Friday, August 19, 2011

Interview: Crime Writer Charlie Stella

I recently had the privilege of being stranded on Star Island during a hurricane-ish storm with crime writer Charlie Stella. Charlie is the author of seven novels, including his most recent Johnny Porno. He is a powerlifter, drummer, Bills fan (everyone has their weakness) and loves opera music. He does not, however, shave his back.
(Okay, it wasn’t a hurricane, it just rained for three days, but I’m from the desert, so what do you expect.)

1. What are you working on now?

A crime novel that much of takes place on your favorite island and mine, Shutt--I mean, Star Island; it’s a witness protection sequel to my second novel, Jimmy Bench-Press. My MFA literary attempt at a novel and a bunch of literary short stories I hope to submit to some literary journals this fall ... and reviews of foreign films and various books on my dopey blog (when I have the time).

2. Why do you write? 

#1) it’s how I landed the Principessa Ann Marie (Cucci-Stella); #2) it keeps me out of trouble (why Momma Stella encourages me) and #3) I can sit while doing it. 

Charlie and me, when the sun was still shining

3. Publishing-talk about it

Oy vey ... I was head over heels in love with being published back in 2001; thought my life’s dream had come true (it had), but I was as naive about the business as you’d be about an IF bet (bookmaking speak). I left a lot up to my first agent and publisher. True horror story: The guy who originally bought my book was fired after C&G was bought out. We had just started the editing process when it was given to a new editor (who hated the book so much he wanted a friggin’ rewrite). Basically, my book was about to be orphaned. That was the first time my street balls (excuse the French) showed in my new life adjustment. I figured I waited 40 years to get published, I could wait a few more. My agent had a good relationship with the other half of C&G and he managed to get me my editor for all my books to date, Peter Skutches. He’s seen the gamut; edited national book award winners and a stiff like me (we consider Peter family).. The book was finally published and it received a Kirkus starred review. I didn’t have a clue who or what Kirkus was. A week later Publishers Weekly took a dump on it (in the first line of the review). Other reviews were very good. I submitted two more books immediately (I’d written a bunch) and was given a two book deal. The horrors (for me) got worse when I realized that the publishing industry can be every bit as incompetent as the mob, the FBI and/or the government (any government). It isn’t an excuse for my pathetic book scan numbers; I’m well reviewed but I sell as good as the Chevy Volt. My third book made two industry best of lists, received two Starred reviews (one from PW) and was sold out in 6 weeks. Who didn’t know? My publisher. So when I spent a grand of my own coin to attend a writer’s conference in Florida, I had to bring my own copies of the book or they wouldn’t have had any to sell. The horror followed me to my next publisher (an offshoot of the first) and just last year I landed on a lucky number (Stark House Press). They aren’t Random House but at least they don’t remind me 6 x’s a week (as an excuse for not letting me know when the book was released so I could drop-ship signed copies to loyal mystery book stores--that happened with my 2nd publisher and was one final straw because those small stores are getting killed by amazon and if they lose sales to them, it doesn’t help anybody). The other final straw was when my second publisher got nasty in an email. I may be retired, but the day I take “nasty” from some punk playing email tough guy is the day I cut them off with a butter knife. The business is what it is; but my advice to anyone getting into the process is to make damn sure you stay on top of it. Be as helpful as you can. Be as respectful as you can ... but don’t take shit from anybody. It’s your book. When people get out of line, respectfully inform them you’re trying to help in the process, not hinder it. When they don’t listen, remind them. When they still don’t listen, make them listen. My current publisher is a gem. We have a great relationship and I owe it to a long time friend of Greg Shepard’s, Ed Gorman. He hooked me up (and didn’t really know me when he did--a very gracious man and legendary mystery writer).

4. Other than writing, what is your claim to fame?

I once ate 6 pounds, one ounce of spaghetti and won the championship of the world (back in my window cleaning days when I was just 212 pounds). See my webpage/blurbs: Spaghetti King

5. What is life with Charlie like right now?

It was work 7 days a week for a while (and my wife was blessed not having me around), but then outsourcing whacked two jobs and I went on unemployment (it’s a beautiful thing for a writer). Last week I returned for a 3-month temporary assignment but it’s Mon-Fri so she still has to see me nights and weekends (the poor thing). I’m a mellow old man with a lot of back pain (from being a moron a few years ago and trying to power lift again---I’ve never been accused of being the sharpest knife in the drawer). I listen to a lot of opera, I don’t play my drums enough at all and I write, write, write ... as much as I can. Come September, Sundays are reserved for Mom and my beloved New York State Buffalo Bills.

6. What turns you on?

What turns me on is pizza ... verismo opera ... my wife’s freckles .... a well played jam on the drums ... While crime fiction originally turned me onto writing, I prefer reading literary fiction on probably a 5:2 ratio (I’ll read 5 literary books to 2 crime fiction books).

7. Why an MFA?

 I need to find something I can do to pay the bills because my legitimate job for the past 30 years has been effectively outsourced. My illegal job(s) are long in my past. I also owe my first writing teacher my ass (Dave Gresham is the reason I’m not dead/in jail, you name it). He got me started way back in the day and although I took many dopey detours, the writing bug was firmly implanted. I had thought about an MFA for years and was turned off by the application process because I was dumped on for being a crime fiction writer--I thought it was some arrogant bullshit, but it was their ball--Brooklyn College--they rejected me after I submitted one of my books in the application, which clearly stated it was okay to do so). What they did was take $125 from my pocket. I wrote the director an email and told him to let me know if he ever needed an agent. I’m not proud of that response because it made me as small as he was. I should’ve caught him on the corner somewhere and took his fuckin’ watch (if it was worth $125.00). I doubt it.

8. What do you think of the SNHU Program thus far?

I’m like a kid again. Okay, a fat, old, ugly kid but a kid nevertheless. I love it. I can’t tell you how great the experience has been/is. Having all that talent on staff to approach is a treasure trove. I first met Katherine Towler by reading one of her books a dozen or so years ago. I’d written her to tell her how much my wife and I enjoyed Snow Island. So look who’s teaching in the program, I learned after rereading Snow Island  a second time? Mitch Wieland has already turned me on to four writers I never would have known about without meeting him. And where would I have met Mitch except for in this program? And crazy Mae! Who would’ve known such a stately woman could curse like a champ? Where else would I have met Mae (she’s from Jersey too) except in New Hampshire? Craig Childs has me seriously considering trying something non-fiction. I think Diane Les Becquets is doing a great job of creating a community atmosphere and she’s a Lombardi fan. Vince is my God. I know I feel as close to many of my fellow students as I did to guys I played football with in college so there’s that aspect as well—camaraderie.  All you crazy writers are great friendship finds. Frankly, I wish it were a 6-semester program. I think it’s great. I truly love it. And who cares whether or not I can pay the loans back some day. I’m friggin’ 55 with a life expectancy of 68 years. Like Tommy Burns might say (about that unpaid loan), “What they gonna’ do, arrest me? Fuck’em..”

9. Do you really offer an open house to visitors in the NY area?

If you’re in our program, you’re welcome. We’ll do whatever we can for yous. Hey, we’re famiglia now.

Visit Charlie at:

And his always hilarious bog:


pattinase (abbott) said...

Great interview. Although Charlie is a wonderful, first-rate writer, his best creation will always be himself.

nigel p bird said...

I can't believe the way your earlier experience was so bad - hopefully those publishers have now awoken.

And 6 punds of pasta? What techinique did you use for the fork?


Anonymous said...

thanks for a good laugh ... Charlie, I've never been to NY, so I may just take you up on that offer! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Patti. More than kind.

Nigel, you don't know the half of it ... but it's all straightened out now (because of a good and honest publisher, Greg Shepard at Stark House).

Suzi, anytime, kiddo. We have an extra room ... and drums!

Kellinator ... you rock!

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

Thanks, Charlie for everything.

D. Mitchell said...

Proud to call you a friend Charlie. Looking forward to the pit at Winter Residency. Kind of hoping we can go for coffee at another McD's while we're there. Last time was pretty entertaining.
To your health, Brother,
That Damn Okie

Erica Lucke Dean said...

What a great interview! It must have been great fun to spend time with him and pick his brain about so many things. Thank you for sharing :)

rebelsowell said...

Charlie and Kelly: You are both fucking hilarious and so damned talented you make me sick. Just kidding. . .about the make me sick part.

Anonymous said...

That was fun!