal reporter G. Wayne Miller demonstrated something I have long believed – that the world is teeming with great stories that no one else has gotten around to telling.

“The Paperboy,” Peter Dexter’s brilliant novel, is a powerful exploration of character and of the heart of the newspaper business. This book gave me the confidence to make MY protagonist a reporter instead of a cop or a private detective.

With “Chasing the Rising Sun,” which recreates the amazing journey of a single song from the mountains of Appalachia to the World Wide Web, Associated Press assistant managing editor Ted Anthony demonstrates that you can write a great book about almost anything if you master the arts of research and storytelling. All three books are so beautifully written that they take my breath away.

What’s it like being the second-best writer in your family?

Oh, God! It’s a daily humiliation. My wife, Patricia Smith, is one of our greatest living poets. Seems like every few weeks someone gives her another award: The Pushcart Prize, the Rattle Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize . . . At least she was only a finalist for the National Book Award. If she’d won that, I might have had to kill her—or myself. (In case you are reading this, baby, that was a joke.) The fact that I am married to this amazing woman astonishes me daily. We’re a great team. I edit her poetry; she edits my fiction. Our writing styles are nothing alike, and that’s one of the things that make the partnership work. Her writing is rich to the point of being sensual. Mine can be spare to the point of sensual deprivation. I help her make her work tighter and crisper. She helps me make mine more descriptive and lyrical.

What’s next for you and Mulligan?

CLIFF WALK, the second novel in the series, is both a crime story and an exploration of sex and religion in the age of pornography. It will be published by Forge in May of 2012. I’m now working on the third, which explores what happens to a community when a serial killer, who was assumed to be locked away forever, has to be released on a technicality. When that one is finished, I plan to write a stand-alone crime novel with my wife Patricia. It will be set in her hometown of Chicago and have two alternating narrators.

I recommend ROGUE ISLAND to all of you, and if you ever get a chance to hang around with Bruce, leap at it. Unless it’s an awards presentation and you’ve been nominated.

18 Responses to “Meet Bruce DeSilva”

  1. Dana King Says:

    I’ll confess to not being aware of Bruce before this. He’s talked me into getting a copy of ROGUE ISLAND, though.

  2. EverettK Says:

    Thanks, Bruce (and Tim)!

    Excellent interview. I’ve read a great deal over the years from authors ABOUT writing, and probably THE most common thread is “write, write, write; write when you feel like it; write when you don’t feel like; write constantly; write, write, write.”

    A finished book looks SO easy from the reader’s point of view that it becomes difficult for the reader to grasp how much work, sweat and tears goes into the creation process!

  3. michael hallinan Says:

    Its hard to respond to such a well thought out interview as most of us are just educated smart asses. I was surprised by the title and the corruption of rogue to Rhode. Wasn’t Rhode Island changed to Zimbabwe some time ago. This passes for humor on Tim’s blog.
    You didn’t mention John Sanford on your list (also a journalist) of mystery writers you admired. He has managed to write and make Northern Minnesota as interesting as any glitzy city.
    Your sad and unfortunately true prediction about the demise of investigative journalism is something to mourn. Who will fill this void?
    Anyway I’m looking forward to reading your pirate novel. Thanks for a brilliant interview.

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I spent six years many years ago in New England, and I liked reading “Rogue Island.” It was as though I was visiting. Among other things, what is neat about your article is your mention of Peter Dexter. He was once a favorite of mine. It’s nice to see Tim bring you to his website. The writing world is truly a small place. I’m glad you won your awards, sad for Tim. ;(

  5. Byron Yake Says:

    It’s 3 a.m. and I felt compelled to finish reading this interview, Bruce. Time now to read Rogue Island.

  6. Bonnie Says:

    Though I was really rooting for Tim and Queen, I have now read Rogue Island and have to admit it is a winner. (Also it’s probably not fair to compare a single novel to a series of now four with recurring characters, as you become attached to them in a different way.) I did wonder: did your depiction of the depth of corruption in the state cause any defensive (if only in words) backlash on the part of politicians? Unfortunately, that depiction is pretty much in sync with my view of the world, but surely someone sat up indignantly, claiming it’s not really like that?
    Someone you didn’t mention but I would like to here is Molly Ivins, who really GOT why a journalist is not an entertainer or a political mouthpiece, and was funny with it, too.

  7. Sheri Hart Says:

    Thanks for bringing us this excellent interview, Tim.

    I look forward to reading ROGUE ISLAND — my morning blog hopping is much more expensive than Starbucks! 🙂

  8. Bruce DeSilva Says:

    Everett, one of the things I’ve learned is that writing a novel is not the overwhelming task I once thought it would be. Write just 800 words a day, which isn’t very much, and you have an 80,000 word crime novel in 100 days. Michael, I share your admiration for John Sanford. Bonnie, no, there hasn’t been any backlash from Rhode Island politicians, but a couple of readers from the state weren’t pleased with my portrayal. None of them disputed the truth of it, however. Everybody knows that’s how it is there. And yes, Molly Ivins was a treasure. I miss her.

  9. Suzanna Says:

    This is a fascinating interview. I wondered, Bruce, if during your journalism career you ever worked the crime beat? And if so, were there any details from any of your crime stories that you remembered and incorporated somehow into ROGUE ISLAND? Looks like a great read by the way!

  10. bruce desilva Says:

    Suzanna, I began my journalism career at The Providence Journal, where I stayed for 13 years. Yes, I worked the crime beat for a while, but I spent most of my time there as an investigative reporter, poking into everything from political corruption to corporate crime. In other words, the job I did back then was a lot like the one the main character in my novels does now. The plot of “Rogue Island” is entirely made up, but a few of the smaller incidents in the book are drawn from life. For example, Providence city highway department workers really did steal manhole covers and sell them for scrap for a few cents on the dollar.

  11. Suzanna Says:

    Thanks for your reply, Bruce. Sure hope no one got hurt once the manhole covers disappeared!

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I’m very happy you all liked Bruce and only wish you’d had a chance to sit around with him, because he’s great company and a consummate storyteller, which obviously spills over into his writing.

    I’ve been sloppy — Bruce and I were never up for the same awards. Bruce was always nominated for Best First Novel whereas I was in the Best Old Slag category. If he’d won MY award, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near as nice.

    More writer interviews in the pipeline, and then I may even write something original. Or maybe not.

  13. EverettK Says:

    Hopefully you’ve been “writing something original” all this time (and just not sharing it with us). 🙂

  14. Hank Phillippi Ryan Says:

    Two of my favorite authors! ROGUE ISLAND is terrific…a true standout. (And Tim, you know how I feel about your books..xo)

    Yeah, Bruce, the reporting life is such a key element to just the writing of the book–deadlines, storytelling–it’s all the same, except after all these years, we finally get to make stuff up!

    Can’t wait for CLIFF WALK.

  15. Jenny Milchman Says:

    Fascinating interview–especially the marital stuff. Nice that there’s no competition–imagine if you wrote the same genre.

    I am a fan of Bryan Gruley’s journalist books, and Todd Ritter’s–so yours has now become a must read…

    Thanks for the interview, Tim!

  16. michael hallinan Says:

    HEY TIM !
    Its time you wrote a blog.
    Your loving brother.

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, all — Mike, I’m doing NOTHING right now except working on THE FEAR ARTIST, so it’ll be a while before I blog again. In the meantime, I have a bunch of terrific writers lined up, plus some great stuff from Robb and a few surprises.

    Everett, that IS the “something original,” or at least I hope it is. I’m 97,000 words in and working on the final sequences as well as a new thread that will run all the way through the book.

    And here’s the book’s epigraph, thanks to Randy Newman’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”:

    A President once said,
    “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
    Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid
    It’s patriotic in fact and color coded
    And what are we supposed to be afraid of?
    Why, of being afraid
    That’s what terror means, isn’t it?
    That’s what it used to mean.

    And maybe, at the end of the book, by the prodigiously good Jason Isbell:

    I ain’t afraid no more.
    I ain’t afraid no more.
    ‘Cause however long the night, the dawn will break again.
    We’ll be around when they have found your next of kin.
    There ain’t nothing you can do or say to drown out this amen.
    ‘Cause however long the night, the dawn will break again

    And from me, personally, although this won’t be in the book, at least not so nakedly, Fuck the fear merchants in both parties.

  18. EverettK Says:

    🙂 I’m really looking forward to The Fear Artist. Sounds like Poke & Co. are in for a VERY rough ride! (But we know who will get the worst of it in the end… don’t we? DON’T WE? Sure we do. No fear here…)

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