David C. Taylor joins us at BookPeople Monday, April 11, at 7 PM, to speak and sign his second novel, Night Work. He joins Stuart Woods, speaking and signing his latest Stone Barrington novel, Family Jewels.
–Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
MysteryPeople Scott: What was the biggest difference between working on your first book, Night Life, and the follow up?
David C. Taylor: In Night Life I was going back to prose for the first time in years, and I had to shed some of the habits one picks up writing for movies and TV where you describe the scene in only the most rudimentary way, because you know that the production designer, the director, the director of photography, and all the other team members who make a movie are going to decide what everything looks like. In prose you have to build your world from the ground up. But more than that, in Night Life everything was discovery. I had to find out for the first time who my characters were, how they behaved, what they thought, their weaknesses and strengths, how they saw the world and what that world looked like, and all of that was new to me, because I had never met these people before.
In Night Work I had become more comfortable with the latitude prose allows the writer. In movie writing you try to get into a scene as late as possible, and out of a scene as early as possible, and you are restricted to telling your story in about 110 pages. You want to be disciplined in prose, but you do have more room to continue a scene, to add information, to be somewhat more discursive. And I already knew things about Cassidy and Orso and Ribera and Dylan and about Cassidy’s family, so now I could build on what I knew and try to discover things about them that I did not yet know.
MPS: What drew you to use Castro’s visit to New York as a main part of the plot?
DCT: I was looking for another historical moment on the cusp of change. Night Life takes place just as Senator Joseph McCarthy was about to lose his power. In Night Work it was Castro’s first visit to New York in 1959 when he had not yet assumed the formal leadership of Cuba. He was invited, not by our government, but by an association of newspaper editors. The Cold War was at its height. The fear of Communism was very strong in the country, but Castro had not yet embraced Communism. His brother, Raoul, had, as had Che Guevara, but Fidel was still claiming to be a socialist. However, the political climate in America at that time was “if you’re not for us, you’re against us,” and there were forces in the country who had already decided that Castro was an enemy: the Mafia, because he was taking over their casinos in Cuba, American business interests, because he had nationalized the telephone company, and they thought that was the beginning of the end of U.S. business power in Cuba, and the U.S. Government which was wary of a communist nation 90 miles from Miami. The intersection of those disparate interests with the shared goal of getting rid of Castro seemed to me the perfect petri dish in which to hatch a plot.
“Living in New York was a rush. Everything moved fast. The noise was constant. You went to sleep listening to the traffic below like the sound of a river. You woke to sirens and the rasp of the brakes on a bus. The smell of the city was ever present. Even now, years later, when I go back to New York, I pick up its rhythms very quickly. I find that I am walking faster, ignoring traffic lights, slipping through the crowds without bumping people.”
MPS: Castro is one of those characters both iconic and enigmatic. How did you approach him as a writer?
DCT: As a writer, one hopes to take the icon and make him human. There was enough available research to understand him, at least a little bit, as he was then, a relatively young man, newly triumphant, and not yetbeaten down by the burden he took on, and not yet a symbol rather than a human being. There was a wonderful, true moment during his trip when he was at the Bronx Zoo and he reached into the tiger’s cage and patted the tiger on head. It is a moment like that that reveals the man. As to the enigma, I do not know if I successfully penetrated that, but you have to remember that the Castro of 1959 did not yet carry all the mythology that has accrued to him in the last fifty some years. He was not yet a historic figure. He was a young man on the cutting edge of history, living in his present, but we view him from a distance caused by all that has happened since then. I was trying to show him as he was before his history happened, and, of course, he was not the primary character in the story, so I was able to sketch him rather than give him in detail.
MPS: Your New York reminds me of it’s portrayal in the film “The Sweet Smell of Success”, it has this kinetic energy and noise, where it is always moving and there is sense that other things are going on in the periphery of Cassidy’s story. How do you develop this feel?
DCT: I grew up in New York City in the Fifties, and those memories, like so many of our memories from childhood, are indelible, so when I am writing about it, it seems easy to pull the sounds, smells, and sights of the city out of the drawer where they sit in my brain. Living in New York was a rush. Everything moved fast. The noise was constant. You went to sleep listening to the traffic below like the sound of a river. You woke to sirens and the rasp of the brakes on a bus. The smell of the city was ever present. Even now, years later, when I go back to New York, I pick up its rhythms very quickly. I find that I am walking faster, ignoring traffic lights, slipping through the crowds without bumping people. That kinetic energy is so much a part of the place, and the way to get it on the page is to provide the details that I remember, like how the streets reflect city lights in the rain, and the sound of tires swishing through the water, the smell of hot pavement in the summer and burning coal in the winter.
MPS: I’m not sure if Cassidy’s cynicism as a cop is pure or a mask for a wounded romanticism. How do you see his relationship to the job?
DCT: I don’t think of Cassidy as a cynic, but rather as a romantic pragmatist. He sees the world around him as it is, yet he has a deep seated need for it to be the better place that he knows it can be. He knows that power tends to corrupt, but he is constantly hopeful that it will not. I think he became a cop as an antidote to cynicism.
“I don’t think of Cassidy as a cynic, but rather as a romantic pragmatist. He sees the world around him as it is, yet he has a deep seated need for it to be the better place that he knows it can be. He knows that power tends to corrupt, but he is constantly hopeful that it will not. I think he became a cop as an antidote to cynicism.”
MPS: What did it feel like getting an Edgar nomination with your first book?
DCT: Once I got over my surprise and decided that it wasn’t a clerical error, I was very excited. My father, who was a very good writer, warned me when I started out that “rejection is the norm”, which is something all writers have to come to grips with. So after forty years of the writing life and the rejections that inevitably go with it, to get the Edgar nomination for my first novel is a wonderful and unexpected affirmation. Unless, of course, it is a clerical error.
David C. Taylor joins us at BookPeople Monday, April 11, at 7 PM, to speak and sign his second Michael Cassidy novel, Night Work. He will be joined by Stuart Woods, speaking and signing his latest Stone Barrington thriller, Family Jewels. You can find copies of Woods’ latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public.