Tim Hallinan is one of the best crime novelists in the business. So I’m honored that he interviewed me about my new Mulligan crime novel, Cliff Walk, for his blog. Here’s the text of that interview:
CLIFF WALK is a honey of a novel by Bruce DeSilva, whose maiden (sorry, Bruce) effort simply won everything in sight. Bruce is a tremendous writer and a terrific guy, and it seemed to me like he’s be the ideal date, especially now that his second book has escaped into the world. So let’s hear it:
Tim: CLIFF WALK is your second published novel, after ROGUE ISLAND won not only an Edgar but also every other award I was nominated for. We hear about “second novel” pressures. Did you have them on CLIFF WALK, and did the awards heighten (or reduce) them?
Bruce: Walking across the stage to accept the Edgar Award from Michael Freaking Connolly was certainly a thrill, and winning the Macavity award was pretty cool, too; but the ego boost was fleeting. After all, nothing keeps things in perspective like being married to a woman who writes better than you do. My wife, Patricia Smith, is a national treasure. I won the Edgar and the Macavity? SHE’s won two Pushcart Prizes, the Patterson Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and been inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. I was a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony and Barry Awards? SHE was a National Book Award finalist, which is a much bigger deal.
I get invited to speak at Thrillerfest? SHE gets invited to address literary festivals in places like Ireland and Brazil. And now she’s even invaded my turf as the editor of the forthcoming Staten Island Noir from Akashic Press. So, no, I didn’t feel any extra pressure because of the awards. How do you deal with the second-book blues? By writing a better book. And the third, PROVIDENCE RAG, which I just sent off to my agent, is better still.
Tim: If you were in an elevator with Clint Eastwood, and you had about ten floors to pitch him, how would you describe CLIFF WALK?
It’s 2009, and prostitution has been legal in Rhode Island for more than a decade. Politicians in the state, which has been riddled with political corruption and organized crime since a colonial governor dined with Captain Kidd, have been making a lot of speeches about the shame of it, but they haven’t DONE anything about it. Liam Mulligan, a wise-cracking, seen-it-all investigative reporter at a dying Providence newspaper, suspects they’re being paid off. As he digs into the story, he’s offered free sex with hookers if he minds his own business–and a savage beating if he doesn’t.
His investigation takes him through the dark underbelly of the state’s prostitution and pornography trade, and what he discovers there will shake his long-held beliefs about sexual morality, shatter his tenuous religious faith, and leave him wondering who his real friends are. CLIFF WALK is a hardboiled mystery about corruption and murder, but it is also a serious exploration of sex and religion in our anything-goes age. (I think that took more like three floors.)
Tim: Was CLIFF WALK inspired by real events or did you make the whole thing up?
Bruce: In 1978, COYOTE, a national organization representing sex workers, sued the state of Rhode Island 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 four 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, eager customers began arriving from all over New England. At the height of the state’s legal sex trade, 30 brothels were operating openly. The state legislature didn’t get around to fixing the law until a couple of years ago.
Tim: Tell us a little about Liam Mulligan. In what ways is he like, or different from, you?
Bruce: Mulligan is me–except that he’s 25 years younger, eight inches taller, and quicker with a quip. He’s an investigative reporter; I used to be. He has trouble with authority; I was never good at taking orders. He’s got a smart mouth; I get a lot of complaints about the same thing. And we both have a strong but shifting sense of justice that allows us to work with bad people to bring worse people down.
Tim: How did your long career as a reporter and editor affect your writing as a novelist?
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 with 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. It worked. 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 is 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.
Tim: Reporters are natural fictional detectives; I actually think they’re under-utilized. What reporter’s characteristics make them natural detectives? What might get in their way?
Bruce: When I first contemplated writing ROGUE ISLAND, I considered making the hero a private detective; but I’d worked in the real world too long to suspend my disbelief. Real private detectives have a mundane existence. They spend their days locating child support delinquents, serving court papers, spying on cheating spouses, investigating insurance claims, looking into pilfering from warehouses, searching for missing persons the cops have given up on, and doing background checks on job applicants. They almost never investigate murders, and they go their whole lives without ever beating anybody up or shooting anyone down.
I needed a main character who investigates serious crimes in the real world. That meant one of the many varieties of peace officers–or an investigative reporter. During my 40 years in journalism, I exposed public corruption and incompetence, wrote about the mob, and even investigated a murder. So when I turned to fiction, It made sense to write what I know. Of course, reporters don’t have subpoena power. They can’t drag anyone in for questioning. They can’t arrest anybody. That makes the job harder; but the more obstacles the protagonist must overcome, the more dramatic the fiction can be.
Tim: We’ve been hearing about the death throes of the newspaper business for a decade or more. What does this bode for the future of both the real-life and the fictional investigative reporter?
Newspapers are circling the drain. I think most of them will be gone in a decade or so, and there is nothing on the horizon to replace them. The old broadcast TV networks, undercut by competition from cable, have cut way back on their reporting staffs—and they were never all that good to begin with. Cable TV news has deteriorated into warring propaganda machines. And online news organizations do little original reporting, drawing most of their news from shrinking newspapers. Reporting is expensive. Investigative reporting is even more expensive. And so far, no one outside of fast-disappearing newspapers has demonstrated the willingness or the resources to pay for it. I cannot overstate what a terrible thing this is for the American democracy.
For a fictional investigative reporter, however, this slow-moving train wreck offers a wealth of dramatic possibilities. In the third Mulligan novel, which I am writing now, the newspaper he works for is still clinging to life, but Mulligan is already considering what he might do with himself once it closes. It’s a dilemma for him, because he’s not any good at anything else. It is my hope that as readers see the skill and determination with which Mulligan pursues the truth, they will gain a heightened appreciation for what is being lost.
Tim: Which writers inspired you to write mysteries/thrillers? Are there any you are aware of emulating from time to time, and what do you think you learned from them?
I was inspired mostly by my experiences as a journalist. Over the years, I got to know untold numbers of cops, FBI agents, federal marshals, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, prison guards, medical examiners, firefighters, and arson investigators. I also met my share of arsonists, street thugs, Mafioso, bookmakers, gamblers, truck hijackers, swindlers, prostitutes, hit men, corrupt politicians, child abusers, and petty thieves. And I collected lots of anecdotes that I can draw from as a novelist.
But I’ve also read thousands of crime novels and reviewed hundreds of them. I learned a lot about scene-setting from James Lee Burke, about dialogue from Elmore Leonard, and about tight writing from Robert B. Parker. From writers such as Gregory McDonald, Laura Lippman, and George Pelecanos, I learned that the best crime fiction is about more than an investigator solving a murder–that the genre is a great way to address significant social issues. I’m also a fan of TV crime dramas such as “The Sopranos,” “The Brotherhood,” “The Wire,” “Justified,” and “The Shield.” They taught me a lot about story arc, character development, and scene writing. I also learned from weak novels and bad TV, which taught me what NOT to do. Although I borrow techniques from other writers, I don’t consciously emulate any of them. Reviewers and fans have compared my work to Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, Gregory Mcdonald, Dennis Lehane, John D. MacDonald, Ross Mcdonald, and Raymond Chandler–which is weird because I don’t think those writers’ styles are all that much alike.
Tim: Please suggest four books–any kind of books–that you especially love, and tell us why. (This is one of my mechanisms for building my TBR pile.)
I love the quirky characters, gentle humor, and lyrical style of Howard Frank Mosher, the closest thing we have now to Mark Twain. If I must name only one of his novels, it would be Waiting for Teddy Williams. Daniel Woodrell’s country-noir novels are all works of art, but I especially love Winter’s Bone, the writing so beautiful that it could be set into lines of verse and read as an epic poem. Thomas H. Cook’s complex, richly textured crime novels explore why the past is never really in the past. My favorite would have to be Red Leaves. And The Paperboy by Peter Dexter is a powerful exploration of both character and the dark heart of the newspaper business. All that said, the opening paragraph of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is my favorite passage in the English language.
Tim: What’s next for Liam? What’s next for you?
PROVIDENCE RAG, which will be published sometime next year, explores what happens to a community when a serial killer has to be released from prison on a legal technicality. It ain’t pretty. The story, inspired by a couple of real-life cases in Rhode Island, gets both Mulligan and his newspaper into a world of trouble. Now that my third Mulligan novel is nearly finished, I’m lending my wife a hand on her current project, a non-fiction book about Harriett Tubman. The book chronicles her personal journey of discovery as she searches for the real woman behind the myth. When that’s done, we intend to write a crime novel together. It will be based in her native Chicago around the time of the 1968 riots and will have two alternating narrators, a white Chicago cop and a black hairdresser from the city’s tough West Side. After that, Mulligan will be back.
You can find the Mulligan novels here.
And you can find Timothy Hallinan’s fine work here.