When trying to figure out how best to be entertaining with this Wildcard stint, I realized I couldn’t do better than to have a chat with Carmelo Pietro “Charlie” Stella, former mob knockaround, playwright, author of seven crime novels—his eighth, Rough Riders, is due out this July—and numerous short stories, father of three, opera lover, dog lover, drummer, blues afficionado (with a special fondness for Cream), power lifter, avid Bills fan, and most importantly (in his book) devoted husband to the singularly astonishing Ann Marie Cucci-Stella. (Rumor has it he wrote his first novel to impress her.)
He’s one of the most generous and self-effacing guys I know, in or out of the writing racket, and one of the funniest to boot. More to the point, he’s also one of the most talented. (For more about Charlie, his books and his world—and trust me, you’re going to want more, lots more—check out his website or his blog)
Johnny Porno is one of those books that just turns your head around, a gem of a novel, rich in detail and color with some of the absolute best dialog you will ever read.
Don’t take it from me, read what the Washington Post had to say:
Stella is a kind of obscene Ring Lardner, finding a lean, rancid poetry in his characters’ vernacular, and rendering it with flawless precision and humor.
Or this from Robert Wade, writing in the San Diego Union-Tribune:
Combine equal parts Mario Puzo and Elmore Leonard, throw in a dash of George V. Higgins and Donald E. Westlake, and who do you get? Charlie Stella, that’s who.
Turns out Charlie’s life has taken an interesting turn of late. Let’s have him tell you about it.
David: So I hear you’re back in school, getting an MFA. Excuse me for a second if I indulge in a bit of fantasy concerning your thesis: Johnny Porno Goes to College. What inspired this return to academe and how’s it going?
Charlie: Originally, it was more a pragmatic decision because the job I’ve been doing on and off for 30 years now, word processing, has been effectively outsourced. My wife is a word processing supervisor and she also saw the writing on the wall. Three years ago she went to school nights while working full-time and earned her RN degree. Her reward has been to work 2 jobs now (12 days on, 2 days off). I felt if there was a job left that couldn’t be outsourced other than RN, which I could never do, it was teaching.
I would need a master’s degree wherever I taught (whether high school or college) and although I’d probably take an even greater cut in salary than outsourcing has cost word processors (and would probably have to move to wherever I could find work), at least it would be rewarding work.
A few years back I worked 7 days a week for nearly two years and was rewarded with paying an extra $26K in taxes for my efforts (and I’m sure Wall Street appreciated my contribution, those cocksuckers). Both jobs I used to work have since been outsourced. It took six months to find another word processing job with a law firm in Jersey last year and they’ve just gone through some layoffs.
The way I feel about it now, regarding the MFA program, it has been one of the rare smart moves I’ve made this life. I couldn’t enjoy the program more. I was a playwright before a crime novelist and had always been fascinated with relationships of all kinds. The program reading lists alone have been worth the coin I’m spending for the degree. I’m reading writers I never would have read (from sheer ignorance of not knowing who they were/what they wrote). My world wasn’t as big as it should’ve been and now it’s at least somewhat bigger.
The mentors provide not only their literary knowledge and skills, they are a source of the always important inspiration I often need to stay focused. I may never write something deemed worthy enough to be published in the literary field, but that’s not why I’m there. Nor is it a second career priority these days. I enjoy learning. It has been a wonderful experience; something I won’t regret whether I can find a teaching job or not. I only wish the program was longer than 4 semesters.
I go into my third semester this June and if all goes well, I’ll graduate next June, after which I will immediately apply for an MA in American literature because I know that what I’ve been reading this last year is but the tip of the iceberg. These days I enjoy reading as much as writing and that’s been a blessing.
My first question to you: Okay, so I’m plowing through your very cool website the other night and I find this new project of yours, The Art of Character: Mastering the Craft of Characterization for Fiction, Film and TV. What prompted this foray into writing about writing?
David: Ironically enough, given all you just said: teaching. I’ve been giving classes the past couple of years on a number of writing-related topics, and character was my first online course (through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program).
Writing out the lectures gave me the initial raw material for a book, and I decided to expand on it. Turned out to be an amazing experience, similar to your MFA program. I had to read a variety of books I’d never read before, or had to re-read books I knew from the far too distant past, and analyze them and think about them in ways I’d never really done before.
Amazing how different the reading experience becomes now that you’re focused on the plumbing.
And I had to reverse engineer my own understanding of characterization, because I work pretty intuitively in my own fiction. I had to break down what I did naturally, without destroying my own work. I think I did okay.
And I didn’t want to write just another handbook on character. I wanted to write something that was written so readers would feel not just instructed but inspired. I took the style as seriously as I did for any of my novels, and the result has my editor at Penguin, Rebecca Hunt, really jazzed about the book. We’ll see how that turns out.
What books in particular that you’ve read in the MFA process have opened your eyes, or inspired you, or just knocked on the door of your imagination and demanded to be let in? Have any given you ideas for your own work?
Charlie: Pretty much the entire reading list, but those I found particularly interesting were new reads for me. Richard Bausch, Alice Munro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Frederick Busch and Jay McInerney. I’ve read several books beyond the requirements of these authors because their works just intrigued me no end.
Rereads of authors I’d already read (and will continue to read) include Andre Dubus, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce and probably my favorite, Richard Yates. I’ll be doing my intensive critical essay on Yates this semester, covering a huge portion of his collective works.
Regarding my own thesis, I floundered back and forth a few times (short story collection, novel and back again) and “think” I’ve settled on a second person fictional memoir born of the McInerney novel (Bright Lights, Big City). Although Richard Bausch is someone I prefer to read more than the rest (because he’s still so new to me), McInerney’s second person style is permitting me to handle some personal stuff from my youth I couldn’t approach writing first or third person.
My mentors are trying their best to get me out of my comfort zone and that’s been a challenge. I loved writing for theatre and dialogue-driven crime novels, but the program has me trying new things in new ways and it’s been the challenge it should be.
As regards the reading … it seems we get a little bit more with each reread of something we might’ve skirted over in the past or read so long ago we forget the inherent brilliance. I’m a notorious re-reader of novels (crime and literary), as well as plays. I appreciate the works I do reread all the more with each new approach. I’m always amazed at how I receive a particular book I read as recently as two years ago, never mind something I read ten or more years ago. I’m doing a lot of catching up because of a misspent youth.
Question: This is a great line from your answer above. “Amazing how different the reading experience becomes now that you’re focused on the plumbing.” You have 15 years of private investigative work behind you, including some very high profile cases. Empirical experience vs. knowledge of craft. I suspect both are optimal, but going forward do you see yourself adjusting away from experience and favoring the plumbing (or vice versa)?
David: First, what a great reading list — and a thesis on Yates. I’m jealous. The thing I miss most about writing + teaching + day job is time to read.
As for PI work—actually, I may be going back to it for the money, my day job as I write and teach. Alexandra Sokoloff, who blogs here every other Friday, has managed to make an honest buck with teaching and writing and I admire the hell out of her. But I don’t write quickly — I’m ridiculously slow, actually — and so the two-books-a-year pace that the ebook revolution seems to require has left me in the dust. I’m doing okay with the teaching but I’m hoping with the character book I can parlay what I know into a bit more swag. For now it’s hit or miss — for which I blame my (lack of) marketing skills.
As for the question — my PI work gives me a perspective that’s similar to a jounalist’s. I see what really goes on in the legal system and it ain’t “the whole truth” the court congratulates itself on welcoming. There’s also the seamy underbelly side of life that gets nowhere near a courtroom, the crazy lover shakedowns and one drug dealer stealing another’s rainy day fund. But that’s the material end of things. As you say, plumbing is craft, and teaching has made me even more aware of it. I read with much more of an eye toward “How did she do that?” than “What just happened?”
Now that I’ve put my own words down on the page and had to muddle my way through things, I see how much I still have to learn, and your mentors are right: The way to learn it is to try new things — new ways to say things, new character approaches, new voice perspectives.
Which gets me back to what you wrote in your last response. What really hit me is your decision to use the second person in your memoir. In my character book I joke that authors of writing manuals will forever be grateful to Jay McInerney for providing an example of extended second person narrative. Lorrie Moore’s Self Help is another one, and brilliant.
But it’s tricky. I think of it as stealth first person. There still needs to be a distinct narrative perspective or it’s just a catalog of observations tethered to an otherwise nameless “you.” And that narrator, revealed through what he chooses to say and how he says it, is in almost every particular an “I.”
But there is a distancing, a sort of heightened self-awareness, as though the narrator isn’t confessing or confiding so much as observing himself. Is this why you decided to use it—to provide that observational remove?
Oh, and I think that taking yourself out of your comfort zone takes incredible courage. You’ve written some of the best dialog I’ve ever read—I recommend you to my students who are having problems getting their dialog to sound both natural and interesting. To think that you’re not going to rely on it for this fictional memoir intrigues the living hell out of me. Can you talk about that a little more, or will that gum up the process?
Charlie: Right now it is so in an infant stage it couldn’t possibly gum up anything. I had tried several times to deal with family relationships writing plays. I could only get so far before the internal exposure was too much to handle.
At this point, I continue to spew from birth forward. I have no idea how far I’ll get; if I can get further than X amount and if I can keep it interesting. It has been such a dramatic twist in the style I’m familiar/comfortable with that I think I shocked my mentor a bit. She’s encouraged me to keep at it and I haven’t been able not to keep at it. I keep going over it (endless rewrites) but that’s part of what makes it fun as well as frustrating. Had I not read Bright Lights, Big City I never would have attempted this new project. I’ve since ordered a few second person stories/novels, including Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and, you named it … Lorrie Moore’s Self Help.
My project may be a 3-part novella or 3-part novel or a trilogy. Who knows? At this point, it’s all about getting it down and not freezing from fear of: “Oh, shit, I can’t let them know that.” I’m writing in memoir form now but will switch to fictional memoir to protect people, but it isn’t what most people might suspect. It isn’t about the mundane mob stuff, although what leads to that will play a part down the road. Right now I’m working on very personal stuff (some of it dark, some of it comical) and it starts at a very young age. I’m having fun and hope to make some kind of sense of it over the next year.
The weird thing is my best paragraphs thus far (at least the ones my mentor noted), were those I wrote like a dervish, just gut spilling, stream of conscious spewing without thinking too hard about how it read (although I do read my work aloud at some point and revise accordingly).
Here’s two of her favorites bits thus far, after a teacher called home to give me up to my old man:
You swallow hard and take another few left-right open hand combinations before this life’s lesson is over, and although he manages not to draw blood, your head is swimming pretty good when you finally get banished to your room to study.
This second paragraph occurs after me and my friends run a portable basketball backboard into a wall in the basement of a Catholic school and the priest (Ryan) lines us up for some comeuppance:
It’s maximum torque this time; the smack so loud and hard even Ryan takes a step back as DaVitto spins like a top, does a complete 360 and corkscrews down to one knee. His face is welted red where the Giant’s paw has struck. DaVitto is clearly dazed and tearing, but he won’t cry either, no way. You’ve all got street creds to earn; crying isn’t something you can do, at least not in public.
I just realized there’s a common theme here—smacks.
My question for you: Besides being a successful novelist and having such an incredibly diverse background, you’re also one of the most articulate bloggers on the scene. Seriously, dude, even here in your questions and responses, you’re as adroit as it gets. I don’t have the time sometimes (and it’s wrong of me) to spend too much time on my weekly blog posts. Yours are incredible. You say you write slow so I’ll assume you’re a stone polisher (making it right as you go rather than spewing and polishing later). What about the blogging? Do you spend time putting something together?
David: Thanks for the attaboy. I have to confess something: I cheat. Some of my blogs are pieces I’ve cobbled together for other purposes, articles I’ve written or oral pieces I’ve performed. But some just spill out. It’s an odd mix. (I’ll leave you guessing which are which.)
Like you, sometimes my best work comes when I turn the censor off and just go. But yeah, I tend to work and rework stuff. I seldom just plow ahead, even though I know that’s the best and sometimes only way. I think by the time I exit the stage I’ll finally have some idea of how to be a reasonably good writer. But like we’ve both said here over and over — there’s so much to learn. It’s exciting and humbling and challenging and strange.
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Okay, now we promised ourselves we wouldn’t just stick to lit. So I’m going to alert our readers to the fact that we’re both football geeks, and want to share a little pigskin love here as we wind up. If they don’t share the groove, they can pop on down to the Q&A section and the Jukebox Hero of the Week.
Your team is the Bills, and they’ve stocked up big on defense in the offseason. The Patriots have reloaded (as always) and the Jets have Tebow, the Fish have a whole new everything as they so often do, with the same crap results. I know you’re concerned about Fitzpatrick and his picks, but I think he’s a leader and has a cannon, he just needed to get his first year at the helm behind him. I think your guys have a real shot. You, eternal pessimist, seem to think not. You envy my Niners with Hardball Harbaugh and Alex Smith. Now, let me tell you, envying Alex Smith is something that would get you skewered on a lot of comment threads. What makes him so special, and what do you see in Iron Jim Harbaugh that makes you jealous—and how do you honestly see the Bills doing this year?
Charlie: I’m VERY old school … guys like Lombardi, Parcells, Coughlin and now the Harbaughs (both John and Jim) are the guys I want to go to war with. Old school DEFENSE first, run the ball down their throats second and mix it up third. I HATE gimmicks … and although the NFL has gone the route of MLB and ALWAYS enhances scoring (although they haven’t figured out how to make the field shorter for the offense just yet), I still believe it’s team like the Moonachie Giants and San Francisco 49ers (their new and much improved look) that are the ones to admire.
I think back to Super Bowl XXV (I was there with my 2nd wife) and it was devastating to watch the coaching clinic Parcells put on for Marv Levy (a nice guy/lousy coach who four times failed to get rings for what I believe was a dynasty team). I can see that entire game in my head over and over. The Bills that year started out like rockem-sockem robots, mauling people with defense and a running game, then went crazy with the no-huddle (no-win-super-bowl) offense … especially after wiping out a no-defense Oakland Raider team in the conference championship. It was the worst thing that could’ve happened, because the Giants had to go to war with your 49ers to get to the dance and they came ready (with a brilliant and obvious game plan—Hostetler watched the play clock run down and shortened the game just enough in the end to keep us out of Norwood’s range); we came cocky … and they won.
This year my Bills will be a better team, but so long as we stick with a gimmick offense, we’ll be a shit team. Even with a fairly weak schedule, we’ll be lucky to go 8-8. Keeping Stevie Johnson, as talented as he is, was a mistake. There’s no room in coach Stella’s world for assholes who take stupid penalties because they need to see themselves on ESPN. There’s enough talent out there to find a kid who wants to make it and will play with his head outside his ass. Fitz has to learn how to throw as if there ARE runners on base; that wind-up motion of his will kill us again if somebody doesn’t shorten his delivery.
So long as we beat the Cheatriots and Moonachie Yets once each, I’ll be a happy man … and the Yets have invited one boatload of trouble with Tebow. I almost feel bad for Sanchez.
Now I reverse it on you, my friend. What’s wrong with Alex Smith? Did you not notice how far they went? Did you not notice how Hostetler and Phil Simms won rings behind great defenses and a solid running game? Come on, man! You’ve got a GREAT team up there. One I admire more than the Montana and Young teams (because they’re hard-nosed rockem-sockem bad boys). Tell me what’s wrong with just missing against a genuine super bowl winner? Are you spoiled, sir?
David: Are you nuts, of course I’m spoiled. I started rooting for the Niners as soon as I hit the west coast in the late 1970s, when the had two wins per season and Walsh was still at Stanford. When he came over to the Niners I thought: This could get interesting. I just didn’t realize five Super Bowls interesting.
But in maligning them—I could almost hear you whispering that dreaded phrase, “finesse team”—you forget how dominant their defenses were. Ronnie Lott and Fred Dean and Hacksaw Reynolds and Ken Norton and Charles Haley were crucial to their success.
And Walsh, who rose up through the Steeler and Bengal organizations, believed in the running game, especially the trapping game: They won that first NFC championship with a drive that everyone remembers for The Catch, but most of the yardage was gained on quick-hitting inside traps with Lenvil Elliott and Ricky Patton—not exactly household names. (BTW: both Harbaughs are fruit of the Walsh coaching tree.)
And I didn’t say I had anything against Alex Smith—I just know a lot of other people do. I happen to think they’re insane.
I’m a huge maniac for underdogs, and I always cheered for Steve Young when he was catching a whirlwind of crap from the locals for displacing Montana. Smith has that same mental toughness. Maybe it’s a Mormon thing.
But the guy he really reminds me of is Jim Plunkett, another number one QB pick everyone gave up on who did, um, not so shabby at the end of his career. Smith just doesn’t have the mechanics, because he didn’t have the coaching Montana and Young had. He’s getting it now from Harbaugh and his crew, and this offseason Smith has reportedly improved immensely.
They also got him some weapons—Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, this rookie out of Illinois: A.J. Jenkins. The real steal though was LaMichael James in the second round: he’s small but he’s mighty. Trust me, they’re going to have a lot more weapons this year, the offense is going to be much more unpredictable, but still with an in-the-trenches mentality.
What I also like about Harbaugh is his ability to forge a team, and his emphasis on character and intelligence as well as talent in draft picks. This isn’t just a hard-nosed team, it’s a smart team. Most importantly, it’s a team. But the schedule’s a lot tougher, injuries are always a possibility, and the NFC West isn’t quite the sleepwalk it was last year. So: We shall see, said the blind man.
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So, Murderateros: Have you made any mid-life career changes like Charlie’s? What prompted the move? How’s it going?
Has anyone else recently matriculated through academe—what was it like, what were the demands, the rewards? Was it worth it?
Wanna talk some football? Opera? Politics? (Don’t get him started.)
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I handed the controls over to Charlie, who had this to say about his selection: “Every morning I send my wife an email: “Buon Giorno, Principessa!” It’s a line repeated several times from one of my favorite movies, la vita è bella. It’s the movie that provided the final link between us. Once I knew my wife cried over this movie, I knew she had soul and we were meant for each other … a very beautiful thing.”