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Interview: Philip Cioffari, Author of ‘The Bronx Kill’

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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. Visit him at his web site.

Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Bronx Kill. When did you start writing and what got you into suspense and mystery?

I began writing at the age of nine and with only minor interruptions have continued to do so. My earliest influences were mystery and suspense works such as The Hardy Boys, the Green Hornet, and the Shadow. So my love of things suspenseful goes way back. As an adult one realizes that most of life is a mystery waiting to be solved, so the love of things unfinished, fragmented, in shadow and just beyond reach has continued to fascinate me. The human condition itself is a mystery, so all fiction about human beings—genre or not—is ultimately about mystery.

What is your book about?

It is about a drowning death and the effect it has on those involved in the incident. When five teenage friends challenge each other to swim the East River from the Bronx to Queens, 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. Danny Baker, the lead character, has to confront his own guilt and responsibility, at the same time he must defend himself and his friends against the detective’s brand of vigilante justice.

What was your inspiration for it?

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. Danny, once a follower, must now become the leader, and in the process reach a level of maturity he had not attained before.

What do you hope readers will get from your book?

I hope first and foremost that the reader will enjoy the tension generated by the characters’ plight, the sense of mystery that shrouds what actually happened that night of the drowning, and the atmosphere of danger on the streets of the Bronx. In other words, I want the reader to enjoy the story, to be as interested in finding out what happens as I was in the writing of it. On a deeper level, I hope I shed some light on the way we deal with the past, particularly our regrets, how we come to terms with them, understand the truth of our behavior, and then find a way to move on with our lives.

How do you keep your narrative exciting?

I try to keep the story exciting by creating an atmosphere of foreboding. For this, I use the physical landscape of the setting, as well as the interior landscape of the characters’ minds, their anxieties and fears and regrets, their continual search for the truth. And, too, the details of the plot. I like to use both thought and action to drive the story forward. I also hold things back to keep the reader slightly off-balance. I want the reader to be as unnerved and uncertain as the characters are. I aim for a sense of unpredictability so that the reader is unsure of what is going to happen next.

Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?

Yes. I write 4-6 hours a day, on average, seven days a week when I’m working on something. Over the years, I’ve built up my tolerance for sitting at the desk. At some point, I may get to being able to spend every waking hour composing. (I hope not, though. That would mean I had no other life.)

How do you celebrate the completion of a book?

Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey.

How do you define success?

For me, success as a writer is not defined by money or even sales. It has more to do with whether I think I’ve told the story in the way I want to tell it, that the feelings I have for character, place and situation have made it to the page, and that—this is my judgment, of course—I’ve created the appropriate emotional impact, and that I’ve caught the mood and atmosphere of the world I’m writing about.

What do you love most about the writer’s life?

You get to create a world that in some way is a reflection of your own interior world, and thereby have the opportunity to objectify your emotions and thoughts in a way that—at least one hopes—helps you understand yourself better. And I love working with language, crafting sentences that both move the story along and at the same time are evocative and rich in visual detail.

Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?

My website is Philip Cioffari.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.