October 12, 2010
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.