FATHER DIVINE’S BIKES
Review and Interview by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views
Steve Bassett was born, raised and educated in New Jersey, and, although far removed during a career as a multiple 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. Polish on his mother’s side and Montenegrin on his father’s, with grandparents who spoke little or no English, his early outlook was ethnic and suspicious. As a natural iconoclast, he joined the dwindling number of itinerant newsmen roaming the countryside in search of, well just about everything. Sadly, their breed has vanished into the digital ether. Bassett’s targets were not selected simply by sticking pins in a map. There had to be a sense of the bizarre.
First there was The Long Branch Daily Record on the New Jersey shore. Mobsters loved the place. It was one of their favorite watering holes. A mafia soldier was gunned down not far from the paper. Great fun for a cub reporter. Curiosity got the better of him with his next choice the Pekin Daily Times located in central Illinois. Now a respected newspaper, it had once been the official voice of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920’s. Pekin had saved its bacon during the Depression by tacitly approving two time-honored money makers, prostitution and gambling, earning an eight-page spread in Life.
Next it was the Salt Lake Tribune. The Pulitzer Prize winner was then, and still is, considered one of the best daily newspapers west of the Rockies. Bassett’s coverage of the invective laden contract talks between the United Mine Workers and the three copper mining giants led to his recruitment by the Associated Press.
Bassett’s series for the AP in Phoenix uncovered the widespread abuses inherent in the Government’s Barcero program for Mexican contract workers. The series exposed working and housing conditions that transformed workers into virtual slave laborers, forced to buy at company stores, live in squalid housing and pay illegally collected unemployment taxes that went into the pocket of their bosses. The series led to Bassett’s promotion and transfer to the San Francisco bureau.
His final AP posting was in San Francisco. Bassett’s five-part series on the Wah Ching gained national attention by exposing the Chinese youth gang as the violent instrument of Chinatown’s criminal bosses.
Then came CBS television news in Los Angeles, three Emmy Awards for his investigative documentaries, and the prestigious Medallion Award presented by the California Bar Association for “Distinguished Reporting on the Administration of Justice.” Along the way he found time to author “The Battered Rich” (Ashley Books) exposing seldom discussed but widespread marital abuse among the affluent.
His book, “Golden Ghetto: How the Americans and French Fell In and Out of Love During the Cold War,” published in 2013 by Red Hen Press under its Xeno imprint, traces the sixteen-year history of what was then the largest U.S. Air Force base in Europe. It pieces together a love affair that defines trust, hope, renewal, prosperity, and finally the discovery that it was all a Cold War delusion.
His first fictionwork, “Father Divine’s Bikes,” is a historical, noir crime novel set in 1945 Newark. A gangster war, three murders, a gun-toting paperboy, and the numbers racket punctuate the tragic story of two gritty altar boys adrift in a world of poverty, crime and hopelessness. The boys live in a world ripe for grifters like Father Divine and his promise of heaven on earth.
Bassett currently resides in Placitas, New Mexico with his wife Darlene Chandler Bassett.
Hi Steve, thank you for joining us today at Reader Views! Tells us, what is Father Divine’s Bikes about?
“Father Divine’s Bikes” was my first attempt at fiction after thirty-five years as a journalist. Its critical acclaim surprised me, winning as it did the 2018 solo medal winner New Apple Literary Award for E-Book General Fiction; finalist 2018 International Book Awards (American Book Fest) in Genre Fiction; and finalist 2018 Best Book Awards (American Book Fest) in General Fiction.
“Father Divine’s Bikes” 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.
What inspired you to write the story behind the Passaic River trilogy?
During my tenure as an Urban Affairs investigative reporter for the Associated Press, I 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 I grew up. When I returned to Newark and walked up Springfield Avenue, I was sickened by what I saw. Everything was gone. My book exposes the bitter origins of this tragedy.
What is it about this era that fascinates you?
My research shows that this period in our nation’s urban history has rarely been covered in-depth in either fiction or non-fiction. Father Divine’s Bikes exposes the dark underbelly of 1945 Newark, like other cities, profited greatly during World War II, but were unable to cope with the peace that brings joblessness, despair and crime.
I hadn’t heard of Father Divine before reading Father Divine’s Bikes. How did you develop your story idea from this historical figure/movement?
I chose Father Divine as the ideal metaphorical figure around whom to develop a novel of time, place and character. As a kid, I witnessed how his promise of “heaven on earth” could be so seductive to both the black and white urban poor. His restaurants offered healthy meals for a dime, grocery stores with the cheapest prices, and cheap, ultra clean hotels with fresh linen, soap and showers for twenty-five cents a night. These were Father Divine’s gifts you could actually reach out and touch, not rewards in the hereafter.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures/times?
Well, first of all, you have to do your research. Although my book is fiction, it is strongly implanted on a foundation composed of historical figures and some events that actually happened. These include mobsters such as Longy Zwillman and Richie “the Boot” Boiardo.
I keep referring to your story as historical fiction, but it really crosses over a couple of genres. How would you classify Father Divine’s Bikes and what sets it apart from similar novels?
I know of no other similar novels that are in-depth studies of three generations of urban poor adrift in a world of fear and uncertainty for which they have neither the skills nor education to cope with.
One thing that really impacted me was the absolute authenticity, especially with regards to the characters through their mannerisms and dialect. Your characters are anything but politically correct, and it was refreshing to read something so genuine. I was curious to hear if you’ve had any pushback about this?
Not much. I believe in all of the reviews and blogs, there were only three that brought this point up. In 1945, political correctness was more than fifty years on the horizon. I had to make a choice whether to dumb down and tidy up the dialog and characters to meet today’s PC strictures, and therefore, present a dishonest book to my readers.
Can you tell us about a couple of the main characters in the story? What drives them?
Joey Bancik – is one of the two altar boys caught up in the numbers racket in order to put some extra money on the family’s kitchen table. He is a third-generation Montenegrin, his grandfather’s passage underwritten by the communist party because he was a battle-tested nihilist who could help spread the party’s message in America. Because his family was poor and dependent on Father Divine’s super-cheap groceries for his food, Joey, was constantly aware that many of his peers considered him a “white nigger.”
Father Terry Nolan – a young, former football player and teammate of Vince Lombardi at Fordham finds himself in alien waters when assigned to a parish in the poorest, crime-ridden neighborhood of Newark. His two years with the Marines in the Pacific provided little preparation for him to perform his clerical duties in a world of endemic corruption, fifty percent infant mortality, poverty, joblessness and where only suckers obeyed the law, and it was the mob wise guys who drove the big cars, had the fancy women, and great clothes.
Which character was the most fun to write? Why?
Mary MacDonough, a/k/a Profanity Pump, because even though she was only fourteen, she swore like a drunken sailor. When Pump got going she could rattle it out like a machine gun….And boy, could she string it all together without taking a breath. And when angry, could even make the biggest neighborhood bully back-off. For example, when one of them put his hands roughly on her shoulders during a spat, she warned him, “Never put those cock mittens on me again or you’ll be jerking off with your feet. Getit!”
And which character gave you the most trouble? Were there certain traits that gave you more of a challenge than others?
As a white author, Marvin Davidson, a black kid, is the character that gave me the most trouble to develop. I wanted to weave time and place into the development of his character. The Davidsons arrived in Newark as part of the Second Great Migration of blacks who abandoned the South for what they hoped would be a better life in the cities, particularly in the factories of the northeast. From the outset, Marvin made it clear to the white kids in the neighborhood that he was the one who set the standards for acceptance.
How closely does your finished story reflect the idea you started with? What was one thing that surprised you along the writing journey?
I had a clear idea about how “Father Divine’s Bikes” should open and close. Along the way I discovered that in order to tell the story a multi-generational approach had to be taken. This was not my original intent, with the kids taking center stage throughout. However, it became clear that in order to profile them, the reader had to know from where their motivation and action sprang. There was peer pressure, of course, but each of these kids were products of their grim environment and their family circumstances.
Did you edit anything OUT of the story?
Of course. Remember this was 1945. The flight to suburbia was only beginning, family cars were a rarity in a neighborhood of fire-trap tenements, everyday street crime ranging from the numbers to prostitution, billy-boy rent collectors, and a tuberculosis mortality rate of fifty-percent for infants in their first year. In this grim environment, the language was often course, vulgar and profane. I understood that I had to be judicious with my dialogue while at the same time giving an honest portrayal of the confrontational life “Father Divine’s Bikes”characters were forced to live.
Regarding your writing style – are you a plotter or a panster? In other words, do you outline or write by the seat of your pants?
First of all, I consider myself a minimalist. More than three decades as a journalist, especially my years with the Associated Press, taught me the value of words, adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly. I am not primarily a plot-author. Very early on I read a description of plot by W. Somerset Maugham, a great writer and literary thinker. He said a novel’s plot was merely the work’s skeleton and it was up to the author to attach the muscle, ligaments, flesh and organs. Maugham emphasized the plot did not have to be logical because, after all, we all have illogical moments that defy interpretation. That’s where I come from, so I guess you could say I write by the seat of my pants.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a writer?
I’m legally blind, with my eyesight diminishing year-by-year. This created a challenge that had to be met head-on, so I decided to turn my handicap into a strength. With the aid of computer voice and visual commands, magnification devices, and an assistant who has been with me for more than ten years, I believe that “Father Divine’s Bikes” indicates that I am pulling it off pretty well.
Which authors have inspired your own career?
I would say that Raymond Chandler, the supreme stylist when it comes to crime fiction, has influenced me the most. His advice was that a fiction writer should adopt a style with which he or she is comfortable and stick with it. James Patterson also fits that mold whether he’s writing hard-hitting crime fiction or romance. Dashiell Hammett redefined the hard-boiled crime novel, and British author, P.D. James, light years from Agatha Christie, seamlessly melds character, time and place into her novels. I learned from all of them.
What do you like to do outside of writing?
We have ten acres in the high desert foothills of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico. Just keeping up with the chores keeps me busy. My wife, Darlene, and I also have a rural property in central France that is well off the tourist track, just the way we like it. It’s called La Cure, and was once the home of the Huguenot pastor in the village of St. Colombe that was largely abandoned almost six centuries ago. The setting is rustic and remote, an ideal escape from New Mexico’s endless summer heat.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as an author?
It came from Dottie Grosser, the managing editor of the Long Branch Daily Record, my first newspaper stint. We were in daily competition with two regional dailies along the New Jersey shore and the Newark Evening News, the state’s leading newspaper. With daily deadlines to be met, she scoffed at the idea of “writer’s block.” She was tough, single minded and often profane. “Just sit your ass down and start typing. I don’t care if it’s jibberish, just get that typewriter working,” she said. “It will come to you and if it doesn’t and you miss your deadline, your ass will be out on the street.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
As I just said, just sit down and start typing. Writing, after all, is one word after another, then behold a phrase, a clause, conjunctions, punctuation and you have a sentence, then a paragraph. It ain’t necessarily easy, you just have to make up your mind that this is your calling and there is no room for empty echoes.
Steve, thank you so much for joining me today at Reader Views – it’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your work!