By Aaron Brown
With his new novel, Narrows Gate, author Jim Fusilli has blazed a path that may open up a bold new outlet for writers to share their stories. He’s done so by becoming the first writer to sell a book to Audible (a large audiobook publisher and distributor) without the book first appearing in print. And it’s fitting that the book treading this new ground is one described as “outstanding in every way” and “a big, broad-shouldered novel, equal parts Ellroy, Puzo and Scorsese.”
Narrows Gate is an epic set in the first half of the 20th century and it springs from the Italian-American community of a fictionalized Hoboken, NJ, where Jim Fusilli was born and raised. Among the principle characters are an Italian-American crooner, a bevy of gangsters, military men and intelligence operatives, assorted Hollywood types — and two young friends who must choose which path to take to escape the dangerous environment in which they live.
Your new book is the first that Audible has bought that wasn’t first available in print. Can you describe how this came about and what you think it could mean for the industry?
I’d worked with Audible on “The Chopin Manuscript” and “the Copper Bracelet,” the ITW serial thrillers, and was very impressed with their editorial judgment. I was having trouble finding a focus in the early drafts of what became “Narrows Gate,” so I asked Steve Feldberg for advice. He gave me excellent notes. When I incorporated them into the next draft, creating a new, more ambitious book, I sent it back to him and we made a deal. Very straightforward.
It’s my opinion that this is a great time to be a storyteller, and by presenting “Narrows Gate” as performance piece with two narrators, one of whom is the award-winning actor Joe Pantoliano, Audible seems to be saying they’re ready to offer us another medium through which to tell our stories. To be the first is an honor.
Narrows Gate takes place in Hoboken, NJ, which is also where you were born and raised. With that in mind, will we get to see a glimpse of some of your actual experiences played out within the novel or is the story a total work of fiction?
Narrows Gate is a fictionalized version of Hoboken. It’s entirely a work of fiction, though the characters are very familiar to me. Hoboken was a rough town back then and I was a Teamster while I was in college. The guys I worked with told stories of their childhood, which is the era in which much of the action of “Narrows Gate” takes place. They gave me a sense of what it was like.
Also I suppose you’d find aspects of my personality in the three lead characters, Sal Benno, Leo Bell and Bebe Marsala. When we were recording the promotional material for “Narrows Gate,” Joe Pantoliano turned to me and said, “You’re Leo Bell, aren’t you?” That surprised me. I didn’t think it was that transparent.
Narrows Gate has been said to describe “the men who run the mob and those who can’t escape its pull” and has also been compared to the works of Puzo and Scorsese. Can you describe how you so fully immersed yourself within the world of the mafia?
It’s a sad truth that if you’re Italian-American, you are confronted with the Mafia. You try to avoid it, but you can’t. I learned about the mob as a kid not only reading the Daily News, but hearing stories in the neighborhood. Then came “The Godfather,” which is such an iconic work. For “Narrows Gate,” I did a ton of research — countless hours in the New York Public Library; and there’s a fantastic multi-part series by Norman Lewis on the history of the Mafia that ran in the mid-‘60s in The New Yorker that was a brilliant piece of journalism. But I kept going back to those guys I worked with in the trucking company and the stories I’d hear as a kid. They always seemed so epic and melodramatic – and I think you could use those words to describe “Narrows Gate” in scope and tone.
Since your book takes place in the first half of the 20th century, can we expect to see some familiar historic figures pop up within the story?
Growing up as an Italian-American in Hoboken, of course Frank Sinatra was a major influence. Bebe Marsala may remind people of him, just as Eleanor Ree might remind people of Ava Gardner, Carlo Farcolini of Lucky Luciano, Cy Geller of Hyman Roth, Guy Simon of Artie Shaw, Frankie Fortune of Joe Adonis and so on. But my characters are fictional. You do meet Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Sweets Edison in the novel. I wanted to pay direct tribute to the jazz giants of the ‘40s.
In addition to writing novels and working as the rock and pop critic for the Wall Street Journal, you also found the time to serve as the project editor for The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet, two ITW sponsored collaborations between some of the world’s greatest thriller writers. Can you describe some of your experiences and the challenges of putting together such an exciting and unique project?
It was a fantastic experience. I’m sure people have heard me say this before but once Jeffery Deaver got us rolling I didn’t do much but collect the chapters, ensure a consistency of style and pass the finished manuscripts onto Audible. I was working with the best thriller writers in the business and they were all thoroughly and completely professional. No egos, believe me. They were in service of the story and the readers. A great lesson for me as a writer.
During your time as the rock and pop critic for the WSJ, I’m sure that you’ve met countless singers and musicians. Can you share any interesting experiences from this time with us? Any icons that you’ve met who were different from what you had expected?
If you’re a journalist who’s serious about music and achievement, you quickly learn that almost every rock star is different than his or her public image. The Journal reader doesn’t read me to learn about celebrities. They know I write about music and musicians – that’s the relationship we have. In the past two weeks, I spent time with Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards, and spoke with Elton John on the phone. These are willful, gifted people of significant achievement and distinctive personalities – as are many of our readers – so I’m there to understand how they work and then tell their stories in such a way that entertains and informs. I’m completely humble about it: I’m the conduit between the reader and the artist and his work.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books/authors?
I’ve been reading Jill Jonnes’s non-fiction books. She’s a very clever storyteller. I read just about all of Willa Cather’s books during the past two or three years, and some of Haruki Murakami’s works. I’m entering a Kazuo Ishiguro phase now. I read for my Journal job. I just finished Keith Richards’s autobiography, which is about the best book I’ve ever read by a rock musician. I’m reading Quincy Jones’s book now. As we speak, I’m preparing to spend some time with him. I read genre too, but I don’t like to say who I’m reading. Inevitably, I’ll omit someone I admire, a friend, and I don’t want to do that.
Do you have any advice for aspiring (or struggling) authors out there?
Write the book only you can write. I published five novels before I learned that. Work on your craft. Think of the reader always. Don’t be discouraged: It’s difficult to become a novelist. If you’re willing to work on your craft, be humble in service of the story and keep at it, you can succeed. Trust yourself above all others.
What can we expect from you next?
The Audible launch is the priority now. That’s my focus. I suspect, given how it’s presented as a performance piece, we may find an audience beyond those who enjoy audiobooks. So I’m waiting to see what happens before I commit to what I’ll do with “Narrows Gate” next.
I want to do another big book set in the ‘60s, perhaps even in Narrows Gate – I’ve published several short stories set there and it’s a very viable setting in many eras. But in the short term I’m developing another series. It bridges the gap between thrillers and mysteries. At least that’s what I’m aiming for. I think a new series will be next.
Jim Fusilli is the author of six novels. In 2009, he was editor of, and contributed a chapter to “The Chopin Manuscript” and “The Copper Bracelet,” the ITW-inspired “serial thrillers.” In 2010, his story “Digby, Attorney at Law” was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of Award and a Macavity Award by Mystery Readers International. His “Chellini’s Solution” appeared in the 2007 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories. He is also the rock & pop critic for The Wall Street Journal.