We had a bit of a chin wag.
PDB: Can you pitch me “Rogue Island” in 25 words or less?
Suppose I let best-selling thriller writer Joseph Finder do that for me in 27 words. He says: “Bruce DeSilva accomplishes something remarkable: he takes everything we love about the classic hardboiled detective novel and turns it into a story that’s fresh, contemporary, yet timeless.” I’d like to think so, because that’s what I was trying to do.
PDB: “Rogue Island” is a cracking crime novel, but is it also a political novel?
Reading the likes of Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman and James Lee Burke has taught me that the best crime novels are about more than solving imaginary crimes. They are also a great way to address serious themes. On the surface, “Rogue Island” is about an old-school investigative reporter named Liam Mulligan on the trail of a serial arsonist who is systematically burning down the working-class Providence, R.I., neighborhood where the reporter grew up. But the novel is really about two other things.
First of all, it is very much a novel of place–an evocation of 21st century life in the capital city of our smallest state. Providence has a legacy of corruption that goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, but it also has a legacy of integrity and decency that goes all the way back to its godly founder, Roger Williams. Those two threads are woven throughout its history and are still present today. The tension between them is one of the things that make it such an interesting place.
But that’s not all.
Most crime novels are set in big, anonymous cities. There are also some very good ones set in rural areas. But Providence is something different. It is a claustrophobic little city where everybody on the street knows your name and it’s very hard to keep a secret. But it’s still big enough to be both surprisingly cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. I strove to make both the city not just the setting for the novel but something more akin to a main character. One reviewer called my portrayal of the place “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that’s exactly right.
Secondly, the novel is a lyrical tribute to the dying newspaper business. The main character is never sure how long he’ll have a job; and he’s in despair about the demise of the business he loves. This gives the book an additional layer of tension. And as the reader watches Mulligan doggedly pursue the serial arsonist, it becomes clear just how much is being lost as newspapers fade into history. I could have explored these themes in a heavy academic tome, but I prefer having readers.
PDB: ‘Rogue Island” has been incredibly successful, and now you’ve written a sequel, “Cliff Walk.” Was that a lot of pressure considering that “Rogue Island” was your first novel?
Quite the opposite. When I began writing “Rogue Island,” I’d been reading and reviewing crime novels for decades; so I thought maybe I knew how to write one. But I wasn’t sure. I was filled with self-doubt. The critical and popular success of my first book gave me confidence that I know what I’m doing.
PDB: What film or TV interest has there been in your writing?
The Hollywood agent who is representing the film rights for “Rogue Island” and “Cliff Walk” tells me there have been nibbles—but no deal so far.
PDB: Is journalism a good training ground for crime writing?
Journalism taught me hundreds of things: the value of brevity, the importance of small but telling details, the skill of listening carefully not only to what people say but to how they say it . . . The most important lesson, however, is that writing is a job. A journalist does not wait for his muse. He is not allowed to have writer’s block. He knows that writer’s block is for sissies. A journalist writes every day, whether he feels like it or not.
PDB: What’s in the cards now?
“Cliff Walk,” the second novel in the Mulligan series, examines the (until recently) legal prostitution business in Rhode Island. The book is both a story about political corruption and an exploration of sex and religion in the age of pornography. It will be published by Forge in May of 2012.
I’m now working on the third, which examines what happens to a community when a terrifying serial killer, who was assumed to be locked away forever, has to be released on a technicality.
When that one is finished, I plan to write a stand-alone crime novel with my wife Patricia, one of the country’s most respected poets. It will be set in her hometown of Chicago and have two alternating narrators.