I heard Philip speak at Murder in the Magic City, a terrific little conference held every year in Birmingham, AL. He was articulate and personable, and you could tell that, not only did he have a passion for the act of writing, he had a passion for the craft of writing. This was a writer for whom writing a pretty good story was never going to be enough. He was going to take the time to deepen characters, explore ideas in depth, and polish the language until it shone.
I bought a copy of his first book, Catholic Boys,with great anticipation, and I wasn’t disappointed. I love character-driven fiction, and I love novels that make me think and feel deeply. Catholic Boys delivered on both counts. The characters are rich and layered, the themes well developed but never heavy-handed. His descriptions remind me of James Lee Burke’s–vivid and lyrical, poetic without being overdone.
His next books, Jesusville and Dark Road, Dead End, also became favorites. Set against the backdrop of a decaying Bible theme park called “The Holy Land,” Jesusville takes two lost souls on a journey toward redemption–if they can stay alive long enough. In Dark Road, Dead End, an undercover U.S. Customs agent ends up targeted by crime lords and even by someone in his own agency as he investigates a wildlife smuggling ring–boatloads of exotic species of birds and mammals ferried through the Everglades as part of a vast criminal enterprise that supplies rare and endangered species to pet stores, private hunt clubs, wildlife safari parks and even to highly respectable municipal zoos.
But his most recent novel, The Bronx Kill, may be his best yet. Reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, The Bronx Kill explores friendship, rivalry, and the destructive power of secrets when five men, friends since childhood, find themselves the targets of a detective determined to administer his own brand of vigilante justice.
Philip was kind enough to agree to an interview here are Crimereaders.
Why don’t we start with a little bit about your writing journey and how you came to be a writer?
I’ve been writing since the age of nine, so writing has always been a part of my life. My first stories were either mystery, baseball or cowboy stories. I was heavily influenced by the Hardy Boys series, so I think that’s why mystery and suspense have always been so important to me as narrative devices. I was also influenced by the Black Stallion series with its, to me, exotic settings and its exciting adventures.
So all of that—mystery, suspense, adventures both major and minor—impels me in my writing. I’ve also always been fascinated by the most mysterious of all entities, the human being. So my narratives are largely character-driven. I started out publishing short stories in commercial and literary magazines. I did this for many years. I also published some poetry and had several plays produced. The novel, though, is the form I’ve always aspired to. So I moved from publishing a collection of stories to the four novels I’ve written thus far.
How would you describe your work, and what attracts you to that genre?
A lot of my work, and certainly this novel in particular, I would describe as character-driven suspense. Character development and tension go hand-in-hand in my work. I guess I’m attracted to that because it seems to me to be the underpinning, the subtext, of the lives we lead. Or the life I lead, at any rate.
The inspiration for this book came from two primary sources. The first is the place itself, the Bronx Kill, which is a channel of water that runs between the Harlem and East Rivers in the southernmost section of the Bronx. It is a weedy, overgrown and forsaken section of abandoned fields and rail yards, a lawless and unsupervised area cut off from the civilization around it. In there, man is on his own, to survive as best he can.
The second inspiration came from the three main characters and their relationship to one another. I wanted to show how men interact, their power struggles, how they jockey for position in the male pecking order. And, because this is a love story at heart, I wanted to show how the presence of a desirable woman changes that dynamic and brings the boys/men into conflict with one another, how it strains their relationship as friends. Growing up in the Bronx allowed me up-close contact with both of these sources of inspiration.
Your descriptive passages are so evocative. What’s your secret for creating such vivid word-pictures?
I wish I could tell you. I try to make each scene visual and vivid by using the details of place, character and mood. I try to capture the feel of the place, the feel of the characters in that place, which might include details of time of day, weather conditions, the interior life of the characters, what they are doing, thinking. I want to see this all in my mind clearly in hopes that the reader will see and feel it, as well.
You write beautifully complex characters. How do you manage it, and why is it so important?
By nature, as human beings, we are complex beings. We have contradictory thoughts and feelings. Our feelings range at any given moment from the sublime to the primal. It’s the old mind/body dichotomy. I try to include that entire range of thought and feeling. I pay a lot of attention to what a character wants at any given time, and the complexity of that wanting, and the multi-layered ways a character goes about getting what he/she wants. And, equally important, how a character reacts when he/she doesn’t get what is wanted.
What would you say the theme is, and how do you infuse it throughout the book? Is it a conscious process?
I don’t think about theme when I’m writing. In fact, I don’t know what the theme is when I’m writing. It’s in the process of writing the story that a theme or themes emerge. Basically, I concentrate on telling the most compelling story I can. Themes will take care of themselves.
Which authors have influenced your writing, and in what way?
A lot of Southern writers have influenced me: Faulkner, Styron, Capote, Carson McCullers, Robert Penn Warren, William Humphrey, Flannery O’Connor. Their writing is so lush with description, with a sense of place. Their characters are inseparable from place. In their prose, these writers are able to weave a sense of beauty, mystery, often with an underlying sense of the sinister lurking right below the surface.
Want to know more of the story behind The Bronx Kill?
If you’d like to read more of the story behind the Bronx Kill, check out this interview at The Story Behind the Story.
Philip Cioffari Bio:
Philip Cioffari is the author of the novels: THE BRONX KILL; DARK ROAD, DEAD END; JESUSVILLE; CATHOLIC BOYS; and the short story collection, A HISTORY OF THINGS LOST OR BROKEN, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His short stories have been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies, including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He has written and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His Indie feature film, which he wrote and directed, LOVE IN THE AGE OF DION, has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is Professor of English, a member of the MFA faculty, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at William Paterson University. www.philipcioffari.com