Q. and A. with author Richard DiLallo ’68

After a long and storied career in advertising, Holy Cross alumnus Richard DiLallo ’68 got a call from one of his former agency bosses who needed help with a new project. Seems like a run-of-the-mill request, except that the boss is wildly popular novelist James Patterson, and the project was the latest installment in his best-selling Alex Cross series, Alex Cross’s Trial. HCM chatted with DiLallo, the self-described “ham,” and got a warm, witty peek into his life as a writer and dad.

Q. First, please tell us more about the new book. We’ve heard there’s a scene in it that is taken from something you witnessed during one of your years at Holy Cross.
A. Alex Cross's Trial is not really about Alex Cross. It is a story that Alex Cross tells as a part of his family's oral history, a story of lynchings and horrid prejudice in early 20th century Mississippi.
There is a section in Alex Cross's Trial where the main character, the passionately liberal attorney, Ben Corbett, witnesses one of the many acts of hatred toward blacks in his hometown of Eudora, Mississippi. Ben is in a general store (the year is 1908) and a young African-American boy asks the storeowner for the return deposit on two empty soda bottles he’s brought back. The owner says that that rule applies only to white folks.
During Easter week of 1967 I visited a good friend and Holy Cross classmate in New Orleans. On Easter Monday we were driving his grandmother “up River” to her house in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. We stopped at a small store on the way back to buy some Cokes and sandwiches for the trip home. While we were there, a young African-American boy came into the store with two empty soda bottles. That 1967 incident was the one I used in the 1908 story in my book.

Q. Please tell us about your earliest jobs in advertising.
A. Indeed, most of my career has been in advertising. The autumn after I graduated from Holy Cross I began working as a junior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. I got this job in no small part due to John F. Devine, a graduate of Holy Cross, a friend of my father and, oh, yes, the treasurer of J. Walter Thompson. J. Walter was a huge agency, and they readily hired young folks on a sort of trial basis.

Q. You stayed there a while…moved up the ladder, correct?
A. I stayed there for a long time, ending up as a senior partner. Then I moved to DDB Chicago, where I was Executive Creative Director. DDB was, at the time, the agency for Budweiser, Wheaties, Yoplait, Aveeno, among many other brands. I was there for about ten years. Then I returned to the East to become Executive Creative Director of McCann Healthcare, overseeing their international pharmaceutical advertising. After a career of consumer advertising I detested doing pharmaceutical advertising, and my time at McCann was brief, ending in happy relief for both me and them. It was then that Jim Patterson had called.  

Q. How did he know you?
A. I had worked for Jim Patterson at J. Walter Thompson. He was Chief Creative Officer there for many years. So, we knew each other well, and he certainly knew both my talents and limitations well. Jim was an incredibly tough and incredibly smart boss. I would never have had so successful a career in advertising had it not been for his demanding training and high standards.

Q. What kind of writing have you done besides advertising copy?
A. The only non-advertising writing I did at that point were some non-fiction pieces for magazines—Glamour, Brides, even a kind of high-falutin' piece for the Jesuit weekly, America, on the concept of transubstantiation as a matter of faith. Indeed, the last piece of fiction I wrote was in 1968 for The Purple Patcher. A year later, when a commemorative issue of a Holy Cross literary magazine was put together, with some piece representing every year from 1843 on, my short story, “More Blond Than You,” about a wealthy returning Viet Nam soldier, represented 1968.  Flash forward a few thousand years, and Jim called and asked if I would be interested in helping out on a project that had run into a few snags. I did so, and it was a terrific experience.

Q. What’s he like to work with?
A. Jim, an experienced supervisor, gave very clear direction, yet he also allowed a great deal of creative freedom and flexibility. His style was not difficult to absorb: it is brief, quick and extremely urgent. And it is based on "the power of the story." With Jim, the tale is everything, the unfolding, the narrative, the story-telling. It takes a certain discipline to do things that way, but it is not an impossible discipline to develop. At least it wasn't for me. In fact, I found it really enjoyable.  Two things to understand about Alex Cross's Trial is that it is not really about Alex Cross. It is a story that Alex Cross tells as a part of his family's oral history, a story of lynchings and horrid prejudice in early 20th century Mississippi. Secondly, Jim and I do not sit in a room like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Rather, I write alone, then he changes things, he supplements, he edits, he suggests, he asks for a rewrite or he rewrites it himself. It is not a neat process, but it is a pleasant, and obviously successful process. Indeed, that is the way he works with me; I have no idea how he does it with other co-authors. For all I know, it's a completely different procedure. 

Q. Were you a bookworm at Holy Cross?
A. My passion at Holy Cross was not writing; it was Fenwick Theatre. I spent all my time there, and I was a complete and utter ham (which turned out to be beneficial to my advertising career which demands a great deal of presentation and a great deal of creating and overseeing TV commercials). I performed as Volpone in “Volpone,” as Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls,” as Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” I was, however, an English major, and it has always been just about the only thing besides theatre that I was interested in. 

Q. Do you recall favorite professors?
A. I have always felt that a superb college experience should have at least one of the following three elements: an extraordinary teacher, a heart-stopping romance or the opportunity to re-invent oneself. I did not have the latter two, but I certainly had the first—I had three extraordinary teachers who were three extraordinary friends. The first was Rev. Leonard McCarthy who taught Modern American Novel. He was as witty and clever a man as I've ever known. The second was Rev. John Walsh who taught two of the most esoteric theology courses in the history of undergraduate studies: one was called "The Oxford Movement," and the other was called "Atheistic Humanism and Christianity." I was so naive (perhaps "stupid" is the right word) that I took "The Oxford Movement" because I liked the title of the course. It turns out to be about Cardinal Newman and his view of Anglicanism and... well, as I said, esoteric. In any event, Fr. Walsh became my friend and family's friends for years to come. He buried my parents. He married my wife and me. He was a cornerstone of my life. Finally, there is Dr. John Dorenkamp, who, for me, was just about the wittiest, sharpest guy I've ever known. Through his influence I ended up reading stuff I never would have read (John Barth, Thomas Pynchon), studying stuff I never would have studied (Jacobean drama, things like The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi) and talking about stuff I've never talked about before or since (horse racing comes to mind).

Q. Which books are on your nightstand these days?
A. My favorite author is Evelyn Waugh (talk about Jesuit influence). I have recently read two wonderful new books, Jeff in Venice by Geoff Dyer and The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. I am currently reading and am blown away by a novel by Colum McCann called Let the Great World Spin. 

Q. What is home life like for you these days?
A. We are currently living back in Manhattan. My wife, Susan, is a successful lyricist and librettist. We have four grown children. Max, who went to Columbia, is a writer in Hollywood. The next three are triplets. Nick just graduated from B.U. Emma is a senior at UConn, and Jonny is a senior at NYU. Fortunately our apartment is a pretty roomy loft. I think of it as the world's largest dormitory room.  I am working on another book with Jim, and I am working on a thriller with my son, Nick.