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Charlie's Books
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Monday, September 5, 2011

Interview with a King (Dana King, author of Wild Bill)


Questions for a partner in crime writing.

Dana King’s Wild Bill is an incredibly well written debut novel loaded with masterful dialogue and characters you’ll want to follow through the dark side of Chicago’s “outfit”. It’s a mob novel as good as any out there, past or present. Likewise, so is the author as good as any out there, pastor present. TK planned on interviewing Mr. King a week or so ago, but our editor in chief/janitor was held up by some nasty bursitis in his left shoulder. Here now, finally, the interview.

TK: Okay, first off, you’re a Marylander by way of Pittsburgh. Why Chicago? Why the outfit?

DK: I traveled to Chicago several times when I was a musician and loved the town. When my mid-life crisis came early, I tried what The Beloved Spouse calls “a geographic cure.” The good news was that Chicago was perfect for me. Lots of ethnic neighborhoods made me feel at home, and genuinely nice people. Greatest city in the world, outside of Pittsburgh.

After I came back to the Washington area, I discovered the books by William Roemer, who was the FBI agent most associated in working The Outfit. Sam Giancana’s personal albatross. He wrote a memoir, and several other books on specific individuals and events in Chicago mob history. While the Five Families in New York were divvying up territory and having pissing contests, Chicago’s organization was taking over the city from the inside out. People think of The Commission as being in New York, but pretty much everything west of Chicago ran through the Outfit.

TK: Wild Bill had suffered a heartbreaking loss (his wife). Was that a character sketch before or after you started the novel?

DK: After. He needed to be damaged in some way to make the Wild Bill aspects of his personality more believable, considering he’s pretty much of a straight arrow. It wasn’t her death that tore him up so much as how he didn’t make enough time for her. That’s what sets him up for what happens in the book, worrying that he could be making the same mistake with Mad.

TK: One of the situations that struck me as especially polished was the relationship between Wild Bill Hickox and Madeline Klimak. It’s one of those especially verboten relationships that often develops between law enforcement types. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly is a dangerous one. Was that something that developed as you wrote the novel or was it pre-planned?

DK: Mad was key to the story from the beginning. It’s the relationship with her that prompts Wild Bill to re-enter Will Hickox’s personality.

TK: Madeline was a very cool cucumber until she’s confronted by Jr.’s, let’s call it, lack of respect. It was a particularly tough scene I thought was handled perfectly by relating to us her fear (for life and limb). How do you get there as a writer? We all have to get into the minds of our characters, but what was it that precluded you from going Charlie’s Angels on us (and Jr.) the way she’d once done to her husband?

DK: First, thanks for the Mad questions. She was the hardest character to write. I’d never written scenes from a woman’s point of view before, and I didn’t want to take any shortcuts that wouldn’t sound true, especially to any women who might read the book.

Mad’s cool and she’s tough and she can handle Mitch, but Junior’s in a different league. I’m a huge fan of The Sopranos, and I understand why people want to like Tony and Paulie and Silvio. They’re charming guys, in their way. That makes it easy to forget their consciences have on/off switches the way most people use the remote for the television. Junior is a predator, plain and simple, and he’s risen near the top of the most predatory occupation there is. It’s not that he’s a tougher version of Mitch. Junior is a whole different species. Mad senses this, and is smart—and cool—enough not to allow things to become worse than they are. That doesn’t mean she’s not horribly frustrated by only having one option open to her.

TK: Some people won’t want to believe the assault on Madeline was possible, but we all know life is often stranger than fiction. Why, for instance, would a mob boss get his hands dirty beating up a truck driver (John Gotti)? Why would another mob boss whack a woman (as Whitey Bulger is alleged to have done)? Why would they get involved? I ask because I want you to clear the air for both of us. Some of the criticism I faced with a Russian mob book had to do with my making them (the Russian mob) less than invincible (especially vs. a woman). Why (and how) do guys as powerful as Jr. make those kinds of mistakes?

DK: I think a lot of these guys think with their glands. Junior certainly does. He’s frustrated over how things are going at work, his plans aren’t coming together as he’d like, and patience isn’t his long suit. He sees a chance to take out some frustrations without consequence—at least, that’s what he thinks—so he does.

TK: Spot on, I’d say, but now it’s fess up time. I remember a few years ago throwing our GPS out of the window because I was lost in PA (house hunting) and then pulling over and being so frustrated with my wife reminding me what I moron I was, I got out of the car and hammered the front hood with my right hand (thus making the drive home a left-handed endeavor--of course I used my right because I’m right handed and, of course, the hood won). Did you have something personal to draw on? Maybe not that friggin’ stupid, but something you can relate to where you know what you’re doing is wrong and probably stupid but you’re so angry (glandular mismanagement) you went ahead and did it? Did you toss your favorite horn into a wall? Smack a Bill Mazeroski statue off its pedestal in your bedroom as a kid?

DK: I had a terrible temper when I was younger. Probably still do, but I’ve learned to contain it better. I used to trash my dorm room once a year in college, punch and kick things (not people). A lot of anger in there somewhere. I was about forty when I finally realized I wasn’t acting like someone who really cared about the things that set me off; I was just an asshole. People I wanted to be closer to kept their distance. The Beloved Spouse posted a Facebook status the other day that applies well to me: How many people are alive today solely because I didn’t want to go to prison?

Put that characteristic on someone like Junior Bevilacqua, for whom this lack of control can actually be a plus. He has no real reason to rein it in, and he’s not too worried about going to jail because of his ability to rig outcomes.

TK: Frank is the typical old world mobster we can’t help but root for in his war with Jr. Some might call it romanticizing the fellow. You pull off a major move sandpapering the veneer by book’s end (no spoilers here), then somewhat giving it back. Is it that Frank is the kind of mobster you can understand or the kind you’d fear more than the shoot first, think later (i.e., Jr)?

DK: It would depend on how I met them. As a regular straight guy, I’d cross the street to avoid Junior. He exudes menace, and would put me in a hospital or in a hole for talking to the wrong girl or accidentally spilling a drink on him. Frank’s the kind of guy who’s learned to observe the big picture, and is willing to place certain things in perspective. He’s someone who could get close to you, get you nice and comfortable, use you for what he needs you for, and then disappear you. That’s why I used Tony Accardo as Frank’s mentor. I read Roemer’s book on Accardo, and that’s the kind of guy he struck me as, though his word was his bond. I highly recommend Roemer’s books for anyone who wants to get a grip on how the mob really works.

TK: Speaking of the mob. I loved the cynical references to the New York mob and could hear the introspective commentary of Frank’s regarding the way New York operated (too often on a stage with spotlights). You mentioned a few NY mob celebs. What kind of research did you engage aside from the Roemer books? Were you surprised when you learned what you did about NY vis-a-vis Chicago?

DK: I’ve read all of Joe Pistone’s books—the real Donnie Brasco—and both of the Henry Hill books, Wise Guy (which Scorsese made into Goodfellas) and the one he wrote after he was in witness protection. Peter Maas’s Underboss, about Sammy Gravano, is a great book. To be honest, I’ve also watched The Sopranos through several times. I heard enough about how realistic it was that I used it for ideas on what kinds of things mobsters are into the general public might not think about, and for a sense of their speech patterns.

If anything surprised me, it was how much more attention the New York office of LCN (La Cosa Nostra) got than Chicago’s, when Chicago actually had more juice. It goes back to Capone. He was only in charge for a few years, but he brought everyone else in line, and the power has been passed down in an orderly manner since. New York probably had too many things to get into, as each of the five families started out in something different: docks, unions, trucking, gambling, etc. I read a great book—I wish I could remember the name—on how the Lucchese family got established in the Garment District. While they were getting organized among themselves, the Outfit was taking over the legal levers of power in Chicago. For evidence on how the Outfit ran Chicago, read When Corruption was King, by Robert Cooley. Fascinating book.

TK: Follow-up Frank question: Was he a product of his particular environment or the American political landscape in general? After all, it was Al Capone who said, “Capitalism is the legitimate racket of the ruling class”.

DK: Both, I think. In his book The Outfit, Gus Russo uses the term “upperworld” to contrast straight business with the underworld. Frank Ferraro could definitely have been successful in the upperworld, had he chosen to be. Part of the reason he didn’t was because of where he grew up, but, let’s face it, a lot of kids grew up in The Patch and didn’t become criminals. I’ll defer to your judgment on this—in fact, I’m curious as to what you think about this—but I get the feeling guys who go into OC for a living aren’t big on delayed gratification. They don’t want to see their investment portfolio grow by five percent a year. They want to have the cash in hand to do what they want with it now. They may spend it on women, drugs, booze, whatever, or they may use it to grease the wheels of the upperworld. If they’re going to “invest” it, I suspect the majority are more interested in getting three to five points a week on the street than buying stocks, unless they’re laundering the money. Frank’s a patient man by Outfit standards. I still wouldn’t want to get more than a week behind on a payment or service.

TK: Jr. is the train wreck mobster that has pretty much brought that world to its knees of late. He’s also as cold as ice, as he (and we) learn during a shootout. I thought that a very smart touch, making him every bit the sociopath the job requires. How did you come to that moment? The scene from The Godfather when Michael lights Enzo’s cigarette on the hospital steps came to mind for me. I’m guessing, of course.

DK: I hadn’t really thought about that much, but in retrospect it occurs to me that someone who feels fear—or doesn’t feel it—the way Junior does is more dangerous to both himself and to others. That’s what I was really going for, the danger that follows him around.

TK: Back to the start. I loved the prologue; Jr.’s pop dropping dead, a reflection of his past, then the Outfit’s future on his mind. Ultimately, he could care less, even though his son would be fighting for his life. I often finish a novel and go back to rewrite the start. Was there another start to the novel or did you start from that scene?

DK: Bless you. There was a lot of talk in blogosphere as I was finishing this book that prologues were dead. They’re exposition, get to the story. Often I agree. But here, the inciting event for the story takes place before the book actually starts, with Gianni’s death, and I liked the irony of a mobster provoking a war by dying of natural causes. So I set it off before Chapter One, and used what could be called Gianni’s life passing before his eyes to bring the reader up to speed in a hurry.

TK: Mitchell, Madeline’s husband and father to their kids, was not the typical dirty cop. Like Wild Bill, he too has smarts from years on the job you don’t learn in any police academy. The cops and robbers (or good guys and bad) aren’t always so different. Was that a social statement you intended to make? It sure was an accurate one if so.

DK: These are hard men, on both sides. I mentioned Joe Pistone’s books earlier. He comes across as a good guy, a guy I’d want to have my back, there’s not a lot that’s warm and fuzzy about him. From the cop’s perspective, he deals with vicious criminals who aren’t just knuckleheads or random felons, but sociopaths who have based their lifestyles on getting over by whatever means necessary. Everyone lies to him, and everyone is playing an angle. The tragedy of Mitch isn’t that he’s become hard, it’s that he can’t turn it off.

The other thing I wanted to do with Mitch was not to make this too much of a good guys/bad guys morality play. Cops are drawn from a cross section of society. A certain percentage of the general population are selfish assholes. So are a certain percentage of cops. Plus—and no offense to cops by this—people are drawn to the kinds of jobs where they get to do things they like, so someone who likes to boss other people around might have a lot of fun as a cop. Combine the two, and you have Mitch.

TK: Vinnie Dominoes was one of my favorite characters and I can attest to guys like him eating five meals a day (not me, I was a nobody who ate five meals a day, Vinnie was a somebody). He’s also well on his game. Characters like these are essential, I feel, to good mob novels. Was he an afterthought or somebody you had in mind from the get-go?

DK: Vinnie was key for me from the start. He might be my favorite mobster in the book. He’s the guy everybody talks to. Everybody trusts him, in their own way. Still, remember what his business is. How, and how much you trust him, could be a life-or-death decision.

TK: Your dialogue is as good as Elmore Leonard, his Canadian counterpart, John McFetridge, Higgins and anybody else. Was that your natural strength back when you first joined that writing group you acknowledged at the end of Wild Bill?

DK: Excuse me for a second while the tumescence you have inspired by comparing me to people like Leonard, Higgins, and McFetridge dies down and I can reach the keyboard again.

I honestly had no idea what I did better or worse when I started writing. Dialog came easier to me, and it was well-received by others, so I leaned on it more. Then I started to notice I enjoyed books that tilted toward more dialog, and thought about why. Elmore Leonard was right. No one skips dialog when they read. It’s the most effective and efficient way to propel the story and explore the characters at the same time.

TK: What the fuck? Define tumescence please.

DK: Swollen. Engorged with blood. Wood. A tent pole. A stiffy. A chubby. Or, as I just found in the Urban Dictionary, a purple-headed yogurt slinger.

TK: Tell us more about that writing group and how much influence/help it was in your progression.

DK: There’s no way to overestimate the influence that group had on me. There were so many basic writing things I did poorly when I first started there. Everyone was supportive, the suggestions were always phrased in a helpful manner, and people there hung with me through frustrations. I moved far enough away that getting to meetings is a rare and random thing now, but I still stay in touch with the group as kind of an adjunct member. Great group of people, even as its membership has evolved. A lot of good friends, good memories, and lessons well learned.

TK: We’ll be working on a book of mob short stories together and I thank you for going along with the idea. I’ve started one story about the comare (pronounced gumada) being interrogated by a couple of feds. I have no idea where it’s going. Will you be writing something about any of the characters from Wild Bill? If so, which one?

DK: I’m toying with the idea of writing a story from each of the last five decades, focusing on the Pittsburgh mob, leading up to the two books based in a fictional suburban town you’ve read but that haven’t been released yet. Now that you got me thinking about it, some prequel stories based on the characters in Wild Bill might be fun.

TK: I know Corky (your wife) reads your work and helps with the editing process. My wife does the same for me and I find her invaluable. Do (or did you) two get into arguments over suggested changes? Does the sole heir get to read anything once it’s done?

DK: Arguments, no. We have had a few animated discussion that range over a few days. She’s great at helping me to keep a balance between writing too much for people who already know what I’m talking about, and explaining too much.

The Sole Heir is a pre-med student right now and doesn’t have much time for leisure reading. The last thing she needs right now is the Old Man asking her how she liked something, especially since she could be cutting on my brain some day and I don’t want to hear her say, “I bet you wish now I’d spent more time studying the medulla oblongata instead of that shitty book you made me read.”

TK: Okay, there’s no way I’m passing on “the medulla oblongata” for one of the short stories in our collection. As we used to say playing three sewer stickball, “chips on the medulla oblongata” (now meaning, instead of a tax on losing the ball, it’s mine now). I mention this because the title is too cool to ignore. Do (or have) you written stories, novels, etc., around a specific title that just nailed you the right way?

DK: Never around a title that I can think of. I’ve written stories just to include a good scene I had, or even an opening line. Never a title. Titles bust my balls. I hate them.

TK: What’s next? You’ve already put a fan base together (and have further proved mob fiction isn’t dead), but will you be going series, standalones ... vampires?

DK: Oh, Christ, not vampires. This year’s project—in addition to the stories we’re writing—is to go back to the PI series I was writing several years ago. The detective showed up as a guest star in my most recent novel (Grind Joint, which I hope to release next spring) and got me to thinking of what else I could do with him. After that, I’m not sure. I like the potential in both series I’ve started. I might just take turns, or run with the one that generates the hot idea.

Yous can find all the good stuff on Wild Bill and its author at his website. Here’s a sample scene ... and here’s the cast of characters ... AND ... and yous can get it on kindle here ...

— Knucks
And here’s another appropriate verismo aria ... from Cavalleria Rusticana ... (translation below) ... it’s a pretty prophetic aria (to the storyline of the opera), amici ...

O Lola, with your milk-white blouse,
white-skinned, with lips like cherries
your laughing face looks from the window,
and the first one to kiss you is blessed!
Blood may be spilt on your doorstep,
but to die there is nothing to me.
If, dying I went up to heaven
and found you not there I would flee!

If, dying I went up to heaven
and found you not there I would flee!
Ah! ah! ah! ah!