Philip Cioffari is the author of the novels: 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 a Professor of English, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at William Paterson University. www.philipcioffari.com
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Bronx Kill. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: My novel, The Bronx Kill, is about a drowning death and the effect it has on those involved in the incident. On a hot August night, five teenage friends challenge each other to swim the East River from the Bronx to Queens. In the attempt, one boy drowns and the body of the only girl among them is never found. The three survivors take a vow never again to speak about the incident. When they reunite five years later, they find themselves at the mercy of the drowned boy’s brother, an NYPD detective, who holds them responsible for his brother’s death and vows to bring them to justice by any means possible. The lead character, Danny Baker, one of the three survivors, must fight not only to preserve his childhood friendships but to save himself and his friends from the detective’s brand of vigilante justice.
I wanted to write about the complexity and durability of friendship. The apparent and not-so-apparent ties that bind us, the debts we owe one another, the divisive factors that can tear a friendship apart, the loyalties that can supersede everything, even ethical and moral principles—these are my concerns here.
In particular, my focus is on friendship that originates in childhood, that continues to hold us together long after childhood ends, friendship that develops and matures over time, that changes as the dynamic of the relationship changes, friendship that allows us at its best to be individuals within the larger framework of the we.
The characters in this novel have been friends since grade school. They have experienced the small triumphs and defeats that occur in playgrounds and alleys, on handball courts and ballfields. They have endured the mean streets of the Bronx, faced hardship, humiliation and loss; but it isn’t until their mid-twenties that they must confront the most severe test of their loyalty to one another. I wrote it as a suspense thriller because I thought that was the most effective way to engage the reader in this story.
Q: What do you think makes a good mystery/thriller? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: Of course there are many elements that go into making a successful story. In my book, I strove 1) for a high level of tension throughout, 2) a strong atmosphere of danger and foreboding, and 3) strong, clearly defined characters. I also try to find something sympathetic in each of my characters, even the seemingly unlikeable ones.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: I work out the details of the story as I write. I take notes along the way but mostly the process is intuitive, instinctual as I move for scene to scene. What does my character want? What would be the step or steps he/she would take to get what he/she wants? The way I see it character drives plot.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: Characters usually form inside my head. I may jot down a few notes but mostly I get a feel for them, who they are, what they want. Then they become more defined in the writing process. My lead character in The Bronx Kill is Danny Baker, a 24 year old man who returns to his hometown, the Bronx, after a self-imposed exile of five years. He is haunted by a sense of guilt and responsibility for the death of his friend. He wants to find the truth about what happened the night of the drowning, but as important is his search to find out the truth about himself, why he did what he did, why he hadn’t acted differently, what more could he have done to save his friend. I knew Danny well enough that I didn’t really have to go outside myself to develop him.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: The obsessed detective who seeks revenge for his brother’s death came to me as I was writing the story of these friends. He assumed a greater role in my mind, and hence in the story, as I got deeper into the book. He wasn’t there at the start. What characterizes him is his unswerving dedication to seeking justice for his dead brother. He’s ruthless and will use any means necessary to enact his vengeance, which adds considerably to sense of imminent danger in the book.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: As Elmore Leonard said, cut out the boring parts. I try to make each scene absolutely necessary. Each scene jumps the story forward. I use the mood and atmosphere not only of the physical setting but also the interior landscape of the characters’ minds to keep the tension high and unrelenting.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: I use as much specific, physical detail of the place—whether it be a street, a room, a tavern—to create a visual image for the reader. I always have a particular street or room or bar in mind when I write. I use the quality of light to highlight atmosphere. I make sure I know my settings well. I’ve been there, lived there. I know the place in all seasons, at different times of the day and night, on holidays and work days. I try to capture the feel of a place, not only its physical details.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: I never start with theme. Theme is something I discover after I’ve written the final word. I concentrate on telling the truest, most convincing story I can tell. Theme will take care of itself. And, yes, themes recur in my work. That’s probably inevitable.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: For me, editing improves my work. Makes it tighter, more focused. I cut out waste, superfluity.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Perseverance. Showing up at your desk everyday. Continually improving your writing style. Keeping an open, curious mind. (Sorry, that’s four)
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: Writing has always brought me pleasure. If it didn’t, I’d stop.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: Taking workshops and going to writers’ conferences have helped me immeasurably.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Learning the craft of writing is a life-long endeavor. Enjoy the ride.