When The Writer magazine team decided to host a contest with the theme CRIME PAYS, I thought immediately of David C Taylor. I had just finished his novel Night Life, a crime story set in New York City in 1954 during a stormy time in American public and civic – or not-so-civic – life. Taylor’s prose, drenched in historical realism, whisks the reader back imaginatively to the McCarthy era in full-out noir textures. I knew he was the right person to do the final judging of our contest. (The winner is published here).
In Night Life, Michael Cassidy is a quirky, canny, wired cop you want to see succeed against the villains of the world, whether they’re robbing a store or holding a country hostage to a political ploy. With the backdrop of Broadway and the streets of the city that never sleeps, it’s the kind of book you can’t put down, the kind of book you turn the lights on for because sunset isn’t going to stop the story. In fact, the shadows of night are exactly right for this reading experience. I read it in two sittings.
I’m not naturally drawn to crime stories, although Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series are immovably on my “favorite books” list. I love a story that is propelled by the question: And then what happened? And I love characters like Taylor’s Cassidy, who step outside the very laws they are sworn to defend – all in the name of doing good, if perhaps via unconventional methods. Cassidy is hardboiled. But he is not hard hearted.
In addition to working on the CRIME PAYS project together, I asked Taylor to answer questions about his process and his thoughts on the genre. Our exchange follows.
Q&A with David C Taylor
The setting and time frame of your novel are deeply central to the story. What drove your story: plot, setting, history? Something else? And what role did your upbringing in New York City play in building texture?
I grew up in New York City in the ’50s and ’60s, and memories of that time are indelible. I wanted to write about the city I loved, but not from the point of view of a child or adolescent, so I needed to find an adult story that I could inform with the texture of New York then. I am intrigued with how recent history reflects some of the problems and prejudices still prevalent today. Use of the past can illuminate the present. Plot came last, and it evolved as I thought about the characters making themselves known to me.
When you go back in time for a novel, getting the facts right is vital to keeping your story real. I suppose that’s true for any novel, but getting the right “brands” – fedoras, Chesterfields, cellophane – can be tricky. How did you research this book? Can you share resources that would benefit other writers?
Some of the brands and images come from memory, but the best research engine now is Google. I also use the library extensively. It is, at times, more efficient than Google, because when you go to the stacks to find the book you are looking for, you are presented with many more books on the same subject on the same shelf as the one you want, and you end up leafing through many sources you did not know existed. The library is also a good place to research images of the era in newspapers and magazines.
Inevitably, in a crime novel, you have to grapple with luck, superhuman ability and the limitations of mere mortals. How do you make coincidences, gut sense and heroics believable? How far can you push these without making the reader shrug “Yeah, right”?
Stay away from the superhuman. Resist the temptation to make your protagonist infallible and invulnerable. As in life, luck and coincidence play a part in solving a mystery. Avoid the easy coincidence. If it is too good to be true, it is not true. Superman is not necessary in a crime novel. We need people we can recognize as real, as part of our world.
What are the challenges and traps of working with actual historic characters, such as Roy Cohn? How do you keep a character real but also bend him or her in service to your story?
Take the time to research any historical character you intend to use in your fiction. Have confidence in your research, and your character will ring true. If you can use actual quotes, they will bolster his reality. Roy Cohn was one of the villains of the 20th century, a man who said he loved America and yet spent most of his life trying to hijack the system for his own benefit. If you understand his central hypocrisy, he makes a wonderful dark figure in the story, and some of the things he says in the novel are things he said in real life. The trap with historical figures in fiction is to grant them an omniscience or understanding they don’t deserve. Remember that they are people with weakness and foibles. At the same time, they often wield real power, and they tend to dismiss as irrelevant the people who fall under their wheels.
A good crime story has to know where it’s going ahead of time. Do you agree? How did you map your story?
When you start out to write a crime story or any other story, you need a sense of direction, and at least a vague understanding of where it might end. Many people plot out every beat of their stories. I do not. I like the sense of exploration and surprise that comes with not knowing exactly where I am going. This is idiosyncratic. Everyone must find his or her way of plotting and writing. Some outline completely. Some wing it. And everything in between. One valuable piece of advice from Ernest Hemingway that I found useful was to always know where you are going tomorrow when you stop writing today. Stop in the middle of a sentence or paragraph if that will help you pick up the thread the next day.
Without stealing from the success of the totality of your story, you write kicker opening lines to each chapter. I’m sure you could say this for every sentence in the story, but is there a crime genre technique to opening lines of a chapter? What has to happen in the first few lines of every chapter?
Every chapter is, in a sense, a short story, and like a short story, it needs to pull the reader along and persuade him or her not to shut the book. You need a good opening line to capture your reader’s interest, just as you often need to close a chapter with a sense of what happens next.
Tell us about your revision process. How many versions of the novel were there? How did you work with your editor?
I don’t know how often I revised the novel, because I tend to revise each day’s writing the day after, and then to revise each chapter before going on, and then, finally, to revise the entire book. My agent is a very good and useful editor, and by the time I turn the novel in to the publisher, the editor there asks for few changes, and those are mostly cosmetic. This is, perhaps, one of the benefits of writing for 40 years before sitting down to write a novel.
Faulkner’s phrase “kill your darlings” continues to have legs for writers. What darlings did you kill?
“Kill your darlings” means that you should not fall in love with a sentence, paragraph, scene or interlude that does not advance the story, no matter how well written it is. I have killed many of my darlings, but remember few of them. If a voice in the back of your head suggests even for a second that something does not belong, cut it.
You didn’t publish a novel until you turned 70. What inspired you to turn your attention to this undertaking at this moment in your life? In what way did your previous writing projects serve you as a novelist?
I had been writing for years in movies and TV, great training for story, dialogue, character and structure. Eventually the ancillary parts of that business, the meetings, the seemingly arbitrary editorial comments, the rewriting for the sake of production needs, grinds you down. I started out as a short story writer and always intended to go back to prose fiction. Now I want to control the writing in a way that is impossible in a collaborative medium like the movies and TV, so I sat down to write a novel.
Name a writer whose work you admire and respect, and tell us what the rest of us can learn from him or her.
I like the novels of Alan Furst set in Europe around the beginning of World War II. They are impeccably researched. The stories are propulsive. The atmosphere is so strong that you live in that world, and the characters, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, ring true.
You come from a writing family – your mother published a memoir about food and growing up, your father wrote plays and movies, and your brother is a journalist. What was planted in you early on that made you a storyteller?
We were a reading family. That is important, because you absorb storytelling without knowing that you are doing it. But the most important aspect of growing up with writers as parents is the easy understanding that this is a good way to go about your life. Many young people who want to write or paint or dance have to struggle with families who feel that art is a frivolous, unrealistic path doomed to failure. My parents were encouraging without insisting. The one thing my father said about the life of a writer was, “Rejection is the norm. If you cannot accept rejection and still go on, it would be better to find another way to live.” Good advice.
Alicia Anstead is editor-in-chief of The Writer magazine. She teaches journalism at Harvard, where she is also co-founder and editor of the Harvard Arts Blog.