(North Salem, N.Y.) --Joel Fishman writes about dead people.
The book editor, turned agent, turned North Salem shop owner (of the horse saddle variety), turned mystery, thriller and horror novel writer may call that a tongue-in-cheek comment, but there is truth to it.
“The overarching condition of humanity and, indeed, of all life on earth is that everyone and everything is mortal,” he said. “And I think that anybody who is pursuing any kind of art is confronting that, and it’s just a little bit more upfront in a genre like mystery and thriller. But it’s always there.”
Fishman, 54, released his eighth novel in eight years this summer, “The Prisoner of Hell Gate,” under the pen name, Dana I. Wolf. He chose to use a pen name because his supernatural horror novel is such a departure from his previous mystery/thrillers, which were all grounded in “the rules of the real world.”
While “The Prisoner of Hell Gate” does center on ghosts haunting an island in the East River, it tells the real life stories of Mary Mallon, known as Typhoid Mary, and one of the worst maritime disasters in American history – the General Slocum disaster of 1904 killed more than 1,000 of roughly 1,300 passengers on board.
After spreading typhoid fever as a cook in New York City, Mary was, in fact, quarantined against her will in 1906 on North Brother Island, which the city used to quarantine people with contagious diseases. It was later used as a center to treat drug addicts. While she swore revenge against George A. Soper, the sanitation engineer who forced her into quarantine, she never got it.
Four decades after her death, Soper’s great granddaughter sneaks onto the creepy, long-abandoned island, off-limits to visitors. In the supernatural world Fishman conjures in “The Prisoner of Hell Gate,” Mary finally has her chance at revenge.
The former North Salem resident talked about his new novel at the Ruth L. Keeler Memorial Library Saturday, Oct. 1, to a crowd of old friends, acquaintances and fans.
“I still have a ton of friends in North Salem,” he said, laying the foundation for a self-deprecating quip. “And the wonderful thing is that, the expression distance makes the heart grow fonder… I impose my humor upon them that wears thin after days, but I’m only there for a few hours.”
Without missing a beat, Aaron Taylor, who attended the library event, said, dryly, “I think that’s true.”
“Joel and [his wife] Pam were part of the community for so many years, both in Bedford and here in North Salem,” said Taylor, who joined them for dinner at a mutual friend’s house that same evening. “It was a loss to have them move away and it’s great to have them back.”
Fishman and his wife lived in North Salem for 10 years, and Bedford for 10 years before that. During that time they owned North Salem Saddlery, now called Bevel Saddlery.
“We just liked the feeling of North Salem a lot,” said Fishman’s wife, Pamela Biddle, who was a social worker for Yorktown High School for years before starting their business. “We liked the open space; we like the fact that people are so in love with their horses. It just felt comfortable to us.”
The couple sold the business around 2007 and moved to Pennsylvania to get closer to Biddle’s family.
“It was like a sign from the forces of the universe that I should take this moment to try to pursue this thing that I always felt was a compelling interest for me,” Fishman said of writing novels. “I just kept putting it off.”
After graduating Tufts University, the English major wrote one novel, but couldn’t sell it.
“And then I gave up on it for literally decades,” he said.
Living in Manhattan, Fishman was an editor for DoubleDay, a book publisher founded in 1897 that had been the largest in America at one time. He started his own literary agency, but sold it to start a business-to-business dot-com. Like so many others, it “crashed and burned during the whole dot-com collapse.”
After so many years of helping others get their writing published, Fishman said he feels reborn as a novelist – a move, he pointed out during his talk at the library, also made by famous American author E.L. Doctorow.
“I’m blessed to be in a position to do it,” he said. “I don’t like to live with regrets. Every decision I’ve made seemed to be the right decision at the time. Some things work out, some things don’t. I think if I had to do it over again I probably would’ve started sooner… But, it’s never too late. I’m still here I have my faculties and I have my life experiences that I can apply to these things and it’s a fun thing to do.”
Long-time friend Paul Bucha, who also attended Fishman’s talk Saturday, had a hand in spurring a series of books he published about the NYPD bomb squad – the series is called Bomb Squad NYC.
“He wanted to meet the real bomb squad and I happened to know a guy,” he said, referring to the head of the FBI’s bomb squad, who then connected Fishman to the right people in New York City. “What I was really impressed with was he was serious about doing the research, and so that part of it would stand scrutiny.”
Like Bucha, many of Fishman’s friends think his books are tailored to become television shows or movies.
“The Prisoner of Hell Gate” was originally conceived as a movie. Fishman has written some screenplays and is working with a consultant to get them in the right hands.
“I continue to poke around, I continue to write novels and continue to hope one of these days someone is going to turn those novels into movies or television,” he said. “But, meanwhile… I decided, if I have an idea for a television series, a standalone potential motion picture, I’m just going to pursue those things independent of the novels and see what happens.”