Sunday, October 21, 2012

Jim Fusilli's Thoughts on The Writing Life

Jim Fusilli, multi-published novelist, also serves as rock and pop music critic for The Wall Street Journal. A native of Hoboken, New Jersey, he has set many of his novels in this area, called "Narrows Gate." A graduate of St. Peter's College, Jim began his career as a journalist and has achieved acclaim in this field, as well as in fiction. His novel, "Hard City," was named Novel of the Year in 2004 by Mystery Ink.

His short stories are delightful. I love especially "Digby, Attorney at Law," which was nominated for both an Edgar and the Macavity in 2010.

As a long-time friend and admirer of Jim's fiction, I invited him to share his ideas with The Crime Writers Chronicle.

Here are a few comments on Jim's work:

  • "A courageous and original writer" …The Boston Globe
  • "Fusilli is simply incredible!"…
  • "Jim's noir prose is peerless" …Kirkus Reviews
  • "If you've ever been in love with New York City - this book is for you!" …The Washington Post

Jim's combination of professionalism and graciousness can be seen in his replies to my questions.

– Thelma Straw

Why do you write novels?

I think the format suits my strengths as a writer: rhythm and tempo; the opportunity to develop many nuanced characters; and the use of setting, both in terms of time and place. I love how the novel promises an extended, intimate experience with readers. We can collaborate with readers and let the novel play out in their minds.

What triggers you to start a new novel - a character? a place? an idea? Other?

My novels tend to revisit the same themes – dysfunction in the family, the value of friendship, identity and alienation. So I look for setting that will encourage the exploration of these themes. With “Narrows Gate,” I had the setting well before I had developed a single character. Until they’re fully drawn, characters are function and representation. After a while, they become people who are like the rest of us: in conflict or in harmony with others who share our setting. Then the adventure begins.

How do you combine your job as journalist and fiction writer?

I plan my activities around my weekly column and other duties for The Wall Street Journal, so I set aside a good amount of time for research, interviews, concerts and performances I’ll be attending, travel, etc. After I have all the data at hand, I try to write the column in one long burst so it has the energy and excitement of the music I’m covering. The rest of my time is dedicated to my fiction.

Do you prefer to write short stories or novels? What are the factors you like in each medium?

I like both. Short stories were a challenge for me and I couldn’t find my way until I began to utilize techniques we see in other media like fast-cutting in film or the way varying motifs work independently yet coalesce in a complicated piece of music. Now I enjoy writing them, though they take an extraordinary amount of time to do well. But as I said earlier there’s something about writing a novel that’s so satisfying. Once I can see the world I’m creating in a novel and can occupy the minds of the characters as they engage it, I’m very content.

What was your best preparation as a child or student or in former jobs for your career as a novelist?

Given my themes, I suppose my childhood in Hoboken was the best preparation. My parents were loving and encouraging in their way, but our extended family was a mess and Hoboken was a dangerous and dying town. Early on I began to go off on my own and reject the conventions of the culture in which I was raised. Not in an aggressive way, but I was determined to become something different than what was expected of me.

Do you work alone, or do you have a partner, team, etc. With what kinds of people do you discuss your ideas and progress on a new book, if any?

I work alone and never discuss works-in-progress in any detail. I’ll say to my writer friends that I’m working on this or that, but I’m pretty vague about the details. I don’t believe a work of art exists until it’s done. By talking about it, you can spend all the energy that should go into the work. When I was stuck on a draft with “Narrows Gate,” I shared the manuscript with two publishing executives. I’d never done anything like that before but “Narrows Gate” was such a different project for me – a big epic that spanned decades and had several independent but ultimately interlocking storylines. I felt I need some guidance. Now that I’m working on a sequel, I’m on firm footing so I doubt anyone but my wife, agent and editor will see it before it enters the pre-publication editing process. Until I shared it with my agent, no one saw or even knew about “Road to Nowhere” except for my wife and one writer friend.

What do you say to neophyte fiction writers - if they want to write a saleable story?

I say: Don't worry about publication. Focus on doing something only you can do. Develop your craft until it raises your work to the level of art. All sorts of rubbish gets published, and it was always thus, even before self-publishing e-books was possible. Try to be great, to write something that will last. Do that and everything else follows.

Is there any novel you wish you had written? Or author you look up to?

I admire many novels, far too many to mention, and many authors I admire for their craft, vision, determination and courage. I’m not the kind of person who wishes for things, but I do read with an admiring eye and I often find myself thinking that a sentence or a phrase or even a single word was so precise and so perfect for the moment that I’m inspired to try to work at that level.

Can you share with us your writing habits - your schedule, methods, oddities, quirks, etc.

I’m very disciplined. I write every day for many hours whether I’m in my office or traveling. It’s my profession. I want to be good at it and if you have any talent, you improve by doing. You have to be relentless. There’s no other way. I can write anywhere; within reason, it doesn’t matter to me where I am. I’ll start writing in an airport, continuing writing after I board and until the cabin door is shut, resume writing at 10,000 feet and keep writing until I’m told to power down. I have a few quirks, but nothing very meaningful. I color-code my To Do list so I can keep track of my progress. That’s a quirk, I guess.

Tell us something about you as a writer we would not know otherwise!

I suppose because I’m the Journal’s rock and pop critic people might assume that I listen to music while I write my fiction. I used to, but I don’t anymore. I can pay close attention to what I’m writing, but my subconscious becomes occupied with the music and I lose that resource. Later, when I’m decompressing and the subconscious should be revealing solutions to problems with my day’s writing or suggesting where my story can go, instead it’s filled with ideas about music. I’ve wasted a writer’s valued resource.

I understand you have a new book coming out in November. Can you tell us something about it and why you wrote it?

It’s the launch of a new series. The debut novel is “Road to Nowhere.” It’s the story of a drifter who witnesses a violent crime against a young woman. He becomes involved, if only briefly and without much passion. Nothing is what it seems, though, and events intensify. When his estranged daughter is threatened, he’s drawn in and finds himself up against some powerful forces.

Though “Narrows Gate” was a success and it sent my career in a new direction, which is what I was hoping it would do, I wanted to do a series again. I like the mystery, crime and thriller communities. I thought I’d learned enough during the past few years about craft and technique to do something interesting – quick and facile and suspenseful, with a balance of violence and wry humor. We’ll see if that’s correct. The main character is mobile – people who remember “The Fugitive” and “Route 66” will recognize the technique of thrusting a character in a new setting in each story so that he becomes involved repeatedly in different worlds while still dealing with his own situation. The response within the industry has been positive to “Road to Nowhere” and the series concept, but it’s up to the readers now.

Our thanks to Jim for sharing these inspiring thoughts!

Thelma J. Straw


  1. Fascinating interview, Thelma! I've always admired Jim Fusilli's fiction so it's a treat to get a look behind the curtain. The guy is so determinedy productive besides talented that he both scares and inspires me. Right on,Jim!

    1. I too am both inspired and scared by Jim! I am in awe of his discipline -- and promise to try to be more like him in his writing habits!!!!! Thelma

  2. What a great interview, Thelma!! It was like I was sitting on a sofa listening to the two of you chatting about writing. I especially liked Jim's advise to new writers and the info about his new novel!!!