Bruce DeSilva's crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press's award-winning noir anthologies.
In forty years as a journalist for forty years, Bruce worked as writing coach world-wide for The Associated Press, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Polk Award (twice), the Livingston (twice) and the Pulitzer. Earlier in his career, he worked as an editor and national writer at The Hartford Courant and as an investigative reporter at The Providence Journal. He has worked as a consultant for more than fifty newspapers, taught at the University of Michigan and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and lectured at Harvard University's Nieman Foundation. (All of which means his career should be able to withstand appearing here.)
The third book in his Liam Mulligan series, Providence Rag¸ launches today, so there’s no better time than the present to subject Bruce to Twenty Questions about the book, his writing, and life in general.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Providence Rag.
Bruce DeSilva: The youngest serial killer in U.S. history butchered five of his neighbors before he was old enough to drive. When he was caught eighteen years ago, Rhode Island’s antiquated criminal justice statutes—never intended for someone like him—required that all juveniles, no matter their crimes, be released at age twenty-one. But today, the killer remains behind bars, serving time for crimes supposedly committed on the inside. That these charges were fabricated is an open secret; but nearly everyone is fine with it. After all, if the monster ever gets out, more people will surely die. But Edward Mason, a young reporter for The Providence Dispatch, is not fine with it. If officials can get away with framing this killer, he says, they could do it to anybody. As Mason sets out to prove officials are perverting the justice system, his mentor, veteran police reporter Liam Mulligan, searches frantically for some legal way to keep the killer behind bars. Their dueling investigations pit friend against friend in a high-stakes race against time—and entangles them, their newspaper, and the city of Providence in an ethical dilemma that has no right answer.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
BD: The plots of the first two novels in the Mulligan crime series sprang entirely from my imagination, but Providence Rag was inspired by a true story that I covered when I was a journalist. Craig Price, The Warwick Slasher, was only 13 years old when his rampage began and fifteen when he was apprehended. Although Rhode Island law mandated that he be released on his twenty-first birthday, he is still in prison. If authorities have been playing games to keep him locked up, as I suspect that they have, they are abusing their power. But Price is much too dangerous to be set loose. So no matter which side of this issue you come down on, you are condoning something reprehensible. I wrote the novel to explore this disturbing ethical dilemma.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Providence Rag, start to finish?
BD: When I’m working on a novel, my goal is to write at least a thousand good words a day. If I accomplish that in a couple of hours, I can give myself the rest of the day off. But if I don’t have a thousand good words after eight hours, I have to keep my butt in the chair until I reach my goal. By doing that, I should be able to turn out an eighty-thousand-word novel in eighty days. Of course, it never quite works out like that. Some days, when life intrudes, I don’t write at all. There are household chores to be done, ballgames and blues concerts to attend, vacations to take, family obligations to be met. Including such interruptions, Providence Rag, my most complex book to date, was completed in six months.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character?
Liam Mulligan was raised on the top floor of a tenement house in a working class Providence, R.I., neighborhood. As a kid, he was obsessed with the game of basketball, dreaming of going to Providence College on a sports scholarship and then getting drafted by the Boston Celtics. But by his senior year of high school, he wasn’t good enough for that. He ended up making the PC team as a walk on, but he rarely got off the bench. So he studied journalism and discovered a new dream of becoming the next Edward R. Murrow or Seymour Hersh. After graduation, he caught on as a sports reporter for the local newspaper and eventually worked his way onto the investigative team. But soon, falling revenues and declining readership took their toll on the newspaper. Mulligan realizes now that the Dispatch, like many newspapers across the country, is dying. At age 44, he feels trapped. He knows there’s no future in newspapers, but he believes that investigative reporting is his calling, and he fears that he could never be any good at anything else.
OBAAT: In what time is Providence Rag set?
BD: The novel begins in 1992 when Mulligan, a rookie sports writer at the Dispatch, is temporarily assigned to help the paper’s police reporter cover a string of serial murders in a Providence suburb. The murders are solved, and the killer arrested, in the first seventy-five pages. The story then flashes forward to the present, when we learn that the killer, who was supposed to have been released from prison on a technicality years earlier, remains behind bars, held there on a series of trumped-up charges.
OBAAT: How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
BD: Very important. The most memorable crime novels transport you to interesting places and let you hear, see, and smell them. It is difficult to imagine Ken Bruen’s best novels set anywhere but in his native Galway, Ireland, or Daniel Woodrell’s work set anywhere but in the Ozarks. 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, the novelist Thomas H. Cook, once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place, imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.” So Providence Rag, like each of my other books, is very much a novel of place--an evocation of 21st century life in the capital city of our smallest state. Unlike big, anonymous cities like New York, where many fine crime novels are set, Providence is 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. And its history of corruption, which goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, makes it an ideal setting for crime fiction. I have made Providence not just the setting but something akin to a major character, in my novels. One reviewer called my portrayal of the place “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that gets it exactly right.
OBAAT: How did Providence Rag come to be published?
BD: After the critical success of my first two novels, Rogue Island and Cliff Walk, my publisher rewarded me with a three-book contract. Providence Rag is the first one written to meet that obligation.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
BD: When I’m writing, I rarely read anything but newspapers; and I make a special point to avoid crime novels. I find that if I read them, my writing begins to mimic their author’s voices, and I can’t allow that to happen. But when I finish writing a book, I take a break from work and binge-read novels and American history. Like most word-lovers, I could list a hundred favorite authors and still feel guilty about the ones I leave off. Ernest Hemmingway? Joseph Conrad? Eudora Welty? Of course. But I also have a deep admiration for contemporary crime novelists such as Daniel Woodrell, Thomas H. Cook, Walter Mosley, Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, and others who use the popular form of the crime novel as a way to address serious social issues and still reach large audiences. I love the quirky characters and lyrical style of Howard Frank Mosher, the closest thing we have now to the great Mark Twain. And my wife Patricia Smith, one of America’s most honored living poets, is the most gifted writer I know. That said, the opening paragraph of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is my favorite passage in the English language.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
BD: My first love is the hard-boiled crime genre, so I have to begin with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the first to lift those dark stories out of the pulp magazines and turned them into literature. But I’m influenced by everything I read—even the bad stuff because it shows me what not to do. I’m also influenced by the best contemporary television dramas. I’ve learn a lot about character development, story structure, pacing, scene setting, and dialogue from Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Justified, Masters of Sex, True Detective, House of Cards, and The Wire.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
BD: I don’t outline. I begin with a theme. For example, Providence Vipers, a novel I just completed for publication sometime next year, began with an impulse to explore the worlds of legal and illegal sports gambling. With nothing more than that, I set my characters in motion to see what they will say and do. I enjoy discovering the story as I go along, and I believe that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. There is risk in writing this way. Occasionally, I write myself into a corner and have a heck of a time writing myself out of it. But I really don’t have a choice. If I know how the story’s going to turn out in advance, my desire to write it evaporates. Yes, I wear pants when I work. I tried writing in a bathrobe, but it’s too drafty.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
BD: Do not be intimidated by the seemingly daunting task of writing a book. It’s not as big a job as you think. If you write a thousand words every day, you can finish a first draft in eighty days. You say you can’t fit that much writing time into your busy life? Then write five hundred words every day, which isn’t much, and you can finish in a hundred and sixty days. Still too much? Write a thousand words a week and you’ll have a book in eighteen months. The key is to set a reasonable goal for yourself and stick to it. Don’t be a wannabe. Writers write.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
BD: Playing with my two enormous dogs, getting beaten at Scrabble by my brilliant wife, and collecting daguerreotypes and other forms of 19th century photography.
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
BD: When I wrote my first book, I had no expectations. I didn’t know if it would get published; and when it did, I didn’t know if anyone would like it. My novels have received more critical praise and sold better than I could have imagined. The Edgar and Macavity Awards and the flood of glowing reviews have been gratifying, although some of the attention has been so flattering that I find it embarrassing. For example, The Dallas Morning News declared that “Rogue Island raises the bar for all books of its kind.” Hey, I thought it was pretty good, too, but I don’t think I did that. If I had, my friend Dennis Lehane would never forgive me. So I guess my answer to your question is both. I wouldn’t write a book I’d be ashamed of even if it were guaranteed to be a best seller, but I do enjoy getting paid.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
BD: My preference is to go with one of the Big Six, which is how it worked out for me.(My publisher, Forge, is a division of MacMillan.) I am grateful to have a publisher who relieves me of the task of distributing the book and at least some of the burden of promoting it (although all authors need to promote their work these days.) The work my publisher and my agent, Susanna Einstein of the Einstein Thompson Agency, do for on my behalf gives me more time to write.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
BD: Bushmills Irish whiskey and a Killian’s Irish Red back—just like my protagonist, Liam Mulligan. It’s one of the things we have in common along with a smart mouth, a bad attitude toward authority, a cigar habit, and blues music as the soundtrack of our lives.
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
BD: I’m a rabid fan of the Boston sports teams: the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins, and the Celtics. I love the rituals of baseball, the chess-match complexity of football, the frantic chaos of hockey, and the graceful choreography of basketball. As a kid, the sport I excelled at was hockey, probably because I enjoyed hitting people. I still do, although now that I’m in my sixties, opportunities don’t often present themselves aside from the occasional bar fight.
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
BD: I’d take the money, fake my own death, and keep writing under a pen name.
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
BD: I’ve been interviewed so many times over the last five years that I’ve been asked every good question—and most of the stupid ones. But my favorite question was asked just once: What is it like to be the second-best writer in your family?
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
BD: I jokingly told the interviewer that it’s a daily humiliation. I win the Edgar Award? Patricia wins the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, The Rattle Poetry Prize, and the National Poetry Series Award, is a finalist for the National Book Award, and gets elected to the International Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. I get invited to speak at Thrillerfest? She gets invited to speak at Carnegie Hall, the Sorbonne, the Poets Stage in Stockholm, Urban Voices in South Africa . . . But the truth is, it’s a joy and a privilege to have this astonishing woman as my soul mate and writing partner.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
BD: When I return from a coast-to-coast book tour to promote Providence Rag, I’ll have three projects ahead of me. I want to get started on another Mulligan novel. I’ve already made a small start on a stand-alone, or perhaps the beginning of a new series, featuring a young man who grew up in a criminal family and is trying to decide which side of the law to live his life on. And my wife and I are collaborating on a crime novel with two alternating narrators, one in her voice and one in mine. The story follows the intersecting lives of two people, one white and one black, in the weeks before and after the 1968 riots that destroyed much of the Chicago’s West Side.