Interview: David Joseph Kolb, Devil Knows: A Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century
Interview: David Joseph Kolb, Devil Knows: A Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century
David Joseph Kolb is a journalist and author. Devil Knows: A Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century is his first published work of fiction. Born in New York City, Kolb has lived mostly in the Midwest, serving as editorial page editor, city hall reporter and police reporter for newspapers there for more than a quarter-century. His freelance work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The International Herald Tribune among other publications. He is currently co-publisher and co-editor, and a columnist for, a progressive political newsletter “dedicated to turning West Michigan blue.”
The writer’s journalism has earned him high praise from readers and editors alike, and has garnered for Kolb numerous first-place writing awards from the Associated Press, United Press International, Michigan Press Association and the American Legion. In 1996, Kolb was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for A World War Chronicle, a local interest book based on a six-year collection of his editorials and reporting on the 50th anniversary of World War II, and on West Michigan’s involvement in that titanic struggle. As an Ohio University undergraduate, Kolb studied English literature and creative writing as a student of the late Walter Tevis, acclaimed novelist and short story writer, author of The Hustler and other works. Kolb lives with his wife Maxine and works from their home in Grand Haven, MI, where he is writing his next novel.
You have written a labyrinthine historical novel spanning three-quarters of “America’s first century,” as you have termed it, from roughly 1620-1697. What was the genesis of “Devil Knows”?
The novel emerged from a short story I wrote about the Quaker persecutions of the middle of that century, specifically the vile, brutal torture of three women by Puritan authorities in 1662 and their incredible rescue by an almost forgotten hero of that time, Robert Pike.
So very little has been written about that particular episode.
I had never read about it. I was actually compiling research for an historical novel set a century later when I came across an account of their ordeal in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, a most invaluable resource. From there, it was a short walk to the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier, and his classic “How the Women Went From Dover,” which was my inspiration and touchstone for the original story work, which has been incorporated into the larger novel.
So you saw the Quaker episode as the gateway into the larger narrative?
Absolutely. From the seeds of post-Pilgrim Puritanism in the 1630s, to the relentless Puritan persecution of the Quakers in the 1660s, arose the shoots of the subsequent Salem witchcraft madness some thirty years after. The trick for me, as a novelist, was to paint out to the edges of that century’s canvas, so to speak, and in doing, to create a storyline that would carry the reader through that journey.
And yet, this is your first published work of fiction. How were you able to master that “trick,” as you term it?
It’s my first published fiction, of course, but I have been writing for decades, practicing my craft while banging my head against the wall of the unpublished writer’s prison for a long time now. It’s a very tough prison to break out of, as many authors might attest, as your inability to publish is the ever-heavier stone weighing you down in the eyes of would-be publishers, who look at your history and pass on your submissions. Being passed over never bothered me much, though. I enjoy writing, I enjoy story-telling and as a career journalist, reporter, editor and columnist, I’ve had ample opportunities to tell non-fiction stories in unique and interesting ways.
Such as …?
Just one example, early in my career, an arsonist was torching houses in a rough, inner-city neighborhood and terrorizing its residents. I spent several nights with a family in that area, recounting their fears and anxieties, and the editors let me write a long account of that time – “When Night Comes to Williams Street,” I believe it was headlined. So, journalism has been satisfying in the sense of being interesting as well as a way to help people, it’s been an outlet for my creativity, and it has put food on the table for my family. Yet I was always determined to publish a work of fiction, moral fiction, especially, as John Gardner would have described it. I’ve taken up the pen many times, and have written many stories, and frankly, many of them were terrible. A few have been pretty good, though.
Did you have any mentors to guide you in the craft?
Not per se. As all writers fall under the spell of other writers whose work they admire, I emulated the style with some success without much understanding of the craft that lay behind it, beginning with Mickey Spillane and on to Hemingway in my youth. I remember Walter Tevis, a wonderful man from whom I studied creative writing in college, taking apart my efforts during a casual one-on-one lunch critique. His helpful mentoring I found very discouraging and it was a long time before I was able to draw the appropriate wisdom from what he was trying to inject through the hard shell of my youthful ego.
One would think that when a writer of the stature of Walter Tevis spoke, one would take great heed.
One might, indeed, but that someone wasn’t me. All I could take away from that waterfall of wisdom was that I was right and he was wrong, and that I was a talented genius whom this great writer was determined to crush. Nuts, I was. Mr. Tevis was so painfully correct, it hurts even to recall his words. You see, I could write these little vignettes, these little moments-of-time pieces that appear to have captured a unique insight, but these were worthless as soap bubbles. Mr. Tevis was trying to drum into my numb skull that it was the story that counted. The story. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about how well you can describe the smell of popcorn.
You mentioned John Gardner earlier. Was he among your muses in the literary field?
The late John Gardner, the author of Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues and October Light, was the absolute giant in my literary life. His masterpieces helped switch a light on in my head about the complexity of craft that lies behind the real discipline of writing fiction. I remember writing out in long-hand pages and pages of Gardner’s prose just to try to acquire the feel of what he was doing and how he was doing it, the magic, I mean, of getting inside a character’s head or understanding the set-ups to the action that follows. Gardner, to me, made every word count. It saddens me to see how his books have largely disappeared from the shelves. But then again, those shelves have been disappearing, too.
Let’s get back to Devil Knows. How long did it take you to write it?
I began the research for it in 2009, six years ago. Since then it has undergone four major rewrites and four title changes. The novel itself didn’t take six years to write. The research, though, took quite a long time, plus the book went unpublished for several years and I soldiered on in other ways, writing stories, starting a political newsletter, and beginning a second novel, which is now half-finished.
Why did you begin with a work of historical fiction? Moreover, a work of literary historical fiction?
When I began to think about what I wanted to achieve, which was publication, and when I reckoned the difficulty of achieving that ambition, I understood that I should work within the bounds of what I was most comfortable with, which was history and literature. My favorite reading growing up were adventure stories by Kenneth Roberts and his 20th century contemporaries, very popular at one time but now occupying only a niche spot among modern reader preferences. Some wonderful authors, like the late, great Patrick O’Brian in his remarkable Aubrey-Maturin series, and Bernard Cornwell with his brilliant “Warlord Chronicles” have been able to bridge that divide by merging history and literature and I wanted to follow the trail they blazed.
Writers since Hawthorne have come at the Salem story in so many different ways, including this year’s The Witches by Stacy Schiff. There seems to be no end to their re-telling.
Salem is indeed a rich vein for authors, both fiction and non-fiction, because in that first American century the disturbing themes that continue to bedevil us were laid down in our origins as a people who later became a nation. I did want the story of Devil Knows to provide readers with a greater understanding of those times and the circumstances under which such insanity as the witch hunts could flourish. At the same time, I knew I could write an exciting adventure that spoke not only to the villainy of that era, but to its heroism.
Is there one author who has influenced your writing more than any others?
This would have to be the late John Gardner, author of “The Sunlight Dialogues” and “October Light,” among many others. A great writer and a great mind. A literary giant.
Do you think the relationships between authors and readers are changing?
Absolutely! The attention of readers is increasingly being fragmented and diverted to other, more visual, distractions. As a result, they are unwilling to commit to longer, more intricate narratives unless they are assured of a smashing payoff. Hence, the presence of so many sequels and “build-on” novels.
When do you write? Do you have a routine?
I treat my writing day as I would a regular job. It’s breakfast, work, break, and then back to work after lunch until roughly late afternoon. Much of the morning is devoted to re-reading, fixing or changing my story or chapter of the previous sessions. I try to leave off at the end of the day at a place I want to return to in the morning. I rarely work at night but sometimes I do.
What about ideas for books – do they percolate for years before you write, or do you work it out as your write, or perhaps a combination of both?
I start out with an idea for a book – a broad, full-brush plan, so to speak – and plot it out for a few chapters. Then I write those out to see if it “works.” If it does, I stop and plan it out to the end, concentrating on where I want the action to lead. At a midpoint in the book, I stop again for a much lengthier consideration. During this pause, I draw in the details with a much finer brush until I am satisfied that the story as it is being told has merit. Then I go back to the beginning and re-work the “front end” to make sure it is properly aligned with where I intend to be taking things. Only then do I resume. It’s a much longer and time-consuming process than it sounds!
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“With relentless research, fascinating characters and a great storyteller’s imagination, David Kolb unravels a lingering mystery from the historical horror known as the Salem witch trials.” – Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune
“Award-winning journalist David Kolb has created an interwoven tale of the earliest days of American history. In this well-researched story he shows how the earliest inhabitants of New England fought, conspired, loved and lived in the New World.” – John McGarry, CEO, Lakeshore (MI) Museum Center
Great reviews for David Joseph Kolb’s Devil Knows: A Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century - “This is the first time I can remember enjoying a story so much while at the same time coming away from a book feeling like I’d genuinely learned something” — learn more and read more reviews.