Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Bruce DeSilva the Edgar Award-Winning Author of “Rogue Island” and the Critically-Acclaimed Sequel, “Cliff Walk”. I met Bruce last summer at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference and really enjoyed getting to know him. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Tell me about yourself Bruce.
I grew up in the tiny mill town of Dighton, Massachusetts, 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 Boston Red Sox, and playing baseball and hockey. When I left town to study geology in college, my favorite high school English teacher told me that I would eventually find myself writing from compulsion. He was prescient. After college, I took a job as a newspaper reporter and remained in journalism for 40 years, the last 14 at the Associated Press, where I ran an elite department that specialized in investigations and other national reporting projects, and where I served as the news service's writing coach world-wide. I took early retirement five years ago to write crime novels. The first, Rogue Island, won both the Edgar Award and the Macavity Award. The second, Cliff Walk, was published to rave reviews last spring, and the third, tentatively titled Providence Rag, will be published in March of 2014. I live in New Jersey with a college-bound granddaughter, two enormous dogs, and my wife Patricia Smith, who is one of American's greatest living poets.
When did you know you wanted to become an author?
For most of my journalism career, writing a novel never occurred to me. But one day in 1994, I got a note from a newspaper 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?” Normally, I would have just tossed it in the trash, but this one was signed by Evan Hunter, who wrote fine mainstream novels under his own name and the brilliant 87th Precinct police procedurals under the pen name Ed McBain. I sealed the note in plastic, taped it to my home computer, and started writing. That could have been the start of something -- but it wasn't. I didn't get far before my life suddenly turned upside down. I took a demanding new job in Manhattan. I got divorced. Then I got remarried to a woman with a two-year-old child. In this busy new life, there was no time for writing novels. Years streamed by before I found the time to return to fiction. When I finally finished Rogue Island, I dedicated it to the memory of the author who first encouraged me .
Is there a central theme to your books?
The protagonist in my first three novels is Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper. That makes him among the last of a dying breed. I decided to write about an investigative reporter instead of, say, a private detective or a cop, because I'm deeply worried about the price the American democracy is paying for the decline of the newspaper industry. There is nothing on the horizon capable of replacing the quality local, national and international reporting that newspapers once did. My hope is that as readers watch Mulligan's skill and dedication as he goes about his job, they will gain a greater appreciation for what is being lost. That said, each of the Mulligan novels also has its own unique theme. Cliff Walk, for example, is both a hard-boiled crime story and a serious exploration of sexual morality and religion in the age of ubiquitous pornography.
What books have inspired you the most in your life?
My God, that's a terrible question to ask a lifelong reader. Recently, my wife and I culled our personal library, giving away hundreds of volumes in anticipation of a possible move. That left our shelves holding only our 7,000 favorites. So one way to answer this question would be to list all of those titles. When I was a kid, you'd never find me without either a baseball glove, a hockey stick, or something to read in my hands. Around the fifth grade, emulating my father, I started reading the daily newspaper cover to cover. The stories about cops and robbers, generals and politicians, tycoons and scientists, entertainers and ballplayers, never inspired me to be any of those things. Instead, I imagined myself as the guy who told their stories. By sixth grade, I was devouring Kenneth Roberts' historical novels, which inspired not a love of literature but a live-long love of history. In junior high, I found Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and fell head over heels for crime fiction. And today, I'm inspired by many contemporary writers, especially Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher for his quirky characters and poetic style. And no one's body of work has ever inspired me more than my wife's. That said, my favorite passage in all of English is the first page of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.
What’s a typical day in your writing routine like?
After I finish a novel, I spend a few weeks puttering around the house, playing with my dogs, and mulling over what to write next. I'm not thinking about plots; I'm thinking about themes, trying to decided what subject is worth spending the next six to nine months of my life on. Once I've got an idea, I sit down and write at least a thousand good words every day, no matter how long it takes. Sometimes, I get them down in a couple of hours, and when I do, I give myself the rest of the day off. But when the writing comes hard, I remain at the keyboard until I have my thousand words. This, I believe, is the secret to finishing a novel. If I write a thousand words a day, which isn't much, I can finish an eighty-thousand-word crime novel in three months.
What is it that you do to relax?
I read, watch the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics and the Bruins, and play with my dogs, who are named after Tom Brady and Rajon Rondo.
Do you use an outline, or do you write organically?
I begin with a theme, set my characters in motion, and wait to see what develops. I enjoy discovering the story as I go along; and I figure that if I don't know what's going to happen next, my readers probably won't either.
Have you ever had writer’s block and what did you do to push past it?
Journalism taught me is that writing is a job--something I do every day whether I feel like it or not. I do not wait for inspiration. I do not search for my muse. I put my butt in the chair and write. Writers' block is for sissies.
Is there a certain time of day when you are most creative?
No, but there is a time of day when I'm least creative. That would be whenever time the Patriots are on TV.
How many drafts do you usually write of a manuscript, and what is your editing process like?
I revise as I go, moving on to the next chapter only after I'm satisfied with the last one. So, when I get to the last page, the book is done. At least that's pretty much how it worked with the first two Mulligan novels. When I finished drafting the third, however, I liked each chapter just fine, but they didn't fit together right. Darned if I could figure out why. I sent the book off to my agent, Susanna Einstein, who is also the best story doctor I've ever met. She identified the problem, which required me to completely restructure the first half of the novel.
What do you think of the recent changes in the publishing world?
I prefer holding a physical book in my hands, but I have no problem with e-readers. Anything that encourages people to read is fine with me. I think the consolidation of major publishing houses, and the way they are eliminating so may mid-list writers to concentrate on best-sellers, is bad. I think the flood of self-publishing that e-readers have spawned is good because it's gives a handful of talented writers a new way to find an audience -- and bad because it floods the marketplace with vast amounts of dreck. I think that if e-readers had been invented 20 years earlier, I could have saved tens of thousands of dollars because I wouldn't have needed a library and could have bought a smaller house.
Out of all the books you’ve written do you have a favorite, and if so why?
The last chapter of my second novel, Cliff Walk -- the way it portrays both my main character's loneliness and his confusion about the book's theme of sexual morality -- is the best thing I've ever written. But overall, I like Providence Rag best because the story is more textured and complex. The novel confronts Mulligan and his newspaper colleagues with a life-and-death ethical dilemma that has no right answer. No matter which side of the issue they come down on, they are forced to do something contemptible.
What are you working on now?
I'm writing my third hardboiled short story for an anthology, this one for Akashic Press's Providence Noir, which will probably be published late next year. And I've just started fooling around with two new novels. One of them is another Mulligan novel and the other introduces a new main character, a young guy named Dante who is trying to decide which side of the law to live his life on. I haven't yet figured out which one I'll write first.
Where can we buy your books?
They're available at many bookstores and from Amazon in print, e-book, and downloadable audio editions.