Some people believe writers knit their yarns with heavenly assistance. A Muse takes her perch. The novel begins. Others see writers as mere recorders of events experienced, emotions felt, characters known. Something happens. The novel "writes itself." This is, of course, all malarkey.
Geoffrey Wolff has published a new novel, "Providence," that has been acclaimed in lofty terms in nearly all the major organs of cultural discernment, and to hear him tell it, the process of writing fiction is a motley one: a personal experience, a snatch of talk, a little learning, a spate of research, talent -- all of it goes into the making of the story and its language.
Wolff is 48 years old and lives in a rambling house with his wife Priscilla and sons Justin and Nicholas on Jamestown island, a short drive across the Narragansett Bay from Providence, R.I. His beard is very white. This may mean he is sage.
"A few years ago we were living on Everett Street in the College Hill part of Providence. And while I was away in California on some movie business, we were robbed. They came at night while my wife and kids were sleeping, and they took electronic stuff, a typewriter, a TV, and they also took my wife's keys. When I came back there was a stone fear in the house, and the feeling that I was an outsider, as though they'd been through a hurricane or earthquake while I was away -- and in a sense they had.
"Three weeks later the robbers came back and took what was left -- another television, all sorts of crap that could be fenced. Our lives changed fundamentally after that. For three nights we barricaded the doors and nailed shut the windows. For three or four weeks my kids didn't sleep a wink.
" 'Did you hear something?' somebody'd say.
"And then you'd hear the answer: 'I think I hear something downstairs.' "
Wolff considered buying a gun, but decided against it. Still the robberies took a nasty hold on him. He had "vivid revenge fantasies." He pictured the robbers in his mind: white, young, not poor. "Providence is not a culture of poverty," he says. "There's unemployment, but mainly it's a culture of want, not of need. Criminals in Providence take things because they want to have them."
At the time he was immersed in researching a biography of Herman Melville, something of a departure of spirit and subject for Wolff, whose earlier work was a kind of connoisseurship of defeat. "Black Sun" was a spooky study of Harry Crosby, a very bad poet with Brahmin tastes and liquor-jogged judgment. "The Duke of Deception" was a dark and loving memoir of a modern confidence man: Wolff's own father, who fibbed his way through life, ran up bad debts, financial and familial, and died a lonely, bloated drug addict in Los Angeles.
The life of Melville followed a more triumphant course; after a 20-year silence, Melville ended his life and career by writing "Billy Budd." That reversal, says Wolff, is "a sort of corrective story for me. I need it."
But as Wolff's obsession with crime continued, the Melville book waited. He began visiting the courthouse on Federal Hill. He hooked up with lawyers and cops and judges. He studied the history of Providence, the seat of organized crime in New England -- "It's sort of the pride of the city." He rode in a patrol car. He read transcripts of criminal testimony in New York's Little Italy. He visited the maximum security dungeons at Walpole prison in Massachusetts where repeat murderers are kept and once a week are "hosed down like elephants."
Wolff's wife was not quite thrilled with her husband's obsession. "She told me to get the hell back to the Melville," he says. "But the dime dropped. I figured anything that hangs around your imagination this relentlessly has to be a book."
"Providence" turns out to be about losing again: An attorney named Dwyer inexorably loses his battle against leukemia; a cop named Cocoran loses his marriage; a hood named Skippy loses his hide. The event that ties all these characters together is the robbery of Dwyer's house, a robbery similar in its weird terror to the one of the Wolff household.
What distinguishes "Providence" from most thrillers, from most novels really, is the care it takes in its language. Wolff was educated at Choate, Princeton and Cambridge, but he has "always had a low-life side. I like Bobby Short at the Carlyle, but I like the jukebox at the Penalty Box, too." A perfect mix for a book whose characters include the inheritor of a good Providence name and thugs named Skippy and Baby.
His ear is perfect in both worlds. If Ezra Pound had written a thriller, it might have been "Providence." When he was researching the book, Wolff heard police say things like "he had burglarious tools in his trunk." He heard police refer to high-top Keds as "perp boots."
"All writing is in service of trying to get the emotion exactly true. I worked at sentences like a mule in an open field, plodding carefully. Here it was the illusion of speed I was after; speed seemed to be the main figure for the book. In Providence they speak faster than they think, as if they're about to be interrupted all the time. At places like the Cheater's Club out on North Main Street at midnight the talk is loud and fast and pugnacious."
Here we meet Skippy and Baby at their burglarious work: "Baby had ducked out a backyard window, but they hadn't gone in, yet. Downside was the beast. That leash tied to the back porch was sturdy, for a big mammal. Meat-eater. Happy-side, look at the carton jammed in the trash. Sony Beta-Max, a better machine altogether than the RCA Selecta-Vision, according to Consumer Reports, but worth less on the street, maybe a dime on the dollar. Still, Sony family's a family worth getting to know."
"Downside" and "happy-side," the queer education of the thugs, all of it makes those few lines special and charges the story along its way.
"Providence" has made Geoffrey Wolff a semi-rich fellow. Tri-Star recently bought the rights for $400,000.
"I was skiing in France and at the restaurant, after the food had been eaten and the liquor drunk, they told me I was over on my MasterCard credit. And right after that I found out about the movie deal. I mean, talk about wheel of fortune!"
Wolff's taste for the high life comes from his father -- known to all as Duke, a self-hating Jew who fabricated his history of Yale and fantastic friendships. Duke Wolff instructed his sons Geoffrey and Tobias -- a novelist whose novel "The Barracks Thief" won the PEN Faulkner Award last year -- in the nuances of quality. He taught them to prefer Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald, a few good things to a truckload of trinkets and falbalas.
It was all a sham. Or at least the unimportant stuff was. Duke Wolff never went to Yale. He left Geoffrey with huge bills to pay at stores across the country. But years later, long after his father was dead, Geoffrey Wolff felt his father's legacy was instructive, interesting, human, something worth passing on.
In Paris he began writing down a few facts about his father. "Just for my sons at first," he says. "I wanted to be able to answer their questions." He had already written a novel based on his father called "Bad Debts," but it was a dispassionate work, full of skill but no self. The passion and risk would come in the writing of "The Duke of Deception," a work as true and loving as any memoir in recent years.
It was an esthetic turning point for Wolff. "I wasn't just writing because I was a writer anymore," he says. "I wrote it out of need." And it was a financial turning point. "The Duke of Deception" sold 25,000 in hard-cover; there are 300,000 paperbacks in print.
"When I made the movie sale for 'The Duke of Deception' I got a check for $50,000," Wolff says. "I had that money for exactly 10 hours. I bought a 30-foot cutter. It's my dad's legacy."
Wolff also wears his father legacy, a chunky gold signet ring with fleur-de-lis and an inscription reading "Nulla vistigium retrorsit."
"My father had told me the ring went back many generations and was 18 karat. Of course it's 14 karat and he bought it for $200 at a jewelers' near Schwab's drugstore in Los Angeles.
"When I asked him what the Latin inscription meant he said, 'Never look back.' In fact, a couple of Latin scholars told me it's really not Latin at all, but the closest meaning is 'Not a trace left behind.' My father's legacy."