David C Taylor has been writing for film, TV, and theater since the seventies. He has written for classic shows like The Rockford Files and scripted several movies including the fun Tom Selleck caper flick, Lassiter (a personal favorite) and the rock comedy Get Crazy. His debut novel, Night Life, is a look into New York City of the Fifties. One almost hears the theme from the Burt Lancaster film Sweet Smell Of Success as we follow Michael Cassidy, a cop with a unique background, whose case puts him in the middle of the red scare and up against real life villain Roy Cohn. It is a book rich in story and character that never loses itself in the period and atmosphere it evokes. I recently talked talked to Mr. Taylor about his book and the period it tackled.
MysteryPeople: Michael Cassidy is an intriguing character who can move in many directions and has an interesting history. How did he come about?
David C. Taylor: It is difficult to know exactly how a character is born. If you have been watching people’s behavior and storing up incident for as long as I have, I think there are characters alive inside you, and when you begin to tap them, they grow naturally as you demand more and more of them. I did grow up with a father who worked in the New York theater world, so that was available to me. And I did not want to write a run of the mill character whose background would lead naturally to the police department. I wanted him to be a bit of an outsider in all the worlds he passes through.
MP: What drew you to Fifties New York as a setting?
DCT: New York in the Fifties was the New York I grew up in. It was a city that did not really change until the late Sixties, by which time I was in my twenties, and youth is the time in our lives when many memories become indelible. I wanted to write about that city, which I loved, without limiting the story by making it about a boy.
MP: You also use the world of theater, that you have experience with. What did you want to get across about the people in that life?
DCT: The Fifties was a glorious era for those who lived in the mainstream of American life, but not such a glorious era for those who were marginalized by color, or sexuality, or politics. Theater people, then and now, are tolerant of those on the margins, those who do not swim in the main stream, and that was the world Cassidy grew up in, the world that shaped him.
MP:The book has several real life characters like Roy Cohn and mobster Frank Costello. How do you approach historical characters in historical fiction?
DCT: I always thought that Roy Cohn was one of the great villains of America’s 20th Century. He was one of those people whose public stance was that he was trying to protect America from its enemies. He used to say that “God Bless America” was is favorite song, but he spent most of his life and energy trying to hijack the system for his own benefit. I have read a great deal about him, and I tried be true to who he was. Frank Costello is there in part because I wanted Tom Cassidy to have a criminal enterprise in his background, which is often part of the American story, and I wanted Cassidy to have access to that part of New York life that works in the shadows. I have, of course, created relationships between Costello and the Cassidy family that are fiction. The use of real life characters from the past allows the writer to examine the tendency of power to corrupt without the partisan passions that writing about contemporary characters ignites. And, you cannot libel a dead man.
MP:You’ve mainly wrote for film, television, and stage. What did you you enjoy the most about writing a novel?
DCT: Film, TV, and stage are collaborative media. The script is a blueprint to which others add insight in the hopes, sometimes realized, of improving the work. The theater belongs more to the writer than movies or TV, but novels allow the writer the luxury of succeeding or failing on his own merits. You write what you want, and though there is an editorial process that can have an influence on the finished product, the writer has the last word, which, after years of writing for movies and TV, I find very satisfying.
MP: After researching and writing about the McCarthy era, do you see it a the kind of history that can repeat itself?
DCT: It does repeat itself, and in some ways is repeating itself now. If the population can be scared enough, it tends to willingly give up some of its guaranteed liberties in hopes that the government will use its expanded power to protect its citizens. This was true when McCarthy was finding a Communist under every bed, and seems to be rising again when we are told that there is a terrorist around every corner. We are now facing intrusive surveillance by agencies like the NSA, and the growing militarization of our police forces.
You can find copies of Night Life on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.