The two men most responsible for me embracing modern crime fiction are Ken Bruen and Charlie Stella. True enough, I’d been reading writers like Ellroy, Pelecanos, and Lehane for a number of years before I discovered Bruen’s the White Trilogy and Stella’s Jimmy Bench Press while browsing the shelves of my local used bookstore. Both books were impulse buys and both sat in my to be read pile for a number of months before I finally cracked them opened and devoured them.
On the surface, Stella’s novels could be described as Mafia thrillers. But unlike most mobsters portrayed in film and television, there are no charismatic dapper dons or slickly dressed romanticized sociopaths populating Stella’s novels. His characters are quick witted working guys who’ve spent a life time hustling and imposing their wills through sheer brutality.
Stella writes about real mobsters.
With Stella’s newest effort, Johnny Porno, the New York author tackles his first historical novel and the mob’s involvement with the distribution of the notorious porn film Deep Throat after the state of New York declared the movie illegal.
Over two very hectic weeks, I harassed Stella with questions about Johnny Porno—which may very well be his most accomplished novel to date—his career, his process, and future writing projects.
Keith Rawson: When did you decide to first start writing? And why did you choose crime fiction?
Charlie Stella: I had actually been chosen as a runner-up in an essay contest in catholic school as a kid (9 or 10) but I was one of the class dummies so nobody believed I had written the thing. Things flourished for me (regarding a desire to learn/write, etc.) in college under the tutelage of an English professor, Dave Gresham. Why I dedicated my first book to him and will ALWAYS mention him in interviews, etc. I chose crime fiction because of the Higgins book (The Friends of Eddie Coyle); once I realized people wrote like that, the rest was just meant to be; my old man was a knockaround guy and I grew up learning that world first hand. We had a swag Macy’s (stuff off the docks) in our basement most of my childhood.
You’ve described yourself as a “knock around” guy in your younger days, how much time did you spend actually working the streets and what did you do?
18+ years. Street finance (a.k.a. loan sharking) … bookmaking … the occasional score. No knives/no guns. I’m not saying things never got out of hand, but the movies portray this stuff a lot more dramatically than it usually goes. I always kept a regular job (window cleaning/word processing) for the sake of insurance for my kids (usually COBRA) but I would work a year (or long enough to be eligible for COBRA) then leave for however long I could get away with it before I needed to resign with insurance. During a few of those breaks from working legitimate jobs, I would try to write and/or beef up my street business.
You started off as a playwright, was anything you’d written ever produced? And would you ever consider writing another play?
I had three plays produced off-off Broadway (“Coffee Wagon”, “Mr. Ronnie’s Confession” and “Double or Nothing”; the last two performed together). I’m currently writing a personal play for myself and a good friend of mine, actor Paul Vario. You might know his background better from the Goodfellas film; the character Paul Sorvino played (Paul Cicero in the film) is Paul’s actual grandfather (Paul Vario). My friend Paul is a terrific actor and a great guy and although has been in films about the mob (This Thing Of Ours with Frank Vincent, Vincent Pastore and James Caan), he has nothing to do with the mob.
I love the story of how you came to write your first novel, Eddie’s World. Would you mind retelling the story?
I was at the end of a bad marriage and very unhappy where I was in life, especially regarding how I had to keep returning to word processing for insurance. A good friend involved in Hollywood with directing and screenwriting, J.R., was keeping notes on post cards during down time while I was giving myself carpal tunnel playing solitaire. I realized I was sitting on my duff and starting writing again. Then I met Ann Marie (my wife) and she was the last to know that I was a street guy first, word processor second; her sister and I were friendly months before I met Ann Marie. But I was hit by the thunderbolt once I did meet her. She was going to college nights while raising a family and working split shifts full time. She was so excited when she heard I was writing a novel, I decided I had to finish the damn thing in an attempt to impress her. Being a street guy wasn’t impressive to Ann Marie; a guy trying to write a novel was. That book was Eddie’s World and she was the first person I called once I learned we had an offer.
Politically you seem to be a pretty passionate guy, how much do your personal politics influence your writing?
Occasionally, but I try to be fair about it all. I’ve been on both sides of the political fence over the last dozen years and now I hate both parties equally. Wherever I get political in a novel/story, etc., it will usually side with the working man, although I have taken a pot shot or two at corrupt unions. You get older, you tend to get a bit more conservative and that has definitely influenced me on some issues of the day. Why the federal government hasn’t (or won’t) use the RICO laws against Wall Street is upsetting. The fact the public isn’t screaming for it absolutely baffles me.
You’re one of the busiest novelists working. Could you describe what you’re average day is like?
Thanks to outsourcing and the bailouts, it isn’t so busy anymore and I suspect it will be a lot less busy soon. I used to work 7 days a week (full time Mon-Fri) and my weekend gig ran two 14 hour shifts), but I lost that weekend gig to the economy last April and expect to lose the other job soon (to a new form of outsourcing—within the U.S. but to a cheaper place to produce work as opposed to NY). For now it’s pretty simple. I’m up at 3:15 a.m. to have coffee (nothing happens without a big mug of coffee) and I either write or head to the gym. Right now I’m looking to drop a weight class for the next meet (Jersey States, August 1st) so I’m concentrating on aerobics more than heavy lifting (that’ll begin in June again). I go to work in the city (1:45 minute commute each way). My wife works a longer shift/4 day week but is going full-time for her RN degree nights (because they can’t outsource that—yet). We’re home by 7:15 p.m. (or I am and then I alternate with a friend picking up his wife and my wife (they’re in the RN program together in Manhattan) so we have to drive back to the city once a week each (or I pick her up in Staten Island the night I’m not driving back to the city). Weekends are now my free time and I usually get the bulk of my writing in Saturday and Sunday (but Sunday is also visit Mom day so I’m usually on the road to Brooklyn and back for part of the day). It could be worse, I’m sure. I know some people who have it a lot tougher and they’re just trying to survive. Most of what I do is what I want to do. The most frustrating part of that old 7 days work schedule was tax time two years ago. We were slaughtered for our efforts, my wife and I. I wouldn’t mind if the extra taxed dollars went to something constructive or helpful to the average guy trying to make it day-to-day. The fact it went to Wall Street without protecting the American worker was the greatest crime ever committed against taxpayers I can think of and I’ll never, ever, ever forget it.
After a career writing novels set in the present, why did you decide to write a historical novel like Johnny Porno?
Craig McDonald had given me the idea with his excellent novels that delve back in time. I also loved Ellroy’s American Tabloid for years and thought: The current day mob is dying too quick a death, but go back a few decades and it was flourishing. After seeing the documentary, Inside Deep Throat, I knew 1973 was the background year to use.
What was the catalyst of Johnny Porno? What made you actually want to write the novel?
I tend to write about guys trying to survive a crisis of either their own doing, or a crisis born of some innocent reaction they might have to something they deem wrong. They are usually principled, stubborn men who refuse to back down. The idea of the novel was born from the documentary mentioned above, but I didn’t want to write a romanticized mobster story. Albano is one of many guys I knew back in the day; a guy trying to make ends meet. Adding the drama to his situation was fun, but the real pleasure in writing this novel had to do with the time warp. I loved going back to 1973; the research involved and the writing it into the storyline.
For those who aren’t aware of what Johnny Porno is about, would you briefly summarize it?
An out of work construction worker behind on his child support payments needs to hustle to make ends meet. Before the novel starts he’d knocked out a dirty cop in a connected bar and was hired on by the Mafioso who owned the place to count heads at illegal screenings of the recently banned porno flick, Deep Throat, then later is promoted up to delivering the film and collecting cash receipts. His ex-wife and her boyfriend see an opportunity to rob him of those cash receipts (since it can’t be reported) and how they do it and what happens involves half a dozen subplots, a high body count and some political and social dilemmas of the day (1973).
How do you keep so many story lines straight with a novel like Johnny Porno? Do you write all of the character parts separately and then tie it all together?
JP took longer than most, but that also had to do with switching publishers. I knew I wasn’t returning to my last publisher and had time to play with JP. I kept seeing scenes in my head as I wrote the thing. I think I was at Poisoned Pen with Mafiya when I was writing JP and I had mentioned how the thing just took off on me and I went crazy with it. It took some time and editing down to make it work but this novel is a good example of going with the flow of the characters and storylines. No outlining at all.
It seems to me that the women in your novels are always ball busters– John Albino’s ex-wife Nancy in JP is particularly mean spirited. What attracts you to writing this kind of woman?
Behind every great man is a smart woman and behind every desperate man is a ball-breaker. Honestly, they’re just fun to write. I try to keep them real by using characteristics of people I’ve known in my past, but ultimately they’re fictitious characters that I think enhance a storyline.
The one character I was fascinated with was crooked ex-cop Billy Hastings. Where did this guy come from in your imagination?
Some of the research required watching a few pornos along with the two mentioned in the novel. Since Ann Marie declined and I didn’t feel like purchasing ten videos, I found the free online stuff and low and behold there’s a fetish for every sexual fantasy imaginable. Men who like to watch their wives was one and it ranged from what is considered “soft swaps” to hard core sex. There’s also a story my ex-partner once told me about being picked up outside a bar by a very good looking young woman who proceeded to tell him her husband was following them and that it was cool because he was “into it”. Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but that particular sexual preference suited the Hastings character well. As an aside, the “soft swaps” I learned about wound up as the backdrop for a non-crime novella. So, the research spawned two separate projects in the end.
How much research went into Johnny Porno when you were writing it? How much research goes into any of your novels?
With JP there was a lot of research. My wife and I spent some time at the library in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn looking through microfiche. I needed landmarks in time for reader reference points. August of 1973, something I chose randomly, wound up being the motherload. I also read a lot of books on the porn business and some of the background stories about some of the porn stars. In other novels the research usually has to do with guns (DOC) and/or police procedure. I know the other stuff pretty much first hand.
Most of your novels seem highly personal. How much of your private life seeps into a novel?
Three of my novels have to do with things I went through or did back in the day and then I fictionalized the rest of it and/or worked around it. JP has very little to do with my life. I was a kid back in ’73. I think most authors write some of themselves into a character(s), whether it be real or imagined or out and out fantasy. We write what we know and if we don’t know ourselves, I guess we make it up.
Do you see yourself continuing to write about this era in American history, or are you planning on bringing your novels back into the present?
I’m currently writing a sequel to Charlie Opera (no title yet) that is set in the present, but I definitely intend to go back in time again. Craig McDonald had suggested doing a real back in time piece about my fictional mob family, the Vignieri’s. He suggested going back to their roots in Italy. That might be a bit too ambitious for me, but I do intend to deal with the heads of that crime family I often make reference to (Angelo Vignieri, for one).
Speaking of publishers, how has your experience with Stark House been so far? Do you plan on continuing to publish with them?
Greg Sheperd has been totally honest and supportive. If we can make this thing work and sell some books and they want to keep me, I’m more than happy to stay with people I enjoy working with.
I really enjoyed Mafiya and the way you played around with the Russian mob, is there any chance we’ll see more of you dealing with organized crime outside of the Italian families?
Two or three books down the road, assuming I’m still in the business, Jimmy Mangino from Jimmy Bench-Press returns and he’ll be battling for some Brooklyn turf with some of the Russian mob from Mafiya. I’ve written a few scenes from that one already. It’ll be ugly.
Other than the sequel to Charlie Opera, are you working on anything else? I read on Ed Gorman’s blog about a year ago that you were working on a collection of contemporary stories? Is that book still in the works?
It’s a collection of non-crime short stories and a novella ironically titled Petty Crimes and it’s been finished and edited a while now. I’m trying to finish up a non-crime novel to accompany it for possible sale. As for crime, I have several projects started and stopped I can pick up on and I’m three completed books deep right now. I suspect, based on my free time (which isn’t much these days), I’ll be done with the Charlie Opera sequel before the end of the summer. Sooner if I get laid off.
About six months ago you started a blog called Temporary Knucksline and now you even have a Facebook page. Why did you start using so-called ‘social’ media and do you think it’s all that essential to an author’s success?
Knucksline was the original culprit and was born in a marketing research company where I worked with DOC (there really is a DOC and he’s a much better writer than I am). I used to torture management there with parodies of some of the morons running the place. There literally used to be a line waiting for it to be copied and stapled together. I’ve always had fun with this blogging stuff and although it sometimes gets me into trouble (blog wars, etc.), it’s more an exercise in catharsis than anything else (and a great break when stuck writing novels). As far as the social media being helpful to writers, I have no idea. I prefer it to writers conferences, that’s for sure. My kids got me to join Facebook maybe two years ago and I quit after three days because of all the emails/friends stuff. This year I restarted it because a an from Houston was so charged up about the new novel, I had to do the right thing. Michelle Isler (the Godmother) has been great to me and for me. I still don’t know how to navigate Facebook very well (my son calls me Facebook retarded) but he hasn’t learned the right PC yet. It’s Facebook “challenged”, boyo.
What’s your overall philosophy towards writing and modern publishing? And what piece of advice would you offer to a young writer just starting out?
Most writers coming out of the gate want the same thing we all want(ed) — instant success and a life of leisure. The truth of the matter is (and I’m convinced of this), that success has much more to do with absolute luck than anything else. While you’re always going to need a good product to hawk, what happens to it is mostly out of your hands the moment it’s sold.
Planning ahead of the pub date is probably essential these days because it seems to me that accountants make the decisions on previously published authors (no matter whether an editor likes a novel or not) and that those first books (number one and two) better have some juice in the form of sales or there will be no number three. I’ve never believed in the politics in the business and don’t see where it’s helped many of the politicians/authors but I do understand their desire to give it a best shot and use all options. The problem is some of those efforts require a lot of excess time and money. I don’t have the time or desire to drive around the country trying to hawk my books. I’ll do what I can and what I can afford. The publishing business is a very tough racket because of the bottom line. Big houses can’t take the risks they used to; their accounting departments won’t let them. So, my advice is this: write the best damn thing you can and NEVER leave any of it to anyone else (i.e., whatever follow-up is necessary once the book is ready to be published, never depend on someone else doing their job). In the end it is your book and you better maintain control over it. I’ve been very fortunate with Greg Sheperd at Stark House Press but that hasn’t always been the case for me and it’s a lesson learned I’ll never forget
Johnny Porno is currently available at the STARK HOUSE website, independent booksellers, and most online retailers.