My Journey from Journalist to Crime Novelist

This entry first appeared on Sheila Deeth’s book blog.

Bruce DeSilva offered to write a guest post here, so I asked him my favorite question, little realizing what a great read his reply would be. My question: Please would he tell me something about his journey from there (unpublished) to here (published and racking up the 5-star reviews). His response… well, you’ll have to read on. Meanwhile he’s offered to drop in from time to time during the day to answer any other readers’ questions.

Over to you Mr DeSilva…

 Way back in 1968, as I trotted off to college to major in geology, my favorite high school teacher made a prediction:  I would soon find myself writing from compulsion. 

 He was right.

 My first job after college was covering the little town of Warren, R.I., for the venerable Providence Journal. Over the next 20 years I wrote thousands of newspaper stories, many of them investigative articles or long pieces of narrative journalism, for the Journal and The Hartford Courant.  Then I spent another 20 years editing such stories for the Courant and The Associated Press while writing occasional feature articles and book reviews on the side.

 But in the summer of 2009, after 40 years in journalism, I knew it was time to leave. Given what was happening to the profession—the precipitous decline in newspaper quality, the rise of unreliable websites as sources of news, and the degradation of TV news from a bastion of mediocrity to a cacophony of loud-mouthed propaganda—I actually felt that journalism had left me.

 And so I retired as writing coach/worldwide of the Associated Press and devoted myself to writing crime novels full-time.  I’d read thousands of them since getting hooked on a paperback copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye in junior high, so I figured I ought to know how to write one by now. Besides, after all those years of worrying about accuracy, I knew I’d have fun making stuff up.

 For most of my journalism career, the idea of writing a novel never occurred to me; but a seed was planted one day in 1994 when I got a note from a reader. It praised a “nice little story” I’d written and went on to say: “It could serve as the outline for a novel. Have you considered this?”

Evan Hunter

 Normally, I would have just tossed the note in the trash with the rest of the mail, but it was signed by Evan Hunter, who wrote fine mainstream novels under his own name as well as 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. At the time, I lived just 15 minutes from work, so I would get up early and work on the novel for a couple of hours before going in. I was just a few chapters into the book when my life suddenly turned upside down. I got divorced. Then I got remarried to a woman with a two-year-old child. I took a demanding new job as the head of the news/features department at the AP in Manhattan. My new commute was three hours a day.

In this busy new life, there was no time for writing novels.

 Years streamed by. Every time I bought a new home computer, I would peel that note from Hunter off the side of the old one and re-tape it to the new one, hoping I would get back to that novel someday. But I didn’t.

Otto Penzler reading my novel, "Rogue Island."

Finally, a couple of years ago, a mutual friend introduced me to Otto Penzler. For those of you who don’t know about him, Otto is a legend. He’s the proprietor of the famous Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street in Manhattan. And he is the dean of America’s crime fiction editors, with his own imprint at a major publishing house. Otto and I quickly discovered that we admired the same writers, had friends in common, and even looked a lot alike. We hit it off.

 One evening over dinner, I happened to mention that long-ago note from Evan Hunter. Otto dropped his fork. It landed on his plate with a clank. 

  “Evan Hunter wrote you that note?”

 “He did,” I said.

  “Look,” Otto said, “Evan Hunter 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. He really wrote you that note?”

 “Really,” I said. “I still have it.”

 “Then you’ve got to write that novel,” he said, “and when you do, you have to let me read it.”

 My wife is a writer too, so she understood what I had to do next.  I wrote every night after work and all day every Saturday, saving Sundays as family days. Six months later, Rogue Island, the story of an investigative reporter on the trail of a serial arsonist in the corrupt, claustrophobic little city of Providence, was finished. True to his word, Otto read it; and he loved it. 

 “Do you have an agent?” he asked.

 I didn’t even know any.

 “Let me make a call for you,” he said.

Me standing between my agent, Susanna Einstein, and the head of the agency, LJK Management, Larry Kirshbaum

 The next thing I knew, I was represented by Susanna Einstein of LJK Literary Management, one of the top agents in the country. I had no idea what a big deal that was until months later when she told me she’d never agreed to represent a first-time crime novelist before.

 As Susanna worked to find a publisher, I decided to see if I could get some blurbs for the cover. This was my first rodeo, so I didn’t know that you aren’t supposed to bother famous crime novelists with that until you have a book contract. 

  I asked Dennis Lehane, who I’d known since before he was famous. “Sure,” he said, “as long as I like the book.”  

 I also sent requests to 14 other crme novelists, hoping that one or two of them would remember meeting me at a publishing event over the years and be willing to do me a good turn.  To my astonishment, 13 of them including Harlan Coben, Alafair Burke, Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen, James W. Hall, and Joseph Finder said yes. Two of them, Hall and Finder, even favorably compared Rogue Island to Lehane’s A Drink Before the War, which has always been my gold standard for first novels.

 When I started down this new road, I imagined living the leisurely life of an author. I’d take my time writing my books, hand them over to my agent when they were done, and hope that royalties would start rolling in. But since Susanna sold the book to Forge, which published it on Oct. 12, I’ve been working harder than when I had a job.

 Nobody told me how hard an author has to work to promote a book. The last few months have been a blur of social networking, blogging, and public appearances. And all the while, my agent has been clamoring for me to finish the sequel. 

 The first book had come easy, so I figured it would be the same with the second. But I was wrong. At a recent gathering of crime writers, I was bemoaning how much harder it was to write the sequel.

 “Of course,” said mystery writer D.P. Lyle. “You spent years thinking about the first one. You’re trying to write the second one from scratch in six months.”

 But a week ago, I put a period at the end of the final sentence to book two, tentatively titled Cliff Walk.  Now, as I hit the road for more book store appearances, I’m already made a start the third in the book in the series.

 Meanwhile, I bought a new desktop computer the other day. Once I finished setting it up, I peeled that note from Hunter off the old one and taped it to the side of the new one.

 I guess I’d better hurry and read the first book, if the second is coming soon. Congratulations Bruce, and many thanks for sharing your journey with us.

About Bruce DeSilva

Crime Novelist
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1 Response to My Journey from Journalist to Crime Novelist

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