Rogue Island, Bruce DeSilva’s riveting debut that releases today, is not about a detective in Los Angeles tracking down a murderer, but rather a newspaper reporter (said reporter fancies himself an investigative journalist, but Woodward and Bernstein didn’t have to also write features about cute dogs) in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, on the hunt for a serial arsonist.

Publisher’s Weekly put it on their list of ten best debut novels of the year (not crime novels; novels, period), and it has also been lauded by Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal.

Harlen Coben hails Rogue Island as “a stunning debut.” Peter Blauner compares DeSilva to Michael Connelly, who in turn calls Rogue Island “a blast…a newspaper story that ranks with the best of them.”  Edgar Award winner James W. Hall compares DeSilva to Dennis Lehane, and Dennis Lehane says the book is “a tense, terrific thriller and a remarkably assure debut.”

Next to those stellar names, mine pales, and I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say this: as far as Rogue Island being a kick-ass debut…where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

 


 

GO: It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the “Rogue Island” of your title refers to the smallest state in the union, where your debut novel is set.

BD: The title is more than just a pun on the name of the most corrupt little state in the union. One of the many quirks of Rhode Island history is that no one can say for sure where the name came from. One theory is that “Rhode Island” is a bastardization of “Rogue Island,” an epithet the God-fearing farmers of colonial Massachusetts bestowed upon the swarm of heretics, pirates, and cutthroats who first settled the shores of Narragansett Bay.

If so, it has certainly lived up to the name. That said, when I first heard the title, I have to admit, my first thought was: Holy shit!  Bruce has written a book about pirates!

My publisher’s marketing department had the same initial reaction you did and asked me to change the title to something that would sound more like a crime novel. When I suggested they could solve the problem by not putting a parrot or a treasure chest on the cover, they backed down. I like the cover design a lot; when you see it on a bookstore shelf, pirates will not spring to mind.

For all the digs on Providence in the book—the snow, the corruption, the inferiority complex—there is a love for the place that comes through in the writing.

One reviewer called my portrayal of the place “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that’s exactly right.

What is your connection to Providence?

I began my long journalism career as a reporter at The Providence Journal. I arrived in the middle of a New-England-wide war between organized crime factions, the most powerful of them run out of a little vending machine office on Federal Hill in Providence, so I knew right away this would be an interesting place to cover. Rhode Island, as one of my colleagues there liked to say, was “a theme park for investigative reporters.” I ended up staying for 13 years before moving on to bigger things, but journalism was never quite as much fun anywhere else.

Sounds like it’s shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

The state has a history of corruption that goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, but it also has a history of integrity and decency that goes all the way back to its founder, Roger Williams. Those two threads are woven throughout the state’s 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’s a claustrophobic little city where everybody on the street knows your name and where it’s very hard to keep a secret. But it’s still big enough to be both cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. I strove to make the city and the state not just the setting for the book but something more akin to a main character. I never considered setting my story anywhere else.

Rogue Island has been lauded by a veritable Murderer’s Row of detective fiction writers, including Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and Ken Bruen, and the early reviews are glowing, with no less an authority than Publishers Weekly hailing it one of the ten best debut novels of the year.  Not only that, but you are, at the hallowed halls of AP, famed as a writing guru. So my question is: what’s it like to be the second-best writer in your household?

Oh, God! It’s a daily humiliation. Seems like every week someone gives my wife, Patricia Smith, another award: The Pushcart Prize, the Rattle Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, the Patterson Poetry Prize . . .

She was on the cover of Poets & Writers, too. Not too shabby.

At least she was only a finalist for the National Book Award, but if she wins the Guggenheim she just applied for, I may have to kill her—or myself. In case you are reading this, baby, that was a joke. The truth is, I am enormously proud of her; and the fact that I am married to this amazing woman astonishes me daily.

Do you help each other with your work, or do you operate solo in that regard?

We’re a great team. I edit her poetry. She edits my fiction. Our writing styles are nothing alike, and that’s one of the things that make the partnership work. Her writing is rich to the point of being sensual. Mine is spare to the point of sensual deprivation. I help her make her work tighter and crisper. She helps me make mine more descriptive and lyrical. By the way, I’m not sure I’m the second-best writer in my household. Our 15-year-old, Mikaila, is pretty darned good.

Seriously though . . . how did you get all those blurbs? Do you have dirt on all those writers? (It’s a detective story, so one imagines you in a fedora, sliding a brown envelope under a door).

I knew Dennis Lehane before he became famous, and the great Thomas H. Cook and I became friends a couple of years ago; so I felt comfortable asking both for blurbs. Their replies: sure, as long as I love the book—which is as it should be. Those two blurbs might have been enough, I suppose, but I was greedy. I e-mailed requests to thirteen other crime writers I’d met briefly at writing conferences over the years, hoping one or two of them would remember me and say yes. To my astonishment, all but one of them did. I was especially gratified that two of them, Joseph Finder and James W. Hall, who had been Lehane’s college writing mentor, favorably compared my book to his A Drink Before the War—my gold standard for debut crime novels.

The protagonist of Rogue Island, Liam Mulligan, is a journalist of the old school—obsessed with investigative reporting, curious to the point of danger, and all too eager to blow off his editor’s demands.  I like this choice a lot—it’s a twist on the usual private-investigator thing, and because he’s a writer, you get to inject more journalistic color into the hard-boiled prose.  Why do you think are there so few journalist heroes in popular culture?

Well, there are some. Gregory MacDonald’s Fletch novels spring immediately to mind. Bryan Gruley has written two fine mysteries about a newspaperman in a tiny, fictional Michigan town. And Michael Connelly has a couple of books with a reporter as the main character. For the most part, however, journalists are portrayed as vultures in the popular culture.

To our collective detriment, I think. We live in a country that loathes journalists and teachers and the federal government, but has a hard-on for strident political pundits and Kardashian sisters. What gives?

Why? Perhaps because too many writers—especially those who write for the big and small screens—are quick to grab hold of the nearest cliché. The truth is that the vast majority of journalists are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to the difficult task of reporting the truth in a world full of people who lie like you and I breathe. When I began Rogue Island, I considered making Mulligan a PI; but as a former journalist, I found the idea too removed from reality.

They are certainly over-represented. I think there may be more fictional PIs than real ones.

Real private investigators are nothing 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.

And not, one imagines, being smacked on the back of the head with a blackjack several times a week.

Investigative reporter is one of the few occupations outside of law enforcement that really does investigate serious wrongdoing. I put Mulligan to work at a newspaper, rather than for a TV station or a web site, because most American newspapers are 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 novel a lyrical tribute to the vanishing business Mulligan and I both love.

You were a reporter and editor for many years.  How close is Mulligan to Bruce DeSilva?

Mulligan is me—except that he’s 24 years younger, six inches taller, and quicker with a quip. He’s an investigative reporter; I used to be. He doesn’t do well with authority; I do worse. He’s got a smart mouth; I get a lot of complaints about the same thing. He and I both have a fierce but shifting sense of justice that tempts us to cut corners and work with bad people to bring worse people down.

At TNB, we’ve had a lot of discussion about the future of books.  What’s the future of newspapers?

They don’t have one; they are circling the drain. Newspapers see themselves as victims of the digital age. They are so full of shit. The internet isn’t killing newspapers; they are committing suicide. In the sequel to Rogue Island, tentatively titled Cliff Walk, Mulligan explains it this way:

“When the Internet first got rolling, newspapers were the experts on reporting the news and selling classified advertising. They were ideally positioned to dominate the new medium. Instead, they sat around with their thumbs up their asses while upstarts like Google, the Drudge Report, and ESPN.com lured away their audience and newcomers like Craigslist, eBay, and AutoTrader.com stole their advertising business. By the time newspapers finally figured out what was going on and tried to make a go of it online, it was too late. This all happened because newspapers didn’t understand what business they were in. They thought they were in the newspaper business, but they were really in the news and advertising business. It’s a classic mistake—the same one the railroads made in the 1950s when the interstate highway system was being built. If Penn Central had understood it was in the freight business instead of the railroad business, it would be the biggest trucking company in the country today.”

Well put, which doesn’t make it any less sad. Last question: when you found out you got your book deal, what kind of cigar did you break out for the occasion?

A Cohiba. It went well with the Bushmills that Mulligan and I both favor.

 

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GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

46 responses to “Outside Providence: An Interview with Rogue Island novelist Bruce DeSilva”

  1. Dana says:

    Well done Greg! Looking forward to checking this out. I’m not usually the crime novel sort, but this sounds fascinating and well done. Like the idea that the protagonist is a journalist over the standard cliche.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Dana. Yes, I really like the use of the journalist as the detective…it also gives Bruce license to make his prose ever-so-slightly more flowery and informative than, say, Dashiell Hammett’s, which I also like.

  2. Judy Prince says:

    Greg, this is about the neatest, cleanest, informingest, briefest, shot-with-humour interview I’ve read.

    I thought I could go another week without spending lunch money on another book, but no, it’s more paperbagging.

    Looks like I’ll have to add, as well, James W. Hall’s _A Drink before the War_ to the lunchmoney debit.

    These interview responses I particularly liked, but all were helpful and meaningful:

    (Re his wife) “Her writing is rich to the point of being sensual. Mine is spare to the point of sensual deprivation. I help her make her work tighter and crisper. She helps me make mine more descriptive and lyrical. By the way, I’m not sure I’m the second-best writer in my household. Our 15-year-old, Mikaila, is pretty darned good.”

    An excellent exchange, Bruce DeSilva first:

    DeSilva: “For the most part, however, journalists are portrayed as vultures in the popular culture.”

    Olear: To our collective detriment, I think. We live in a country that loathes journalists and teachers and the federal government, but has a hard-on for strident political pundits and Kardashian sisters. What gives?

    DeSilva: Why? Perhaps because too many writers—especially those who write for the big and small screens—are quick to grab hold of the nearest cliché. The truth is that the vast majority of journalists are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to the difficult task of reporting the truth in a world full of people who lie like you and I breathe.”

    And this exchange, his response which is what I’d been thinking, but hadn’t thought out as fully and fine as he has:

    Olear: “At TNB, we’ve had a lot of discussion about the future of books. What’s the future of newspapers?”

    DeSilva: “They don’t have one; they are circling the drain. Newspapers see themselves as victims of the digital age. They are so full of shit. The internet isn’t killing newspapers; they are committing suicide. In the sequel to Rogue Island, tentatively titled Cliff Walk, Mulligan explains it this way:

    “When the Internet first got rolling, newspapers were the experts on reporting the news and selling classified advertising. They were ideally positioned to dominate the new medium. Instead, they sat around with their thumbs up their asses while upstarts like Google, the Drudge Report, and ESPN.com lured away their audience and newcomers like Craigslist, eBay, and AutoTrader.com stole their advertising business. By the time newspapers finally figured out what was going on and tried to make a go of it online, it was too late. This all happened because newspapers didn’t understand what business they were in. They thought they were in the newspaper business, but they were really in the news and advertising business. It’s a classic mistake—the same one the railroads made in the 1950s when the interstate highway system was being built. If Penn Central had understood it was in the freight business instead of the railroad business, it would be the biggest trucking company in the country today.”

    Good work, both of you.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Judy. I love Mulligan’s take on the death of newspapers…he (and Bruce) are spot-on.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Indeed, Greg. He’s (they’re) spot-on. And, as always, I agree with Dana that a journalist protagonist beats the “standard cliche.”

        You know, it’s rare that I want to read more of anything, but this interview’s an exception. I’d like to have you post a second and third half of it!

  3. Thanks for the compliments, Judy. Greg is great. Good questions make for good anwers. Before you go looking for the wrong book, I want to point out that it’s LEHANE, not Hall, who wrote “A Drink Before The War.” It’s a fantastic first crime novel by a guy who has gone on to big things.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Ah, thanks for the correction, Bruce. For now, though, LEHANE’s “A Drink Before The War” will have to wait. In a couple weeks I’ll have more lunch money.

      Just bought, from The Book Depository (free postage worldwide! and I love the bookmarks they include with each book) a hardback copy of your book and am really eager to read it! You’re surname is Hall, right?

      Yes, I jest.

  4. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    A fine interview and what sounds like a very good read by DeSilva. I also have to agree with his point, or I should say, his character’s point in the sequel regarding newspapers. Having worked for a newspaper two years, only recently giving it up, I can say, from a marketing standpoint, they weren’t keen on “the future.” They even made a point to shut down their website as a sort of revolt against technology and just do print. The paper grew so thin over the last year, it was sad. Yeah, people want to read a newspaper but in order to make money, you have to give advertisers what they want; and they want as much of a presence as possible: in print and online. A newspaper business, particularly in today’s world is not going to make it at 50 cents per copy or a $1.00 on Sundays. At the same time, I don’t think anyone except maybe magazines, has figured out how to really make money on technology, not from a business standpoint, not unless you’re Apple, Netflix, or Google. It’s tough.

    • Greg Olear says:

      When I worked at AP — in HR, not in journalism — I always thought it reminded me of the Church: old, venerable, powerful, respected, and very very slow to change.

      AP, I might add, is a not-for-profit cooperative owned by a great many daily newspapers, and therefore acts as their collective arm…a really cool arrangement that helped popularize the “objective” style of news delivery. Papers with radically different politics used the same wire copy, and so it had to be devoid of bias.

      • Jeffro says:

        re Greg: “Papers with radically different politics used the same wire copy, and so it had to be devoid of bias.”

        Wouldn’t it be awe-inspiring to see television news do the same? Television news, particularly cable television news, is in an age of talking heads where rates shoot up the more yelling occurs. It’s sad really what often comes off as news these days. I make it a point to get most of my news from newspapers (internet based or not) and NPR because of the present analytical perspective. I’ve seen before you say you worked in HR for AP. They should have had you on the scene. I’d think you’d make a fine reporter.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I think that TV today fulfills the same function papers did 120 years ago…there was money to be made by being strident, bold, overtly political, and controversial, so that’s what papers did. What stopped it was the Spanish-American War, when people sort of realized that the papers were full of shit, and that blood was spilled to make money.

          Eventually, one hopes, Fox will go too far, and people will wake up and smell the bullshit. Only when the ratings shift to a station offering a less biased product will anyone change.

          It should also be noted that Reagan’s easing of FCC rules and regulations is responsible for a lot of this. Reagan also popularized the “let’s spend a shitload of money recklessly, and then bitch when the Democrats try and clean up our mess by raising taxes” school of Republican governance.

        • Greg Olear says:

          And thanks for the compliment. I don’t have what it takes to be a good reporter, though…I don’t like confrontation, and good reporters have to sort of like being a pain in the ass.

    • I love journalism in general and newspapers in particular, so I am truly saddened by the decline in quality and, in some cases, the integrity of the business I devoted 40 years of my life to. But I’m over sixty so I was able take early retirement and go on to write novels. Mulligan, my character, is just turning 40. He loves the business as much as I do, but at his age he’s really stuck. Newspapers are dying and, as he puts it, he sucks at anything else.

      • Jeffro says:

        re Bruce: “I love journalism in general and newspapers in particular.”

        I do too. My grandmother worked at a newspaper, not a large one by any means, for the majority of her adult life. I have fond memories going there as a child, walking into the print room, smelling the smells of a fresh newspaper coming out. Later, I worked in the print room doing inserts during my summers in middle school and recently was a newspaper columnist for two years. I just gave it up after my editor left. I wanted to devote more of my time to working on my first novel, and I already had a full-time job. Plus, it got to the point where I was getting paid peanuts. Sure, not important at first but I was getting shafted monetarily for a guy who wrote a very polarizing, and in my view, extremely shitty and juvenile political column. It was like Fox News on Page 5. So I left.

        I really hope newspapers figure it out. Technology that is. Analytical journalism is the barometer of a democracy, which I think is why, because of cable news, there is such a clout of polarization in politics today. I hope Mulligan figures it out and saves us.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    I agree with Dana – I’m not usually a fan of the crime novel but thanks to this interview, I will be checking this one out.
    Nice work, you two.

  6. This is a really good interview, one that compels me to do what a really good interview should: buy the book in question. Providence has always struck me as a city of deep contradictions, and seems an ideal place for someone to be repeatedly be blackjacked behind the ear. Working on a crime MS myself at the moment, so I will also pick up A Drink Before War as research. Good luck with the launch, Bruce. Doesn’t sound like you’ll need it.

  7. Irene Zion says:

    Really good interview, Greg!
    makes me want to go out and buy both Rogue Island and something by Patricia Smith, who, for some reason, I haven’t read yet.

  8. D.R. Haney says:

    Have either of you ever seen the movie Federal Hill? Either way, here’s a clip:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS13x13o_L4&feature=related

    It’s one of my favorite movies from the nineties.

    More later. I’m sick and need to return to my coma.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I’ve never even heard of it. I have to re-join Netflix just to watch movies you recommend. And once the kids sleep enough to make that possible, I will.

      Get better.

  9. Simon Smithson says:

    Wait, this isn’t about pirates?

    Well, fuck thi-

    Oh, wait! Captain Kidd!

    I’ve found I’m really only into crime fiction when it’s top-tier stuff, which, by the sounds of it, Rogue Island will turn out to be. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Greg.

  10. Why didn’t I see this before? Glad you posted it on FB!

    It does sound like a great book and I do plan on reading it.

    I think I don’t fit properly into my demographic. I love crime novels (Totally Killer an example of a great crime novel). Love crime movies, too. And really enjoy thrillers. And yet, I also love things like Glass Castle, Up From the Blue, The Summer we Fell Apart.

    I just don’t like overly-sentimental, contrived, treacly garbage.

    • Greg Olear says:

      What’s funny is, I’m a huge fan of overly-sentimental, contrived, treacly garbage. Take that, demographics experts!

      But seriously, thanks for the kind words re: TK. I’d love to read a Jessica Blau crime novel! You proved you have it in you in that one section of the new book (that isn’t a spoiler, isn’t it?). You should do it!

    • I’m a big fan of the hard-boiled novel, and after reading several thousand of them, I finally decided I knew how to write one.

  11. A couple of years ago, when my daughter decided to go to college in Providence, one of my older Italian relatives, upon being informed of her decision to leave the state of New York, crooked his index finger at me to come close. As I did he whispered in my ear: “don’t worry, we got people.” When I pulled away he put a finger to his lips and nodded his head like he had just shared the whereabouts of Hoffa’s body and I had to turn away for fear he’d see the smirk on my face.

    Of course it became a family joke. Every time I make the drive to Rhode Island and pass the state sign I turn to my daughter and say: “Don’t worry, we got people.”

    After reading this highly enjoyable interview…. I’m thinking it may be less of a joke than I thought.

  12. Richard Cox says:

    I love his bit at the end, about knowing what business one is in. It boils down to context, really, and understanding your audience. What value are you actually delivering to them? Because your assumed product is not always (or only) the actual one.

    Great interview, as always. Also, I wish ours wasn’t a world where you have to clarify about his being picked among the ten best debut novels for PW. I hate genres.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Richard. I agree…genres, feh. Writing is either good or it ain’t.

    • Some of the finest writers I know don’t sell well partly BECAUSE they don’t fit neatly into a genre. It confused the hell out of bookstores, who don’t know where to shelve the books, and it confuses some readers, too. For more on this, take a look at my piece in praise of Thomas H. Cook on The Nervous Breakdown.

      • Richard Cox says:

        I don’t know if I’m one of the finest writers anyone knows, but I do know I fall into a gap between genres, and it’s a struggle. But I can’t quite make myself give up on the idea of bridging the gap instead of falling into it. I’m stubborn that way.

  13. […] And just 14 short years later, Rogue Island was born (as he told TNB senior editor Greg Olear). […]

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