Raymond Chandler famously praised Dashiell Hammett: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.” Two pages into a Charlie Stella crime novel (like his latest, Tommy Red) and you can’t help but feel it: he gives murder back to the people whose lives involve murder, not the teenage models who play cops and crooks on television. And no one does street talk like Stella. He’s George Higgins. Let’s hear him in action:
Gresham: By this point there’s a sort of national myth of the mafia, an army of guys in the same gorgeous suits, all-knowing, all-powerful, and even kind of noble. On TV they arrive in a fleet of black Cadillacs and the show is over. Your books move in and around the world of organized crime, but your depiction is of a rougher, more casual group. What’s your reaction when you see slick stereotyped mobsters?
Stella: I don’t see them anymore. There was a time the big shots dressed that way. I’m talking very higher ups. Captains and above, although I guess some wiseguys (soldiers) did if they were into it and had the scratch. The guys I knew weren’t. Formal ceremonies, yeah, but walking around all duded up? Those were the very high ups, the ones didn’t have to get their hands dirty anymore. Even those, however, traded in the Cadillacs for the foreign models. They spoke a great game of patriotism, believe it or not, and most were rightwing patriots clueless about politics in general, but then they bought Italian suits and drove foreign luxury cars.
To be fair, I went through my Cadillac/sports jacket phase. The jacket was required on certain nights, even for associates. Used to drive my wife at the time nuts that I’d get dressed to go out with the boys but never with her.
Gresham: And the cops—in your novels, the cops aren’t far from the crooks. Instead of virtuous police force, a blue wall, these are guys with names and ex-wives and mortgages to pay….
Stella: Oh, there’s a blue wall all right … it’s just a blue wall of omerta. That politically correct 99%-of-all-cops-are-heroes bullshit is just that, bullshit. Cameras (from cellphones and otherwise) are starting to show the real story. You can knock that 99% down to 60-40, and depending on where you’re doing the research, the 60-40 can go back and forth as to what percent is dirty versus clean.
Gresham: Your latest, Tommy Red, is a lean machine, at just over 160 pages. You mention that you cut it down….
Stella: It was YUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE before a friend read it and said, “What the fuck, man?” Yeah, I usually overwrite, but with Tommy Red I’d started it back in the MFA program (Star Island) and went in and out of it over and over … once Gavin Borden (the friend) told me it was too much (it was making him dizzy), I cut it down to size.
Gresham: You’ve been at this for a while. What have you learned, as far as approaching a novel? How do you it differently than when you started?
Stella: Patience. Can’t be enough said for it. I was kind of turned off to writing crime novels the last few years and have engaged in several other projects, including the non-fiction Dogfella, but then immediately after Tommy Red came out I started a new crime novel that isn’t mob related. It is dirty cop related and I’ve written half of it since the end of April. Whether it comes to fruition or not is no longer an anxiety issue for me. I used to think I had to pump out one a year. I’m gonna be sixty and I enjoy reading as much as writing, so … it’s all patience and an acceptance that this writing stuff isn’t going to be my ticket to financial paradise. I made a lot more money on the street than I do from writing and working. A lot more, but I never minded working for a living and writing keeps me out of trouble. You learn patience over time, I guess.
Gresham: How about navigating the publishing world? Any advice? Lessons learned?
Stella: I’m probably not the right guy to ask about the publishing world, although I’m very happy where I am now. Stark House came through a very nice guy and terrific writer, Ed Gorman. I’d gone to battle with my prior publisher and just didn’t give a fuck if I had to start over. Turns out I didn’t, but that was all Ed. He recommended me to Stark House and Johnny Porno wound up being their first original crime novel.
I don’t do well with authority figures. I don’t do well with fraternities either. I dropped out of the MWA a long time ago and I don’t buy into the ass kissing most businesses require. I write books. That’s the deal I made with myself. I’m fortunate to have a publisher I trust, and I don’t think or care about the politics within the business. My agent does the right thing by me, especially in Europe, and my first six novels I retain rights to bring in some change with ebooks. The best advice I can give is get ahead of the publicity thing as best you can (something I’m not good at) and understand that there’s leg work involved in hawking books. Sometimes it’s pleasant and sometime it isn’t. Mostly it’s good, but be prepared for people who’ve had a bad day … or just assholes who assume they can treat every author like a used car salesman. I told one to go fuck themselves when they assumed I’d eat their condescending sarcasm bullshit. Should’ve seen the look in their face when I showed up to that convention. “Oh, you’re Charlie Stella.” “Fuckin-A, I am.”
Those are probably important, too, the Bouchercons and Thrillerfests, and whatever they call them now. I don’t go to them because the few I did attend reminded me of frat rush parties and I’m still a GDI, but they are essential to networking, I guess.
Gresham: You write about violent men. I’m thinking of Tommy in Tommy Red, or Washington Stewart, one of the leading man in Rough-Riders, or…well, it’s quite a list. When you’ve spent the morning inside the heads of some of these guys, do you ever find that it takes you a while to come out?
Stella: Never. Movies still influence me that way, but not writing. I’ll watch a movie I like, The Drop, for instance, with Tom Hardy playing Bob Saginowski, and I immediately want to write. In that case it wasn’t the character that stayed in my head, it was the memories of what goes on that makes me want to write. That was overblown fiction, make no mistake, especially as regards the take on Super Bowl Sunday (there wouldn’t be a dime in cash that night), but just the atmosphere brings it all back (memories). The guys at the start sitting at the bar, the give and take with Gandolfini’s character, etc. That’s the stuff that stays in my head, but once I’m writing and stop, I usually want something to eat.
Gresham: Is it true you wear a purity ring? On your hand or on your toe? [Editor’s note: this is a joke about jewelry available to Bernie-Or-Bust believers.]
Stella: I’m a purity MF’er, yes, it’s true. I know what corruption does over the long haul, so I’ve turned to my version of Jesus, Bernie Sanders, at least until he endorses Lyin Crooked Hillary, but my fingers and toes are too fat for rings. I’m thinking of having one tattooed around my neck, but now that I’m pretty much turned off to the NFL and in love with the NHL, my next tattoo should probably cover my Buffalo Bills logo with a Lightning Bolt. A purity Lightning Bolt.
Seriously, wisenheimer (as I step on my soapbox), we as a society have become so used to government corruption, the likes of the two frontrunners is no longer a big enough concern for revolution (the nasty kind, never mind political revolution). That said, it’s why I didn’t choose to become a police officer back in the day, because I more than likely would’ve started out like so many of those poor bastards, with a sense of moral justice and self-righteousness (purity?) and wound up a dirty cop for any number of reasons. I’m currently reading Kill Anything That Moves about the countless untold My Lai massacres during the Vietnam War, and it is a sobering reminder of how and why some of the violent shit perpetrated by law enforcement occurs. That blue wall mentality is no different than what is taught in the military. Perhaps necessarily so, but the results those mindsets yield are often tragic. How can we blame anybody when we allow the people running the show to be hardcore corrupt pieces of shit? I’m all for Bernie’s political revolution, but I’m thinking we’re headed for a much more physical one a lot sooner than we might want to believe. At some point, the toys (video games, reality TV shows, cable series loaded with T&A, the free porn, the heroin, etc., all the distractions that are American exceptionalism—sarcasm intended) just aren’t going to quell the storm. Eventually people will get bored with all the opiates and wake up.
So, yeah, to answer your question … I’m a former criminal turned purity MF’er … and you know what they say about former addicts, right? Biggest ball busters on the planet …
Charlie Stella's books:
Tommy Red (April, 2016) Stark House Press
Dogfella: How an Abandoned Dog Named Bruno Turned This Mobster's Life Around--A Memoir (May, 2015) Da Capo Press (Ghostwriter)
Rough Riders (July, 2012) Stark House Press
Johnny Porno (April, 2010) Stark House Press
Mafiya: A Novel of Crime (January, 2008) Pegasus
Shakedown: A Novel of Crime (June, 2006) Pegasus
Cheapskates: A Novel of Crime (March, 2005) Carroll & Graf
Charlie Opera: A Novel of Crime (December, 2003) Carroll & Graf
Jimmy Bench-Press: A Novel of Crime (December, 2002) Carroll & Graf
Eddie's World: A Novel of Crime (December, 2001) Carroll & Graf