Steve Bassett - A Gangster War and Three Murders in a Decaying City
Steve Bassett was born and raised in Newark’s crime-ridden Third Ward and, although far removed during a career as an award-winning journalist, he has always been proud of the sobriquet Jersey Guy. He has been legally blind for almost a decade, but hasn’t let this slow him down. He received three Emmys for investigative documentaries, and the California Bar Association’s Medallion Award for Distinguished Reporting on the Administration of Justice. As our Author of the Day, Bassett tells us all about his latest book, Father Divine's Bikes.
Please give us a short introduction to what Father Divine's Bikes is about.
Father Divine's Bikes, a finalist in the 2018 International Book Awards (American Book Fest), paints a gangster war, three murders, a gun-toting paperboy, and the numbers racket into a dark mosaic that exposes the underbelly of 1945 Newark, a decaying city. Two altar boys are seduced into this corrupt world from which there is little hope of escape. They fail to imagine the tragic fate that awaits them. During Steve Bassett’s tenure as an Urban Affairs investigative reporter for the Associated Press, he covered urban unrest extensively. In 1967, Newark was devastated by one of the deadliest race riots during that turbulent decade. More than twenty persons were killed and entire neighborhoods reduced to ashes, including the one where he grew up. When he returned to Newark and walked up Springfield Avenue, he was sickened by what he saw. Everything was gone. His book exposes the bitter origins of this tragedy.
Why did you pick 1945 Newark, New Jersey as the backdrop for your book? What drew you to this time and place?
I was born and raised a Catholic in Newark’s crime-ridden Third Ward and, although far removed during a career as a multiple award-winning journalist, I am proud of the sobriquet Jersey Guy. Polish on my mother’s side and Montenegrin on my father’s, with grandparents who spoke little or no English, my early outlook was ethnic and suspicious. I witnessed as a very young boy the second great migration of blacks from the South and how the war-time jobs had disappeared, leaving behind joblessness, poverty and growing crime. All races were affected. Unlike the Depression when the government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided work and dignity for the jobless poor, no such programs existed after the war. As a result, even a crime as seemingly petty as numbers running offered an escape, despite the consequences.
How much research did this book require from you to make the history ring true?
Although Father Divine is a metaphorical figure in my novel, his International Peace Mission Movement is not. This required a great deal of research while at the same time limiting the perception of who he was and what his movement accomplished as viewed through the eyes of the novel’s characters. My 35 years as a journalist included stints as a police reporter in three disparate cities: Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and San Francisco. This made street-level research a lot easier while at the same time I had to make sure that the book was not just another prosaic police procedural work of fiction. I’m confident that it isn’t, and from the reviews that have been coming in, I believe that readers also feel I succeeded.
Readers report that your descriptions of the settings were very vivid, referring to the book as a cultural experience. How did you pull this off?
This was by far the easiest aspect to accomplish. Although I was a kid during this time, I nonetheless lived the experience. Father Divine’s Bikes discards any notion of nuance, there is no room for subtlety. The narrative and dialogue had to be raw and uncompromising if the novel was to succeed. The characters in the book lived in a world where even a hint of political correctness (PC) would be impossible to imagine. For many of them, being abrasive and threatening provided the necessary armor for them to survive in an environment where each encounter could lead to a punch-out, or something worse.
How is this book different from your regular murder-mystery?
As I said earlier, every attempt was made to insure this was not a formulaic police procedural book. Instead, I concentrated on character, time and place, depicting an era seldom touched in-depth, fiction or non-fiction. I wanted the reader to understand that even back in the 1940s, crime was a layered phenomenon that transcended all races and classes: teenagers gladly became numbers runners, often the first step into a world of crime; corrupt city officials turned blind eyes on tenement fire traps owned by slumlords; crooked cops on the take with the mob would murder if so ordered; mobsters turned an honest pawnbroker into a pornographer; and prostitutes openly plied their trade, but only if their gangster bosses said so.
Say this book ever gets turned into a movie, which actors would you like to see in the roles of your characters?
They’re all dead now. It would be presumptuous of me to put out an A-List. Many of today’s male and female actors would be more than able to translate the narrative and dialogue of my book into meaty character profiles.
For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?
First, if you haven’t already discovered it on my website (https://stevebassettworld.com/ ) I have been legally blind with macular degeneration (AMD) for more than a decade. This is my second book completed during this period. My first book, Golden Ghetto: How the Americans and French Fell In and Out of Love During the Cold War, was traditionally published by Red Hen Press under its Xeno imprint. There have been some wonderful advances in computer magnification and voice activation, so combining them makes it possible for me to read, but it is very slow and laborious. Therefore, probably 80% of my reading is actually listening to voiceover tutorials on my computer and audiobooks, mostly those supplied by the National Library for the Blind BARD program.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I revel in the fact that despite my poor eyesight, I can still think, create and write.
Talk to us about your writing routine; what’s a typical writing day for you?
As I said, AMD adds a complication to a craft that is never easy in the first place. I’ve been blessed to have Chris as my assistant for more than eight years. First when she was a relative neighbor here in New Mexico, then when her husband’s work took them to Texas, and for the past two years after they took up residence in Southern California.
Typically, our work day begins as follows. First, we ensure that Log-Me-In, our remote connection, is in place, then we connect audio using Skype, then we are ready to go. The hook-up process only takes a few minutes, barring, of course, the uncertainties that crop-up with the internet. We never see each other, all strictly audio connection, but when it is working well, it is as though Chris was taking dictation in my office. We edit and rewrite on the fly, and this is a process that often requires a lot of cutting, pasting, deleting, and moving entire paragraphs and pages as called for by the ever-changing narrative and dialogue.
At the end of the day, we have a rough draft that Chris sends to my printer. Each night I give it to my wife, Darlene, an excellent reader and editor for her to tear apart. Darlene is the founder and president of A Room Of Her Own Foundation (AROHO), which over the past fifteen years has become one of the most important creative sites for female writers and poets. She devours more than one hundred manuscripts each year, so my copy is mere child’s play. I also review that day’s manuscript in my office with a magnifier that has voice prompts. As you can see, writing under these conditions can be extraordinarily rewarding when it results in a completed manuscript. Father Divine’s Bikes required five years of work.
I hope that what you’ve just learned about me will be passed on by your readers to sight-impaired and legally blind aspiring writers and poets who have been hesitant, if not outright terrified, with taking that first step. Believe me when I tell you that was my starting point. I urge readers to visit my website, and see what you can accomplish even when the world around you is constantly shrinking.
What are you working on right now?
The rough draft of the sequel to FDB is seventy-five percent complete. Payback – A Love Story, will be the second book in the Passaic River Trilogy. I expect to have it ready for publication in the early spring of 2019. The plot for the third novel, along with its characters, has already been blocked. When completed, the trilogy will be a mosaic depicting chronologically the decay and fall of Newark, a once proud city that two decades later would be torn apart by one of the bloodiest race riots of the 1960s.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I’ve already gone through my writing horizon for the near future. Readers can learn more about me and my work, at my website: https://stevebassettworld.com/ The site includes links to various articles I’ve written, and if readers want to know what I sound like, there’s a one-hour Jessie’s Coffee Shop interview they can listen to.