Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cliff Walk: Interview with Bruce DeSilva

by Jaden Terrell

It's my pleasure today to bring you an interview with Bruce DeSilva. Bruce was a journalist for 40 years. His many hats during those years included working as an editor and as an investigative reporter. After a lifetime of honing his writing and research skills, he retired to write crime fiction, and his years of experience served him well. His first crime novel, Rogue Island, received rave reviews and an Edgar win. He's followed that success with a sequel,  Cliff Walk, which is already receiving rave reviews. Publishers Weekly gave it a coveted starred review, saying, "Look for this one to garner more award nominations." Booklist also gave it a starred review, calling the plot "exquisite" and saying it is "terrific on every level." Please join me in welcoming Bruce to Murderous Musings.

Jaden: Welcome, Bruce. Let's start with a question most aspiring writers are probably wondering about (if only so we can live through it vicariously). You won both some major awards for Rogue Island. What does it feel like to win two of the most prestigious awards in the field for your very first novel?

Bruce: I was stunned by all the rave reviews and awards for Rogue Island. It won both the Edgar and Macavity Awards and was a finalist for the Barry, Anthony, and Shamus awards. Crime novelists and their fans form an incredibly nurturing and supporting community, and the way my books have been received has made me feel a part of that. Climbing onto the stage at the Edgar Awards dinner to accept the award from Michael Freeking Connelly is a moment I will never forget.

Jaden: How do you follow a first novel that racks up so many prestigious awards and nominations?

Bruce: By writing a better book. Cliff Walk is more complex and textured than my first novel. The third Mulligan novel, Providence Rag, which I just finished writing, is the best one yet. It will be published sometime next year. 

Jaden: Cliff Walk is the second in the series. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

BruceOnce again, the story revolves around the tumultuous life of Liam Mulligan, a wise-cracking investigative reporter for a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper.  As the tale opens, prostitution is legal in the state (which it really was until two years ago.) Politicians are making a lot of speeches about the shame of it, but they aren't doing anything about it. Mulligan suspects somebody is being paid off. 

As he investigates, a child's severed arm is discovered in a pile of garbage at a local pig farm. Then the body of an internet pornographer turns up at the bottom of the famous Cliff Walk in nearby Newport. At first the killings seem random, but as Mulligan keeps digging, strange connections begin to emerge. 

Promised free sex with hookers if he minds his own business--and a savage beating if he doesn't--Mulligan enlists the help of Thanks-Dad, the newspaper publisher's son, and Attila the Nun, the state's colorful attorney general, in his quest for the truth. What he learns will lead him to question his long-held beliefs about sexual morality, shake his tenuous religious faith, and leave him wondering who his real friends are. Cliff Walk is at once a hardboiled mystery and a serious exploration of sex and religion in the age of pornography.

Jaden: The two books cover vastly different topics. What inspired each of them?

Bruce: On the surface, Rogue Island is about an investigative reporter on the trail of a serial arsonist, but what it is really about is the high price the American democracy is paying for the decline of the newspaper industry. Good reporting costs money, investigative reporting is particularly expensive, and not much of it is being done anymore. Local and network television news, which was never very good, is also in steep decline. Cable TV news has deteriorated into warring propaganda machines. News websites (which draw most of their information from newspapers) lack the resources to do much serious international, national, state, or local reporting. That makes Mulligan the last of a dying breed. As readers watch him pursue his investigations with skill and dedication, I hope they will develop a deeper appreciation of what is being lost as newspapers pass into history. 

Cliff Walk was inspired by real events in our smallest state, a quirky place with a legacy of corruption that goes all the way back to one of the first colonial governors dining with Captain Kidd. In 1978, COYTE, a national organization representing sex workers, sued the state in federal court, alleging that its antiquated prostitution law was so vague that it could be interpreted as prohibiting sex between married couples. The suit was dismissed in 1980 after the state legislature rewrote the law, redefining the crime and reducing it from a felony to a misdemeanor. As it turned out, however, a key section of the new law was left out, supposedly by accident, when the legislature voted. Amazingly, more than a decade passed before anyone seemed to notice. Finally, in 1993, a lawyer representing several women arrested for prostitution at a local "spa" did something remarkable. He actually read the statute. The only word used to define the crime, he discovered, was "streetwalking." Therefore, he argued, sex for pay was legal in Rhode Island as long as the transaction occurred indoors. When the courts agreed, many of the state's strip clubs morphed into brothels, and a whole bunch of new strip clubs and "massage parlors" opened up. Soon, tour buses full of eager customers began arriving from all over New England. At the height of the state's legal sex trade, 30 brothels were operating openly. For years, the state's politicians made a lot of speeches about the shame of it, but they didn't get around to fixing the law until a couple of years ago. Cliff Walk is a hardboiled story of murder and political corruption, but it is also a serious examination of sex and religion in an age of prostitution and pornography.

Jaden: It does sound complex. I notice that both of your books give the reader insights into worlds they might not be familiar with (arson and the newspaper industry in Rogue Island and the sex trade for Cliff Walk). How did you research, and how much research did you do, for the books?

Bruce: In a sense, my novels featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying Providence, Rhode Island, newspaper, took forty years to research because they draw on everything I learned about cops, thugs, journalists, corrupt politics, and organized crime during my 40-year journalism career, about a third of it spent at The Providence Journal. I was well prepared to write these books. But when I started Cliff Walk, which is about the state's thriving sex trade, I did not know much about its inner workings. I spent many dreary evenings hanging out in Rhode Island strip clubs, where prostitution was openly practiced, discretely questioning bartenders, bouncers, and naked hookers who kept climbing into my lap. Since I'm a married man, that could have had serious consequences. Lucky for me, my wife found my research hilarious.

Jaden: You have a very understanding wife! It sounds like researching the books had a lot in common with your life as an investigative journalist. How was writing a novel different from and similar to your writing as a journalist? What advantages (and challenges) did your journalism experience give you?

Bruce: Daily journalism is peopled by stick figures instead of flesh-and-blood characters. It is filled with quotes (words sources say to journalists) instead of dialogue (words people say to each other.) Too often, it uses street addresses in lieu of creating a sense of place. And it is filled with turgid "articles" and "reports" instead of stories that have beginnings, middles, and ends. The best journalists rise above that, writing real stories that bring people, places, and action to life on the page. I spent the first half of my journalism career trying to write stories like that and the second half teaching other journalists how to do it. Stories I edited won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award (twice), the Livingston (twice), the ASNE, and The Batten Medal. I also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. But the main thing journalism taught me that writing is a job--something you do every day whether you feel like it or not. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You are not allowed to have writer's block. Journalists know that writer's block is for sissies. You put your butt in the chair and write.

Jaden: Speaking of writing, can you describe your creative process for us?

Bruce: I don't outline. I begin with a general idea of what the book will be about and then turn my characters loose to see what they will do and say. I find that if I don't know what's going to happen next, my readers probably won't either. I try to write 1,000 words a day. If I get that done in a couple of hours, I take the rest of the day off. But if it takes ten hours, I plant my butt in my chair and write.

Jaden: Did you always know you would one day write a novel? How did you decide when it was the right time?

Bruce: For most of my journalism career, writing a novel never occurred to me. But one day in 1994, when I was working for a Connecticut newspaper, I received a note from a 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?” The note was from Evan Hunter, who wrote literary novels under his own name and the brilliant 87th Precinct police procedurals under the penname Ed McBain. I sealed the note in plastic, taped it to my home computer, and started writing. I was only a couple of chapters into the novel when my life turned upside down. In my busy new life as a husband, father, and senior Associated Press editor, there was no time to finish a novel. Years streaked by. Each time I bought a new computer, I taped that note from Hunter to it, telling myself I would get back to the book someday. But I didn't. Finally, a few of years ago, I found myself dining with Otto Penzler, the dean of American’s crime fiction editors, and happened to mention that long-ago note from Hunter.
“Evan Hunter was a good friend of mine,” Penzler said. “In all the years I knew him, he never had a good thing to say about anything anyone else wrote. He REALLY sent you that note?”

“He really did,” I said. “I still have it.”

“Well then you’ve got to finish that novel,” Otto said, “and when you do, you have to let me read it.”

So I went home and started writing again. I wrote at night after work and all day every Saturday; and six months later, Rogue Island was finished.

Jaden: That may be one of the best how-I-got-started stories I've ever heard. Once you'd decided to write the book, how did you come up with your main character? Is he like you? Different from you? A mix?

Bruce: Mulligan is me--except that he's 25 years younger and eight inches taller. He's an investigative reporter; I used to be. He's got a smart mouth; I get a lot of complaints about the same thing. We both have a strong but shifting sense of justice that allows us to work with bad people to bring worse people down.  

Jaden: You address a number of social issues in your novels. What do you hope people will take away from your books?

Bruce: The best crime novels are about more than a hero solving a murder. They have something meaningful to say about the crazy, complex world we live in. For example, George Pelecanos' brilliant novels may be murder mysteries, but they are also serious works of fiction, examining complex race relations on the streets of our nation's capital. Each of my novels explores a social problem, but the serious stuff goes down easy. I want to write serious books that are a blast to read. That is always my hope for them.

Jaden: Do you have a favorite moment in your books? Can you tell us about it (without spoilers)?

Bruce: The short final chapter of Cliff Walk portrays a weary Mulligan's inner turmoil about the soul-wrenching things he witnessed during his investigation of the state's sex trade. When I read it out loud, it feels almost like a poem. It's the best thing I have ever written. 

1 comment:

Jaden Terrell said...

Bruce, thank you for coming by. I appreciate the insightful responses. Hope to see a guest post from you in the future.