More details will come in due course, but this is my next (nonfiction) book, due out later this summer. Check out the nice things Rick Perlstein and Michael Gray have to say on the cover. Do I need to say how much I love the cover?
So today marks the 350th anniversary of the signing of the land grant that awarded John Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret the lands between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. The property transferred via this very lucrative real estate deal was named after Carteret’s ancestral home, the Isle of Jersey. In other words, it’s New Jersey’s 350th birthday.
I wouldn’t want to be accused of crass commercialism or anything like that — heavens no! — but I can’t think of a better way to mark this by occasion than by buying a book or two that’s related to New Jersey history. Do I have any suggestions, you want to know? Funny you should ask! I can think of at least two, right off the bat!
First there’s American Dictators, my dual biography of the notorious political bosses Frank Hague (ruler of Hudson County for three decades and a national player with enough clout to intimidate presidents) and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (who controlled all graft and bootlegging in Atlantic City during its heyday in the Roaring Twenties). Nucky, of course, is the inspiration for the hero of the highly fictionalized HBO series Boardwalk Empire, in which any even more heavily fictionalized Frank Hague makes an appearance every now and then. Personally, I find the nonfiction versions far more interesting, which is why I wrote the book.
Then there’s The Last Three Miles, my first nonfiction book, which covers the construction of the first superhighway project in the United States, and the bloody labor war that erupted during the completion of its final phase, now known as the Pulaski Skyway. If you’ve ever driven that not-quite legendary span, you might think it was designed by madmen. In fact, it was designed by extremely competent engineers who were working on the cutting edge of new technology, and who saw their work undone at the last minute by political interference. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the sensational murder trial. Murder, politics, and traffic engineering — all the things that make the world go ’round.
Since none of this would have happened if Charles II hadn’t signed that piece of paper, I think it’s safe to say these books have been 350 years in the making. How’s that for a cover blurb?
And the voice of J. D. Rhoades was heard throughout the land: post four questions relating to yourself as a writer, along with an image and link for your latest book. Then invite three other authors to do likewise the next Monday.
1. What am I working on?
I’m in the middle of polishing an essay collection called Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements. (Historian Rick Perlstein and music writer Michael Gray have given me the most awesome cover blurbs.) I’m also plotting out a sequel to my first crime novel, We All Fall Down, that will take the heroine to some pretty harrowing places. I’m also doing preliminary research on a couple of likely nonfiction projects that will be a decisive break from the political boss/political machine orientation of my first two nonfiction books, The Last Three Miles and American Dictators.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I like to think my fiction is distinguished by its level of realism, its intensity of emotion and its preference for unconventional protagonists and points of view. A big part of the impetus for writing We All Fall Down was my wish to create a woman cop who reflected the ones I’ve met on the job. With that in mind, I decided to complicate the picture by making Karen McCarthy an unattractive woman who under regular circumstances would probably be ignored by most men. Giving someone like that a job that makes her impossible to ignore opened up lots of intriguing possibilities.
3. Why do write what you do?
That question assumes I have a choice. I go in for crime stories, partly from taste and partly because newspaper work and the things I observe on the job provide fuel for my imagination. Part of the inspiration for We All Fall Down was a trial in which a jeweler was accused of using an armed robbery at his store as an excuse for killing his wife during the gunplay. (The novel’s opening chapter has nothing to do with the case, I was just struck by the idea of using a crime to cover up another, even bigger crime.) Echo was in part an angry response to some sexual assault cases I knew about, as well as a local sex-crime case in which many locals (smart people I had never suspected of Neanderthal tendencies) sided with the aggressor, a local pillar of the community. I like fantasy and science fiction but I have no gift for writing either. I tend toward hyper-realism in my fiction.
4. How does your writing process work?
My pattern with fiction is to start with a scene and play with ideas and plotlines that lead to and away from it. Once the novel’s first quarter and final scene are fixed in my mind, I start writing in earnest. I don’t work with outlines in fiction — I like to surprise myself. (Nonfiction is a different matter. Structure is your best friend when writing a large nonfiction work.) While working on something I usually develop odd fixations on certain pieces of music that have no obvious connection to the project. I let them play themselves out, because writing is a conscious and subconscious activity. Once a project is finished, I put it aside to cool off before revisions. There are always revisions, and coming back to the project after a brief interval allows you to see things and make new thematic connections.
This past fall saw publication of my latest nonfiction book as well as my second crime novel. American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine (Rutgers University Press) is a dual biography of two men I consider the ultimate political bosses in terms of power and influence: Frank Hague, master of Jersey City and Hudson County, and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the preening Boardwalk peacock of Atlantic City. (He is the inspiration for the heavily fictionalized Nucky Thompson in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.) The book has gotten some very good notices and even rated a mention in the New York Times. Echo (Black Angel Press) is my black diamond: the darkest, most hard-edged novel I will probably ever write. It’s proved to be much less popular than We All Fall Down, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s a much harsher book, but I think its heroine and her sister are the two best female characters I’ve written to date. It’s also produced the most extreme reactions of any novel I’ve written: some thought it was a knockout, but one friend resolutely refuses to say anything about it one way or the other. (She’s still willing to associate with me, so I guess that’s a positive sign.) Joyce Carol Oates was the presiding spirit for the project.
As for tagging some other writers and authors — any volunteers? Bathsheba Monk, any irons in the fire? Anybody else?
I’ve been a lot of promotional work on my latest nonfiction book, American Dictators, including a March 8 appearance at the Secaucus Public Library that should be fun.
But when I’m not writing about political bosses and labor wars, I write crime fiction of the dark, gritty variety that inhabits a territory where John Sandford, Patricia Highsmith, Georges Simenon, Jim Thompson, and Joyce Carol Oates overlap.
Those of you who are Kindle compatible will get a chance to download my two novels We All Fall Down and Echo as ebook freebies, from Monday through Wednesday. The first is a police procedural about a troubled woman police officer named Karen McCarthy, who will be making a return sometime next year. The second involves an even more troubled heroine, Theresa Costanza, and the story is a dark psychological thriller modeled after Simenon’s romans durs, or “hard novels.”
Download them with my compliments, for three days, at any rate.
My February calendar is clear (so far) but I’m back on the American Dictators promotional trail in March, when I’m set to appear at the Secaucus Public Library on Saturday, March 8, at 11 a.m. They love Frank Hague stories in those Meadowlands towns, and listeners of a certain age often have stories of their own to tell. Read all about it here.
American Dictators just got its first book review. It’s from the Star-Ledger, and it’s great:
“A smartly written chronicle studded with serio-comic vignettes, a narrative of greed and violence, and the thorough research of an author who clearly relishes his subject.”
“Hart mines this trove artfully and seductively. He knows Jerseyans have a certain fascination with Jersey-strong miscreants. American Dictators is enhanced by such tidbits as the explanation of kickbacks to each machine (Hague preferred the term “organization”) by municipal workers.”
Just finished my first official newspaper interview to promote American Dictators, which will appear in the Jersey Journal in advance of the Jersey City Library Book Festival, just around the corner on Sunday, Sept. 15. The writer, Chinedum Emelumba, got a lot of history poured into her ear, and it’ll be interesting to see how much of it ends up in the finished story. I also got in a few plugs for my upcoming second novel, Echo, of which more anon.
Say hello to the spanking new second edition of my first novel, We All Fall Down. You will note that the new cover is not only much spiffier, it also capitalizes on the nice things the New York Post and The Star-Ledger said about the book when it came out. Not only is the cover better, but the interior text has been reformatted for a cleaner, tighter look. This is a book you can display with pride on your shelf, your coffee table, and your beach blanket, where it will cause all the other beach reads to slink away in silence. I’m serious. Buy the book, take it to the beach, and see what happens.