Monday, November 18, 2013

How I Came to Write This Book: Dana King's GRIND JOINT

I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. Haven’t lived there since 1980, though I go back several times a year to visit my parents in the house I grew up in. I understand better with time how the area shaped me, not least when I return and see the economy hasn’t changed appreciably since it persuaded me to leave.

Pittsburgh recovered by remaking itself into a center of education, medicine, and finance. The southern and northern suburbs came back, some even better than before. I don’t remember there being a Cranberry Township when I lived in the area; now it’s a suburb of choice.

Northwestern Westmoreland and northeastern Allegheny Counties missed most of this. There are isolated spots of progress in a landscape of small, local business trading money back and forth, helping each other to go under slower. This is the area I turned into Penns River.

On a visit home a few years ago, I looked at what had been a small strip mall—Montgomery Wards and J.C. Penney, connected by a handful of small local businesses—essentially abandoned for over five years, and thought, “Oh, yeah. This is exactly where a sleazeball developer would put a casino and tell the town their problems were solved.”

That idea might make a good book for someone else to write, but I needed a crime. (It’s how I roll.) I added peripheral Russian mob involvement that gets out of hand and conflicts with the local Pittsburgh Mafia—the boss of which lives in Penns River—and pretty soon there’s more than the town can handle.

I felt a little guilty about using the building site and bringing in the Russian mob until research showed the actual building is in far worse condition than I depicted. (In Grind Joint the building is renovated; in fact, the city says the land would be more valuable without the building. The real-life mayor has described the buildings as having “deteriorated to the point where we are worried about safety.”) I was also concerned about how believable it might be to have a silent partner in the casino who was a former Russian mobster until I came across several articles that showed the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s vetting process wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be; several examples of organized crime influence in casinos have been found.

Western Pennsylvania is a heavily ethnic area, dominated by residents of German, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European descent. I used characters with the kinds of names found in the area as a good way to remind the reader of the setting without continually describing things. The names Ben “Doc” Dougherty, Stanley “Stush” Napierkowski, Willie Grabek are no more common than names such as Schoepf, Zywiciel, Wierzbicki, and Neuschwander. A pronunciation key is provided at the front of the book. (Honest to God. You can thank Charlie Stella, who asked after reading a draft, “Ain’t no one named Smith in this town?” I changed a character’s name just for him.)

I worry people will recognize the location and think I’m throwing stones. Far from it; this has been a labor of love. Every year I become more aware of how the area shaped me, and how many of what people consider to be my better qualities came from there. I read the local paper online and avidly follow the Pirates, Penguins, and Steelers. As I wrote in my dedication to Worst Enemies, the predecessor to Grind Joint: “To the Tri-Cities, the Hotel California of the Rust Belt.” I may have checked out, but I’ll never leave.

GRIND JOINT is now available at Amazon and other book sellers. 


Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Thanks for hosting Dana.

Dana - Thanks for sharing the background to Grind JOint. I went to university in Western Pennsylvania, so I know the area. And honestly, no matter where a person was raised, I do agree it shapes one.

R.T. said...

Patti, pass on something to Dana. He may not remember a Cranberry Township, but he may remember an Elizabeth Township, the Youghiogheney River, and McKeesport. If so, he should contact me via email or via my blog. I think we have some things to talk about--both of us being rust belt emigrants. I might have even been a neighbor to his family at one point.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sometimes you've just got to set a tale in the places you know best.

Ron Scheer said...

The Burgh, for all its troubled history, is a place easy to fall in love with. I spent less than a year living there, and it continues to have a place in my still beating heart. Good to know its being preserved in fiction.

Dana King said...

Drop me a note at danakingcrime (at) gmail (dot) com.

Cranberry Township was off my radar when I lived there; it only became a prominent suburb under that name since I left. I'm familiar with Elizabeth Township, and a good friend fro college was from McKeesport.

Dana King said...


Which university?