Please welcome our April featured author Charlie Stella!
Charlie Stella is one of the most respected writers of mob fiction today. His first six novels all received critical acclaim, and several of his short stories appear in well-regarded collections. Stella’s seventh novel, Johnny Porno, is the first original to be published by Stark House, which had previously done only re-issues of out-of-print fiction.
Born and raised in New York, Stella went to Minot State in North Dakota, where he became exposed to George V. Higgins’s masterpiece, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Still an ardent disciple of Higgins’s work, Stella has followed what can be safely described as a circuitous career to reach his current position among crime writers. He found time in his schedule to answer a few questions from New Mystery Reader’s Dana King.
New Mystery Reader: How does a Canarsie boy go to North Dakota to learn about George V. Higgins?
Charlie Stella: A combination of not being good enough for bigger football schools, a shot at starting as a sophomore and a genuine love of cold weather. As for Higgins, pot luck. An English professor started a class by reading aloud the first chapter of Eddie Coyle and I was hooked. If not for Dave Gresham (that English professor), I probably never would have read the book.
NMR: What is it about Higgins that affects you so much?
CS: First off, I can see the scenes as I’m reading them. Dave (above) used to tell us to write as if we’re viewing the reels of a movie. Higgins did that naturally. I see everything I’m reading by him very clearly and without knowing the color of the carpet, wall paper, etc. Second, his ability to make it so matter of fact—almost documentary-like. He puts you in the moment and it’s always gripping. As for his dialogue—nobody is better. Nobody.
NMR: Your biography mentions eighteen years as a “knockaround guy.” What does that mean, and how does it influence your writing?
CS: Street finance was my primary source of income back in the day. I eventually got into bookmaking. Collecting for both was more aggravation than anything dramatic. Once in a while a small score would surface. Again, nothing dramatic; no guns, no knives. I started through friends from that world who taught me the ropes. I collected for a while and then borrowed 10K at 1% a week and put it out at 3-5% a week. If you’re careful and lucky, you pay back the original 10K (because those guys aren’t the Treasury Dept. lending it out to their friends at Goldman Sachs at 0%) and/or borrow another 10K at 1% and you put that right back out. The more small loans you have on the street, the less likely you’ll get hurt (and everyone who has money on the street gets beat at least a few times). You have to be one of two things to lose money in that business. A) lazy or B) a moron. Bookmaking is a matter of money management, deep pockets (and/or a well you can go to when cash gets tight) and maybe most important, patience. Scores (a heist of some kind) usually came through word of mouth or were inside jobs. I always worked a word processing job on and off for six months to a year (for COBRA insurance for my kids) taking off an equal period of time after I left each job to try and write or to push the street income to another level.
NMR: You’re not writing Mafia books the way most people think of them, like The Godfather or The Sopranos. Your main characters are often not OC figures, or at least not made men. Your interest is in more peripheral characters, people who work at the retail level of cash generation, or find themselves involved without meaning to. Why them?
CS: I too often hear knockaround guys described as common thugs. Usually the people who use that terminology are still trying to distinguish their asses from their elbows. Most street guys or knockaround guys (often “associates”), are not wannabes looking to become made guys. They’re guys hustling to make extra scratch for any number of reasons—send their kids to school, support their families, they might be out of work, etc. That isn’t to say there aren’t wannabes out there looking to prove themselves for the sake of becoming wiseguys down the road, but that’s why I use knockaround vs. wannabe; there is a difference. For instance, without using his name, a General Manager of a financial magazine was a guy I not only did a lot of work with, he taught me the bookmaking business. He graduated from Penn. Both his kids graduated from Penn. That sound like something a thug would do? That doesn’t mean all the guys involved in a street life are rocket scientists, but many of them would surprise you with their intelligence and/or their otherwise “normal” lives. (There are even published authors/produced playwrights with honors degrees in Political Science who also cleaned windows for 10 years; the last five of which, they might’ve also worked a second fulltime job as a word processing supervisor for PaineWebber before figuring out they’d make a lot more on the street than killing themselves for 2 paychecks nearly cut in half by taxes.) People hustling to make ends meet are interesting to me. I think readers find them interesting; the how and why their lives sometimes spiral out of control—often for no other reason than their attempts to survive. Truth be told, had I not met Ann Marie when I did (which was the reason I was finally published), there’s no way I would’ve walked away from the money I used to make to be a full-time word processor.
NMR: Your books give the impression anyone is but a random act or careless moment from falling prey to people who will use them without conscience. John Albano lost his temper and his union card at the same time, and fell in with the mob to make his child support payments. Most people have the idea that those involved with gangsters want to be involved. Which do you think is more common?
CS: The only people who want to be involved (i.e., partner up) with the mob today are immigrants who don’t know any better, desperados and/or morons. (An example of morons would be the young stockbrokers on Wall Street in the early 90’s who already had everything but felt what was missing from their spoiled lives was a need to be “connected.”) I do think people make honest mistakes when getting involved with the mob (any mob); whether from greed or a desire or need to earn for whatever reasons, but the mob’s most often used methodology in sucking people in is based on the concept of a “favor” and reaching out for one can be any man’s ruin. Although his portrayal of mobsters was very romanticized and far from reality, Mario Puzo was extremely accurate in his research regarding that aspect of mob life—the favor and how it was/is used to snare people in the mob’s web. What appears to be (and is often sold as) a simple favor can buy and sell a man without him ever knowing what the fuck happened. Likewise, so can an accidental circumstance. (See Charlie Opera; he’s in a club with his wife and some guy grabs her ass. Charlie belts the guy, breaks his jaw and later learns (because the guy is trying to kill him), it was a wiseguy he hit.) A similar story happened for real in Brooklyn. Roy DeMeo, a notorious killer and a wiseguy (not all wiseguys are killers), caught a beating from a “civilian” and later couldn’t live down the embarrassment. He went to extremes to kill the guy and once tried using a car bomb. He eventually did kill the poor bastard.
NMR: Your books have a noticeable lack of melodrama. There’s plenty of drama, but it’s all very matter of fact, just people going through their days. This is true of the cops and the hoods, and even for the “amateurs,” at least until things start to go bad for them. Most writers don’t trust their readers enough to assume they’ll “get” it; you do. Did that come naturally, or did you have to talk yourself into it?
CS: Perhaps that’s where Higgins influences me the most. Take any of his first three (Eddie Coyle, Digger’s Game, Cogan’s Trade) and what you have are your basic knockaround guys trying to get along the only way they know how (usually behind the proverbial eight ball). There’s very little that is glamorous about that life. It’s all pretty mundane stuff, even when they are making money. It’s a grind like anything else, but it is that documentary-like aspect of Higgins world; the ability to lay it out clearly and without any of the glitz that just doesn’t exist. Some of it may come naturally, but I do try for that effect.
NMR: Some of your most interesting characters care for a principal enough to put themselves at risk for him, yet may also walk away if he doesn’t break away from his present situation. These are compelling stories, of people connected to a life of crime, though once removed. Do you set out to include them, or do they just evolve as you’re telling the story?
CS: Evolution. I usually start with an idea and/or a simple line of dialogue and let it run wild. I recently came up with a sequel for Charlie Pellecchia (from Charlie Opera). This one will feature a gangster obsessed with the rapper Lil Kim and some of my former gangsters and victims from Shakedown. How that came about was from my watching the movie Notorious (about Biggie Smalls—I’m a fan).
I think the reason I have people (usually women) who will walk away from a love (or potential love) interest is my wife. Ann Marie never would’ve stayed with me while I was doing the street thing. If someone really cared for you, why would they let you be involved in that shit, never mind encourage it? It wasn’t a thrill for her to see me picking up envelopes; she was terrified. By the time we became serious, I was finished and well on my way out of it. It was a lot harder for me to get used to a legitimate paycheck. Money was never an issue to her. In fact, one night after we were living together/before we were married, a friend from that life called and asked me to take a drive with him. Ann Marie turned white when I told her I was “going for a ride with _____” (she thought I was getting whacked because I was writing mob novels—you should’ve seen her face).
NMR: Stories as rich and intricate as yours demand the question of whether you plot in advance or make it up as you go along. Which is it?
CS: I couldn’t plot my way through a grocery store. Honestly, I couldn’t beat a nine year old in a game of chess. I write on the fly. I’m at my best on the fly. I have strong passions about everything I do and I don’t know how to regulate my focus. So, usually I let the characters take me places until I have something resembling a book and sometimes the first draft is pretty close to what I want. But I always sit on whatever it is for a month or two (or more) and eventually go back and change things. Sometimes they’ll be significant changes and it may appear that I plotted something to the last detail. I do find it more fun fleshing out than building the skeleton of a novel.
NMR: Aside from Higgins, who are the major influences on your writing?
CS: I don’t see as much of Elmore Leonard in my stuff as some reviewers (I think he’s a master and I’m much more crude and unskilled), but he was definitely an influence. So are many of the later novels I’ve read. I insist that A.B . Guthrie wrote westerns that were more hardboiled than anything Higgins or Leonard wrote (and I see a ton of Leonard in Guthrie’s style), but I didn’t read Guthrie until a few years ago. I’d say Higgins is always in the back of my head when I’m writing. Some of Leonard’s use of character introspection can get on my nerves and when I find myself mimicking that I try and pull back. Higgins just laid it out in rapid fire dialogue and documentary-like narrative you can see the moment it starts.
NMR: Please complete the following sentence with either a phrase or an author’s name:
If you like , you’ll like Charlie Stella
CS: If you like blog wars, you’ll like Charlie Stella. That is meant to be a joke.
NMR: What one question do you wish an interviewer would ask, but never do? What’s the answer?
CS: Do you shave your back? If so, why? If not, why not?