Journalist and mystery writer Kristi Belcamino interviewed me about Providence Rag, the latest novel in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper. The following originally appeared on her outstanding blog.
A: Providence Rag, the third novel in my Mulligan crime series, is the first to be inspired by a true story – one I covered as a journalist many years ago. I’ve long been fascinated by the case of The Warwick Slasher, a teenager who stabbed young mothers and their female children to death in his suburban Rhode Island neighborhood in the 1980s. The real killer, Craig Price, was just 13 years old when his murder spree began and 15 when he was caught, making him one of the youngest serial killers in U.S. history. But that’s not the interesting part. When he was arrested, Rhode Island’s juvenile justice statutes had not been updated for decades. When they were written, no one had ever envisioned a child like him, so the law required that all minors, regardless of their crimes, be released at age 21 and given a fresh start. Nevertheless, he remains behind bars to this day, convicted of committing a series of offenses behind bars. I have long suspected that some of these charges were fabricated, but in the very least, Price has been absurdly over-sentenced. For example, he was given an astounding 30 years for contempt for declining to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric exam. Have the authorities abused their power to prevent his release? I think so. Should he ever be let out to prey on the innocent again? Absolutely not. The ethical dilemma this poses fascinates me. No matter which side of it you come down on, you are condoning something that is indefensible. In the novel, the murders are committed and the killer caught in the first sixty pages. The rest of the book follows my protagonist, an investigative reporter at a dying Providence, R.I. newspaper, as well as his fellow reporters, his editors, and the entire community, as they struggle to decide which is worse: condoning the abuse of power that is keeping the killer behind bars or exposing it and allowing him to be released to kill again.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in basing a novel on a true story?
A: Although the characters and plots of my first two crime novels sprang entirely from my imagination, this has not prevented some readers that suspecting each was a Roman à clef. No, I tell them, the mayor in my Edgar Award-winning first novel, Rogue Island, is not a thinly-veiled depiction of former Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci. No, the attorney general in my second novel, Cliff Walk, is not my take on former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet. Despite my protests, readers continue to speculate. In fact, two of my old journalism colleagues are convinced that my protagonist is based on them. He’s not. Because of this, I initially resisted the strong urge I felt to fictionalize the Price case. But finally, I surrendered. In the novel, I invent an early childhood for the killer. I give him a love of reading, allow him to display a clever but chilling sense of humor, and provide him with a prison jargon-laced style of speaking. But I have never met Craig Price. I know nothing of his childhood. I don’t know how he talks. I don’t know what drove him to murder. So the character in my novel is most emphatically not Craig Price. None of the other characters in the book represent real people either. Of course, every novelist draws material from life and fashions it into something new. Still, I can’t help but worry that some readers will view the book as disguised contemporary history. That made Providence Rag a difficult, nerve-wracking book to write.
A: I never outline, preferring to discover my story as I go along. I write each scene, each chapter, rapidly in a stream-of-consciousness fugue state. When I do this, my characters do and say things I could never have anticipated. As a result, I end up with a lot of unusable junk on the page–but I also end up with some wonderful surprises. Once I finish a chapter, I spend the next day cutting and polishing before moving on to the next.
Q: How many revisions do your novels usually go through?
A: It varies. My Edgar Award-winning first novel, Rogue Island, in which my protagonist investigates an arson-for-hire scheme, underwent a single revision thanks to great advice from my agent. She thought the book had too many male characters and suggested I make one of the men a woman. As a result, the fire chief, a minor character who originally had been a man, became a woman. As soon as I made her a woman, she developed a life of her own, turning into a major character, one of the most appealing I’ve created. My second novel, Cliff Walk, required nothing but minor copyediting after I finished the initial draft. But when I finished the third one, Providence Rag, I was troubled. I liked each chapter, but they didn’t fit together right. My agent read it and identified the problem: the events depicted in the story were presented in the wrong order. The result was a top-to-bottom rewrite that made it my best book to date.
Q: Do you have trusted readers who give you feedback before you send your manuscript to your agent or editor?
A: When I finished my first novel, I sent it to six trusted colleagues for their feedback and received so many conflicting suggestions that I was temporarily confused. That taught me that it’s a mistake to listen to too many people. Now, I allow only two people to read my novels before they are sent to the publisher. One is my wife, Patricia Smith, one of America’s most honored poets, whose suggestions add music to my prose. The other is my agent, Susanna Einstein, one of the best story doctors I’ve ever encountered. Thanks to them, my editor at Forge has had nothing to do but have the books copyedited.
Q: What book on writing would you recommend to other writers?
A: The best book for fledgling crime novelists, bar none, is Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block. And On Writing by Stephen King is brilliant.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I just finished my fourth Mulligan novel, tentatively titled Providence Vipers. The book, which explores the world of legal and illegal sports gambling, will be published by Forge about a year from now. Once I return from a month-long, coast-to-coast book tour, I’ll get started on three new projects. One will be another Mulligan novel. Another will be a stand-alone, or perhaps the beginning of a new series, featuring a young man who grew up in a mob family and is trying to decide which side of the law he will live his life on. And the third is collaborating on a crime novel with my wife, Patricia. Written in our alternating, very different voices, it will follow the intersecting lives of a white Chicago cop and a black hairdresser in the weeks before and after the 1968 riots that destroyed much of the city’s West Side. I’m not sure which book I’ll tackle first.
Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to add?
A: I’m often asked why I left journalism after 40 years to pursue a career as a crime novelist. The truth is, I didn’t leave journalism. It left me. For me, investigative journalism had been a calling. As my protagonist, Mulligan, says, it’s like the priesthood but without the sex. But for many years now, newspapers have been hemorrhaging revenue and readers. Today, they are a shell of the vital institutions they had once been. Meanwhile, network television news departments, never all that good to begin with, have shriveled into irrelevance. Twenty-four-hour cable news channels spew endless loops of trivial celebrity news, provide soap boxes for blowhards, and poison the public discourse with partisan distortions and misinformation. And the few internet news sites striving to be more than propaganda organs for the left or the right lack the will and the revenue streams required to cover the news with breadth and depth. I see nothing on the horizon that can replace newspapers as honest brokers of news and information. I can’t begin to describe how much damage this is doing to the American democracy. In my final years as the worldwide writing coach for The Associated Press, I tried to fight the good fight. The last major project I oversaw there, an investigative series about the exploitation of child gold miners in Africa, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I have nothing but admiration for those hardy souls who battle on, but I grew weary of being part a rear-guard action and dispirited over the inevitability of decline. So when the venerable AP offered an early retirement package, part of its own retrenchment in the face of economic pressures, I decided it was time for a second act. My novels are all hardboiled mysteries, but they can also be read as a lyrical elegy to the business that I love.
You can purchase Providence Rag in hardcover, e-book, and audio editions here.