Monday, May 25, 2015

Twenty Questions With Charlie Stella, Author of Dogfella

Charlie Stella, The Godfather of Mob Fiction, has taken on a new challenge: non-fiction. Charlie has helped James Guiliani write his memoir, Dogfella, the story of how an abandoned dog changed Guiliani’s life from Mob enforcer to animal rights advocate and obsessive protector of dogs. Yes, I know. That’s a story too syrupy even for Disney to tell, but it’s true. How can this be? I’ll let Charlie tell you, in his own inimitable words. (Double thanks to Charlie for taking time away from his beloved Tampa Bay Lightning to sit for this interview. GO BOLTS!!)

One Bite at a Time: Dogfella is a departure for you. Not only is it non-fiction, it’s told from the main character’s point of view as a memoir. Before we get into more about that, give us a brief overview of what the book covers.
Charlie Stella: James “Head” Guiliani’s wild and crazy life; from his earliest memories to the present day. I thought I lived a few lives … James has me beat by a country mile.

OBAAT: How did you hook up with James? (And, since someone is sure to ask, is he any relation to Rudy, though I’ll understand if James is reluctant to acknowledge any blood ties.)
CS: The project came as a surprise through the SNHU MFA program I graduated from. Apparently, my agent for the book, Jeff Kleinman (Folio Literary Management) was also connected to the program through Diane Les Becquets (the director of the program at the time). He was at our senior readings and he heard my ability to curse every other word on a page … and he had an in-house project through their London office (the agent representing James) … I was contacted by him a few weeks later. He asked me to submit a few writing samples and James liked the cut of my jib (as expressed in street dialogue). We speak the same language, James and I. The Rudy thing … Big smile.  That’s actually covered at one point in the memoir … but, NO, no connection to the psychotic lunatic who loved his country so much, he ducked serving in Vietnam at every single opportunity so he could become the mayor made famous by hiring a future convict as his police commissioner. Fuck Rudy Giuliani. Take notice of the spelling. The good Guiliani, James, he rescues animals 24/7. Rudy, who I once supported back in my angst with the Democratic Party, has proved himself an irrelevant windbag. And James’s brothers, all of them, served in the military (Army and Marines), so fuck Rudy Guiliani again. (Editor’s Note: Such an elementary error would normally result in the sacking of the interviewer. However, since said interviewer is also the editor and publisher of this blog, we will settle for a harsh reprimand.)

OBAAT: How long did you work with James on the book?
CS: Wow. In the end it took us more than a year but not because we weren’t working. There was the publishing buyout, then the non-buyout, etc. We’d start and have to stop and then start again … in actual time, probably six months, although it took me a bit longer to polish it. I’d go to James’s store, The Diamond Collar, with a bag of bagels or box of donuts and we’d work a few hours at a time. I went to his house and interviewed his lady, Lena … they really do have a ton of animals there they’ve recued. It’s no bullshit about how much those two do for animals.

OBAAT: In what ways is James like, and unlike, you?
CS: The physical traits are obvious. We’re both tall, thin and handsome MF’ers … okay, scratch that. We both played in similar puddles, although his were a lot more high profile. James was with the Gotti Jr. crew out of the now infamous Our Friends Social Club in Queens (literally around the corner from the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club, John Gotti Sr.’s hangout), although one was business and the other used more for entertainment. We both can read people pretty quick (that’s a street thing you kind of learn subconsciously, I think). We both still have street chips on our shoulders, but mine has been somewhat calmed over time. James still has his, but he’s eleven years younger than me. Time may wear him down some. His dedication to animals is very real. I love my dog, don’t get me wrong, but I could never do what James has dedicated his life to do. It’s no bullshit about the time and effort (and money) involved in animal rescue. James does it 24/7 … no breaks ever. As far as different, we’re pretty much politically polar opposites (which proves people with different views of the world can co-exist, right?). James is a very religious guy. I’m a devout atheist. Of course we’re both fashionistas, but I have to admit his outfits probably look better than mine. (Unless I’m wearing my Bolts stuff … then, forgetaboutit, I’m a fuckin’ stud.)

OBAAT: Everyone would have dismissed this as a fictional story idea: mobster rescues abandoned, dying dog and changes his life. You’ve come to know James pretty well. What happened there?
CS: I’d call bullshit on a story about a gangster finding an abused abandoned dog and how it leads to animal rescue too, except I’ve seen James tear up at the mention of Bruno (the dog he and his lady found). There’s also a lot more to the story, including his addictions to alcohol and drugs, a two-year bid in an infamous Long Island prison (Riverhead) and just how much his lady, Lena, meant to his life. I know first-hand what a woman can do for a man. I was engaged in a pretty shitty life myself until I met Ann Marie. That redemption stuff really does happen.

OBAAT: How did Dogfella come to be published?
CS: I think James had a ton of exposure with the reality show that was featured on the Oprah channel. He’s become a genuine celebrity in New York and it made sense for a smart agent/agency to jump on the opportunity for a book deal. James was getting press long before the Oprah show. He’d been featured in New York newspapers a few times as well, including a great headline of James’ dog, Primo (a 140 pound Cane Corso), and former Governor Spitzer, with a headline that read: Which Dog has Fleas? You gotta love it. James also helped retrieve bodies from the towers after they were attacked. He was working construction close to Ground Zero and he spent a night helping the steel workers retrieve corpses.

OBAAT: Americans whose knowledge of organized crime is only as detailed as watching the Godfather films and The Sopranos may wonder how it was James was able to walk away and start a new life. Was he a made guy? In today’s mafia, would that have made a difference?
CS: James was what is considered a mob enforcer, someone you send to do the dirty work. (Not to be confused with a hit man—he wasn’t that.) He was also involved with his street gang, 112 (in Richmond Hill). The funny thing is, for a brief period after my first divorce, I lived not too far from where James was hanging out in Gotti Jr.’s joint. I lived in Richmond Hill with a bunch of other window cleaners (what I was doing while learning the street ropes after my first divorce). Enforcers can walk away or be excommunicated, so to speak, for any number of things. In James case, he tried to pull a potentially profitable job without letting the people he was around know about it. He was pinched and went away for two years, which probably kept him from catching a beating. Associates are earners, both legitimate and illegal, so walking away usually has to do with finances and whether or not you’re looking to pull money away from those you’re around. For James, it was both that hijacking job that he kept to himself and his inability to stay away from drugs. Going away was probably a blessing in disguise, because by the time he came out, the Gotti crew had suffered Senior’s demise and they had bigger problems to concern themselves with. For me it was much easier to walk. I left my loansharking and bookmaking behind. I went from having a very healthy cash income to being a working stiff (although I’d always been a working stiff, taking breaks from time to time to try and be a writer). It was probably a smart play on my part to always keep up with the computer world and having a work resume. Some of it was pure bullshit (my resume), don’t get me wrong, but not the jobs, just the gaps in years when I was working exclusively on the street. Now, here’s another amazing thing that connects James and myself … Dr. Salvatore Pernice … he also played (and continues to play) a big role in James’s animal rescue, but long before I met James, Dr. Pernice saved Rigoletto (our dog) … what are the odds?

OBAAT:  Has there been any interest from the movies? I know I just made fun of it as a fiction idea, but as a true story it’s fascinating.
CS: I sure hope so. I think James has been contacted a few times now. Although Oprah canceled the show after putting it on an impossible to survive spot, the show now airs via Animal Planet in several countries (for which James doesn’t get a dime—go figure).

OBAAT: Now that you mention it, what was the deal with the TV show? Oprah Winfrey Network had it on for about twenty minutes before cancelling. (I’m no TV executive, but I have to believe “finding an audience” takes more than two or three episodes. It’s not like production costs were going to break Oprah.) What happened there?
CS:  See above. They put it on a Friday night at 10:00 p.m. on a station that caters to a specific audience. Most of those who watched it, seemed to like it fine, but numbers rule the roost and without the push, there’s no way to survive. I don’t know how it wasn’t picked up, but it still may be. Time will tell.

OBAAT: You’re well-established as the Godfather of crime fiction. A couple of years ago, you attended the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. How did that affect your outlook on both reading and writing?
Listen to me...
CS:  I think you’re the only guy who says that, but it is very kind.  Initially, I wanted to have a backup plan (teaching) for when capitalism (as we know it today) finished outsourcing the industry I work in. I went with that game plan in mind. I quickly changed my mind and would probably work at McDonalds before trying to teach. I’d love to do so, make no mistake, but the bullshit teachers have to put up with (bureaucracy, etc.) is a non-starter for me. What I gained from that program was (for me and to me) invaluable. The reading lists alone have opened up my mind (at least) to some wonderful reading/finding new authors (and older authors that are new to me because of the lack of reading I’d done for so long). And the people … I met some wonderful people in the program (fellow students/writers and mentors) and I have strong ties to that community now. Of course, the Dogfella project was an extra nice surprise, since it pays for the degree, but that wasn’t to be expected on any level. I see lots of bad mouthing about MFA programs in general, and what I say is this: It’s what you make of it that matters. If you’re getting an MFA degree to become rich and famous, you’re a putz. If you’re getting the degree to grow, you’re on the right track. I’d do it again if I had the time. Yeah, college has become a business, and numbers again skew the product, but let’s face it, if you’re serious about writing, you’re going to do what you have to do anyway. My wife and I discuss the college problem today a lot; how it has become a means to a financial end, a job. Far too few people attend for the sake of growing, what we think it’s all about (which is why it should be FUCKING FREE). I found the MFA program valuable because my background was focused on politics while I was in college and then making money on the streets. I didn’t read the kinds of books I read now. The program introduced me to an entire new library of great writing … and the juice to write you walk away with (after each residency) is invaluable. I wrote tons more than usual (whether I used it or not) after each residency.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
CS: Teachers … going back to high school, although I actually finished as a co-runner-up in a Catholic school contest when I was younger (and nobody believed I wrote the damn thing, probably because I was one of the dumbskis). Later on an English teacher in high school, Mrs. Miller, assigned Camus’ The Stranger and that knocked me for a loop. Who does that, starts a book with: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. It got me thinking, which is what we’re supposed to do, right? I started writing stuff about my whack job family and what we were going through at the time (including my short stint in a nuthouse) and found I enjoyed writing. Then I put everything aside to play and prepare for football. Fortunately, a football scholarship took me out of state (away from distractions) and I took another English course in college and met Dave Gresham (and took more classes from him). He gave me the confidence to pursue writing. I had ZERO encouragement other than Dave and my Mom (but my mother would’ve been happiest had I taken safe civil service job). Dave stuck with me through most of my very immature adulthood. He’d read my feeble attempts to write novels but would always encourage me to keep trying. Eventually, I got lucky, but without those teachers, forgetaboutit … I’d be in jail or dead today. All glory to teachers, always.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
CS: My MFA thesis was actually a fictional memoir of my incredibly dysfunctional family and life experiences. I won’t even attempt to have it published for fear that the two remaining kids who continue to speak to me won’t if it’s published. I think I sent some of it to Patti Abbott and she was also very encouraging for me to keep working it. I did and I have a few drafts, but I won’t do anything with it. I did a lot of the dopey jobs I wrote about in my early novels. I experienced a lot of what at least a few of my characters lived through, did, etc. My family, from very early on (when I was a kid), did some shady shit to survive, and then my old man took off and the financial bottom dropped out … and our family life/world changed forever. As it should, life has provided enough material for a library. Now, to get it all down, right?

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
CS: Pretty much everything. The research, the creation of characters and situations that leave me wondering what if. I can get lost in this stuff, not come up for air for hours at a time. I can’t imagine my life without it and I suspect my wife is very accurate when she says it saved me. I know that one of my favorite parts of the MFA program was the research paper I did on Richard Yates use of third person omniscient … well, look at the title: Richard Yates’s Third Person Omniscient: Atmosphere, Characterization and Judging from on High.  How cool (and exciting) is that? J

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
CS: Everything and anything. Plays are what I started writing when I finally got serious after a few failed novel attempts, so David Mamet, for sure. Sam Shepherd also. Eugene O’Neill. Good movies can do it. A good song can do it (Tom Waits). An overheard conversation or an imaginary one. George V. Higgins remains my very favorite crime writer (even if it makes him turn in his grave to be called a crime writer) … but I’d have to add David Lynch (Blue Velvet remains my favorite movie of all time) … Gustav Mahler’s personal story with his wife, Alma, plays such a HUGE role in a novel I’ve been writing for several years now. So, I reiterate: everything and anything.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
CS: I spend a lot of time at my computer (home and at work). I’m either working on something of mine or writing for my blog or researching. Sometimes I’ll write for six hours with little breaks. Sometimes I’ll write for twenty minutes while watching a Netflix movie or series, constantly taking breaks to return to writing. The next day I look over the mess I made the night before and can focus again. At some point it takes the real work (editing), but I really can’t say I don’t like any part of writing. I suspect individuals have to figure out how to manage their time. I’m fortunate because my wife is a gallivanter (what I call her) … she leaves me alone for long periods of time while she does her things (gardening, shopping, general gallivanting. She just left her nursing job (she’d been working two jobs for a few years now) so now we both have four-day work weeks (the money I earn from writing, I can’t consider work—I can’t because it’s more a pleasure than work). We both have a four-day week, but different work days off. Monday is my most productive day because I’m alone all day. I still get up very early when there aren’t many distractions. I don’t do any of my political rants at 4:30 in the morning, not unless something catches my eye while I’m having coffee. Getting up early always works well for my production, but I write between hockey periods, sometimes during commercials, etc.  Bottom line: you make the time.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
CS: Read, read, read … and avoid the naysayers. I read at least two hours every day (or I try very hard to do so). I read when I take my two walks at work (before and during lunch). I read on the treadmill, between weightlifting sets, when I’m stuck in traffic, walking across the parking lot and riding the elevator when I visit Momma Stella, on the throne and when I go to bed. Reading is essential. The writing too, that goes without saying, but I’m not so sure one can be done without the other (for most people). As for naysayers, ignore and avoid them like the plague. My life changed dramatically for me when I shut out a few people who made me miserable.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
CS: For me it’s always character first, then situation (I guess that’s a combination of setting and plot), but plot comes last (when I rewrite) because I generally don’t know the plot until I’m well into a novel. Most of my novels and stories begin with a single line of dialogue, but of course I have a setting in mind when that happens. I’ll write that scene or just part of it. If it’s the right spark, a few months later I’ll have a novel. Tonight at dinner my wife told me about a first-year associate lawyer at her firm who found an error in a document someone did and told his secretary “whoever did this should lose their job.” My wife was irate and she said, “You’re the first person I thought of when I heard that, what you always say about people like that. They can use a little fucking terror in their spoiled lives.” “A shove down the subway stairs,” I said. “Yes,” she said. She’s a lot tougher than you might think, my wife. Guess how that story will begin? Why character is so important (for me) has to do with the actions that flow from that character; essentially how the novel will develop because of those actions. It’s why I can’t outline. The characters take me wherever they’re headed.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
CS: Revolutionary Road. It’s akin to verismo opera for me. It’s the real world (at least how Yates saw it when he wrote it, but I think it still applies). With all the talk today of “American exceptionalism” (how I hate that fucking phrase), Revolutionary Road is a reality check. As if people born here have some special genetic code to make them exceptional. As if the rest of the world is just waiting, watching, and envying all our greatness. Revolutionary Road bangs that nail with a jack hammer. Most of the players on the world stage around the globe, for whatever reason, live pretty ordinary lives (Yates used the term, “mediocre”), but we often have to have very high expectations for ourselves. Most often, I think, we can’t adjust to life without celebrity or greatness (or those fifteen minutes, etc.). Some never get to experience happiness, not for long stretches anyway. I was a victim of it for a while, but not when you might think. That was back in my street days. I liked playing a role where I was kidding myself. I liked being able to do things for people I liked and to people I didn’t like. It was a fugazi delusion of power (and total bullshit). Writing allowed me to escape that and Ann Marie allowed me to give writing one last shot. I’m a much happier person these days. I’m fine earning a living as a word processor and writing for extra coin. The bigger money from the street nearly ruined me. I only wish I’d read Revolutionary Road thirty years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have understand 90% of it. There are some wonderful lessons in that novel.  A second choice would be The Grapes of Wrath, but that’s the socialist in me.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
CS: Wow … not sure anymore. For a time it was drumming. I’m back into lifting weights again, but that train has left the yard (as far as besting myself) … getting back into a semblance of decent shape has become a priority (albeit with bumps in the road) … reading, I guess. I truly love to read.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
CS: A few things. A novel featuring Strat-O-Matic about a few lawyers in a money league … the story that already started at the dinner table … a few plays that have been started but not finished … two other literary attempts that I return to from time to time … I’m sure there will be more by the end of the weekend. That’s the beauty of this shit we do … there’s always another thought that leads to a spark, and like The Boss says, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

Sometimes I’m so musicalistical …


pattinase (abbott) said...

I have heard that working with someone on their life story is one of the hardest tasks a writer can take on. Bravo for making it work.

Peter Rozovsky said...

"A novel featuring Strat-O-Matic ... "

I'm in!

Dana King said...

I was all over that myself. I still play a cards and dice baseball game, though I try to let it interfere with writing as little as possible.

Peter Rozovsky said...

My mother and sister gave away all my Stat-o-Matic cards years ago. Sure, I told them I could do it, but I'm still thinking of suing them.

Charlieopera said...

I remain a Strat junky ... but I can't make myself buy the friggin' computer version ... I need to if I want to play an entire season. I always opt for the early 60's ... when baseball was baseball ... I still have the 64 season ... greatest game ever.