Saratoga author Jeff Durstewitz, writing as Joe Fegan, has published his second novel, The Devil's Room.
The book follows a bestselling American author who moves to Ireland. After busting into a walled-off room in his new home—despite warnings from the locals—he unleashes his "life accountant": the Devil.
Durstewitz's inspiration for the book stems from a 40-year friendship between the author and his former professor-turned-close-friend Campbell Black (who wrote a string of successful thrillers, including the novelization of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Campbell Armstrong). Though Durstewitz took three fiction courses with Black during his time at SUNY Oswego—in which he says Black didn't "teach" but "expertly advised"—he never pursued fiction. Instead, he opted for a career in newspapers; retail (he opened the Ben & Jerry's in Saratoga in 1983); political and corporate public relations; and eventually financial writing and editing. (He also co-wrote Younger Than That Now - A Shared Passage From the Sixties, an award-winning memoir published by Bantam Press in 2000.)
But when Black invited Durstewitz to his rehabbed manor house built on the foundation of an old castle in Ireland, Durstewitz says, an odd, walled-off room with a bizarre legend in the house sparked an idea.
"Campbell had always bugged me to write fiction, and I was sitting in that vast haunted house one night, and I thought ‘My god, here's a plot; here's a novel with a built-in title, The Devil's Room," Durstewitz told Saratoga Living.
Durstewitz worked on this story for the next two decades, with Black feeding him anecdotes about Irish ways like "begrudgery" and Irishisms like "yoke," meaning "thing." When he didn't know what two Irishmen would do in a given situation he had made up, he called Black. And when he thought he had finished, Black's critiques sent him back to rework the manuscript.
This back-and-forth between the author and Black wasn't anything new; Durstewitz says that back in college Black introduced him to the writing life. "Watching him work and hanging out with him and having him tell me that he thought some of my stuff was pretty good—that was a huge thing," Durstewitz says. "It was almost like a young musician hanging out with John Lennon or someone like that. ‘Hey, you're pretty good, do you want to be on my next album?' That kind of thing."
To Durstewitz's great disappointment, Black didn't live to see the final product: His friend died in 2013. But it was that event that spurred Durstewitz to finally finish the book, completing it as a tribute to his friend and his dark thrillers. "I wanted to write a comedy in his style—suspenseful, but with laughs instead of mayhem," he says.
On the day of Black's death, Durstewitz had an experience not unlike the supernatural occurrences he writes about in The Devil's Room. He'd driven out to a property he'd once owned, an old farmhouse on Bain Road in Argyle. "That house will be the 'bane' of your existence," Durstewitz remembered Black saying about the property some 20 years beforehand. It turned out that, at literally the same time Durstewitz had been thinking about his friend, he'd passed away.