Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pro-File: Charlie Stella

Charlie Stella has delivered newspapers (back when people read them), unloaded watermelons, been a dish washer, cooked hamburgers at McDonalds, humped sheetrock at the Olympic Tower, buffed hallways and cleaned apartments in Starrett City, cleaned windows atop several high rise Manhattan office buildings, was a bouncer at a few bars, was into street finance and bookmaking, was a word processing operator, supervisor, manager and director of communications and currently works as a word processing operator 7 days a week.

He had a few plays produced off-off Broadway back in the day before taking a break from writing to earn money on the streets as a knockaround guy. He’s an opera aficionado, jazz enthusiast and plays his brand new DW Drums every chance he gets. An avid reader of contemporary literature, he loves his 1.75 hour 1-way commute each day because of the reading time it affords him.

Ed here: Charlie wrote the above. What he forgot to mention is that his books have been among the most celebrated in the past ten years. From having one novel named one PW's best ten of the year to numerous starred reviews in all the major trade publications, Charlie's work has been lauded here and throughout Europe.

Charlie Stella:

1 Tell us about your current novel.

Mafiya was my attempt at writing a very strong female character that wasn’t raising kids on her own while climbing her way to the top of the corporate ladder. I had some fun playing with Russian-American dialogues and touching on some themes that have always intrigued me (some of them ugly themes). It was also a way to set up future (if there is one) mob conflicts for future books. I left it open-ended for obvious reasons.

2. Can you give us a sense of what you're working on now?

It’s (they) aren’t crime novels. I’ve been bitten (or re-bitten) by the drama bug. I started writing plays a long time ago and have returned to drama in novel form. I put together a bunch of short stories around a Steinbeck quote “Man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, then steps in it.” I’m also rewriting a novel about relationships and lust. Peter Skutches (my maestro) liked the stories but hasn’t seen the novels yet. I hope to fit the novel in my impossible schedule and get it to him fairly soon. Both projects are probably a bit ambitious but I’m 52 and figure what do I have to lose?

3. What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?

Working 7 days a week … and I mean that. It’s been very liberating for me to work 7 days a week as a word processor because it forces the discipline I require to a) stay out of trouble and b) accomplish goals. Writing has been vacation money at best and usually more like tip money but that isn’t why I’m doing it anyway. I used to make a lot of money doing illegal things. The cliché is true … money can’t make you happy.

4. The greatest DIS-pleasure?

The publishing business can be extremely frustrating. It’s been much easier to deal with working 7 days a week. I just don’t have time to get frustrated anymore.

5. If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?

Grow a pair of balls.

6. Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you'd like to see in print again?

I own pretty much everything by my favorites and frankly have to claim ignorance here. I really don’t read very many crime novels in a year (maybe a dozen or so and usually half of those are foreign crime novels). I’ve been spending a lot of time commuting (1.75 hours one way every day) catching up on all the stuff I should’ve been reading the last 40 years. Frankly, it’s been wonderful. A few months ago I discovered Richard Yates and have been overwhelmed by him. I read everything, including the Blake Bailey bio … then learned my writing mentor, Dave Gresham (a teacher from college many years ago who is most responsible for my writing anything) was a former student of Yates (and Vonnegut) at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

7. Tell us about selling your first novel. Most writers never forget that moment.

Very exciting. I remember going to bed one night after hearing from my agent at the time that Kent Carrol was interested in Eddie’s World. Then I came home from a long night of bookmaking (when the office had taken a beating and my numbers were in the red) and there was an e-mail from Bob Diforio that read: “We have an offer.” It was a very exciting moment. I immediately called the woman responsible for me even trying to write a novel again and told her (my beautiful wife, Ann Marie – the Principessa). Everything seemed to come together at the exact right time in my life. I walked away from the street and avoided a ton of bad stuff less than two years later (as it turned out for the crew I was with).

8. What do you consider the highlight of your career thus far?

Last year we went to two book stores out west (Poisoned Pen in Arizona and Murder by the Book in Houston). Usually when I go somewhere, 2-6 people show up (usually for the free cannoli we bring). David at Murder by the Book and Barbara Peters at Poisoned Pen had real live Stella fans at each signing. Listen, there weren’t lines going around the block, but there were real to life people who were there for me. A few had every single thing I’d written (short stories included). It reminded us of the time we visited M is for Mystery in San Mateo after my second book and some woman came to tell me how much she enjoyed Eddie’s World. I was floored. I still am. Those things are great. So are the occasional fan emails.

9. How about the low point?

Going to a bookstore in New Jersey (after being lost for a good hour) and having the manager of the store tell me how much she hated mob novels before she even asked me what I wrote. I really wanted to leave, but my wife forced me to stay … to a crowd of zero. It was humiliating. I went home and ate a tree.

10. Which book or short story would you recommend to readers unfamiliar with your work?

My personal favorite is Cheapskates. Reviewers seemed to like Charlie Opera and Shakedown. Short stories I’d say the one in Baltimore Noir (Ode to the O’s) (which probably got me the most press) and/or the one in Bleakhouse’s Hardboiled Brooklyn (Waiting for Gallo).


JD Rhoades said...

Great interview. And Charlie is a righteous dude (however much we lock horns over politics).

Anonymous said...

The truth is JD and I are probably more politically aligned than either of us realizes ... except that I'd shoot most of the politicians from both parties (and have a successful pretzel vendor operating on any street in Manhattan run the treasury rather than the clowns we have/had), we're totally simpatico.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Charlie might be a righteous dude, but he's still a Bills fan. Sad, very sad...

Anonymous said...

David still feels the new england Cheaterfaces completed that perfect season a couple years ago. This is the result, no doubt, of one (wide right) missed Kung Fu kick.

Somebody please remind him that not only did they lose and finish 18-1 ... they also should have forfeited all those bowls they robbed via cheating that came before the great loss to the moonachie giants.

Stacey Cochran said...

Nice interview, Ed and Charlie.

I love hearing stories about selling the first novel. Those are the fun moments.

Tom Piccirilli said...

Considering how powerful and natural your dialogue is, it seems that playwriting would be a natural arena for you to work in. Kudos for bringing your talents (back) to the stage. Luigi Pirandello...Charlie Stella. Salut!

Anonymous said...

Grazie, amico

Unknown said...

I was one of those fans at Poisoned Pen and trust me when I say it was just as much of a blast getting to hear you talk about your books and the writing life as you got from being there. Believe it or not, I got a lot out of that appearance, especially concerning work ethic.

Keep writing,(and keep coming back out to Phoenix.)because there are a bunch of us out there clamoring for more of your stuff.

Anonymous said...

Keith's comment above is what makes it worth it. Money I can make on my own; always have, always will.

Grazie, Keith ... big time grazie.