One Bite at a Time




Thursday, April 28, 2016

Twenty Questions With Charlie Stella



Charlie Stella is not afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve. (Or under it, as his Buffalo Bills tattoo proves.) Got into hockey a few years ago and adopted Rangers forward Ryan Callahan as his own personal player. The Rangers, clearly unaware of this attachment, traded Callahan to Tampa Bay that spring. Fuck the Rangers. Charlie not only shifted his allegiance to the Bolts quicker than Hillary Clinton can change a position, he went to Florida to see them open the next season in person. Met Callahan’s parents. Still keeps in touch with his mother. That, my friends, is a fan.

Charlie’s been busy of late, getting an MFA and ghostwriting James Guiliani’s memoir, Dogfella. His newest book is a return to the organized crime tales he writes better than anyone. Tommy Red drops today from Stark House and Charlie took time from his frantic schedule of feeling the Bern to submit to the dreaded Twenty Questions.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Tommy Red.
Charlie Stella: Tommy Red Dalton was born the day Laura Lippman wrote me about her need for a quickly written short story for Baltimore Noir. I had been playing with Tommy’s dialogue in my head for a long time, but never came up with the right circumstance for his character. I promised myself I’d write a novel with Tommy Dalton several times and started a few times, but it wasn’t until I was in the MFA program when the idea for a workable novel hit home. We did our summer residency on Star Island, off the New Hampshire coast. It’s an environmental island, very artsy oriented, and hell to an aging curmudgeon used to real beds, air conditioning, coffee dark enough so you can’t see the bottom of the cup, daily showers, etc. Carrying 330 pounds around didn’t make it any easier to swallow Shutter Island/Botany Bay. I’m sure there are many people who love the place. I’m not one of them. I thought lock-ups in the Toombs were more accommodating. I wrote an opening scene while I was there that survived the several years since and remained the start of the novel. It’s a retired dirty cop spewing his (my) feelings about Star Island to the head of a crime family. He spots a guy in witness protection on the island when he dropped his wife off for some decoupage classes. I had lot of fun with that scene and it’s what I prefer to read when I do the reading stuff.

Basically, Tommy Red Dalton is a hit man with zero conscience when it comes to a job. He has three daughters and ex-wife from hell. Early on he’s proposed a job from a middle man (his best friend) to take on a piece of work for the mob—take out the wiseguy in the witness protection program the retired cop spotted on that New Hampshire Island. Tommy has a problem at home he never conceived of—his ex-wife told their eldest daughter he kills people for a living. He has to lie and lie big to his daughter, but he’s put aside coin for her and her sisters in the event things go sour. He goes about the business of his job, but the mob tries to clear the bases with anyone involved in the hit. Tommy is big on revenge, God bless him. Things get messy (the modern mob is not known for its efficiency). I did have some fun tying in my newfound love of hockey thanks to you and a former colleague at work, Sue Bennet. I managed to get her daughter a Brian Boyle autograph when Ann Marie and I went down to Tampa last year to see the first few Bolts games. Actually, Ann Marie went over to Boyle because we were in a bar watching a Bills-Cheatriots game and I know Boyle is from Boston. I was afraid he might hammer me for wearing my Bills gear. Tommy Red features an Ovie and a Callahan in the novel, some reflections on the SOB who traded Callahan too, Glen Sather.

OBAAT: Whoa. How did a nice Canarsie boy like you get roped into a Baltimore anthology? Not that you don’t have the chops for it, but Baltimore?
CS:  Having never been to Baltimore in my life, after Laura asked me for a contribution to the anthology, I gave it about 10 minutes of thought and came up with the year 1969. I was 13 in 1969 and very into sports. I was still busy playing the board game Strat-O-Matic solo; keeping the stats was as much fun as research projects. 1969 was a real bad year for Baltimore sports teams, especially the two that were very heavy favorites. The Jets upset the Colts and the Mets upset the Orioles. I’m pretty sure the Knicks did in the Bullets in the early rounds of the NBA championship that year as well. Anyway, I had the rhythm and cadence of Tommy’s dialogue in my head and started writing an opening scene mindful of the fact Tommy had to be somewhat likeable, yet dirty. I knew by the end of the story that I had to write a novel with this guy.  Laura actually helped me with some of the Baltimore dialogue – pronunciations like “Erioles” and the beer they drink there (I forget it now). She helped out with some geography as well (Gunpowder River, if I’m not mistaken).

OBAAT: Back to Tommy Red, how much did you have to cut? How did you do it? Delete scenes, remove sub-plots? Characters? Did you save the stuff you got rid of on the hard drive in case it comes in handy later?
CS:  With Tommy Red, I went wild and cut back afterward. Sometimes I go berserk with plotlines; the downside to letting characters take you where they want to go. A friend helped me see the light … as did my wife and editor.


OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
CS:  We do often trip over ideas. That happened when my wife and I watched the documentary about Deep Throat called Inside Deep Throat. We looked at each other afterward and said, “Next book.” It was—Johnny Porno. Because of the present day atmosphere, it was time to finish the Tommy Red novel. It was a challenge to finish because the MFA program took me way out of the loop. I can write a crime novel in six months, but this time it took much longer. At one point, Tommy Red was way longer than it wound up being. The friend mentioned above, Gavin Borden, gave it a read and told me it was out of control. He was right. I’d come close to an ending, then start a new project, etc., and eventually decided it was time to return to the novel. I made a big push two years ago to get it done and finished it pretty quick once I refocused. The character development never changed. I knew Tommy Dalton very well and was anxious to spew some social and political rants through him. Nothing about him changed, except the very last paragraph. I had to change that on the advice of the boss, Ann Marie, and my editor, Merle Drown.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Tommy Red, start to finish?
CS: Forever, but mostly because I was experimenting with several different projects, both literary and theatre. Tommy Red, start to finish, took 4 years, but that was my fault. I could’ve finished it in a year had I gave it my full attention.

OBAAT: Where did Tommy Dalton come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
CS: He and I share a very deep conviction about not taking shit from employers. Tommy’s a killer. I never did anything like that, but his conviction in not having to take shit to make a living; not having to go along to get along, I’m all in with that. My street days often provided me with “fuck you” money. I was wearing two hats for a long time, but when my legitimate work found me pitted against a bully and/or arrogant boss, I played my fuck you card with exceptional passion. Tommy has a passionate sense of justice, weird as that seems, and I equate that to my passion about politics and a few other issues I feel are important. He’s unlike me because he’ll shoot you in the head for crossing him. These days I’ll go to Momma Stella and tell her to put the malocchio on you. Back in the day, when I witnessed employer abuse, I took revenge on any asshole who got off screwing with workers. My first crime novel, Eddie’s World, tells some of that story. I did that a few times in my life, go after someone I regarded as a bully boss, but only once did it involved violence. Nothing too bad—just a shove (and tumble/fall)—a reminder that not everybody will walk away without a fight. I did that for as a favor for a friend and I don’t regret it.

I once wanted to be a lawyer (what my political science degree was really about), but after witnessing my Mom’s malpractice case firsthand, I knew I didn’t have the temperament. I can argue with anybody, and for as long as they like (and similar to that great George C. Scott line when he was playing Patton {paraphrasing}, “He’ll, I’ll start a war and make them think it was their fault.”), but having to watch lies on stage (in a courtroom) is something I can’t just watch. There were times during my mother’s trial it took all the restraint in the world not to grab the doctor’s defense attorney by the throat and squeeze until his head burst like a fucking boil. I watched him get sarcastic with doctors lying about my mother being blind on the right side of both her eyes. His side had doctors saying she could see fine. The doctor she sued was found guilty of malpractice, but the jury didn’t believe it was the cause of her stroke. You try a case in a conservative jurisdiction (Queens or Staten Island) and the jury may think you want “free stuff.” And, as in the case of Eric Garner, they may let a cop kill a guy without an indictment, even after a video of him choking the dude and then grabbing his crotch and laughing at those filming him is all over the news. So it goes.

And of course my mother back then and to this day is blind on the right side of both her eyes – no peripheral vision for more than 40 years now.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Tommy Red set and why was this time and place chosen?
CS: It’s a modern day tale. I use several different locations to tell the story, including: Manhattan, Staten Island, New Hampshire, Baltimore, Atlantic City (with a dip into Philadelphia) and Ft. Lauderdale. I had to use Star Island since I wrote that chapter first. The New York setting has to do with the mobsters I use, but it also has to do with where my mother’s nursing home is located on Staten Island—the geography was a perfect place to start the ending of the novel. I knew that the first few times I drove there to see her. There’s an Eric Garner-like situation that happened before the novel starts, and both the mobsters and some of the cops spew about it. I wanted some political pontifications from the characters this go, so what better time period than the present? I have strong opinions about what happened on Staten Island. So does Tommy Red and a few other characters. Likewise, the anxiousness to go to war by those most likely to never have to do so (or send their kids) was something I wanted to deal with. Tommy does that.

OBAAT: Stepping back a bit, I’m glad you brought up Johnny Porno, as it’s the first book of yours I read that really summed up the niche you own: showing organized crime not from the Vito Corleone level, or even Tony Soprano, but from the point of view of the guys at the bottom of the food chain, who may only be doing this part-time because he can’t get anything else. Tell us a little about why that angle appeals to you so much, because you’re showing a side few apart from George Higgins ever messed with.
CS:  It’s the angle I lived and new very well. I’ve said it many times, not everybody involved in organized crime is a thug, nor do they think they’re mobsters. In fact, most know better. They’re pawns compared to wiseguys, and although it’s a bit overwhelming at first (when you first meet a heavyweight in that world), if you have half a brain, you quickly come to your senses. Mob money is capitalism the way Republicans claim they want it—without rules. It’s all about the duckets, dinero, the fazools, the sheckles, etc., and the guys at the bottom are usually just trying to get ahead. Many sell swag, put out street money, take action, run football tickets, scalp concert tickets, etc., to make ends meet.  They have families and a need for extra income. That doesn’t mean they’re all angels, or that what they do with the extra gelt is always beneficial for their families, but for the most part, it’s what I found. I knew plenty of guys with college degrees doing the little shit that paid their mortgages or car insurance or helped with the kids’ college tuition, etc. The problems for these guys is when they spend too much time around wiseguys, when they get too enamored with a life that can’t end well. It could be an accidental crossing of paths with the wrong people, and/or something intentional. Shit happens. The key to avoiding trouble is NEVER reach out for a favor. That’s usually the beginning of the end.

OBAAT: It’s generally accepted now that LCN ain’t what it used to be. First, is that correct? Second, does that make it easier or harder to write the kinds of stories you write, looking up at the bosses from underneath?
CS:  I think LCN as we used to know it is dead in the water, although it obviously isn’t completely dead. I think it’s just a tougher sell to anybody seeking the extra excitement/cash in their life. Seriously, who the hell can LCN attract these days? Can’t be the smartest people in the world. Thugs are a dime a dozen and always will be, but the government deals were and remain very effective. Who the hell could trust anybody on the street today?

I wrote an essay for my German publisher titled: The Mob: The Perfect Eating Machine in the Perfect Environment—America. It’s an anthology from writers around the world on organized crime around the world.  It’s getting tougher and tougher to make the mob interesting enough for myself to keep writing about it. I’m not sure if I’m bored with it, or just anxious to play around with other projects. On the other hand, it’s the characters who find themselves up against the mob, for whatever reason, that can keep my interest.

OBAAT: Not to get political, but I’d like to go back to that part about 99% of cops being heroes. I’ve never been a cop, but I know some well, and I am a member of another group of “heroes,” namely veterans. It’s no insult to say not all cops, nor all veterans, are heroes. We draw these folks from every walk of life, so there are good traits and bad traits in all of them. I think we do cops a disservice with the hero worship that’s currently in vogue just as much as those on the other side who think every cop is only out to find some minority to fuck with. So, where’s the question? Oh, yeah: what are your thoughts on that?
CS:  I agree. I know many retired cops and active cops who are as decent as anybody else I know. I also know the job itself is not only thankless, it’s a terrible position to put oneself in—getting shot and/or winding up under indictment for something as mundane as a traffic stop. I don’t blame cops for pulling guns, but I don’t like the shoot first, ask questions later mentality. I think the present day police culture is completely out of control. Frank Serpico wrote a great piece about the Eric Garner situation for the Village Voice called: Nothing Has Changed. I’d agree. When a woman like Sandra Bland gets pulled out of a car because some midget motherfucker with a Napoleon complex has to play tough guy, well … I think you know where I am on that bullshit.

So, I don’t like hearing the “they take their life in their hands every time they go to work.” A lot more civilians are killed every year than are cops. Not that it’s a contest, but let’s calm our jets on the danger issue. I guess what pisses me off most about law enforcement has a lot less to do with the police than with the district attorneys/prosecutors. Cops watching other cops doing bad shit should be fired and/or arrested, end of story, but especially when they’re caught watching bullshit happen on video. Prosecutors are dependent on the police to make their cases, so there’s a very direct conflict of interest when it comes to cops being indicted. I agree with Bernie Sanders on this: if a cop is suspected of committing a crime, any crime, special prosecutors should be assigned. I think you’d see more indictments and eventually less bad shit.  When I see Patrick Lynch, the head of the PBA in New York City, defending cops no matter what, it makes my blood boil. As I said up above, there are some wonderful people doing that thankless job, but it’s nothing near the politically correct 99% of a police force anywhere.

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
CS: The 330,000,000+ Americans, at least those who can read. Honestly, I don’t have an intended audience. I hope people who enjoy street dialogue, dark humor, don’t mind violence, and accept the fact that not all mobsters are thugs or morons, and that not all cops are heroes.  I just don’t worry about audiences at this stage. I once tried to write a young adult novel for that audience and my agent told me it wasn’t edgy enough. I figured, “Okay, I’m done with that.” She was 1000% right, by the way, as I’ve come to learn from reading some young adult novels.

OBAAT: You read as much literary fiction as anyone I know and I don’t want to get into the whole “literary vs. genre” thing, but a question comes to mind. I took a workshop where someone asked the difference between literary and genre fiction, and the instructor replied that in literary fiction the plot is driven by the characters, while in genre the characters are driven by the plot. Now, obviously, in good genre fiction it’s not that blatant, but what do you think of that opinion in general?
CS:  It’s all horseshit. MFA programs do themselves and their students a HUGE disservice playing the elitist game. Good writing is good writing. I’ve read a lot of stuff I didn’t particularly like and/or hated from both sources … and I’ve loved plenty of stuff from the same sources. One thing I rejected wholesale from the MFA program was the prevailing assumption that writers have to describe the wallpaper, the flowers, and the smell of perfume, etc. I love John Updike’s writing, but I can get dizzy blind and fucking numb reading some of his passages in a few of my favorite books by him (the Rabbit series). I’m talking about having to reread a paragraph three and four times, which pisses me off no end. I don’t give a fuck about the landscape on the road along a highway. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a personal preference, but I much more prefer the meat of both a character and his/her story. That said, what John Steinbeck did at the start of each chapter in The Grapes of Wrath was brilliant and appropriate—setting the background and mood of the story he was telling. Some writers can pull off descriptions without my noticing. I don’t mind that. Others make me want to rip the pages out of the book.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
CS: I’m pretty sure you’ve asked me this before and I hope I don’t conflict too much with my prior answers.  I was on a major literary kick for the past several years. Everything from Russian novels to French, English and American. I have way too many favorites to begin to list, especially without offending someone I forget to name. My literary heroes include Richard Yates, John Steinbeck, Richard Bausch, Alice Munro, David Payne, etc. … My crime writing heroes include, George V. Higgins, Lynn Kostoff, Ben Whitmer, Craig McDonald, Patricia Highsmith, yourself, etc. (and please, anyone I might’ve mentioned previously in these lists, don’t be offended). I’m also a big Somerset Maugham fan, and my favorite foreign author remains Dostoyevsky. Non-fiction authors include Rick Adams Carey, T.J. English, and the guys who penned Black Mass together, Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. Individual novels I especially took a liking to include The Suburbs of Heaven (Merle Drown), Breaking Wild (Diane Les Becquets), God’s Dogs, Mitch Wieland, the Snow Island trilogy by Katherine Towler, and one by a former classmate, The Trees Beneath Us (Darren Rome Leo).

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
CS: Okay, I think this is also a replay, so I’ll give it my best. I was a decent writer as a kid, but I was a general fuck-up in school. I was a better class clown than student, but I think it was the stuff that drove my very pragmatic old man crazy—I was a daydreamer, a romantic at heart, a kid who could sit in a classroom for five hours and not take in a word because I was in my own world. I read a lot of sports stuff as a kid, including the Daily News sports columns and Mets recaps. And when I played Strat-O-Matic solo, I was announcing the games in my head. Eventually, I started writing my own columns about the Strat games I was playing. I was once a runner-up in a Catholic school essay contest, except nobody believed I wrote my essay. Eventually, when my parents broke up and we said goodbye to the American dream, I started writing stories after a short stint in a nuthouse. After being introduced to Camus’ The Stranger in a high school English class, I wanted to write. The problem was I had ZERO confidence in anything academic and/or creative. When I went to North Dakota and took an English class from Dave Gresham, I was hooked. I took a creative writing course from him the following semester and the bug was in place (not only to write, but to educate myself). I couldn’t stop myself from writing afterwards, although I took several detours along the way. My wife says it’s why I’m still alive and/or not in prison. She’s right, but teachers have always made the difference in my life, whether they came in the form of coaches, instructors, street rabbis or educators. I owe a ton to teachers.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
CS: The original casa Stella (my mother and father’s house in Canarsie) had a basement loaded with swag that fell off the back of a truck weekly. It wasn’t hard learning the economics of capitalism moving forward. My old man used to take me on his runs moving booze and/or posters he had knocked off (he was a lithographer and a hustler and a half). He’d teach me the ropes and tell me a few stories about my Mom’s relatives (real deal tough guys). Once I was divorced from my first wife and had three kids and my mother to take care of, I worked two and three legitimate jobs to make my nut(s). I had two full time jobs: one as a union window cleaner and the other as the supervisor of a word processing center for PaineWebber. I also worked as a word processing temp on weekends. I was going to burn out, so I turned to what I’d learned from the old man and some others. It wasn’t long before I was scooped up and had new friends. At one point I was putting out street money and partnering in a bookmaking operation. The wealth of street knowledge from those years can fuel crime novels forever, but it’s the stories behind the stories that interest me most--the whys. Why does a guy decide on the short money? Why become a criminal? Is it economics? Is it insecurity? Is it because he sees how rigged the system is and he has no path forward without playing a game that makes him very uncomfortable? Is it greed, pure and simple? Is it a Robin Hood wannabe complex? A combination of those things is what I think does it. I know insecurity was a big factor in my engagement with crime. You’re told you’re a fuckup enough times, you start to believe it. I was determined to be a better criminal than my old man. Hey, nobody EVER accused me of being the sharpest knife in the drawer. Confidence building can be a motherfucker, but it’s essential to success, and success can only be measured in how a person feels about themselves. It has a lot less to do with coin and a lot more to do with character. I’m still learning, but I’m more than happy to be on a much better foundation than 20 or 30 years ago. I can look back on those days and joke about them now, but I also see them as so much wasted time and energy. I could’ve been a much better parent, a more involved parent, rather than a provider. The relationship my son Charles has with his daughter can bring tears to my eyes. I watch them together and I’m ashamed at how selfish the world I chose actually was. I wasn’t around for my kids the way a parent should be. I forked over coin or took them places that made me feel better about myself for the short time we were together. Those are mistakes you don’t get to take back. My son is doing it the right way. Busts my buttons, really. Those are mistakes Tommy Dalton has made, by the way, except he did hard time and was out of his kids’ life. Momma Stella prayed daily I wouldn’t wind up in a similar Tommy Red situation—in jail for a number of years. Those experiences, coming from a broken family, dealing with insecurities that drive a person in several different directions before they find themselves, repeating the mistakes of the father, etc., I think that’s what fiction is all about, whether its crime or literary. I remember a lot of great times as a kid, but then our world was turned upside down when our parents divorced. And then it really turned to shit when we went from fairly well-off from dirty coin to living in a shithole apartment on child support and whatever my mother was earning as a data processor. We went from owning two homes to renting an apartment in a neighborhood where we were the minority. I was taking 2 trains and a bus to school every day. It sucked at the time, but wound up being grist for the mill when I was ready to write.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
CS: I’m a seat of my pants motherfucker, although I do keep track of where am at in novels, plays, etc., by using a Table of Chapters (Contents) in word documents, a direct benefit of being a word processor. I never work too far ahead of myself, although I sometimes know an ending long before I know the journey toward it.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
CS: I used to get up very early and write new stuff, then go to work and wait until I was home again to edit whatever I wrote early in the mornings. Now that we have two young dogs, they tell me when it’s time to get up, so I don’t do the early morning writing anymore. Where I used to walk and read, I now work on stuff during my lunch break at work, and then edit it when I’m home after work. But I continue to write between periods of hockey games I’m watching and throughout the weekends. I work a 4-day week, so my Monday’s off are essential. It’s when I do the bulk of my writing for the week. The crimp in both my reading and writing these days is this fucking election year. As you know, I put a ton of time, money and passion into Bernie Sanders’ campaign. I don’t think I’ll get another chance at someone like Bernie before I die and I don’t want to waste the chance that someone with integrity and genuine compassion and intelligence might fade away and leave us with the same shit we’ve always had, at least in my lifetime. This year, politics is taking me away from a lot more reading and writing than it should. I even changed my FB profile picture from me in my Cally jersey to a Bernie button. Once I have a finished draft, I let it sit for a few months at least and move on to something else. If I still have a jones to rework the finished draft, I do it. I’ve learned patience in my old age, but my favorite part of the process is rewriting/editing.

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What are you looking for in an ending: “happy” or “satisfying?”
CS: I can live with happy or sad, but I prefer open endings in either case. No matter where a protagonist winds up, if there’s more to his story yet to be told, and if it’s a well told tale, I’m all in.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
CS: Slut Wife Porn IV is my priority to date. Theatre is how and where I started writing. I’ve had three plays produced long, long ago in small NY theatres, and I’ve written a few plays since being published as a crime novelist, but nothing I felt worth pursuing. I’ve written a few drafts of SWP6 and I’m close to settled. I know the exact ending and have it down. It’s a full length, two-act play, and it involves three brothers, their sister, and another peripheral character. One of the brothers is a successful lawyer and Ayn Randist, so to speak, one of the brothers suffers from dissociative identity (multiple personalities), and the other brother is just out of the joint after 8 years for manslaughter. The sister is doing porn, but it was indirectly arranged by the older brother. The newly released convict brother is out a few days when he discovers what his sister is doing, and … the sparks fly. I’m rewriting the last two scenes over and over. That said, I took a look at the start again this morning at the gym between deadlifting and bench sets and was still editing. Like they say, you’re never really finished. The deadlifting I did this morning is now killing my fucking back as I type this. Some guys never learn.

OBAAT: So where can we get a hold of Slut Wife Porn I through V? I’m asking for a friend.
CS:  If I told you I’d have to kill you … and your friend.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Really a great interview! Please come on my blog and write whatever you want to about this book. Sounds fabulous. I am ordering it as we speak.