10 Questions with Bruce DeSilva
Who is Bruce DeSilva
Bruce DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’s award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won every major journalism award including the Pulitzer. His latest novel, A Scourge of Vipers, has been published by Forge in hardcover and e-book editions.
1. Mr. DeSilva, thanks for this opportunity to interview you for my blog. A SCOURGE OF VIPERS, your newest novel, came out yesterday. Tell us a bit more about this book.
I got the idea a couple of years ago when Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, proposed legalizing sports betting so that he could tax the profits. Now, at least a dozen governors are considering it as a way to balance hard-pressed state budgets. But they face enormous obstacles. For one thing, they’d have to change or challenge a federal law that prohibits sports betting everywhere but Nevada and three other states where it was grandfathered in. For another, the NCAA and the major sports leagues are dead set against it (although the NBA recently softened its stance). They see it as a threat to the integrity of their games. Meanwhile, Nevada casinos are eager to maintain their near-monopoly on sports betting, and criminal organizations are fearful that legalization would wipe out their bookmaking revenue.
There’s a lot at stake, because the amount American bet illegally on sporting events is estimated at three hundred and eighty billion dollars annually. About eight-five percent of us bet on sports events at least occasionally, much of it on the Super Bowl and the March Madness basketball tournament. Not surprisingly, opponents of legalization have very deep pockets. In my novel, the fictional governor of Rhode Island, where the average legislative election campaign costs only ten thousand dollars, proposes legalizing sports gambling; and millions in out-of-state money pours in to buy the votes of legislators. When a powerful state senator turns up dead, an out-of-state bagman gets shot down, and his briefcase full of cash goes missing, my protagonist investigates the rampant corruption. Soon, shadowy figures seek to derail him by threatening his job, his reputation, and finally his life. A Scourge of Vipers is at once a suspenseful murder story and an exploration of the way big money corrupts our politics.
2. Who is Liam Mulligan, and how did you come up with his character?
Mulligan is a 44-year-old journalist working for a dying newspaper in Providence, R.I. He’s a lot like me, except that he’s a lot taller and twenty-two years younger. He’s an investigative reporter. I used to be. He’s prone to wisecracks. I get a lot of complaints about the same thing. He has a strong but shifting sense of justice, willing to break rules, and even the law, to bring bad guys to justice. When I was a reporter, I was a lot like that. Neither of us are any good at taking orders. And the music of blues musicians such as Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor form the soundtrack of both his life and mine. Howard Frank Mosher, author of Waiting for Teddy Williams and one of my favorite writers, sent me an email proclaiming that Mulligan is “the most human, unpredictable, and anti-authoritarian fictional character I’ve met since Ranger Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove.” I’d like to think he’s right.
3. What kind of research did you do for A SCOURGE OF VIPERS?
I reviewed federal and state laws governing sports gambling, researched statistics on how much Americans bet both legally and illegally on sports, looked up recent cases of game-fixing and point-shaving, and familiarized myself with the arguments for and against legalization. A couple of decades ago, this would have required spending many hours in the research room of a good library, but I was able to find everything I needed in a couple of hours. Thank goodness for Google.
4. How is A SCOURGE OF VIPERS different from other thrillers in its genre?
My publisher has tended to promote my books as thrillers, but I think of them more as hard-boiled crime novels, the sort of thing Dennis Lehane did with his fine Kenzie and Gennaro series. That said, I think the Providence, R.I., setting—and the way the odd history and culture of the place affects every character’s actions and values—sets the Mulligan novels apart. Providence is quite unlike the huge metropolises in which so many fine crime novels are set. Despite its small size, it’s remarkably cosmopolitan and plagued with the usual array of urban problems. But it’s so small that it’s claustrophobic. Nearly everyone there knows your name, making it a hard place to keep a secret. In one of my novels, Mulligan and a cop try to figure out where they can go to exchange information without being recognized. They can’t think of anywhere at first. Finally, they settle on a sleazy strip club in a bad part of town. But as soon as they walk in, someone shouts, “Hey, Mulligan. How ya doin’?” Both the city and the state have culture of political corruption and organized crime that dates all the way back to the colonial era, when the pirates in league with prominent businessmen and government officials operated out of Narragansett Bay’s hidden coves.
In a place this small, and where a certain level of corruption is both expected and tolerated, a lot of routine business is conducted through personal connections. Need a liquor license? You’ve got a cousin on the city council. Want a plumber’s license? Your uncle is on the board. Need a traffic ticket fixed? Your best friend’s brother runs the traffic division. Don’t have a personal connection? Then you always have the option of offering a small gratuity. Mulligan says that without the lubrication of graft and connections, not much would get done in Rhode Island, and nothing at all would happen on time. Mulligan’s job is to root out corruption, but he sees nothing wrong, or even hypocritical, about placing a bet with a bookie or slipping a state worker forty bucks to get an inspection sticker for his wreck of a car. He views such low-level corruption as a public service. After all, bookies give gamblers much better odds than the legally sanctioned gangsters at the state lottery commission. And without the option of paying off car inspectors, a lot of struggling Rhode Islanders would have to walk to work. Mulligan reserves his ire for the rich and powerful who corrupt the system for personal gain. I have no doubt that if he’d been raised in, say, Oregon or Iowa, he would be a very different person. Providence isn’t just the setting for the Mulligan novels. It’s a main character in its own right—one with a profound impact on everything that happens in the books. I don’t think these stories could be set any place else.
5. What kind of activities do you do with your dogs, Brady and Rondo?
When I was a young man raising a family, we had border collies—three remarkably intelligent girls who insisted on being active all the time. If they weren’t playing ball or Frisbee with my three children, they were playing tug of war with each other. Sometimes, they’d even open drawers to find balls and bring them to us, demanding that we take them outside to play. When I worked in the yard, they insisted on helping. For example, when I trimmed the hedges, they’d jump up and tear branches off with their teeth. I still adore that breed, but now that I’m older, they’re too much for me to handle. Now, my wife and I have two enormous canines, a five-year-old, 125-pound Bernese mountain dog and handsome mutt who is even bigger.
Those two boys love to play-fight in the yard, go for long walks with us around the neighborhood, and romp through the snow with us in the back yard. But they spend a lot of their time sleeping, striking regal poses for our camera, and snuggling with us on our huge couch. Brady loves to be hugged. Rondo is a rampant kisser. I spend hours lying on the floor with my head on Rondo’s chest while I watch sports on TV. And when I write, Brady often sits on my feet and rests his head in my lap. Their companionship gives me great comfort during the long slog of writing my novels. And now, they’re the inspiration for two new characters in the book I’m writing for publication next year. In that novel, tentatively titled Dreadline, Mulligan adopts two dogs from a rescue kennel—a Bernese mountain dog named Brady and a big mutt named Rondo.
6. When did you first know you were going to become a writer? What were your first steps in your career?
When I graduated from high school, intent on studying geology at the University of Massachusetts, my favorite high school English teacher pulled my parents aside and told them I’d soon find myself writing out of compulsion. I was sure he was wrong. Turns out he was right. At U.Mass, I changed my major to political science. After graduation, I took a summer job as a reporter, covering the little coastal town of Warren, R.I., for The Providence Journal. My plan was to make a few bucks before heading off to Yale as a PhD candidate in history; but that summer, I found my calling. Journalism, I discovered, allowed me to poke my nose into anything that piqued my curiosity and then tell everyone what I’d learned. I spent forty years working as a journalist, the first half as an investigative reporter and the second half as an editor specializing in investigative reporting and explanatory journalism.
I had a great run, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Pulitzer. But as economic changes sent print journalism into a steep decline, the opportunities to do such work grew steadily scarce. I didn’t leave journalism; it left me. I’d long admired novelists such as George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Laura Lippman, who used the popular form of the crime novel to address serious social issues. Six years ago, I decided the time had come for me to join them. Each of my novels works as a suspenseful mystery, but each also addresses a theme of national concern – the damage the decline of print journalism is doing to the American democracy, the impact of ubiquitous pornography on American culture, the tension between true justice and public safety, and, in A Scourge of Vipers, the hypocrisy surrounding sports betting and the corrosive impact of big money on politics.
7. How do you plot your novels?
I start only with a vague idea of what a book will be about. For example, I began Cliff Walk, the second novel in the Mulligan series, with the notion of juxtaposing the two extremes of Rhode Island society—the Newport mansions and the state’s legal (until recently) prostitution business. I just threw those two worlds together and set my characters in motion to see what would happen. Writing this way allows the characters to take over the story, as if they have wills of their own. In my first book, Rogue Island, my protagonist’s ex-wife started out as a minor irritant and turned into a vengeful bitch. A big dangerous hit man shrank to five-foot five and developed a bad case of psoriasis. A fire chief who began as a minor character decided to become a major one. And then he decided he was a she. I enjoy discovering the story as I write; and I figure that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. I never outline, partly because my mind doesn’t work that way but also because discovering what is going to happen next is what sits me down at my desk every day. If I knew in advance how the story would turn out, my need to write it would evaporate.
8. What is your greatest satisfaction as a writer? What is your greatest disappointment?
My greatest satisfaction comes from the extraordinary writing partnership I have with my wife, Patricia Smith. She is one of those rare writers who is comfortable with any genre. She’s written articles for major magazines, essays for literary journals, the companion book to the PBS Africans in America series, and even a prize-winning children’s book. But she’s best known as one of the finest poets working in English, winner of a host of honors including the Lenore Marshall, Phillis Wheatley, Pushcart, and Bobbitt prizes, and even a Guggenheim fellowship. I edit every line of her poetry, and she edits every line of my crime novels, helping to make one another’s work better. I can’t tell you how lucky I am to be married to this astonishing woman. As for disappointments, I can’t think of any. I’ve treasured every minute of my career as a writer.
9. What are your favorite pastimes?
I collect daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and other 19th century photography, a passion I share with Patricia. We enjoy travelling together, most recently to Ireland, where we taught in an MFA program, and Austria, where she read her work at a poetry festival. Growing up in New England made me a big fan of the Boston sports teams. When I was a child in little Dighton, Mass., they were all perennial losers except for the Boston Celtics, who won championships nearly every year. So I’ve found much joy in the success of the Red Sox, the Bruins, and the Patriots since the turn of the new century.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
Tentatively titled Dreadline, the novel finds Mulligan carrying on a vendetta against serial-killer cat who deposits its kills on his porch, investigating a baffling jewelry heist, tracking down a psychopath who tortures animals, and, in the main plot, digging into the dubious background of a college football star the New England Patriots are considering drafting. And that’s all I’m willing to reveal about that novel, which is scheduled to be published by Forge next spring. When that book is finished, my wife and I are going to write a novel together. It will be set in her native Chicago in 1968, when the riots that followed the Martin Luther King assassination destroyed the Westside neighborhood where she lived as a child.