Writer Interviews: Bruce DeSilva

Posted by on May 23, 2012
















I am thrilled that Bruce DeSilva has agreed to be on my blog today. I LOVE hard-boiled mysteries featuring newspaper reporters. And LOVE books written my former journalists. (Of course). DeSilva’s journalism credentials put mine to shame. I know you will enjoy his interview as much as I did. Thank you Bruce for taking time out of your crazy busy schedule to appear on my blog. Bruce will be on his book tour for his new release, CLIFF WALK, for the entire summer. If you live in the following cities — NYC, Taunton, Mass., Providence, Minneapolis, Houston, Scottsdale, San Diego, Redondo Beach, Seattle, Kansas City, Atlanta, Nashville, Cleveland, Irvine, Hartford, CT — check out Bruce DeSilva’s tour schedule here.

1. Describe your writing routine and/or schedule?

After I finish a novel, I spend a few weeks puttering around the house, playing with my two huge dogs, and mulling over what to write about 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. The best crime stories, after all, are about more than a detective solving a crime. They use the popular vehicle of crime fiction to explore a significant moral or social issue.

“Cliff Walk,” the new hardboiled novel in my Liam Mulligan series, began with my curiosity about why brothels had been legal in Rhode Island for more than a decade. Public officials had been making a lot of speeches about the shame of it, but for some reason, they hadn’t done anything about it. Mulligan, a cynical, wisecracking investigative reporter at a dying Providence newspaper, would no doubt suspect that somebody was being paid off.

As a former investigative reporter in Providence myself, I knew all about the state’s sordid legacy of political corruption and organized crime, but I didn’t know much about the ins and outs of the brothel business. I needed to do some research. That meant many dreary evenings hanging out at “clubs” with names like “Cheaters” and “The Cadillac Lounge,” discretely questioning bartenders, bouncers, and naked hookers who kept climbing into my lap. What I learned provided the theme I was looking for. Mulligan’s investigation would take him through the underbelly of the state’s sex trade; and what he would find there would disturb him deeply, challenging his long-held beliefs about sexual morality shaking his tenuous religious faith. “Cliff Walk” would be an entertaining hardboiled mystery about corruption and murder, but it would also be a serious exploration of sex and religion in our anything-goes age.

With that, I was ready to write. I do not outline. I just set my characters in motion to see what they will say or do, discovering the plot as I go along. I produce at least a thousand good words a day. If I finish those thousand words in a couple of hours, I usually give myself the rest of the day off. But I don’t stop until I have those one thousand words, even if it takes twelve hours. I polish the writing as I go, so when I finished “Cliff Walk,” the book needed very little revision.

2. What do you do if you get writer’s block?

Before I became a crime novelist, I was a journalist. One of the things journalism teaches you is that writing is a job. You write every day, whether you feel like it or not. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You put your butt in the chair and write. Journalists are not allowed to have writer’s block. They think writers’ block is for sissies.

3. Who do you read, or recommend other writer’s read, in regards to craft?

A lot of how-to books for writers are badly written, which should tell you right off that they aren’t worth your time. But there are some very good ones. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is one that springs to mind. For writers who aspire to write crime novels, I’d recommend any of several how-two books by Lawrence Block, including “Telling Lies for Fun & Profit.” But how-to books won’t get you far. To become a writer, you need to become a critical reader. Find the best books in the genre that appeals to you and figure out what makes them work. Take them apart and put them back together again the way boys of my generation used to tinker with car engines (before they became so complicated that you need an engineering degree to mess with them.) In my case, that meant studying writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, and Dennis Lehane, to name a few of the thousands I’ve read over the years. This works no matter what genre you love. If you want to write science fiction, read Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, and Arthur C. Clark. If you want to write romance novels, there are probably some really good ones, although I have no idea what they are. That said, I’ve also learned a thing or two from bad books. They taught me what NOT to do.

4. Who do you read for fun?

I read a lot of history for pleasure, but my first love is hardboiled crime fiction. I’m a big fan of some of my contemporaries including Walter Mosley, Sara Gran, James Lee Burke, Kate Atkinson, Daniell Woodrell and Thomas H. Cook. I read every word that they write.

5. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Tell us about it.

When I headed off to college as a geology major, my high school English teacher told my parents that it wouldn’t last–that I’d soon find myself writing from compulsion. He was right. After college, I took a job as a reporter at The Providence Journal and never looked back. For most of my 40-year journalism career, however, writing a novel never occurred to me. Then, one day in 1994, I got a note suggesting that a “nice little story” I’d written for the newspaper could be the outline for one. The note was from Evan Hunter, who wrote fine mainstream novels under his own name and brilliant crime novels under the penname Ed McBain. I sealed the note in plastic, taped it to my home computer, and started writing. I was just a few chapters into a novel when my personal and professional life suddenly turned upside down, leaving no time for writing fiction. Finally, many years later, I became friends with Otto Penzler, the dean of America’s crime fiction editors. One evening over dinner, I mentioned that long-ago note from Hunter. “Look,” Otto said, “Evan was a good friend of mine. In all the years I knew him, I never heard him say a single good thing about anything anyone else wrote. So you’ve got to write that novel, and when you do, you have to let me read it.” That was an opportunity I could not pass up. I started writing late at night and on weekends, and six months later, “Rogue Island” was finished. With a book contract in hand, I took early retirement from The Associated Press to write novels full time.

6. What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

First, do something else for a while. Drive a cab. Tend bar. Teach school. Work as a hairdresser. Maybe even become a reporter. While you’re going that, collect people and anecdotes. Take good notes. Don’t think that you can get an MFA degree and go right out and write novels. You won’t have anything to say about life. Second, read critically to learn the craft. (I think I said that already.) Third, don’t be cowed by the seemingly mammoth task of writing a whole book. If you write just 800 words a day, which isn’t very much, you can finish an 80,000-word crime novel in a hundred days.

7. What do you think is the most important skill to have to succeed as a writer?

Learn to read–and write–with your ears. Most people think they read with their eyes, but they are mistaken. Readers hear the writer speak to them from the page, and if the writing doesn’t sound good, it’s not good. No exceptions. I once asked the great crime novelist, Robert B. Parker, why his Spenser private detective novels were so popular. “People like them for the same reason they like certain songs,” he said. “They like the way the sound.” So . . . try to write paragraphs that people can dance to.

8. What is your favorite food and/or drink?

Do cigars count? No? Okay, then it’s pizza. No, Thai food. No, pizza. Why don’t they make a Thai pizza?

9. Do you have a favorite book or movie?

Oh, how I hate that question. How can I choose one from so many favorites? Today, I’ll say Clint Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven” for the movie. For a book, let’s say Daniell Woodrell’s lyrical country-noir novel, “Winter’s Bone” (which also became a great movie.) It’s so beautifully written that you can read the whole thing as an epic poem. But the opening passage of John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” is my favorite passage in all of English.

10. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to share?

When I began my first crime novel, I considered making my character a private detective, but I quickly thought better of it. Real private investigators aren’t much like fictional ones. The real ones spend most of their time delivering summonses in civil cases, locating child-support delinquents, investigating pilfering from warehouses, checking the validity of insurance claims, and doing background checks on job applicants. They rarely investigate violent crimes. After spending years writing non-fiction as a journalist, I find that fictional private detectives exceed my ability to suspend disbelief. So I made Mulligan an investigative reporter—one of the few occupations outside of law enforcement that really does investigate serious wrongdoing.

Mulligan is an old-time street reporter hell-bent on discovering the truth at any cost. That makes him a dinosaur in an age of sound bites, biased reporting, and the trivialization of news. The newspaper he works for, like most American newspapers, is dying. This adds an additional layer of tension to the story, the character never sure how long he’ll have a job and always in despair about the demise of newspapers. It also makes the Mulligan novels a lyrical tribute to the vanishing business Mulligan and I both love.

11. Where can we find you online?

My blog: http://brucedesilva.wordpress.com

My website: http://brucedesilva.com

Bruce DeSilva is the author of the hard-boiled Mulligan crime novels. The first, “Rogue Island,” won the Edgar and Macavity awards and was a finalist for the Anthony, Barry, and Shamus awards. The second, “Cliff Walk,” was just published to rave pre-publication notices including starred reviews in “Publishers Weekly” and “Booklist.” The third, “Providence Rag,” will appear sometime next year. Previously he worked as a journalist for 40 years, most recently as a senior editor and writing coach for The Associated Press. Stories he edited won virtually every major journalism prize including The Polk (twice), The Livingston (twice), and the ASNE. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. He reviews books for the AP and is a master’s thesis adviser at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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6 Responses to Writer Interviews: Bruce DeSilva

  1. Kristi

    Me too! I can’t wait to read his book!!

  2. MIckie Turk

    What a great interview!! And he loves: Unforgiven, James Lee Burke, Winter’s Bone. Walter Mosely, Dennis Lehane. James Elroy – ah – can’t to meet him.

  3. Kristi

    Thanks for commenting Michele. Good to hear that about Bruce. I look forward to meeting him in person.

  4. Kristi

    Indeed. Love my journalism peeps!

  5. Sarah

    Love this interview! And, as someone in the jouranlism profession, I *totally* agree with his assessment about what journalism teaches you: to write, any time, any way, whatever the circumstance. Writer’s block is indeed for sissies.

  6. Michele Drier

    I met Bruce when he was on a panel I moderated this March at Left Coast Crime. Actually, a panel of journalists who are now writing mysteries was seriously like a herd of cats! Talking over one another, telling war stories…it was a hoot and afterwards I had several people tell me that it was the best panel they attended.
    And much of Bruce’s personality comes through in his interview. He’s irrepressable and loves the written word!