Saturday, May 07, 2016

How I Came to Write Tommy Red, Charlie Stella

How I came to write this book …

Tommy Red
Tommy Red Dalton was born the day Laura Lippman wrote me about her need for a quickly written short story for Baltimore Noir anthology. My story, Ode to the O’s, had to do with 1969 in Baltimore—a horror story year for sports there. I’d wanted to write a Tommy Red novel for a long time afterward, and I made a few starts, but I also sidetracked myself with other projects. It wasn’t until I was in the MFA program when the idea for a workable novel hit home.

We did a residency on Star Island (a.k.a., Shutter Island), where I wrote something I was comfortable with and it wound up being the start of the novel: a scene with a guy spewing how much he disliked Star Island. Insert 4 years of jerking around with several other projects, including doing the work for the MFA, and I finally finished the thing. I had no idea so much time had passed since my last crime novel because the Dogfella project came along and I was still trying out literary short stories. My daughter and son-in-law are writing a screenplay based on one of those, Tangle Argentina, a morphed version of a very hot dance/musical from back in the 70’s (I think), Tango Argentina. It is truly amazing, by the way, how much faster time flies when we’re having fun.  I don’t regret taking 4 years between crime novels at all, and it may well be another 4 years before my next one. Right now I’m playing with one in my head, but it’s far back in my head, and my head is enormous, with lots and lots of cluttered, as well as empty, space.

Anyway, when I was finally serious about Tommy Red again, the Eric Garner situation happened on Staten Island, and I felt a need to spew some social and political rants. I also needed to make a hit man have some redeeming qualities. Tommy would’ve been a Bernie Sanders supporter, but it’s safe to say he’d reject Bernie’s call for non-violent political revolution. I also needed to attack that politically correct bullshit about 99% of police being honest and honorable. That’s the biggest crock of shit since hearing Hillary Clinton switch her “guilty of being a moderate” moment to a “progressive who likes to get things done.” If I had to bet, I’d say the percentages are a lot close to 60-40, and I’m not quite sure which side is the 60 or the 40. That doesn’t mean 60 or 40 suggests all cops are killers or violent offenders, but if four or five cops see one cop beating a handcuffed woman (an incident recently caught on film in Florida), those four or five cops are guilty too. I have friends who’ve retired, and some friends and relatives through marriage with kids still on the force, and I’d take the gamble in assuming they’re all honest and honorable, but I’ve known some from my past who weren’t anything close to honest and honorable, and I suspect that they were taught to be closed mouthed about giving up (or even stopping) other cops from doing wrong very early on in the training process, mostly likely at the academies. Basically, I believe what Frank Serpico suggested in a few articles he penned after the Eric Garner incident, including one titled: Nothing Has Changed in Police Work regarding the blue wall of silence. Substitute that for omerta and what you have is a gang with badges making it legal. It may be more prevalent in urban areas, but I suspect it’s everywhere, including at the federal level, or situations like Greg Scarpa in New York and/or Whitey Bulger up in Boston never happen.

As a writer, those social issues and the idea of perpetual wars being fought by the children of the suckers (i.e., the voting public) and not the kids of politicians or their owners, all made Tommy Red, a guy who kills to earn a living, an easier character to develop. The fact his wife tells their oldest of 3 daughters that her father kills for a living was another way to lend the guy some sympathy, especially once the reader understands why she’d do something like that.

In the end, this crime novel pits one man against the mob, some exposed corruption within law enforcement, and ultimately his conscience as it relates to his children. I had a ton of help with the very last paragraph of the novel, because I wanted to go one way with the ending, but both my wife and my editor, Merle Drown, wanted me to go another way. They won out. In retrospect, I believe they were right.


Margot Kinberg said...

It's always interesting how much influence a place and the events that happen there can have on writing. Thanks for sharing.

George said...

I enjoy Charlie Stella's books (and the fact that he's a long-suffering Buffalo Bills fan). I'll be buying this book.

Charlieopera said...

:) Bills-Lions this year's Super Bowl ... I guarantee it!

Thanks, Patti!

Charles Gramlich said...

Haven't read anything by Stella, but I'll have a look see.