PAYBACK – TALES OF LOVE HATE AND REVENGE
Steve Bassett (2019)
Reviewed by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (9/19)
About Steve Bassett:
Talk about far-fetched, in getting from back there to here, I meandered along a circuitous path that hardly resembles your usual stodgy curriculum vitae. 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. As a very young boy I witnessed the second Great Migration of Blacks (African Americans)from the South and how the war-time jobs had disappeared, leaving behind joblessness, poverty and growing crime. All races were affected. My childhood escape was from the mean streets of Newark’s notorious Third Ward. My mother died of misdiagnosed spinal meningitis when I was seven, then began six years with a physically abusive father that ended when Catholic Charities came to my rescue. That started five years of orphanage time at two Catholic institutions. After high school, it was off to the Army for two years.
As a natural iconoclast, I joined the dwindling number of itinerant newsmen roaming the countryside in search of, well just about everything. Sadly, our breed has vanished into the digital ether. After three newspapers, and a six-year stint as an urban affairs investigative reporter for the Associated Press, I jumped over to TV news. But not before I returned to my stomping grounds in Newark after the 1967 riots that torched much of the city and left twenty-six people dead. Walking up Springfield Avenue, I discovered that a prosperous Black (African American)commercial artery had disappeared, all gone. How and why did it happen, and most of all, when were the seeds for this urban disaster planted and allowed to grow? It was way back then that my Passaic River Trilogy began to take shape.
There were three Emmys for investigative documentaries, and the California Bar Association’s Medallion Award for Distinguished Reporting on the Administration of Justice for my documentary, “Mexican Prisons – Justice or Tyranny.” Another Emmy-winning documentary, “The Abused Woman,” caught the eye of Ashley Books, resulting in the publication of my book, “The Battered Rich,” an in-depth study of marital abuse among the affluent, a topic rarely touched at that time. And to my surprise, has been used for psychology research at several colleges and universities.
Another hurdle awaited me when I made the transition from straight news to author. I was stricken with premature macular degeneration. During three of the five years it took to complete my book “Golden Ghetto: How the Americans and French Fell In and Out of Love During the Cold War,” I was diagnosed as legally blind. It took another three years to complete “Father Divine’s Bike,” the first of my “Passaic River Trilogy.” And now, another three-plus years of editing and rewrites to complete “Payback – Tales of Love, Hate and Revenge,” the second book of the trilogy. My books are hopefully an inspiration to thousands of the sight impaired who dream of a life of writing.
My enduring gratitude goes out to the dedicated therapists at the Veterans Administration Tucson facility for sight impaired veterans. New living skills had to be learned and, in my case, mastering of voice activated computer programs without which none of this would have been possible.
I’m currently kicking around a high-desert spread in New Mexico with my wife, Darlene Chandler Bassett, and Cal, the smartest, most demanding and most protective Airedale in the world.
Hi Steve, welcome back to Reader Views. You have a new book scheduled for release soon – Tell us about “Payback: Tales of Love, Hate, and Revenge.”
“Payback,” as you know, is the second book of my Passaic River Trilogy. The setting is 1946 Newark, New Jersey, one year later than the first in the trilogy, “Father Divine’s Bikes.” FDB dealt with the urban problems that arose immediately following World War II but were either ignored or kicked under the rug amid post-war euphoria. In “Payback,” the characters have become acutely aware of these problems and ask themselves why in the hell did we fight this war in the first place.
What inspired the storyline behind this second book in your Passaic River trilogy?
I realized that today’s endemic urban problems didn’t arise in a vacuum. So, after a great deal of research, I decided to see if there had been one period in our history when we could have halted the gestation process. I discovered that we had a brief window of opportunity, but we never opened it and let the fresh air in. We’ve been choking ever since.
The story opens with a grisly scene involving the disposal of a body to a fiery grave, there were also two bodies found in the Passaic River. Who were these victims?
They were members of the German-American Bund, a strict doctrinaire organization with tens of thousands of neo-Nazi American citizens who shared Hitler’s racist beliefs.
And the killers appear to be victims themselves – what’s their story and how did they fall into cahoots with the mysterious madman, Mister Rache?
They were only victims in that they had fallen under Mister Rache’s hypnotic spell, and once seduced, found it impossible to back away from the murderous mission to which they were assigned. Mister Rache sized them up as ideal acolytes for his holy mission when they were members of the U.S. Army’s liberation of the Nazi extermination camp at Dachau. He saw in them the hatred for the Nazis that he was looking for.
Who is the German-American Bund? Can you give our readers a bit of historical background about the group?
The Bund was born in the early 1930s when Hitler took control of Germany. As Hitler’s strength increased so did the size of the Bund. They had become strong enough to be an international embarrassment to our country. The Bund’s membership included all societal classes, and because of its size, made headlines from coast-to-coast. More than 18,000 Bund members in brown shirt uniforms and swastika armbands gave the Zieg Heil salute at a rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Bund camps, usually in pastoral country settings, were created to instill in German-American youth Hitler’s doctrine of hatred, not only for Jews, but also for American democracy. In cities like Newark, where the Bund was very strong, it boycotted Jewish businesses, at times even fire-bombing storefront shops and pillaging others in order to put them out of business. The outbreak of World War II and Hitler’s declaration of war began the Bund’s death spiral.
You have a wonderful ability to engage the readers with your characters, often providing an intimate relationship with each one. Like Cisco for instance – he has a tough guy persona at the office but personally he is going through a rough patch and you show the reader how he deals – through his love of Spanish Baroque art (and a mistress). How do you create your characters? Do you have a profile sheet for each, or do you use another process– what goes into your character development?
Since this is the second book of my trilogy, character development for most of the main characters was already in place. A main thrust with my characters is that none of them are all good or all bad, we are all innate contradictions. I want the reader to accompany the character on his or her journey. As in FDB, female characters are very important to the story, but from a much different perspective. Women are no longer dealing with wartime shortages and rationing, and separation from their loved ones. Now they are sizing up the world around them and the reader shares in their conclusions. For example, we follow Grace De Marco’s transformation from loving wife to hate-filled, revenge-seeking, adulterous woman.
Who is the most interesting character development-wise in “Payback?”
Muriel, the six-year old orphan given up by her hard-pressed mother after her Canadian Air Force husband was killed in action over North Africa. Muriel, a blonde, blue-eyed beautiful girl, supplies the glue that joins together several of Payback’s most important characters. Having spent five years in two Catholic orphanages myself, I understand how easily a sense of loss, and hardly understood feeling of betrayal by the adults around you can emerge. To compound Muriel’s uncertainty, she is about to be adopted by a rich and powerful couple whose cruelty to Muriel is ignored by a church that has been counting their big-buck donations for years.
Which character are you least likely to get along with and why?
This is a tough one. Hugo Manfred Franke stands out from several unpleasant characters. He and his wife, Honoria, are the couple who are seeking to adopt Muriel. Franke is a racist in an organization that developed the poison gas that killed millions of Jews, who at the same time can play the smiling hypocrite as he points out his firm’s contribution to the American war effort.
Murder, racial tension, corporate greed, sexual dalliances, a marriage on the ropes, child abuse, gangsters, mind control, a mysterious madman, a corrupt church – as engaging as your characters are, your plotlines are equally intense! What’s your secret for incorporating so much action into a plot without overwhelming the reader in too much information?
If I were to describe my writing style, it would be minimalist. After more than thirty-five years as a journalist, words are precious. The axiom of a well-written news story will contain the five W’s, “who, what, where, when, and why.” A news story, even one of only one hundred to one hundred and fifty words, must contain these elements if the reporter is to reach his readers. Because Payback is a novel of character, time and place, I’ve added another dimension to the five W’s. It is the eternal “how?” How was it possible for all of the elements to come into play? What was the environmental imperative that forms the basis for Payback’s story?
How do you keep your plots unpredictable without sacrificing believability?
I did not want to dumb-down the narrative. In Newark, so many forces had come into play immediately after the war, joblessness, poverty, crime, housing shortage, official corruption and racist slumlords. I had to tell the story without turning Payback into a populist manifesto.
Are there certain parts of the story where you took more creative liberties than others?
The reader does not have to be an historian to realize that my M.L. Kraus chemical conglomerate is a fictional representation of I.G. Farben, the German company that developed zyklon-B, the poison gas used in Nazi extermination camps throughout Europe. Fictional characters give flesh and substance to the M.L. Kraus story without putting them into implausible situations. Standard Oil and DuPont both had long and profitable histories with I.G. Farben, and they both shared the same racist proclivities. Standard Oil even supplied Hitler with their secret aviation fuel formula that made it possible for his fighter planes to reach the high altitudes necessary to attack American bomber formations. It’s not a stretch that both companies would file amicus curiae in favor of I.G. Farben.
There is a definite “noir-ness” to your writing. One of my favorite lines is in the very beginning, “There was not a hint of Hollywood good looks between them.” What were some of your efforts in developing such a genuine tone?
The Passaic River Trilogy is a collective noir story. Perception is the key, how we look, what we wear, and especially how we talk are important. The dialogue has been carefully researched. I found that right after the war, a trend that began in the early twentieth century, slang and profanity has transcended class boundaries. This added a dark element to everyday conversation, Political Correctness was nowhere in sight. For my work to be honest, it could not be sanitized.
As a reader, it was exciting to dig into “Payback: Tales of Love, Hate, and Revenge,” so quickly after finishing “Father Divine’s Bikes.” How soon after you published your first book did you begin writing your second installment of the trilogy?
Both books were in progress at the same time. To many this might seem strange, but while piecing together all of the elements for FDB, I continually jotted down ideas that would be more appropriate in a second book. Hence, when I sat down to begin outlining Payback, I had several pages of scribbled notes from which to cherry-pick.
How did your experience writing “Payback” differ from writing your first piece of fiction, “Father Divine’s Bikes?”
It sounds crazy, I know, but it was both easier and more difficult. Easier because the overall theme for my trilogy had been established and most of the main continuing characters were in place. Harder because I had to lift the characters from an environment that relied strongly on time, in this case 1945, and place them in a rapidly changing environment one year later. This necessitated creating a host of supportive characters who interacted logically with established characters. In short, there had to be a reason for creating them.
How much of the story came as a surprise to you as you were writing? Did any of your characters end up doing something you hadn’t planned on, taking the story in a new direction?
Yes. I had to glue a lot of loose ends together, and the orphan girl Muriel provided that glue. Totally new plot twists came out of the blue. These enabled me to fashion a believable outcome for Hugo Manfred Franke and his wife, Honoria. It required important narrative and plot revisions for me to be satisfied with the development of two other important characters, Lieutenant Cisco and Grace De Marco.
Were there specific things you learned while writing “Father Divine’s Bikes” that you incorporated into the process for “Payback?”
The scribbled notes and plot lines that surfaced during the writing of FDB provided new information that although tempting, could be better used in the sequel.
What do your family and friends think about your writing? How do they support your writing career? How did it feel sharing your fiction work with them for the first time?
I consider myself very fortunate. My family and friends have been very enthusiastic, but only after overcoming their initial astonishment over how dark and un-PC my writing is. My daughter went so far as to say, “Even at your age, you still have sex on your mind.”
“Payback” is scheduled to be released the end of November 2019. What kind of feedback have you received from your pre-release audience?
Generally, very good reviews. Some take exception to the dialogue and racial tendencies of certain characters, forgetting that we are talking about character’s time and place more than 70 years ago. This was before President Truman integrated our Nation’s Armed Forces and Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. In many ways, ancient history.
I’m getting way ahead of the game now but I’m curious as to what you have in store for readers with the final installment of the trilogy. How much of the story do you have fleshed out and what kind of timeline are you looking at for the final book?
The third book is also set in Newark, one year later, 1947. Key characters were outlined in the first two books of my trilogy. Again, this will be a book of character, time and place with female characters at both ends of the good and evil spectrum. During the war, women had taken over many jobs that were once held by men, some of them required brute physical force. They were not about to go back again to redeem subservient positions. In 1947, they were still flexing their muscles, and in Book Three of the Trilogy, the reader will see how some of them pulled it off.
Thanks so much Steve, it’s been a pleasure as always!
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