Monday, July 18, 2016

The Long Road to Writing Crime: An Interview With Charlie Stella

Back in June, we posted a review of the book Tommy Red by Charlie Stella. The review's author, Stanton McCaffery, later caught up with Stella at his home in New Jersey for a conversation about Stella's work and the crime genre. Below is a transcript of their meeting, courtesy of Stanton McCaffery.

The Long Road to Writing Crime: An Interview With Charlie Stella
by Stanton McCaffery

Stanton McCaffery: What made you want to write?

Charlie Stella: 
I was a kid, I was a big day dreamer. I was a fuck up, pretty much. I would just sit and look at the clock and dream about anything but what I was supposed to be doing. At one point, I guess, I was in catholic school, and we had to write an essay on something for a contest about Jesus. I was one of three of the finalists for the thing and no one could believe I wrote the freakin’ thing because I was one of the fuck-ups in school. But I knew I wrote it and I thought "Okay, even though this is a bullshit story..." I knew I had a little bit of an inclination.

Then, in high school, one of my English teachers did a review of Camus’s The Stranger and the opening line to that—which was “Mother died today”—just stung me, and I thought "Holy shit, what a great opening line." And I didn’t know anything about books. The only books I read up until that time were Mickey Mantle books, Babe Ruth books, Willie Mays—bios on sports people. But that particular book kind of writing rung something in me that made me want to at least read.

Then I went to college to play football in North Dakota and ran in to the guy who really changed my life. I was still a fuck-up. I was playing football. My delusions of grandeur were gone. I knew I wasn’t going to the NFL. It was a small college. I wasn’t taking school seriously at all. I had almost failed out of school and I was sitting in this English class–you know one of those required English classes—and this guy Dave Gresham (one of his son’s just got published, an amazing family) reads the opening line to The Friends of EddieCoyle: “Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.”

I was like holy shit. I knew people that talked like that. I could not believe that this was being taught in English class—that this was even available, because I was a moron—and that did it. He was the best teacher I ever had because we had to write a point-counterpoint for whatever editorial was in the Newsweek. I had absolutely no grammatical skill and I think he would always give me a B. I saw the next semester he was teaching creative writing, so now I’m making stories up. And he said to me, "You have raw talent." I think he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He’s got the most incredible resume I’ve ever seen. And he told me, you got this thing, but you gotta learn how to spell and you gotta learn grammar, and he got me a little grammar book. But the key was to keep reading, and all of a sudden I was a reader. He taught Kurt Vonnegut. He was actually taught by Vonnegut. He went to the University of Iowa, the writers’ workshop. The two people that signed his thesis—this floors me now— were Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Yates. Richard Yates is my favorite novelist, but I didn’t know that until a few years ago. Back then I didn’t know who the fuck Richard Yates was. Richard Yates wrote Revolutionary Road.

That got me started. And he took a short story of mine and he entered it into some writing award thing that I got nominated for. That was probably bullshit. He probably just had to press a button or something. But when I left North Dakota and got married we stayed in touch. I would send him things that I was writing. And he encouraged me to try the Scott Merrideth Literary Agency, which was the biggest scam in the world, but he said, "You’ve got nothing to lose. They’re making money." It was one of those readers’ fees things. "Give it a shot," he said. So I sent them something, and they told me it sucked. They told me what was wrong with it. A few years later I sent them something again and they take it and shop it for me. I actually read a newspaper article that said they took one out of every ten-thousand books and actually represented them. And I thought, "Who the fuck was I?" I thought I’d be a millionaire writer. And the name of the book was Running With Cover. My wife loves that book. Anyway, it got rejected ten times, but two of the rejections asked for more work and that, at the time, I couldn’t handle because here I am thinking "I’m gonna be the next John Grisham," and instead I’m Charlie the jerkoff. At that time I was a half-assed gangster. So that was the end of that. I didn’t write for like seven years.

Then I met my wife—and I’ve married four times—when we first met I tried to impress her and I wrote Eddie's World. I went to one of the two guys who asked for more work. This is, however, many years later. I’m lucky they were still alive. And one of them bought it, Carol and Graff. And that was it. Everything took off from there—took off in the sense that I keep getting published, not that I’m making money.     

Stanton McCaffery:
 You said the professor had read the line and you said you knew people that talked like that. Is that why you chose crime?

Charlie Stella: 
Yeah, absolutely. I could write a crime novel in my sleep right now. That’s not saying that it’ll be good, but it just comes naturally for me. The thing that I left out in there was that I took a few play-writing courses and wrote a few plays. I found that I had a natural ability for dialogue. I had three plays produced off off broadway. That was my first love, theatre. What I found was—the last thing I did was at the 45th Street Theater—I had to depend on six or seven actors, and some of them couldn’t remember their lines. And there’s no money in play-writing either. I thought, "This is fucking crazy." Then I went back and discovered that with a novel I could be in total control, and that’s what really got me back into writing novels.

Stanton McCaffery:
 The most recent book, Tommy Red, what was your process for writing that novel?

Charlie Stella: Tommy Red is character that was born out of a short story that I wrote for Baltimore Noir. It was thing I did in 2006. Laura Lippman contacted me and asked if there was something I could put together, and I put it together pretty quick. And I just loved the pattern of his speaking—"She say’s to me, she says." I knew I was going to write a novel with Tommy "Red" Dalton as the central character, as the protagonist. I worked on it from 2006 to 2016—took me ten years because I would start and stop. I probably have twenty other novels completed, maybe garbage. I got serious before the MFA program and wrote it, overwrote it and then I did the Dogfella book and had to do my thesis. So I went back to it in the last six months before I sold it. My friend told me it was too long. So I cleaned it up and got it published.

Stanton McCaffery: What were the influences behind the book?

Charlie Stella:
 The first influence was, like I said, that he was a character in a short story and I liked the way he spoke.

The second influence, he wasn’t a wise guy. I generally write about the lower echelons of the mob or the guys who are fighting the mob, people that wind up under the gun for some reason, like Charlie Opera.

And I wanted to keep it current. The Eric Garner thing really pissed me off. I was getting in fights with people on Facebook. I thought, "No, this is bullshit." And I thought it was the time for me to get political in my life because I’ve got something I want to express. There’s gonna be some shit from now on that I want to express. I also used Mo’ne Davis—the black girl that was pitching in the little league world series—that kind of stuff. I wanted to bring it to a current day situation and express some things and that just made it easier. The whole idea of all that crap going on and dealing with dirty cops.

Stanton McCaffery:
 Something that I got from the book was that it really depends on who has the authority–that there really are no good guys or bad guys. Was that intentional?

Charlie Stella:
 Everything that I write has that kind of thing going in it. There’s good guys that do bad things, bad guys that do good things. And bad guys that do bad things and good guys that do good things. That sort of thing is always intentional. When people are up against it they do what they’ve got to do.

Stanton McCaffery: With the Eric Garner case, it kind of forms a backdrop. The characters have to deal with the traffic because of the protests. Was there a message that you were trying to get across with that or did you want to just tie it into the world?

Charlie Stella:
I think he spews about it a couple of times with his daughter, Tommy, about what the police can get away with when they say resisting arrest. When they grabbed him and put him down—if you watch the whole video—the kid that did it grabs his crotch, and he’s looking at the camera, and they know he’s dead. Maybe the people don’t, but the cops do because they already had the EMS there, and he’s laughing. And the thought that this is the kind of shit that they’re getting away with when the DA is working with them and you know there isn’t going to be an indictment. So when he spews about that, those were the messages that I was trying to get across. That’s how some people can come to thinking in terms of revolution or that crime can be justified because here is a government that has absolutely no problem being criminals—and not just enforcing it, they reinforce it.

Stanton McCaffery: 
Readers are likely to be reminded of certain movies, and you even mention them—Casino, Goodfellas. Are movies an influence on your writing?

Charlie Stella: Movies do influence me—they influence me more than a book would. I think I mentioned the movie The Drop in another interviewIt’s terrific. It’s just a well done movie. It’s Gandolfini’s last with Tom Hardy. What I like the most is just the give-and-take in the dialogue, the breaking balls. And there’s a real life person that I based Doc on in Tommy Red who happens to be Irish, and I’m Italian, and when we sit here we just trade insults. And that line where Tommy Dalton says, “Fucking geniuses, they were aiming for India and wound up here,” that was from our conversation that he said to me. And I said back to him, “Potato famine? They lived on a fucking island. Nobody could put a line in the water and catch a fish?” So when I saw that in The Drop, at the bar, not the crime scenes, that’s how I start any book—just two guys talking. That’s how I started Tommy Red, just the two guys sitting on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s that conversation and it builds from there. I don’t outline. I just start a conversation and it builds from there. The book I’m working on now, somebody asked me how it ends, and I don’t know. I’ll get there and it may suck and I may have to rewrite it, but that’s what’s fun.

Stanton McCaffery: Working on your dialogue, do you listen to people’s conversations, to the way they speak?

Charlie Stella: Sometimes. It’s what they’re talking about that will catch my ear. I’m the most oblivious writer on earth. You could ask me what the house across the street looks like, and I won’t know—and I’ve been living here six years. Certain things just go right by me. I’ll listen to someone’s conversation, and it’s what they’re talking about that I’m interested in. What are the current topics of the day? Like now I’m sure it’ll be the shooting in Orlando, the Brexit, the Democrats doing there sit-in. The average guy on the street don’t give a fuck about any of that. He’s worried about his boss that fired him.

The other thing about Tommy Red, about character development, in the short story in Baltimore Noir, he’s in training and he witnesses a hit. He’s with a wise guy from Philly who happens to live in Baltimore, and he’s part of a hit team, and the other guy does the hit and that’s kind of Tommy’s birth into the business. Afterward, something not in the short story but talked about in Tommy Red is that, after the hit, he went away for six years.

Stanton McCaffery: Do you want to talk at all about what you have planned next?

Charlie Stella: This next novel is a personal novel so I’m kind of keeping a lid on it. But I am working on another piece—a nonfiction piece, which is the most fascinating thing in the world. A friend of mine that I met through writing, Richard Marinick, was with the state police in Massachusetts for two years and left—didn’t like it—and got involved in organized crime, the Irish mob. He wasn’t under Whitey Bulger, but he knew who Whitey Bulger was. Rick then started doing bank jobs and he became a coke addict, you know the whole bit. He ended up doing ten years for an armored car robbery in what was then, I think, Walpole. I’m not positive. A fucking nightmare though. While he was in there, Boston University did a prison program and he got a BA and a MFA. He gets out and he’s working on the Big Dig, the tunnel thing, and he writes one of the best books I’ve ever read, BoyosIt’s about the Irish Mob. He also wrote another book called In For a Pound, that kind of got splashed because the publisher was a piece-of-shit degenerate gambler that left in the middle of the project and kind of left him hanging. But Boyos was on the Boston Globe best seller list for a number of months and they had to do three prints. Now Rick is one of the toughest guys you’ll ever meet in your life. I wouldn’t fight Rick with a gun to my head. He studied martial arts when he was younger. He does a like a thousand sit-ups a day. If you go to YouTube and watch Paddy Whacked, he’s in there.

He wrote a memoir about his life and he asked me to look at it and read it. He sent it off, and it got rejected, so I said "Let me work with this. I think we can do something with this." So I’m not exactly rewriting it—just doing some minor edits and restructuring it because he did it in chronological order. He starts when he’s a kid and you have to bite the reader. That’s all interesting, but he was involved in an armored car robbery where somebody got killed. They want to hear that. Then when they find out you were a cop, well, holy shit. And then they say, "What was his childhood like?" And it’s a great story, and he deserves it.

Charlie Stella was born in Manhattan and brought up in Canarsie in Brooklyn. He attended public and catholic schools in Canarsie until going to Minot, North Dakota on a football scholarship. He was hooked as a reader/writer of modern crime fiction after Dave Gresham (his mentor and English teacher) read the opening lines from the George V. Higgins classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. He has worked as a paperboy, watermelon loader, soda-jerk, dishwasher, McDonalds cook, hallway buffer, porter, security guard, UPS laborer, sheetrock carrier, hallway buffer, porter and bouncer, as well as a union window cleaner on 50-story scaffolds. He was also a word processing operator/supervisor/manager, and a knockaround guy.

Stanton McCaffery was born and raised in central New Jersey, where he resides with his wife and son. He has degrees in history and political science and manages communications for a United Nations agency. He is currently working on his first novel. Find him on Twitter here.

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