Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Jersey Boy

Way back in 2000, when I started getting into this crime-fiction stuff, one of the first short-story writers I came across was Dave White. He had penned an homage to Robert B. Parker’s early work called “God Bless the Child.” In that tale, the world met troubled, pensive New Jersey detective Jackson Donne.

As a graduate student at Rutgers University, White used Donne again in a novel called Borrowed Trouble, which he wrote as his master’s thesis. Since then, he’s evolved the character into a tragic hero, become an über-fan of The Sopranos, won a Derringer Award (for “Closure” in 2003), and stripped Borrowed Trouble for parts in order to create his 2007 debut novel, When One Man Dies. When he isn’t writing fiction, White teaches 8th grade English to students in New Jersey.

I met Dave White in person for the first time in 2005 on a trip to New York. He took me on the “Jackson Donne” tour of New Brunswick, New Jersey, ending in a dive bar reminiscent of Donne’s favorite watering hole (minus the high-rise under construction above us at the time). It was great fun, and I made a point of looking White up on subsequent trips to the Big Apple.

Naturally, I read the well-received When One Man Dies. And in it, White introduced us to a second character in the Donne universe, guilt-ridden and corrupt cop Bill Martin. As a balance against Donne’s well-intentioned struggles, Martin made When One Man Dies’ dark side even darker. White also took the unusual step of stealing away Donne’s livelihood partway through that novel.

He takes a different tack, moving back and forth between America’s Great Depression and the present, with The Evil That Men Do, his second novel, which makes it entrance into the marketplace today. Of that new effort, his publisher enthuses:
Even generations later, you can’t escape … the evil that men do.

Stripped of his private investigator’s license and slumming it as a night security guard at a Jersey storage facility, Jackson Donne thinks he’s finally hit rock bottom. Then the bottom really falls out: The sister he hasn’t seen in years shows up, needing help.

Turns out Donne’s Alzheimer’s-stricken mother has begun hinting at long-buried family secrets from her hospital bed, suggesting a sinister--even murderous--past. Meanwhile, Donne’s relatives are suddenly being greeted by blackmail, car bombs, and bullets to the back of the skull.

All Donne wants is to disappear--preferably into a nice frosty pint glass--but he soon realizes that his only chance at saving his family, and himself, is by solving a mystery more than sixty years old. Now he needs to figure out how a hit man, crooked cops, corrupt politics, a kidnapping, and the city of Bayonne all fit together. He’ll discover that old family secrets still have the power to kill in this razor-sharp P.I. story that makes classic noir new again.
I caught up with White recently and asked him about his books, the research he does when preparing to write, and his personal connections to the story in The Evil That Men Do.

Jim Winter: You’ve now got one book under your belt, with the second one coming out. How does that feel?

Dave White: It feels good. The first book had such a lead-up, and the two months before it came out, I was out of school and thinking about it non-stop. This one is kind of sneaking up on me, as I used the school year to keep my mind off of it. I’m glad it’s coming out in the summertime so I can really take time to enjoy the release.

JW: You went in a completely different direction with the narrative in The Evil That Men Do. Tell me how that came about.

DW: I didn’t want to write the same book. Jackson Donne is a different character in this book, and I felt I needed to take a different direction. He’s no longer a P.I., he’s just kind of pulled into this family drama. I didn’t feel like I could tell a complete story from just his point of view. We needed to know about each member of the Donne family from their point of view. This isn’t a Jackson Donne novel so much as a story of the Donne family.

JW: You also have an interesting subplot taking place back in the 1930s. Was that the impetus for the story, or did that evolve as you fleshed out the novel?

DW: It was always meant to be a part of the story. I thought it would be interesting to keep visiting Joe Tenant throughout 1938. Again, it was a way to flex some writing muscles, and try something different. At the same time, it was an important part of the story. Everything that happens in the present day is because of what happened in the past. We needed to know the whole story. Plus, I felt that going back and looking at a different time in the Donne family history would help show why Donne is the way he is today.

In my short story, “Righteous Kill,” which appears in the Killer Year anthology, I told a story of a descendant of Donne’s at the turn of the 20th century. In it, there’s a discussion on how violence begets violence. I think that’s true. The past is a series of ripples, which continue to [have an] affect today. Why not take the time in a novel to look at that even more closely? Especially since Donne’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is too unreliable to tell the reader about the past. The reader needs to see it for himself.

JW: How much research did you do for the sections of this book set in the past?

DW: A fair amount, I believe. Since the story takes place during the Great Depression, there were a fair amount of things I knew about the area, like [New Jersey’s] Clifton Stadium being built as part of the New Deal. However, little things like when the Pulaski Skyway was built, or if tissues were popular [back then], were things I wanted to be accurate about, and I looked up.

JW: I thought you did a good job of showing how irrational Bryan Hackett’s rage was, while convincing your readers that he believed he was right.

DW: I think that’s a key to the novel. If Hackett’s going to be attacking the family, you’ll have to believe he has a good reason why. His motivation is the key to the story. If that doesn’t work, the story falls apart.

JW: I also was impressed with how much the aged, memory-ravaged Isabelle Donne was able to convey in seemingly nonsensical rants. How much of your portrayal of her Alzheimer’s came from research, and how much from personal experience?

DW: The entire idea for the novel came out of my family’s life. My grandmother on my mother’s side had a form of Alzheimer’s/dementia. My mother would never let my brother and I see her once she got really bad, because she didn’t want to affect our memory of her. But she would tell stories about her visits with my grandmother. One of the things that came out of my grandmother’s talking was a story my mom had to check on, so she called my grandmother’s brother.

Apparently my grandmother’s father used to work on the Hackensack River, dragging the floor of the waterway for dead bodies. This was an actual job, and no one in my family knew about it. The story just grew from there.

JW: Some would say you took a chance with When One Man Dies, when you alternated the first- and third-person scenes. What made you decide to go completely third person this time?

DW: The original draft kept Donne’s POV in first person, and still went into the heads of everyone else. But once my editor, agent, and I started to read through it, we realized it was really jarring. So, in order to keep the feel of the book and everyone’s POV, we decided it would be best to change Donne to third person, too. Plus, it makes sense, since he isn’t a P.I. anymore, so it breaks from the first-person P.I. formula into more thriller territory.

JW: Will we see Bill Martin [from When One Man Dies] again?

DW: At some point. His story isn’t finished yet. There’s a lot I want to explore with him. I’m just not exactly sure when he’ll be back and what that story is yet.

JW: You dropped hints that Donne may have friends in law enforcement he doesn’t realize he has. Is there a possibility that John Donne may come back from his self-imposed exile from dealing with crime?

DW: I think the idea of violence begetting violence shows that Donne will never be fully able to get away from the world he’s in. But he’s trying to keep that exile. We’ll see what happens in the future.

JW: So, what’s next?

DW: I’m actually working on two novels at once. One is the third in the Donne series, the premise of which I want to keep to myself--other than [to say that] Donne finally goes to college. The other is a standalone, which I’m hoping will be sort of a 20-something’s version of North by Northwest. (Or at least that’s what it is currently.) Both have been extremely fun to write so far.

(Author photograph by Mary Reagan. Used with permission.)

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