Charlie Stella & Lynn Kostoff
interview each other
Charlie Stella is one of the most respected writers of mob fiction today. His first six novels all received critical acclaim: Eddie’s World (2001); Jimmy Bench-press (2002); Charlie Opera (2003); Cheapskates (2005); Shakedown (2006); and Mafiya (2008). Stella’s seventh novel, Johnny Porno (2010), is the first original to be published by Stark House. Charlie was born in Manhattan and raised in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He lives in New Jersey. Visit Charlie Stella’s website.
Lynn Kostoff is the author of three novels, A Choice of Nightmares (2010), The Long Fall (2003), and Late Rain (available in July 2010 from Tyrus Press).He received his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University and went on to teach at Indiana State University and the University of Alabama. He is currently a professor of English and Writer in Residence at Francis Marion University in South Carolina. Visit Lynn Kostoff’s website.
Charlie Stella Interviews Lynn Kostoff
Charlie Stella has been a Lynn Kostoff fan since way back when the two were published at Carroll & Graf. Kostoff’s THE LONG FALL remains one of Stella’s favorite crime books of all time. Stella claims what distinguishes Kostoff from most other crime writers is his natural literary talent; an ability to string together some of the most poignant prose on the market. Stella says Kostoff transcends crime genre novels and that he would give one of his arms to write that good. Stella says Kostoff’s latest, LATE RAIN, is simply brilliant.
Charlie Stella: 1) You’re more than a genre writer; your prose is as literary as any I’ve ever read. The stories behind the stories, so to speak, are modern versions of classics. Corrine Tedros isn’t very different than Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov—she’s had a poor and troubled past and she too feels she deserves something that isn’t hers (a different life) and can justify it because the person who has what she wants is in the way. Is she a modern day Raskolnikov or just another selfish viper?
I appreciate your reference to Dostoevsky and CRIME AND PUNISHMENT; I’d hoped to create a similar moral dilemma in the novel. As far as Raskolnikov and Corrine Tedros go, sometimes there’s a fine line between desperation and a belief in your innate superiority over others. Like Raskolnikov, Corrine Tedros is very adept at rationalizing and justifying her actions and desires, but unlike Raskolnikov, she has a limited capacity for redemption. Corrine is finally unable to believe in anything beyond the body and the material world. When things go bad, she feels the impulse to pray a couple times during the course of the narrative, but the prayers inevitably dry up on her lips. One of the truths Corrine accepts as her gospel is “If you look at anything long enough, you’ll see through it.” In the end, her hunger is raised to the level of the metaphysical. It’s all she knows and is.
2) There are several masterful contradictions you set up in LATE RAIN; an eclectic cast of characters you want to dislike, yet can’t because they are deserving of respect (the seemingly miserly Gramps) is just one; a Horatio Alger image if ever there was one. Then there’s a simple-minded killer (Croy Wendall) with a deep but misguided sense of loyalty. There’s the cop, Decovic, running from his past (his wife’s murder at the hands of a sociopath), but too good at his craft to ignore something he knows requires more attention. There’s Corrine Tedros and her dilemma of being married to a man she was able to maneuver at will while having to be the daughter-in-law of a rich soft drink mogul who can read her like an open book. Were the contradictions planned or did they develop as you wrote?
In the early stages, I saw the characters simply as a group of people who each badly wanted something, and the contradictions weren’t planned out. They arose when the personalities and agendas of the characters collided. I tried to nudge and focus the contradictions more dramatically in each subsequent draft. The more the characters interacted and bounced off each other, the more they stayed true to who and what they were, and that’s what finally opened up the contradictions in them and hopefully made the characters more complex and human for readers.
3) In LATE RAIN, an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s disease witnesses a murder. This was handled wonderfully on several levels. I don’t want to provide a spoiler here, so without you giving away the ending, when did you decide on how (or whether or not) this man’s remembering the facts would affect the conclusion of the novel?
While I hoped a man with Alzheimer’s witnessing a murder would serve as a good plot hook for readers, I did not want it to devolve into pure melodrama. I wanted to capture the feel of someone struggling with Alzheimer’s since a number of sections in the novel are narrated specifically from Jack Carson’s point of view, and it took quite a few tries before I found what I was looking for. The greatest difficulty for me, finally, was having to acknowledge that Jack’s condition was not going to improve as the novel went on because he had become a real presence to me and someone I had come to care deeply about.
4) LATE RAIN takes place in the South. Ben Decovic has fled his past and wound up in Magnolia Beach. You live in the South. Is that a more comfortable writing zone for you or did the location have a more specific purpose?
I had originally intended to set the novel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina since it is only an hour away from where I live, but I finally ended up having to create an imaginary beach resort, Magnolia Beach, near Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand because over the course of four drafts, many of the area’s reference points kept disappearing and changing. It was more than a little frustrating. The Grand Strand is in danger of over-development, too much of its earlier beauty and charm being replaced by sprawl. I wanted a setting that was on the verge of becoming a boomtown, not one already, so I created Magnolia Beach.
5) Back to the Horatio Alger element (for me). Stanley Tedros built a soft drink business from the ground up and feels responsible to the people he employs; a great American story. Like most American business success stories, big business is seeking to buy him out and make a few people rich at the expense of an entire work force (the plant workers, truck drivers, etc.). It’s what Corrine is counting on and probably what too many of us today would view as a score (the employees be damned). Is that modern day greed vs. good old fashioned moral values?
Stanley Tedros, the soft drink mogul, is a product of another century; all his values and assumptions are grounded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century immigration and assimilation drama of the American Dream. Those values are increasingly being reduced to sound bytes today. My upbringing was very close to those immigration values of Stanley’s (go figure; with a last name like Kostoff and Collins on my mother’s side, I had a homegrown version of the assimilation drama). On one level, though, Corrine Tedros also embodies the American Dream, just a darker and more corrupt version from Stanley’s. She wants to be cleansed of history and believes she can erase and redraw her past and remake herself along the lines of her desires. She is American individualism taken to its farthest extremes.
6) Regarding the craft of writing itself, what do you find most difficult and/or easiest? Do you use outlines? Do you have an organizational chart set up with characters branching off from the main protagonist? Do you use index cards, etc.?
One reason I have always admired your work is your ability to orchestrate incredibly complex plots that keep the reader turning pages. Plotting is something that I struggle mightily with. I can get things moving and enjoy trying to tie them up in a satisfying manner, but the middle of novels is pure hell for me. It’s always at that point where I begin to feel lost and have major doubts about the whole project, and it inevitably takes me a long time before I get to the last act in the plot. I’m embarrassed to say that I still write the early drafts of a novel in longhand. I use a composition notebook and write on every other page, saving the opposite page to jot down notes and ideas as they occur to me.
7) Could you discuss the various forms of evil in LATE RAIN?
As usually happens when I work, I slowly began to spot connections and patterns in the material with each draft, and I eventually discovered that the evil in LATE RAIN unfolded along a continuum.
Greg Hollinger in the backstory of the novel’s protagonist, Ben Decovic, is pure faceless evil. An otherwise unassuming man, he goes on a random and arbitrary killing spree and kills, among others, Ben Decovic’s wife, then commits suicide and never gives an explanation for any of his actions. Decovic, as a homicide detective, is a man who deeply believes in motive and reason and is forever tormented by the fact that there are no answers for what Greg Hollinger did.
Corrine Tedros is conventionally evil and immoral; she is conscious of the ethical weight of her actions, but her hunger and desperation override everything and become her default mode.
Croy Wendall is not so much evil or immoral as amoral. He has constructed a private system of meaning based on numbers and word rhymes. Croy is a criminal and murderer but functions in a realm beyond conventional judgments. He is fascinated with amphibians, which become a metaphor for his place in our world and ethical system. He literally and figuratively operates in two realms.
Lastly, two other characters, Raychard Balen and Waye LaVell, operate in the realm of legalistic and business evil. They pull strings behind the scenes and ruthlessly operate in the fine print.
8) You’ve been a busy guy. In a publishing market that is leaving many authors stressed and struggling to stay in the game, you have two books being published in one year; A CHOICE OF NIGHTMARES and LATE RAIN. While one is a reprint (A CHOICE OF NIGHTMARES), LATE RAIN is something new. It handled my Kostoff fix nicely, but how did you do it; two in one year?
I feel very lucky that in 2010 my first novel A CHOICE OF NIGHTMARES was reissued by New Pulp Press and my new novel, LATE RAIN, was taken by Tyrus Books. In many respects, I feel like I found a home in each. Jon Bassoff at New Pulp is a lover of and tireless champion of noir and crime fiction and has founded an imprint that pays homage to the old pulps while putting a contemporary spin on their basic conventions. New Pulp’s editorial slant is edgy and unapologetic, and that’s the kind of aesthetic I hope to find in a crime novel. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good way of describing Jon Bassoff himself.
I was equally pleased that LATE RAIN landed with Tyrus Books, the new imprint founded by Ben Leroy and Alison Janssen. I had been a big fan right from the start of their earlier publishing venture, Bleak House, and looked forward to reading each addition to their list, and I was very excited when Marcus Sakey, one of my favorite writers, steered me in Alison’s and Ben’s direction. What I have always admired about their editorial slant both at Bleak House and now at Tyrus is Ben’s and Alison’s willingness to blur the lines between crime and literary fiction and simply put out good books. The literary world is a better place for readers and writers because Ben Leroy and Alison Janssen are in it.
9) What’s down the road for you regarding future projects?
I’ve begun reworking a very rough draft of a novel entitled THE WORK OF HANDS. Like my first one, A CHOICE OF NIGHTMARES, it is written from the point of view of a single protagonist. I’ve discovered I enjoy writing two types of crime novels. The single point of view character novels tend to deal with larger cultural issues and crimes. The protagonist in NIGHTMARES gets ensnared in the world of cocaine smuggling and is horribly and hopelessly unequipped to deal with the consequences, and the protagonist in THE WORK OF HANDS is a public relations executive who “fixes” things for his clients and cleans up the messes and scandals they find themselves in while believing he can keep his own hands and soul clean. On the other hand, the novels like LATE RAIN and THE LONG FALL have multiple narrators and rather than foregrounding the larger cultural issues, they tend to explore more personal individual crimes and their consequences. For me, there are peculiar headaches and joys inherent in writing each type of novel.
10) The role of “the wife” (or “husband”) in any writer’s life is much more significant than most people imagine. I just read the memoir by Norman Mailer’s 6th wife, Norris Church Mailer, and she said that the first time she interrupted him while he was writing he told her to “imagine that he was in South America. What would she do then?” How do you and your wife handle this wonderfully paying gig we do because we can’t not do it?
There’s a reason that LATE RAIN is dedicated to my wife, Melanie. Over twenty-three years of marriage, she has put up with and been incredibly supportive of a writer who obsesses over drafting and redrafting his work and whose writing career has often felt like a contradiction in terms. She believed, and I will always love her for that.
11) You’re not off hook that easy, my friend. In an email exchange between us you mentioned you had read Dow Mossman’s STONES OF SUMMER and enjoyed it. Tell us about your youth and what steered you toward writing. Were you a wild kid? Studious? Were you slipping around the corner for a toke? Tell us you didn’t knock one of the door’s off your father’s car you borrowed one night and then tried to sleep through it like Dawes in STONES OF SUMMER.
Looking back, I guess I’d see myself as someone who always ended up “in-between” major cultural shifts. I grew up in the rural Midwest but yet close to some of the major steel-producing centers in Ohio and Pennsylvania. I was part of and watched the death of two major American worlds. I managed to put myself through one year of college by truck-farming (hitting three or four farmer’s markets a week) and then watched agri-business come in and wipe out most of the small independent farms. I also helped finance another year of college by working in a large steel mill, only to watch it succumb to rust-belt economics. Those rural and blue collar values were important parts of my upbringing.
All of that collided with the world of college. Once again, I was “in-between.” The values and lifestyles of the 1960’s were still present on the campus, but by the end of my first year Watergate and the subsequent Big Chill occurred (by the way, your JOHNNY PORNO very eloquently and powerfully captures that sense of loss, corruption, and disillusionment). A friend of mine in college was a huge Dow Mossman fan and gave me a copy of THE STONES OF SUMMER. I didn’t have to read far into it to discover another “in-betweener.”
Even my present life tends to follow the pattern above. I’ve lived in the South for close to half my life (and married a Southerner), but an equal amount of the Midwesterner is still very much there too. I have a foot and a life in both worlds.
Lynn Kostoff Interviews Charlie Stella
Lynn Kostoff had ordered and was eagerly waiting to jump in and begin reading Charlie Stella’s second novel, JIMMY BENCH PRESS, when an odd synchronicity occurred; that same week, Kostoff got the Advance Reader’s Copy of his second novel, THE LONG FALL, and discovered that Charlie Stella had written a blurb for it. They had never met, but that mutual respect has lead to a valued friendship. Kostoff and Stella still have not met face-to-face, but their lives have been shadowed by another synchronicity when they both ended up with new novels coming out in 2010 by independent publishing houses. As far as Kostoff the reader is concerned, a new Stella novel is an automatic cause for celebration, and JOHNNY PORNO may very well be his best one yet.
Lynn Kostoff: #1 I would put you as one of the finest storytellers currently working in the business; that assessment is directly tied to my admiration for your plotting. I don’t know how you keep all the separate plot lines and elements working together so beautifully. Given its complexity, how did you go about developing the plot for JP?
If the plots work in the end, it’s from the very skilled help of Peter Skutches, my editor. I do not plot at all. I write the skeleton of the novel in dialogue, then go back and pick and choose what stays/what goes and kind of re-plot, if anything. I find it much easier to let it flow and then go back. I’ve become much more comfortable editing my stuff after the fact (the skeleton), than trying to outline it. Peter gets the credit for cleaning the mess up, though. My wife, too, because she gets it before Peter and he usually agrees with 80-85% of what she suggests.
#2 While JOHNNY PORNO is categorized as a thriller, one of its greatest pleasures for me was the way you played a number of genres off each other; at times the novel read as social realism, comedy, police procedural, romance, and crime novel. Setting the conventions of the various genres against each other as you did created a very distinctive montage effect. How difficult was it to orchestrate that?
Again, once the bare bones were down on paper, it wasn’t so hard to go back and work certain themes into the piece. I did have a few reservations about using too much humor (the wannabe, Nick Santorra, for instance) but sometimes life, especially on the dark side, is often quite funny. I had to research the police procedural stuff and work around the edges, but dealing with some of the social issues of the day was something I did plan regarding characters. I had wanted to write a gay cop for a while and had only done so in a short story prior to JOHNNY PORNO. I also wanted to deal with some of the ethnic issues of the day (1973) and as most people know, the NYPD wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy when it came to dealing with homosexual and/or racial issues. That is not to paint the NYPD as some neo-nazi organization because it wasn’t and it isn’t, but there have always been rogue individuals within the ranks of all law enforcement agencies who used their power for their own benefit (or prejudice) rather than serving the public. As for pornography, I hoped to show how men on both sides of the law perceived those involved in the porn industry; as an almost subspecies of life (much the way those who put up the money for Deep Throat treated the poor bastards who starred in it). The question is, how far have we come since 1973?
#3 Which was your favorite character in JOHNNY PORNO? (For me, it was a photo-finish between Louis and Nancy). On the other hand, which character was hardest to write?
Louis and Nancy were a blast to write, especially their end, but I’m a big softy when it comes to characters. Nathan and John were tied for my favorites. I want to believe there are people like Nathan out there. I know there are plenty of Johns struggling to make ends meet. The Nathans of the world give the Johns of the world a reason to keep struggling; it isn’t all in vain. The most difficult character to write was Hastings because although I know his kind of sexual perversion exists, his rigid mindset created an absolute dichotomy I wasn’t sure I could pull off.
#4 How much research did you have to do for the 1970’s material/texture of JOHNNY PORNO? Both of us came of age in the 70’s, but there is a richness to the backdrop that feels stronger than simple memory. What did you decide to include and not include from the period?
I did quite a bit of research actually. My wife and I went to the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza and searched through the microfiche for New York Post and Daily News articles from the week I chose randomly in August of 1973. It wound up being the motherload as far as high profile events, as did the year itself, 1973. I had to constantly trim back information from that year because at times it started to read like a journal summary. The Agnew stuff that we cut had to do with my editor saying something like, “Okay, we get it. It’s 1973 and Watergate is the big political shadow overseeing this pornographic witch hunt. Enough.”
#5 John Albano is one of a long line of Stella protagonists from earlier novels that share one thing in common: they all are trying very hard to find a way to put something from their lives behind them and start over. That strikes me as a very archetypal American theme. What is its continuing appeal for you besides the obvious dramatic jump-start for a storyline?
We write what we know and I’ve got a lot of shit to put behind me; being a good provider rather than a good parent, being caught up in the relative glitz of being a small time criminal versus grounding myself while earning a legitimate income … basically doing the right thing after having made mistakes. John is pretty much the opposite of what I just described; he’s a great parent but at the time we meet him, he’s having a tough time providing. He abhors what he’s doing to make ends meet and is more than willing to work hard at a legitimate job. He’s probably a guy like way too many Americans today, men and women. People caught in a grind our government (with a smile) put us in for the sake of Wall Street.
#6 Again, like many of your protagonists from earlier novels, John Albano is very, very, very stubborn, and that quality functions as both one of his greatest strengths as well as weaknesses. In fact, stubbornness almost functions as a constant aesthetic subtext to your novels. Is that a fair or accurate observation?
Nobody does stubborn like a Stella. Christ, that is our family trademark. My daughter and I aren’t talking for a year now because she didn’t make me meatballs for my birthday last year. Smart fucking family, eh? Yet, should we do this interview again next year or the year after, there’s a good chance we still won’t be talking and I’ll have grandchildren I haven’t seen yet. On the other hand, my son Dustin broke the ice today (a few minutes ago, before I answered #6 above) he gave me a call. That made my day. Now I have to remember to update my dopey webpage where it says I have three kids and one talks to me. Many of my protagonists can be accused of many things, but smart isn’t necessarily one of them; stubborn should be tattooed on their foreheads.
# 7 Could you talk a little about Stark House press and what it was like to be a groundbreaking publishing event for them, the fact that JOHNNY PORNO is their first original, rather than reprint, publication?
An honor that never would’ve happened had it not been for Ed Gorman reading the manuscript and prodding Greg Sheperd. I’ve had some bizarre experiences in the publishing world. I’ve learned to take the bad with the good. So far my experience with Greg has been all aces. He’s been supportive and honest and that’s all any writer can ever ask of a publisher. Still, the reason Johnny Porno is dedicated to Ed is because Mr. Gorman didn’t know me from a hole in the wall less than a few months before turning the manuscript over to Greg. He contacted me on his own about some other issue and we went back and forth a few times. I told him about the position I was in with JOHNNY PORNO; some editors from bigger houses liked it but my book scan numbers weren’t good enough for them to take the risk (and some wouldn’t even read it the numbers were so bad). I assume accountants make the decisions these days on previously published authors. So it goes. Ed read the thing and turned it over to Greg and he liked it enough to take the risk and publish it. I hope JOHNNY PORNO can do him justice. He’s a decent guy; the kind the John Albanos of the world hope for.
#8 I can’t resist this one. Given the time frame of JOHNNY PORNO, what do you think were the greatest film and album from the 1970’s? I would have to go with CHINATOWN and TUPELO HONEY though other choices start immediately crowding in.
Oh, brother … I’m a CREAM fan and still can’t get over CREAM’S Wheels of Fire, half the album recorded in a studio and the other half (Spoonful, Crossroads, Traintime and Toad were live at the Filmore). I was still drumming back then so I loved Ginger Baker (although I hated the 20 minute solos). As for movies, I was such a kid back then (even more immature than I am now) so I have to go with The Exorcist because it scared the shit out of me (and still does).
#9 We both share an absolute and abiding love and respect for George Higgins’s THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. We came across COYLE early as readers. Timing, with reading, can often be everything. We discover or rediscover the “right” work or author at different periods of our lives. I have always known that Anton Chekhov was a great writer, but it’s only been in the last couple of years after rereading his stories, that I’ve come to appreciate how truly great he was. Is there an author or work that particularly speaks to you or your life at present?
You nailed it, brother. The more I reread these days the more I get from the experience. I discovered Richard Yates just a couple of years ago and have reread everything by him twice already. I still read Steinbeck for the same reasons and Arthur Miller and Higgins. In fact, I have to say that that is the difference (for me) between Leonard and Higgins. I always enjoy a new Leonard (usually two years after it is published) but I’ve only reread one of his. I can’t even count how many times I’ve reread Higgins first three novels, especially Eddie Coyle.
#10 On the same note that you did for me, could you please talk about the role of your wife in your writing life?
Ann Marie saved me from myself and the shit I was involved in because I knew she was everything good I had always wanted. She is my Nathan (see above). I can’t imagine not having her in my life and as many times as I’ve come close to screwing things up (in my own stubborn way), I’m fortunate enough to have just enough brain cells left to realize what my life would be like without her. In a word, shit. My life would be seriously diminished without her.
#11 Could you talk about what’s on the writing horizon for you? What do Charlie Stella fans have to look forward to?
Well, as regards crime writing, much depends on how JOHNNY PORNO does, that’s for sure. I have a completed novel – that I turned down offers from C&G on way back – ready to go. It’s a kind of sequel to my first novel, EDDIE’S WORLD and is called ROUGH RIDERS. The bulk of it takes place in North Dakota and brings back the villain (Singleton) and good guys (Greene & Pavlik) from EDDIE’S WORLD. Outside of that, I have spent a lot of time and energy on a few non-crime projects, including some theatre pieces. I have a collection of short stories and a novella I hope to shop just as soon as I can finish a novel to go with it, but that novel has been a three year project that has given me fits matched only by my beloved New York State Buffalo Bills.