The Current – Thursday, February 4, 2010 By Tess Nacelewicz
Main streets lined with classic colonial homes, picturesque harbors filled with fishing boats, trees ablaze with color in the fall. Those are some of the images that New England evokes in many people’s minds. But to Joseph Souza, a South Portland crime fiction writer, New England also is “a fascinating backdrop for crime.” Souza, who grew up in Massachusetts, said New England has a rich history, a diverse population with a range of classes and cultures, a unique geography and a challenging climate – all features on which to build a good crime story. “For a writer of this genre,” he said, “you couldn’t ask for a better place to live.” So it’s not surprising that for a crime story Souza wrote for a new anthology, he drew on his childhood experience of growing up near the historic Quincy Quarries in Quincy, Mass., – birthplace of America’s large-scale granite quarrying industry. His story, “The Devil’s Dumping Ground,” features two old friends playing a suspenseful game of golf on a course built over some filled-in quarries. Souza’s story is included in “Quarry: Crime stories by New England Writers,” a new anthology published by Level Best Books. The book is on sale locally at Nonesuch Books in the Mill Creek Shopping Center in South Portland. On Feb. 10, Souza and three other writers with stories in the book held a reading and book signing event at 6:30 p.m. at the South Portland Public Library. The authors will answers questions and talk about the craft of writing. In advance of that event, Souza took the time to talk to The Current about writing crime fiction, working on the docks in Boston, and why golf can drive one to murder.
The Interview with Joseph Souza
Q: The name of this anthology is “Quarry,” and your crime story features the Quincy Quarries in Quincy, Mass., – near your childhood home. Is that a coincidence, or is there any connection to the name of the anthology and your story?
A: This story had been percolating in my head for some time. I’d read how the quarries were filled with the leftover dirt from the Big Dig. A lot of kids died jumping off those dangerous ledges, and I remember reading in the Boston Globe where a father was quoted as calling them “the devil’s dumping ground,” which eventually became the name of my story. So when Level Best put out a call for submissions to their seventh anthology, named “Quarry,” I knew that I had to write it. When I sat down at the computer, the story practically wrote itself. The competition to get published in their anthology is pretty fierce, so I’m glad they liked it.
Q: Probably not a lot of crime stories feature a tense game of golf between the two protagonists. What inspired you to set your story on a golf course?
A: The nature of the story dictated the setting. After the developers filled the quarries with 12 million cubic yards of Big Dig dirt, they turned around and received a contract to fill in the gaping holes. Much of the granite used around Boston came from those quarries, including the Bunker Hill Monument. What sits atop it now is a luxury golf course called Granite Links … Oh, and I’m an avid golfer and if that sport doesn’t drive one to murder then nothing will.
Q: You were the winner of the University of Southern Maine’s Andre Dubus Award for short fiction in 2004 for your story “Loss Prevention.” Was that a crime story also?
A: “Loss Prevention,” which was published in (the anthology) “Words&Images,” was more of a traditional literary story, but it did involve a crime. If one thinks about it, most great literature involves a crime in one form or another. “Crime and Punishment.” “Lolita.” The list goes on. Take the Bible, which is the greatest crime and redemption story of all time, and begins with a stolen apple and punishment, then proceeds to Cain murdering Abel. Crime stories these days vary widely and run the complete gamut of themes. In fact, many of the stories in “Quarry” are fascinating because of their subtlety, range and finesse, choosing to hint at the commission of a crime rather than explicitly showing one.
Q: How did you come to embrace the crime genre?
A: I have a degree in criminology and history from Northeastern University. I had a stint with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and have always been fascinated with the mob and other acts of deviance. Before I started writing crime fiction, it seemed to always pop up in my writing anyway. So rather than fight it, I decided to embrace the genre. And I’ve discovered that some of the best writers are crime writers. Robert Parker, George V. Higgins and P.D. James come to mind as authors who can hang with the best of them.
Q: What do all good crime stories have in common, would you say?
A: All good fiction essentially starts with the writer’s ability to tell a good story and hook the reader in. I think the best crime fiction gives the reader psychological insight about a character’s behavior, detailing the complexities that cause them to commit a criminal act in the first pace. The best also have an ability to tell a story between the lines – a nuanced story within a story – and to do it in a way that allows the reader to walk away with a fuller, more complex understanding of human nature. We are all capable of committing crime, and it is that shared flaw (some might say that emanates from original sin) that resonates in us and makes us so human. That most of us are capable of such acts, but choose not to commit them, makes us curious about those who do. It is why so many people find crime writing irresistible.
Q: You and other writers in this anthology are all New England writers and your stories are in regional settings. Is there something about New England that makes it a good backdrop for crime stories?
A: New England’s rich history makes it an enviable place to live if you’re a crime writer. The complexity of the people and the clash of different cultures and classes provide a rich vein of material. Then there’s the way in which immigrants settled in New England and formed blocs that competed against other blocs for jobs, status and political power. There’s the diversity of architecture and the geographical range, and let’s not forget the climate. All of these factors make New England a fascinating backdrop for crime. For a writer of this genre, you couldn’t ask for a better place to live.
Q: You now live in South Portland. How long have you lived there and what drew you to make your home in that Maine city? Do you think you’ll ever write a story set in Maine or even South Portland?
A: I’ve lived here for eight years. It’s a great place to raise a family. As for writing stories set in the area, I have and will continue to write more.
Q: You’ve held a wide variety of jobs: dock worker, paralegal, and cab driver and in the 1980s you even were an intelligence analyst in the organized crime department of the Drug Enforcement Administration. How have these past experiences influenced your fiction?
A: I worked on the docks of South Boston for seven years, and this was when Whitey Bulger ruled the criminal underworld while his brother presided over the Massachusetts Senate with an iron fist. The characters I met on the waterfront where some of the most colorful and street-savvy people one could imagine. Gangsters, low-level hoods and young toughs were ubiquitous figures. It was a gritty and eye-opening place, and you had to be careful. My various jobs have influenced me on many levels. Working for the DEA, I worked on the Pizza Connection case. We helped convict members of a Sicilian mob that imported cocaine and heroin into the United States via pizzerias. As a paralegal, I worked extensively on the case that formed the basis of the movie “A Civil Action” starring John Travolta. Unfortunately, I represented the bad guys, which is why I decided not to become a lawyer.
Q: What are your hobbies and interests?
A: Family life keeps me active, with two kids playing sports year-round. I love playing golf, though my game is murder. Running road races helps keep me in shape. And when I can, I try to squeeze in some writing.
Q: What else have you written and do you currently have a new writing project under way
A: I’ve been an editor for publications. I’ve been published in smaller literary journals and online magazines around the country, won some awards here and there. At the moment I have several short stories under consideration at various magazines and anthologies. I’m a member of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, and the Mystery Writers of America. Being in a supportive writer’s group helps immensely. I try to write a short story every month for them to rip apart, which helps me become a better writer. Currently, I’m three-quarters into a crime novel set in Boston, which I hope to shop around for a publisher come fall.